alien 3: the assembly cut

Production Hell in Space:

Alien 3’s production, like most flawed films, is more interesting than the film itself. Sparked by bold new director David Fincher, an established horror film brand that had brought Fox nearly 150 million dollars in revenue, and a studio system unsure of what to do with its property, Alien 3 was produced. Through the conflict, Alien 3 was released to theaters and panned as a mess. It was disorganized, confusing, and without a clear vision. The film was poorly received, almost ending David Fincher’s career. The 2003 box set release of all four Alien films came with director’s cuts for each of them, except for Alien 3. Fincher had disowned the film and has since made a reputation of not releasing any alternative cuts to his work. DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika was put in charge to take bits of the reworked script and unused clips and put together a cut closer to what Fincher had aimed for. What he created was one of the biggest alternative cuts to a film ever, one that added nearly 30 minutes of footage, reworked characters, plot, and spawned a whole new discussion about the film.

Since the advent of DVDs, producers have been adding more special features to help raise sales. Director’s Cuts have been a great way to convince consumers to buy films they either already own or were previously uninterested in. With these alternative cuts, some films have been released with more than just an added scene or alternate ending. Troubled films like Superman II or Blade Runner sought to return some of the artistic control back to the director, changing whole tone of the film or reworking certain plot points, as an attempt to reclaim the project. Alien 3’s Assembly Cut is a fascinating look into what studios look for in a big box office release, what characterizes that David Fincher style, and how the smallest edits can rework a film.

Trying to work how the Assembly Cut came to be is a messy process for the same reason it failed: there were simply too many people involved in the production. David Giler, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll were some of the chief writers and producers of the film. Along with four other writers though, the film still ended up in production without a script due to numerous rewrites and edits. Most of the final theatrical script was written by them, however it was altered by numerous executives. Until the film was printed, the story was being reworked over and over again. Before reaching Fincher, the film had a total of nearly ten writers’ fingerprints all over the production.

Renny Harlin was the first choice to direct Alien 3 and head the project. He was fresh off the success of Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and was being offered a lot of big deals around Hollywood. He was only 28 at the time. The task was daunting for Harlin, who saw the first two films as masterpieces and feared simply copying them. During this time, a lot of new concepts were played around with at Fox Studios. Harlin pitched ideas for an origin story for the Xenomorph, returning the film franchise to their home world. Fox was uninterested in 1990. Harlin quit the production, disillusioned with the project and tired of rewrites, and left to work on Die Hard 2.

One of the strangest and most influential scripts was presented by Vincent Ward. The film took place on a planet made out of wood and inhabited by monks. It was by far one of the most artistic and radical scripts presented. Again, Fox was not pleased. Lead actress Sigourney Weaver and Fox executive Jon Landau disliked the script’s direction, especially the use of Weaver’s character. Landau would prove to be one of the biggest adversaries of Fincher during his production. During this period the prison idea formed and around the same time Ward was fired and his story was reworked under Giler, Hill, and Carroll. The skeleton of his film still remains, with the monks reworked to prisoners and the isolated planet turned into a prison.

Alien 3 served as a stumble rather than a spring for rising-star director David Fincher. Prior to the production of Alien 3, Fincher was a very successful director in circuits outside of features film. He had his start in film as a production assistant, working up to a visual effects producer — not just in indie features, but at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). After ILM, he directed major commercials for companies such as Coca-Cola and Nike. Given a massive budget to create eye-catching and bold shorts, Fincher was used to having a heavy amount of creative control and was used to fighting for it. Music videos secured his industry name. In 1985, Rick Springfield gave Fincher his big break (and feature directorial debut) at the young age of 22 with The Beat of the Live Drum.  Working with multiple artists, he developed an iconic style that would dominate Fincher’s lens: dark, slick, and high technological. Watch Madonna’s Express Yourself and Vogue or George Michael’s Freedom to see to see this early development of Fincher’s style. His time at ILM and his work on music videos and commercials resulted in a director with an eye for detail and extreme perfection. He was young, but very seasoned. Eventually he would become famous for his crime thriller Seven, his outrageous Fight Club, and his Academy Award nominated films The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network.  However, it was long before those successes, at the age of 29 that he was entrusted with the chaos of Alien 3’s production.

During production, Fincher got along great with the actors. He often worked very light heartedly and gave the actors room for input. Meanwhile, the producers and creative crew leads were a different story. His experience in visual effects and his controlled methods made him difficult to work alongside. Amidst this animosity, Fincher was pressured to shoot faster and faster, with studio watchdogs on him at all times. Fox set priorities for him, wanting a more standard science fiction film while he was moving in a different direction. His vision was much more artistic and resembled the style of his later work. Furthermore, he did not express gratitude to the studio and was openly antagonistic. The novice director was not easy to manipulate, as the suits had no doubt hoped he would be. Rather than trying to finish shooting, filming wrapped with only three quarters of the movie complete.

The director was brought back to LA and his film was judged in its incomplete state. The original rough cut of the film was nearly 3 hours. Most of the film was removed or reworked. Fincher’s intended purpose was lost and muddled in the sea of rewrites and reshoots. After multiple screenings, they had to get approval for all additional shoots, and every reshoot increased the cost of the already over budget film. Most of the effects crew and the staff had finished and had to be paid extra to complete their work outside of their contract period. A $16,000 bald cap was made for Weaver to wear, due to her refusal to continually shave her head for every reshoot needed. Most promotional shots and the ending for the film are actually bald caps. The rushed bald caps may not have shown, but the ending of the film’s rushed appearance is apparent. CGI was left unpolished, character arcs were dropped, and Fincher became more and more depressed as the work went on. Upon its release, he divorced himself from the project and nearly signed off working in Hollywood. Although we will never see what Fincher’s real intention was, the Assembly Cut is a view into what could have been.

Them Changes:

One of the subtlest changes in the Assembly Cut was inclusion of the religious dialogue, reestablishing the religious overtones from the original Ward script. This religious subplot gave a lot of the prisoners, a group of very unlikeable characters, a little redemption in the bleak film. The brutality of Fincher’s cut was scaled back, as Newt’s autopsy was removed from the film. Newt was the little girl rescued from the Hadleys Hope terraforming colony on LV-426 and protected by Ripley in Aliens. The autopsy scene was meant to demonstrate the paranoia Ripley had over another alien attack and also give her character more time to portray her almost maternal mourning. One of the lesser features of the theatrical cut was that it quickly moved past the deaths of the old crew and downplayed the emotional impact.

Catching the alien alive was also removed from the theatrical cut, which led to Paul McGann’s character, Golic, being scaled back. In the theatrical cut, the character is not seen in the latter half of the film after being locked up. In the Assembly cut Golic plays a second act villain, falling into insanity and freeing the locked alien. It adds a little extra push in the second half of the film and reminds the audience just how dangerous the people around Ripley really are.

The oddest change that was made was the alien’s host. In the theatrical cut it was one of the dogs. Since one of the chief influences for the alien redesign was a dog, this is understandable. However the original host was an ox and the chest bursting scene was more brutal. Effects coordinators used real animal guts and blood, but were forced to reshoot the scene with new special effects when switched to the dog. Most of the these changes are trivial in comparison to alternations to the ending.

In the Assembly Cut the alien does not burst out of Ripley’s chest as she jumps into the molten lead. The Assembly Cut changes Ripley’s last minute blood spurt and defeat into self-sacrifice and redemption. With the added religious imagery, this helps build a theme that was missing from the theatrically released film. Alien 3 is the darkest of the Alien films and shows Ripley at her weakest. She is without weapons, she has fallen for a killer, she is not nearly as strong as she was in Aliens nor as supported as she was in Alien. In comparison to the previous two films that saw her as the ultimate combatant against the scourge of the Xenomorph, this film took a much more reserved approached. Ending with the plunge into lava made for a more resolved ending for the character.

If you watch the Assembly Cut, you will not find a film that is better than the original, Alien, or it’s sequel, Aliens. However you will find a film that is more rounded and detailed. If you are a fan of David Fincher, I think this is the version you should watch. You can see the early buds of what would become of his style. Do be aware that two different Assembly Cuts exist with the superior one on the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray release with cleaner audio and effects.

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