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When ‘Alien’ was released in 1979, it changed the landscape for both science fiction and horror. ‘Alien’ combined the two genres so well, people wept and fainted from fear in the theater; that’s always a sign of success. A sequel was bound to happen, and when James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ came out in 1986, it upped the ante for action films and made the fictional Colonial Marines seem as real as the US Army. Both of those movies introduced unforgettable characters, particularly the seemingly undefeatable heroine, Ellen Ripley, played to damn near cinematic perfection by Sigourney Weaver.

What happened to the series after that is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. ‘Alien3 ‘ was almost universally reviled by both fans and critics while the fourth film, ‘Alien: Resurrection,’ well… nobody talks about that. Fans sweep ‘Resurrection’ under the rug because of its overwhelming French-ness and the unfortunate casting of Winona Rider as a robot.  As modern audiences know, the franchise has been revived recently by stabs at world-building like ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant.’

For many fans, that all leaves ‘Alien3 ‘ as arguably the last “true” Alien film – the end of the “classic trilogy,” if you will – yet it is the one most people waggle their fingers at, proclaiming it the worst film in the series. It is my contention, however, that ‘Alien3 ‘ is one of the best films of the series, coming closest to fulfilling the potential of the franchise and moving in brave ways that few sequels would dare to attempt.  Allow me to elaborate.

‘Alien3 ‘ takes place on the planet Fiorina 161, affectionately known as Fury. It is not a hospitable place and certainly not where you want your escape pod to crash land. That’s where Ripley finds herself though, having jettisoned from the Colonial Marine ship Sulaco. Ripley isn’t the only lifeform on the pod, though. Not only have the survivors from Aliens died during the pod’s hard landing (yes, even the little girl), but there’s an Alien egg on board. It gets worse. Ripley soon realizes something is amiss within her own body and learns she is the host for an Alien Queen embryo.

Fury 161 is home to a mineral and ore refinery, run by the inhabitants of an all-male prison. These inmates are incredibly violent offenders, rapists and the like. Some of the prisoners have created their own religion, involving a vow of celibacy, but Ripley’s femininity causes a crisis of faith amongst the believers. Meanwhile, the Alien egg has hatched and prisoners are disappearing. Ripley, of course, knows what’s going on, but has a hard time convincing the prison warden that a Xenomorph is romping about the compound, chewing on inmates. When the warden informs Ripley that there are no working weapons on the planet, her battle to save Fury 161 – and herself – becomes even more desperate.

‘Alien3 ‘ had big boots to fill, with its two predecessors hailed as instant classics. It would have been easy to come out with a B-grade action flick, full of flamethrowers and thick Alien saliva, and call it a day. Instead, this movie drops our beloved main character into a truly alien environment, still filled with humans. In this movie, Ripley has to contend with sexism, sex itself, religious persecution and her own inescapable mortality. No Marines to save her, no blowing the creature out of the airlock, she is essentially by herself. All of her familiar touchstones are gone. Where’s your superhero now?

While we’ve seen Ripley in full on hero mode before, this is the first time we actually get to see her as a person. Her feelings are explored. She gets to have (gasp!) a physical relationship. She becomes something better than simply “Rambolina” in ‘Alien3.’ She becomes a person, a character we can relate to on more than a “go get ‘em” level. The other characters, particularly Charles S. Dutton as Dillon, the religious leader of the prison, are fascinating and unpredictable, making this movie less about the Alien on the loose and more about the alien impulses and feelings we all hold within.

Even with its added layers of drama and realism, ‘Alien3 ‘ is still, at its heart, an ‘Alien’ movie. If you’re looking for some basic killer monster action, plucking its victims from behind like Sgt. York, you’ve got it.  If you’re looking for some wrenching human interest, you’ve got it. This isn’t to say there aren’t some flaws: the introduction of the Alien into the prison is a little wonky, and even the best editing can’t hide the fact that there wasn’t a finished script when filming began. If you’re looking for minutiae to nitpick, you’ve got it. However, everything comes together nicely and the concepts and story are where the movie truly triumphs.

At this stage in the game, the Xenomorph is no longer the exoskeletal fright it once was and we know basically what it is going to do. ‘Alien3 ‘ gives us a shiny creature that walks on four legs, like a chrome cockroach, and that’s new. Unfortunately, some of the effects shots feel unfinished or like badly matched optical effects. This is sad, because director David Fincher’s eye is sure throughout the rest of the film. The movie is grimy on a medieval level, full of sweat, dirt and fire, bringing to mind that holistic worldview that Blade Runner has. A couple of sketchy shots aside, ‘Alien3‘ is a visual accomplishment, beautiful and frightening.

For a movie firmly established within a familiar franchise about deadly monsters, ‘Alien3 ‘ isn’t afraid to slap the formula in the mouth.  It is disarmingly human and unrelentingly grim. There’s something oddly exhilarating about that. If you’re looking for a tacked-on happy Hollywood ending, you don’t get it; instead, you get something frighteningly close to truth.

Watch it, and try not to think about it as just an ‘Alien’ movie.  It’s something more. Death-embracing and life-affirming, ‘Alien3 ‘ is a classic, still waiting for its audience.