Repetitive themes bolstered by plot pace (4/5)
The Alien trilogy—by the end of 1993—ends with the appropriate but rather generically titled Alien 3. Though now technically a quadrilogy with Alien: Resurrection, I've always viewed the fourth installment as an afterthought, sort of a cheap addition to otherwise semi-tidy trilogy. (Side note: the novelization of Alien: Resurrection was written by a different writer—the late A.C. Crispin.) It was also subject to much interference even after the final shot was taken. Foster himself wouldn’t even touch the novelization because of the amount of flak he caught from trying to pen the proper version of Alien 3.
So, casting off Alien: Resurrection and returning to the main trilogy, I have the same one-of-these-is-not-like-the-others feeling: Alien 3 feels forced, like the screenwriters had an idea off the shelf and they had to sledgehammer the duology into fitting the mold of their idea. What could be such a fantastic idea: aliens run amok in an abandoned refinery where prisoners reside (yea, yea, Ripley will fit in there somehow). Now, while the idea is half-assed and the movie is a half-hearted attempt, the actual production of the novel came off alright... just alright. Foster has said that his hand was forced in its production so that it comes out just as the movie did, without any dramatic changes (not exactly true).
I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
“This time it's hiding in the most terrifying place of all.”
Hicks, Ripley and Newt, secure in their sleep pods, fling through space after meeting untold horrors on Achernon; Bishop sits idle, deactivated, having been torn to pieces by the alien queen who stowed away to reach the Sulaco. But not all is silent aboard the Sulaco: At least two facehuggers creep in its systems, one a curious predator intent on attacking Newt in her sleep pod. With its immense strength, it tries to pry open the glass-topped pod, only to shatter its rim and impale itself, thus causing it to spray acid blood. The acid immediately eats through the room’s floor while building up a lethal amounts of explosive gas and electrical fires. The Sulaco realizes the emergency and evacuates the four sleep pods from the ship, which explodes soon after the four pods are well away.
On the harsh but survivable surface of the planet Fury 361 (or Fury 161 in the film and in the novelization’s dialogue), a once functional refinery cum prison is home to “two jailers, twenty-five prisoners” (484). The company has sent the worst of the worst of their prisoners to this backwater planet so that they can maintain the refinery equipment. For their simple work, the Company sends them token supply runs for want of one day opening the refinery for full production in case the planets metals can once again be exploited. Meanwhile, one of the prisoners—Clemens—, yet also its head medic (once being a doctor but his crimes had had him demoted), is out on a coastal stroll when a meteoric event catches his attention. The descending trail of fire plunges into the sea near him, where he sees the ejected sleep pods of four individuals; alone on the beach, he saves Ripley first.
The twenty-five prisoners are all “double Y chromos—former career criminals, thieves, rapists, murders, arsonists … scum” (503). The all-male population of the prison is intrinsically controlled by their self-formed religion, “some sort of millenarian apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist brew” (521) which helps them maintain discipline amid their isolation. Dillon is the authority figure among the prisoners and also acts as the chaplain of their religion, in which he leads prayer that relates to the coming of times and the escape from worldly drudgery. Though they are complacent and conforming to their humble, planet-bound existence at the refinery, theirs is a fragile environment in which even a single female presence can shake their faith, upsetting the equilibrium of placidness and angst. Welcome to Hell, Ripley.
Expectedly, her presence is unwelcome. She bonds with the medic named Clemens who urges her to remain in the infirmary, away from the prison population. Andrews, the jailer supervisor, is adamant about the separation of sex, but Ripley’s stubbornness proves inimical to his direction as she mingles with the edgy prisoners. Her title of lieutenant instills the men with a smidgen of respect and fear, but soon their hormones gain the upper hand when they try to take advantage of her solitary visit to the refinery’s dump in order to retrieve the discombobulated remains of Bishop. Dillon, the authoritative yet straight-laced leader of the prisoners, saves her from a more disrespectable fate among the attempted rapists.
Ripley’s trip to the trash heap was impelled by Clemens’ description of her arrival and the deaths of both Hicks and Newt. Her curiosity is piqued by two threads of her situation: (1) First, as Ripley connects Bishop to the escape pods flight recorder, she learns of the fate of the Sulaco and the Company’s constant awareness of all events which took place on the ship; (2) Lastly, the Company’s non-committal behavior toward the prison’s communication with them—“message received” (479 and 605)—and their oddly dissociative message “PERMISSION DENIED TO TERMINATE XENOMORPH. AVOID CONTACT UNTIL RESCUE TEAM ARRIVES” (606).
The presence of the xenomorph at the prison/refinery comes as little surprise to Ripley. A series of unfortunate deaths in the prison/refinery led up to her surmising that an alien is alive in the vents, that its stalking them, that it wants only two things: their deaths and its survival; after all, “that’s what it’s designed to do: kill and multiply” (620). Having experienced the horror of battling the aliens twice before, Ripley has almost become immune to fright; rather, she is tormented by “her inability to forget” (568).
With the assistance of the prisoners, Ripley is able to plan a chase and bait scenario where they capture and isolate the alien. While it may safely remain behind nearly impenetrable doors, the mind of man is an untethered ball of whim, especially for those with minds struck with horror, such as Golic, who becomes obsessed with the vision of the Beast and seeks spiritual communication with its apocalyptic aura. Though he had always been considered the most peculiar among the atypical prisons, his presence had always been tolerated at best; now, with delusion visions of the apocalypse, his innocent whims of spirit endanger everyone. He sees himself as immune to the Beast’s rage, much like Ripley soon sees herself as privileged in commune with the alien, but for a very different reason; she scans herself in the autodoc and discovers a long-term affliction which has only began to display its twin symptoms of internal pain and external invulnerability.
As they fight the alien and flee from its stealth attacks, the prisoners’ hope rests on the arrival of the Company, only hours away.
There are four common threads which tie the trilogy together, three threads of which are forgone expectations: (1) Ripley, (2) the xenomorphs, (3) terror, and (4) grungy locations. I understand that isolated and grubby locations heighten the sense of unease, but it does become a tad repetitive: dingy space tug from Alien and an unkempt space colony from Aliens. The third part of the trilogy offers a twofer: neglected prison/refinery. At this point in the Alien series, one begins to wonder if the screenwriters have any imagination left, if anyone cares to break the mold, if anyone has any vision for the series. The movie Alien 3 earns a paltry 3/5 in my book for this lack of imagination and drudgery.
While the plot of this sequel, and its accompanying novelization, feel forced in contrast to Alien and Aliens, Foster overcomes this slipshod story with gusto for plot pacing. The atmosphere is always tense, be it when a prisoner is decapitated or when Ripley queries Clemens about her arrival. There’s an electric sense of foreboding, an eerie static which permeates the novelization—something more than the movie did. Foster has some obvious skill in this regard, to somehow make a novelization more tense than the movie. This, in turn, results in a more impressive 4/5.
One tactic Foster utilizes is the use of investigation by the characters; they know something isn’t right in their banal prison/refinery, but after Ripley shows up, things become a bit peculiar: a large insectoid is discovered (an unusually large facehugger), a slimy cowl is discarded in an air duct (from the queen’s molting?), and a hollow, oblong black skull is found (again, from molting?). Much like in Aliens, the plot takes the reader through the species building of the xenomorphs—quite similar to character building.
Thankfully, this is a trilogy. At this point, the rehash of Ripley, xenomorphs, terror and grimy locations has reached the end of its steam. Alien: Resurrection is a movie time has forgotten (except for that exceptionally creepy alien/human hybrid). There have been many other novels published in the same Alien Universe, most recently is the Out of the Shadows series by Tim Lebbon, which somehow—in a curious why-was-this-needed way—fills a gap between Alien and Aliens. If Alien 3 is considered cursory to the series, Out of the Shadows (2014) can be considered extraneous, superfluous, unwanted and unneeded.
My thoughts on Prometheus (2012)? S-w-e-e-t.