Freeze Frame: The David Fincher Close-Up That Rewrote the Alien Franchise

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Every Monday with “Freeze Frame,” we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features here.)

I know that the term “Director’s Cut” gets a bad name around some parts. More often than not, it can actually mean “bloated” or “irrelevant” – ensuring the resurrection of some scenes and characters that were omitted from the final cut for a very good reason.

I can still remember going into a video store and renting a copy of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, dismayed to learn that this particular store had stocked only the “Director’s Cut.” There was no other option; no way to see the original. A bloated, watered-down version that was 20 minutes longer and about 20 percent less funny. I was furious.

Still, over the last few months, I’ve had numerous people advising me about director’s cuts that I just have to see. There was, of course, the director’s cut of Dark City, which reshaped the whole way I thought about the title as one of our all-time underrated sci-fi movie masterpieces. There’s the definitive director’s cut of Blade Runner, which just oozes atmosphere and architecture in a way that we’ve never seen before. There’s even The Abyss, which I haven’t gotten around to yet (one of these days I’ll finally write up my rankings of the all-time best director’s cuts). (More at Techland: Percy Jackson and the other all-time greatest sci-fi child heroes)

But last weekend, it was all about Alien 3, the David Fincher take on the sci-fi-horror franchise that was butchered and hacked down in its initial form to a final running time of 114 minutes. People love to make fun of Alien 3 just like they prefer to mock The Godfather Part III, as a work so vastly inferior to the sequels that came before that it’s worthy of derision. But the director’s cut is a full 145 minutes, and suggests a vision by Fincher that is a vast departure from Ridley Scott’s Hitchcockian suspense and James Cameron’s battlefield bravura.

In place of all that is a brooding, minimalist, cerebral prison drama about convicts abandoned at the edge of the universe, left to their own devices to find god and fight the great alien that Ripley has brought with from her escape pod. It’s a movie about ethics and morals in a groupthink scenario, about how sinners can still find a way to redeem their souls when the going gets tough….but told through a sparse, spare approach in a sprawling prison complex that feels less like an exotic futuristic destination than some sort of metallic tomb.

But I digress. The Alien 3 moment that jumped out again and gripped my attention was the sequence that originally dominated Alien 3’s marketing campaign. Sigourney Weaver’s figured out that an alien is loose in the prison, she’s been whisked away to be confined in the infirmary by the warden who thinks she’s a cook, and here the alien crashes down from the ceiling, devouring her lover and then coming face to face with her. It’s a brutal, brisk attack, the alien sniffing and eyeing Ripley up as she has an on-screen mental breakdown.

It’s a little hard to explain, but in the context of the director’s cut, this climactic confrontation – placed in the movie’s first half and happening so fast that our brains barely have time to contemplate the gravity of the situation – plays far differently. It demonstrates just how efficiently one alien can gestate, grow and overtake a facility such as this, totally isolated and cut off from the rest of humanity It allows us to see Ripley’s nightmares overtaking her reality. And in terms of the franchise’s power dynamics, it also lets the cat out the bag in a big, big way.

Think about how insidious this is. In David Fincher’s film, only a few minutes in, we see Ripley confronted by the alien that has chased her across the universe, eyed up and then spared by the alien. This is the primary dramatic thrust of the first two Alien films: Will Ripley survive? Will the aliens get to her? And Fincher barges his way in and pulls the rug right out from under us, on his way to molding a far more interesting tale of how an alien invasion among inmates can actually bring out the best of humanity.

The alien sneers, Ripley sobs, but as soon as the scene ends, this Alien films sprints into utterly foreign and captivating territory. I can’t express how stunning this is, that a director comes in and redefines all the underlying dynamics of the franchise. If you think about it, Alien 3 wasted no time in arriving at this precipice where none of the characters have anything left to lose. They are prisoners in a no-win situation, and then Ripley, who realizes she’s infected and thus untouchable, is perfectly happy to be used as bait. Collectively, the humans are now effectively the same as the alien – without any concern other than survival. The hunted become the hunters.

And it all comes back to that early face-to-face confrontation, where Ripley and an alien share a frame in broad daylight, and the whole Alien franchise spins on its axis. You might not feel the momentum shift in the hyper-edited theatrical version, but you can certainly feel the whole mold rotate in the director’s cut. This is fearless filmmaking.