FILM / Death and the maiden

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ALIEN3 (18) sets the seal on an extraordinary series of films, mainstream entertainment firmly in the tradition of I-can't-bear-to-look-but-I-can't-look-away which nevertheless touch on some incongruously ambitious themes. While, say, Tim Burton's Batman films sacrifice the dynamism of their genre to the look but not the reality of art cinema, first-time director David Fincher's Alien3 delivers images of an often extraordinary beauty without letting the adrenalin level of its narrative drop much below the maximum.

A lot of the credit for the success of the series must go to Walter Hill, a successful action director in his own right who has chosen to restrict his contribution to production and screenwriting but has been a far-thinking godparent of the project as it evolved. It takes nerve in the context of modern Hollywood to wait for eight years before making a sequel to a highly successful film, and a further five before completing the triptych; on the other hand there tends not to be a lot left at the end of an Alien film except the heroic Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), battered but finally triumphant, so there is no logical alternative to starting from scratch.

The story of the new film was written by Vincent Ward, himself a considerable director (Vigil, The Navigator). It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of Alien3 if he had been put in actual charge. Certainly The Navigator contains a number of elements further developed in Alien3: a fierce focus on ordeal and redemption, and constant recourse to medieval images and spaces, Gothic vaults and galleries pregnant with darkness.

Ward's story deals with a prison world where the inmates have got religion, and choose to stay on after the end of their sentences and indeed the closing of the 'containment facility'. Ripley crash-lands into a hostile, single-sex world, where she is treated as an enemy until it turns out that she has unwittingly brought a worse one with her. The Alien's habit of lunging from ducts and vents and biting people to bits has a certain foreshortening effect on character development, but something of Ward's distinctive vision survives, of a grim world in which transcendence is somehow still possible.

What makes the Alien series modern, even (dread word) Post- Modern, is the way it has had critical reaction fed back into it, so as to become in reality what a few enlightened or simply over-imaginative early viewers thought it was or might be. Was the dark feminist fantasia that some critics detected in Ridley Scott's original film planned or accidental? Cast your mind back to when old 'slime chops' was new. The late casting of a woman to play the eventual sole survivor suggests it was accidental. But the film-makers have certainly learned to capitalise on a fluke of ideology. The first sequel, James Cameron's Aliens (1987) duly incorporated a theme of motherhood, to extend but also neutralise the imagery in the first film of Alien infestation as a nightmare pregnancy. Ripley formed a maternal bond with a child living wild on a devastated planet, and ended up fighting a duel for custody of her with the Queen Alien - the Bad Mother.

Aliens now looks like the weakest film of the cycle, flawed by a certain sentimentality and a relatively routine approach to action. Ripley's heroism in the first film was a matter of making the right decisions, striving to put the interests of the group over individuals, while in Aliens the men who were the natural fighters were artificially put out of action, leaving her no alternative but to fill the role left vacant. It may be that James Cameron genuinely admires strong women, but then so do the men who pay to see female mud- wrestling. Women being strong is a sexy concept; women being right is actually more threatening. In Alien3 the emphasis is again on Ripley's willingness to accept loss and make sacrifices. It would have been interesting to have female input on Alien3 behind the camera as well as in front of it (though admittedly Weaver co-produced and presumably carries clout), but perhaps Kathryn Bigelow, the obvious candidate, currently working her way through the action genres, had other directing engagements.

The new film contains in effect a sort of critique of its immediate predecessor. The girl who was the sentimental focus of Aliens is dead before the opening credits are over, and the first thing Ripley must do is have her anatomised, for fear of Alien infestation. This scene amounts to a brusque dissection of the previous film's heart. Only the intense grief of Sigourney Weaver's reaction shots prevents it from being a mocking in-joke. Weaver's performance throughout shows an undiminished intensity in the role that made her reputation and has dominated her career.

Other episodes revisit earlier scenes with more respect. The moment in the first film where Ripley patched up the disabled robot who had been masquerading as the Nostromo's science officer (Ian Holm) to get answers to her questions, is recapitulated in the new film when she rescues fragments of the robot Bishop from a scrapheap, sliding electrodes into his head in order to play the flight recorder of a crashed ship. The conversation between Bishop and Ripley is full of pain, tenderness and the dark humour that becomes more pronounced as the film goes on, without jeopardising its seriousness. Bishop comments on Ripley's hair, cut skull-short to forestall lice, with an oddly marital matter-of-factness. In Aliens Bishop won the status of honorary human by his readiness to sacrifice himself, but in Alien3 that status is shown to be no more than a sentimental limbo. Bishop chooses death in preference. To be virtually human is to be nothing.

Ripley, though, in the new film has something remarkably like a soul. We have seen nothing in the world of the film that is worthy of her sacrifices, and as Alien3 moves towards its apocalyptic conclusion she risks turning into a saint of the future. To the Roman virtues she adds Christian excellences, even Christly ones. This isn't just the most heroic female role in the movies; nothing the other gender can boast comes anywhere near it. At the end of Alien3 , Ripley puts herself in a maternal relationship to all humanity: she doesn't give birth to the world but she takes death out of it. All this is wildly over the top, but startling in genre terms, and visually persuasive from moment to moment in David Fincher's steady hands. Alien3 is a technological film not ruled by technology, as well as a gory film not ruled by gore.

Not everything in it is quite so exalted. One punch, laid by Ripley on a man who has assaulted her, is there purely to raise a cheer from a Saturday night crowd, while one of the Alien's entrances, from a bath of boiling lead in which it is presumed dead, suggests only that Fatal Attraction forms a cherished part of its video library. But David Fincher conjures images of a strange, disinterested beauty out of a convincingly grim reality, and from its perhaps accidental beginnings the Alien series has turned into a fascinating, contradictory exploration of the themes of death and motherhood.

'Alien3 ' opens tonight: see Film Guide, facing page, and Interview, below.

(Photograph omitted)