By Memorial Day weekend in 1992, the Alien franchise was unstoppable. The sharp interstellar horror of 1979’s Alien had gotten the James Cameron treatment in 1986 with Aliens, where a get-it-done quippy ensemble shot everything in sight. And Alien 3 coasted on goodwill, pulling in the second-highest weekend gross at $23 million. But after that, numbers plummeted: the stark, nihilistic Alien 3 had gone too far for the fans. For years, it was a go-to punchline for a bad sequel: a box-office disappointment swimming in poor reviews and lugging the weight of its backstage disasters.
It’s a flawed movie, at its most stilted when trying to prove its own edginess (Ripley’s attempted rape still remains the most forcibly-gendered, cringiest scene of the series). But Alien 3’s darkest moments are actually just carrying the fundamentals of the trilogy to its inevitable conclusion. Ripley is a sole survivor; the happy family she puts into stasis at the end of Aliens was a victory that was already doomed. The prison was designed and lit with omnipresent decay and no helpful tech in sight. Its inmates were largely rewritten or truncated, but what remains is a surreal collection of half-arcs that lends itself to the last-stand undertone permeating every frame. And the villainy of Weyland-Yutani is brought home (with its most wrenching face yet) as Ripley realizes the company’s as adaptable and ruthless as the xenomorphs ever were. There’s only way to win. And she wins.
In Alien, facing down the alien brought out your frailty; in Aliens, facing down the alien brought out your nobility. But in Alien 3, facing down the alien brought out your humanity, and there’s no winning against that. It may have been a bit grim for unsuspecting audiences in 1992, but it’s worth another look during this anniversary weekend.