The setting for Alien 3 is a dank world devoid of sunlight and common sense. David Fincher’s first feature film is often overlooked despite the influence of H.R. Giger’s ultra-detailed sci-fi art that remains so emblematic of the first two instalments in the franchise. Despite the emphasis on recreating the harsh aesthetic of the Alien universe, the ingenuity of the set design is lost with only a handful of establishing shots allowing the audience to immerse themselves in this lifeworld. The wealth of detail that surely went into the production exists in the shadows, rendered superfluous by the painfully obvious declarations of the characters who tell rather than show us what is at stake.
A combination of mouldy, lice-ridden brick walls and rusty pipework funnel the characters into ever-more confined spaces where escape from the hunting alien is even less likely. The effect is more Gothic than sci-fi, which, arguably, plays an important part in building an atmosphere of repression and deprivation within the prison on this hostile planet. The apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists held within the dank walls are sealed off from the outside world and its influences, rendering their mundane and sterile lives irrevocably disturbed by Ripley’s intrusion.
As the first two films established, Ripley’s character is autonomous and determined. As she disturbs the new environment, we are to assume her presence antagonised the inmates, multiplying the level of threat when the roaming alien is also taken into account. But apart from one brief scene, the danger of the inmates never develops. Ripley easily becomes a leader of men who do nothing but question why they should put their asses on the line for her. It is, in fact, the location rather than Ripley that forces them to accept, one by one (and just before they are brutally killed by the alien), that their asses are already on the line.
It seems escape is not an option, although no mention is made of the hostility of the planet outside. Instead, Ripley and the inmates attempt to lure the alien through the narrow corridors to either lock it up somewhere secure, or kill it with molten lead.
Fincher may be right to hate the film, but Alien 3 should at least be seen as an effective use of setting to refine a specific threat, albeit forfeiting any real character development. Every person has a single function, like the machinery that orders their lives. Ripley learns what she needs to know from Dillon and Clemens, while the other unidimensional characters are used simply as bait or lures. As Dillon claims, Fury 161 is filled with broken technology and “no way to fix it”. This film, then, is about finding pragmatic solutions to the problem of being hunted within a broken system by finding a use for the components that do still function: the people that live there, and the space itself.