Alien 3, The Snyder Cut, and The Question of Ownership
It’s no secret that David Fincher hates Alien 3. The 1992 follow-up to the wildly successful Alien and Aliens suffered from a notoriously troubled production, with script after script being rewritten and original director Vincent Ward being fired before Fincher was brought on board for his feature film debut. It appears the former music video director’s penchant for perfectionism and narrative nihilism was in full display on the set of Alien 3, and clashes between him and the studio eventually led to the film being taken away from him in post-production and recut for its theatrical release. The experience was so bad for Fincher that he has almost entirely disavowed the film, rarely discussing it with any specificity — in a recent interview with Mark Harris for Vulture, Fincher calls his role on Alien 3 that of “a hired gun to make a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate.”
Fincher wasn’t the only one to express disappointment (to put it mildly) with the film. Critical and audience response was generally mixed to negative: some praise was set aside for the visual palette, but consensus found the script and action lacking. Of particular note though, was the response to the film’s initial, most controversial story decision. 1986’s Aliens ends with protagonist Ripley having found some semblance of peace after the horrors of the preceding two hours, entering hypersleep with her makeshift family of android Bishop, marine Hicks, and child refugee Newt. Alien 3 begins with those latter three being unceremoniously dispatched during the opening credits, leaving Ripley alone again within the first few moments of the film. James Cameron, director of Aliens, summed up much of the reaction to this choice in comments made in 2016:
“I thought [the decision to eliminate Newt, Hicks, and Bishop] was dumb … I thought it was a huge slap in the face to the fans … I think it was a big mistake. Certainly, had we been involved we would not have done that, because we felt we earned something with the audience for those characters.”
Alien 3 has reclaimed a certain measure of respect in the years since its release, due in large part to the 2003 release of the “Assembly Cut,” which restored nearly 40 minutes of footage in an effort to more closely match Fincher’s original vision — albeit without Fincher’s involvement. The resulting film is clearly superior (although the theatrical version isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation), and fits well into Fincher’s filmography both visually and thematically. Of course, the Assembly Cut doesn’t bring Hicks and Newt back to life: we may have a better film, but not one that would act as catharsis for Cameron and the fans who share his opinion.
The saga of Alien 3 encompasses all the elements — studio interference, a disgruntled director, angry fans, and an alternate cut — that might lead us to ask the question: who does a film belong to? Whose opinions should hold the most weight in decision-making? For many of you reading this, I expect the answer is easy, but it’s worth making the arguments all the way around — especially since the issue is yet again a timely one, with the imminent release of the fan-demanded Snyder Cut of Justice League on the horizon.
If nothing else, it’s a question that highlights the complexity and messiness involved with putting a film into the world — which itself is probably indicative of why so many love the medium.
Studios of course are the entities that literally own a film, if you reduce the definition down to finance and distribution terms. But the question of how much power they should wield over the films on their slate became even more timely this week with the news that Warner Bros. would be sending their entire 2021 lineup — which includes films like Dune, In the Heights, and The Matrix 4 — to their streaming service HBO Max during the first month of each film’s theatrical release. Apart from shattering the previously sacrosanct theatrical exclusivity window (which had already been loosened due to the pandemic, though not to this extreme), the move crystalizes the idea that studios as a whole are, at the end of the day, much more concerned with their bottom line than with the appeal of making high quality art or entertainment.
That being said, we do live in a world where money matters, and in some ways it’s hard to blame studios too much for wanting the movies they finance — often at great initial expense — to turn a profit. There’s a give and take there as well; let the studios pump out their blockbusters and (hopefully) they’ll use some of those grosses to finance the smaller, riskier films we all love. But if we argue that the studios have a reasonable incentive to try and make profitable movies, the question becomes how much say should they have over the final product?
We often use “studio notes” as a scapegoat for many a film’s flaws (especially if those flaws seem incongruous with other narrative or aesthetic choices), a criticism typically reliant on rosy notions of a filmmaker’s “vision.” But moviemaking is, more than maybe any other art form, a committee-based process — we need only look at the “director’s cuts” that add nothing to (or sometimes even detract from) a superior theatrical version. Not every director has the restraint to look critically at their vision or listen to those around them — sometimes the power of the purse provides a mandate, and sometimes that mandate makes for a better film.
Speaking of HBO Max: The Snyder Cut is coming. After a sustained campaign by fans and — perhaps more importantly — the cast of Justice League, Zack Snyder was given the greenlight by Warner to recut (and, it sounds like, reshoot) DC’s 2017 answer to The Avengers. Snyder left the production under tragic circumstances and the film was finished by director Joss Whedon before being released to a decidedly apathetic public. Almost immediately, a clamor arose by disappointed fans, which ultimately seemed to boil down to “it’s impossible that this movie we’ve waited for is bad, so there must be a secret masterpiece the studio is hiding from us.”
It’s perhaps the most emblematic, if not the first, example of the sort of toxic fan entitlement that has only been exacerbated in the age of social media. There have always been rabid superfans, especially in the genre space, but the cult of personalities that have arisen around cinematic IP like the DC Universe is particularly noxious. It’s antithetical to what film and art should be: inclusive, expressive, diverse, and collaborative. To be clear, I don’t begrudge Snyder the chance to revisit the film (although I’m incredibly skeptical it will justify its reported four-hour runtime), and I don’t think everyone involved with the Snyder Cut movement is a troll (the fundraising associated groups have done for suicide prevention in the wake of Snyder’s loss is heartwarming), but I can’t help but feel like a questionable precedent is being set here.
Should fans dictate a film’s production? It’s a question without a simple answer. On the one hand, audiences do dictate what gets made, and have done so from the beginning of the industry — they just do it with their dollars. It’s simple supply and demand: a lot of people go see a movie, the likelihood that more movies in a similar vein get made. But even the more active, vocal type of fan demand isn’t necessarily a bad thing; given how entrenched the Hollywood old guard often seems to be, it’s easy to believe that the breakthroughs in diversity in front of and behind the camera are at least partially attributable to the voices of the audiences who have effectively used their platforms for good.
However, the bad actors — the ones who relentlessly harass women and people of color for daring to make, be in, or have an opinion about one of their precious franchises — take up far too much oxygen in the room. I know that many of the folks who are mad online about Star Wars or Justice League simply want to engage with the things they love, and I get it: I spend my free time writing about movies too, and I want to encourage discourse about movies to as great an extent possible. But that means it falls to both us as fellow audience members and those with the power to make cinematic decisions to take extra care in parsing out who should and shouldn’t be dictating the conversation.
I mentioned above that the question of ownership might have an easy answer — if it does, this is it. This will be the briefest argument because in my mind it’s the simplest argument: if you believe, like I do, that movies are an art form, then it stands to reason that the filmmakers — the artists — should own the product. Now, I use “filmmakers” instead of “directors” intentionally (that’s a conversation for another time), but to me it’s clear that those directly involved in crafting what we see on the screen should have the privilege and burden of the bulk of the decision-making. Will this always result in the best possible film? Certainly not! Filmmakers are fallible, and can arguably be given too much freedom (a tangent, but for every Kingdom of Heaven where a film is saved by a “director’s cut,” there’s a Miami Vice, which turns a masterpiece into something lesser). But when it comes down to it, I’d rather see the big, artistic swings that fail than a film that’s been micromanaged to death or is entirely subservient to the notion of fan service.
Can the three interests coexist? Absolutely. But the balance is hard to get right, so when in doubt there’s an easy call: default to the artists, and you’ll be remembered much more fondly in the long run.