• Ben Erickson


Review for Alien³ originally published in the June 2018 issue of Film Score Monthly:

Directed by David Fincher and released in 1992, Alien³ is the third installment of the Alien franchise, concluding Ellen Ripley’s (natural) arc in a final showdown against the xenomorph species and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The film was censured as an unsatisfying conclusion to its predecessors, full of mundane writing and bland, expendable characters, and infamous for having gone through what is commonly referred to in the industry as development hell. One of the few positives to come about as a result of the picture was the score. Because the music for the first two Alien films had been so severely tampered with during the editing process, neither Jerry Goldsmith (Alien) nor James Horner (Aliens) were willing to return for another sequel, and so Elliot Goldenthal was brought on board. Thus it was that Alien³ introduced the composer into the mainstream, and in so doing contributed to the state of modernist music in film. Production for Alien³ was not yet finished by the time Goldenthal was invited on set, so he had to write with the story and atmosphere of the film in mind. The composer spent a year working on what he described as an experimental score with Fincher, making a decision to put musical continuity with respect to the former films aside for the sake of writing a fully form-fitting composition. That said, the music assuredly takes after Goldsmith’s example from the original, incorporating extended techniques and marrying them with additional liturgical material derived from the religious beliefs of the prisoners and the sacrificial nature of the story. The result was ultimately a score that belongs not to a single genre of music but to a unique overlap of sacred music and conventional horror music that has rightly come to be considered avant-garde. The film opens memorably with an augmented take on the 20th Century Fox fanfare, betraying the expected resolution by halting on the flat-seven scale degree of the melody. This sustained deception reveals straightaway to the viewer that this is not a film for the faint of heart, and it also stands as one of the earlier ventures in experimenting with the music of an opening logo. The cue continues into what many will know as “Agnus Dei,” with boy soprano Nick Nackley reciting text from the final section of the Mass Ordinary, translating to “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us”. Toward the latter half of the cue, the music introduces one of four distinct themes, performed during the evident crash of the craft and continually alluding to the cause of its malfunction thereafter. The theme consists of a three-note pattern wherein the melody descends a semitone and falls again by a major third, then ascends a semitone before repeating the pattern. It is performed broadly in the brass, commenting on the strange and precarious journey the emergency pod takes through space. “The Survivor Is a Woman” introduces the Alien³ theme, a slow procession of notes that revolve around a clear tonal center, returning again and again to the tonic as the material explores its prison domain. Performed on strings, the theme is altogether ominous and magnanimous, taking account of both the company of convicts and the threat lurking in the darkness. “The Wreckage” invites the crash theme once more as the nature of the malfunction becomes more concerning, continuing with apprehensive strings in “Lullaby Elegy (Extended Version)” as Clemens performs an autopsy on Newt. “The Cremation” enters with a roiling turbulence of undulating strings, brass chords, and pounding timpani—as often accompanies the harsh environments of the film. The third and most essential melody is given voice here as well: the acceptance theme. As the bodies of Ripley’s comrades are thrown into the furnace, the theme takes on a rich guise in the violins, brilliantly foreshadowing Ripley’s sacrifice. The theme is built out of a four-note phrase, reaching its peak on the penultimate note as it anticipates Ripley’s acknowledgement of what has transpired—of the decisions that have led her to this point—before landing on the downbeat. The fourth and final theme of the film belongs to Clemens, presented in “How Do You Like Your New Haircut?” and heard again in “Appreciative of Your Affections” and “It’s a Long Sad Story/Clemens Dies.” Clemens’ theme is a pitying, five-note melody taken up on the English horn, joined beneath by an affectionate piano. This is the same excerpt from the beginning of “Lento” on the original album, only without the boy soprano vocals, which were removed from the final cut. Goldenthal constructed themes for Alien³ that are simple in their design and in their purpose, and contribute to the score an elegance of which some people might say the film is undeserving.

Much of the remainder of the music throughout the score is distinctly horror based, creating a bleak and disturbing quality. Goldenthal instills elemental dread with a laundry list of techniques including Monteverdi trills on flute; bumbling bassoon; strained horns; flatulent and turgid low brass grumblings; overtone throat singing; glistening, floating strings; staccato attacks from the orchestra; and sharp, attenuated electronic sounds. “Wreckage and Rape” offers a hint of post-grunge rock, using electric guitar, bass guitar, drum kit and screaming vocals as sound design, inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “Candles in the Wind” follows, concluding with the Goldenthal trademark of a wailing French horn. (The horn rips and trills in the upper register are caused by high pressure exhalation from the performers blowing into an open valve). I cannot help but think the cue title in some way is meant to be an ironic reference to the song “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John, but this hope is doubtful at best. “The Beast Within” develops into a more noble texture, slowly building with canonic passages as each member of the orchestra takes up the call, and becoming a virtuous, resolute manifestation of Dillon’s spiritual convictions. It is in this moment that Dillon, de facto leader of the prisoners, refuses to kill Ripley, and the texture appears again in “Visit to the Wreckage” as he motivates the men to fight the creature. The next cue, “Bait and Chase (Extended Version),” is more rhythmically driven than any previous one, using metallic percussion—shaking and scraping—with extended brass techniques to imitate the fear and adrenaline experienced by the prisoners as they lead the alien on. The final stretch heading into the “Adagio” is full of raw, suspenseful material that captures the urgency of Ripley’s efforts. “It’s Started”, for instance, performed as they lure the creature, uses varying ostinati in the strings that build in counterpoint atop one another before a trumpet enters in tentative celebration, as though it were an indication of judgement day.

“Gotcha/Hello, I Must Be Going” is the one cue that sticks out like a sore thumb in the film, because it is a premature use of the “Adagio” material. It spoils the triumph of the moment because it takes the excerpt out of its proper filmic and musical context, where the true pyrrhic victory has yet to come. This was probably a poor editing choice on part of the director or a producer, as it seems unlikely Goldenthal would do this deliberately. Even so, though the beginning of the cue is perplexing, the imitative running string canon further in just about makes up for it. The latter is a technique the composer has grown very fond of and uses regularly in his scores, and it serves as a wonderful device in observing the destruction of the xenomorph here. Finally, we arrive at the “Adagio”. This may be every listener’s favorite Alien³ cue, the title of which alone seems to hold a grandeur unknown to its predecessors. One can assume the names “Lento” and “Adagio”—Italian terms used to indicate tempo markings—were allocated to serve from the directives in the score, possibly even used as placeholder names for a time before being made official. “Adagio” opens with soft strings that inherit an aloof sadness experienced by the character. Ripley knows Weyland-Yutani can never be given the chance to turn the xenomorph into a biological weapon, and so she accepts that she must sacrifice herself to keep it out of their hands. The return of the acceptance theme here is unbelievably satisfying, giving viewers a deeper appreciation for Ripley’s full arc. Some people complain that the cue overdramatizes the film, but taken within the context of the whole series it is brilliant. Following the theme is a magnificent series of bombastic percussion and interjecting brass when Ripley, haunted by this enemy for as long as she can remember, is set free. The cue closes within an enigmatic trumpet, just as the original Alien began, signifying the vast emptiness of space. Releases like this are always rewarding because they give listeners an opportunity to understand the complete intention of the composer—or at least as comprehensive an understanding as we are likely to get. Yes, there are brief moments of music from the film that are still missing from the expanded score, but these are hardly worth fretting over, and inconsequential to the big picture. The two-disc set contains a remastered version of the original album (for those who do not already own it), plus the complete score, cue-by-cue in chronological order of the film, with three alternate cues. A note too for those who will seek out the film on receiving their copy of the score: watch the theatrical cut. While the assembly cut presents the director’s vision and improves certain elements, it mutilates and degrades the score. The theatrical cut is clearly what Goldenthal worked off of, evident from how well the music has been spotted, so I recommend it instead. La-La Land’s two-disc Alien³ release is a must for any who consider themselves a film score enthusiast, and very satisfying for purists who accept nothing less than the wholesale product. For its historical significance as Goldenthal’s breakout work that would land him opportunities like Demolition Man and Batman Forever, for the sheer inventiveness of the material, and for its comprehensive presentation here, the score receives a perfect five-star rating.