I seriously regard David Fincher's Alien 3 as the best in the series. This statement is sure to get some people's knickers in a knot, but allowing oneself some distance from one's own fanboy tendencies would help to see where I'm coming from.
Stripping away the powerful H.R. Giger designs that tends to overwhelm everything else, and minimising the action and skulking cat-and-mouse scenarios, Fincher is able to bring about a certain focus on character development and dynamics that were missing from the first two films - or in James Cameron's Aliens, was simplified to a large degree but without compromising or catering too much to the blockhead action fan.
Let's not even talk about the overrated first movie, almost always regarded by fanboys as a "masterpiece." Ridley Scott's preliminary episode in the saga is an art direction masterpiece, not a director's masterpiece. He was smart enough to allow the actors to improvise, which lent a certain realism to their banter and interaction. But take away Giger's wonderfully realised designs, both horrific and erotic at the same time, and also the cinematography of Derek Vanlint, and you'll find nothing much there. It's boring even, with overlong sequences of the characters skulking around the interiors of the Nostromo. Incidentally, the same is true of that other Scott "masterpiece," Blade Runner, which is, again, one big bore, except that the artistic vision, like Alien, is so strong that it commands attention simply by being visually arresting.
Alien 3, while admittedly owing a lot to the previous films, brings about new and interesting problems, turns the idea of a strong woman character almost on its head, while imbuing the proceedings with undercurrents of the religious and spiritual. That adds more humanity to the story rather than just another alien vs humans scenario, balancing delicately the ideas of crime, punishment, redemption, righteousness, monstrosity and sacrifice. In fact, the self-regulating correction facility of Fury 161, with its end-of-the-road hardcore criminals and psychos, could well be read as a deep-space purgatory. Most interesting is Charles S. Dutton's Dillon, the religious fanatic who is at once the perfect anti-hero.
Playing off what we already know about Ripley, the initial encounter she has with Dillon and the others in the prison cafeteria plays off many shades at once.
Dillon: You don't wanna know me, lady. I'm a murderer and a rapist of women.
Ripley: (Pause) Well then, I guess I must make you nervous.
Anyone who's familiar with the first two films would have a great chuckle at this. Here is a bunch of badass men, or who think they're badass, who have no inkling of who Ripley is; rather, they view her in the most chauvinistic manner, not knowing that she's fought off the biggest badass of the universe - the Alien Queen.
But the Alien series, upon closer inspection, is not really about Ripley, nor is it about Man against Nature/Alien. Like all good horror, it deploys decoys, distractions, but ultimately brings you back, in all three films, to its primary concern - that of Man vs The Big Bad Corporation. In this case, Weyland-Yutani, which, if you think about it, has been the catalyst for all Ripley's problems throughout the series.
It's really a cautionary tale about authority.
I've been having a discussion on a certain literary blog, about horror writing, and how it lacks substance when it comes to local authors. Like I noted in the discussion, horror can be at its best, like with Lovecraft, Poe, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, the dark fantasy of Ray Bradbury, the pulp terror of Robert Bloch, and even Stephen King.
At its worst, you have the likes of Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Richard Laymon, et al.
Local horror writing tends towards the lesser end of the spectrum, I said. The authors are often preoccupied with primarily trying to deliver the scares or terrors at the expense of everything else.
One of the stories that completely intrigued me was Joyce Carol Oates' The Doll, from her collection, Haunted: Tales Of The Grotesque. Here's a story that's horrific, disturbing, but most of all psychologically effective and resonant even before you near the end and realise what the mechanical and puppet-like occupants of the strange house are really about. The important thing is that the real horror on which it is based plays as a very deep undercurrent that is felt throughout without it being expressly conveyed. It's ingenious.
Stephen King too, at his best, has the uncanny ability to create a palpable sense of place and sense of self in his characters. Oftentimes his stories pit the protagonists against each other rather than against the monster or supernatural threat - people thrown into unnatural settings and situations. At the heart of it, all good horror stories are about the darker potentials of the human self, and they explore that rather than just present it, which is often the misstep of our local authors.
Infinitely, the darker side of us is far more interesting than any ghost, demon or ghoul.
And that's what David Fincher understood with Alien 3. That's what Dan O'Bannon, screenwriter of the original Alien script, understood too, when midway through the first film, we're suddenly privy to the real motive of Ash, the android.