If Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) had more surprises and James Cameron's Aliens (1986) more thrills, David Fincher's austere, low-tech, darkly funny "Alien 3" has more sharply observed characters. The script — reflecting the struggle of nine writers — even has a subtext. This must be the first $50 million thriller that also functions as an AIDS allegory.
Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash-lands on Fury 161, an all-male religious colony inhabited by celibate former convicts. "No rubbers, no women, no guns, no shit," says Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), the group's leader. Ripley's fellow passengers, including the young girl she protected in "Aliens," are dead. Is there an alien inside the dead child? Ripley demands that medical officer Clemens (the excellent Charles Dance) perform an antopsy. At first the convicts don't believe Ripley's talk of doom; then the "unwelcome virus" starts taking casualties.
Vincent Ward, who devised the story, directed The Navigator, a 1988 film about another plague. But Alien 3, beset by studio interference, sometimes loses sight of its larger theme to provide the usual jolts. The compromise isn't fatal. Fincher, 29, makes a feature-directing debut that goes beyond the sleek panache he showed in his Madonna videos. Though he borrows from Kubrick's 2001 and Cameron's Terminator 2, Fincher gives the images new resonance, creating a provocative fusion of suspense and feeling. Weaver is in spectacular form. Unarmed and nearly bald, she's never seemed more resourcefully human. Her final scene — a war between her maternal and killer instincts — is bold and haunting. So is the movie.