The shape-shifting "Alien" trilogy reverts back to the form of the first film in this third close encounter--a muddled effort that offers little more than visual splendor to recommend it. Although certain to open strong thanks to the must-see faithful, look for a quick fade beyond the first couple of box office orbits as word-of-mouth and the dour tone pull "Alien3" down to earth, making it a likely also-ran among this summer's blockbusters.

The shape-shifting “Alien” trilogy reverts back to the form of the first film in this third close encounter–a muddled effort that offers little more than visual splendor to recommend it. Although certain to open strong thanks to the must-see faithful, look for a quick fade beyond the first couple of box office orbits as word-of-mouth and the dour tone pull “Alien3″ down to earth, making it a likely also-ran among this summer’s blockbusters.

In interviews, star/co-producer Sigourney Weaver has spoken of the producers’ conflict with Fox over crafting a more cerebral film rather than an outright thriller, and that indecisiveness shows. More pointedly, “Alien3″ may have been done in from the start by “Aliens,” James Cameron’s tremendous first sequel, which took the original–essentially a haunted house movie with space as a foreboding means of preventing escape–and moved it in a thrilling new direction by staging full-blown combat with an Alien horde.

Taking a more intimate approach, the latest sequel goes back to square one and proves inferior to both its predecessors. The action picks up in the opening credits where “Aliens” left off, as Ripley’s hybernation pod crash-lands on a grim, all-male penal colony planet.

It seems an alien egg was still on the shuttle (how is anybody’s guess), and the rapid dispatch of survivors from “Aliens” will doubtless feel like an emotional rip-off from which it will take many audience members an ample part of the movie to recover.

In any event, Ripley (Weaver) finds herself stranded on a planet with a bunch of converted convicts who’ve embraced religion, led by Charles S. Dutton of TV’s “Roc.”

The colony’s kindly doctor (Charles Dance), with whom Ripley shares another kind of close encounter, suspects something is wrong, but throughout the early part of the story Ripley won’t share her suspicions with him that an Alien has landed on the planet.

That reticence is only one of numerous inexplicable aspects of “Alien3,” which again relies on the same faceless “company” as an unseen heavy while toying furtively with the sexual politics of a lone woman trapped on a planet of murderers, rapists and miscreants.

In that vein, a significant problem stems from the fact that aside from Ripley and perhaps Dutton and Dance, none of these characters has a defined persona, making the bald convicts all virtually indistinguishable Alien-bait.

That shortcoming is never more evident than in an extended sequence in which the survivors seek to trap the monster, though no one watching will have any way of discerning whether they’re coming close to achieving that goal.

Musicvideo director David Fincher doesn’t reveal much finesse with actors in his bigscreen debut, and the screenplay (by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, plus Larry Ferguson) proves fraught with lapses in reason, motivation and logic.

That leaves Weaver to carry the load, but her character is so encumbered with baggage that she can’t really showcase the qualities–particularly evident in the second film–that made the audience empathize with her. Much has been made of her shaved head, but Weaver has more importantly been shorn here, for the most part, of the epic strength that made Ripley such a striking female protagonist in “Aliens.”

As for the much-discussed re-shoot of the movie’s ending, one can only judge what’s on screen, which shows that the screams of heavy-handed religious symbolism can be heard even in space.

The Alien itself remains a technical marvel in its three repugnant forms, more a tribute to H.R. Giger’s original design than anything else. Fincher, turning to musicvideo editing techniques, resorts to rapid-fire glimpses of the beast, relying on a variety of methods ranging from rotoscoping to puppetry.

Still, we’ve seen those dripping jaws before, and even impressive shots of the creature rapidly scurrying across ceilings don’t justify the fare to be a passenger on this latest voyage.

Other technical aspects are also top of the line, although the production design proves so relentlessly bleak that there’s no relief from the film’s oppressiveness, even when there are lapses in the tension. While the look is an accomplishment, this isn’t the sort of environment that tag-along filmgoers–or even those who bring them–will relish visiting.

Alien3

(Sci-fi thriller--Color)

Production

A Twentieth Century Fox release of a Brandywine production. Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Executive producer, Ezra Swerdlow. Co-producer, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay, Giler, Hill, Larry Ferguson; story by Vincent Ward. Based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett.

Crew

Camera (Rank Laboratories color), Alex Thomson; editor , Terry Rawlings; music, Elliot Goldenthal; production design, Norman Reynolds; art direction, Fred Hole, James Morahan; set decoration, Belinda Edwards; costume design, Bob Ringwood, David Perry; sound (Dolby), Tony Dawe; special effects supervisor, George Gibbs; visual effects produced by Richard Edlund; Alien effects, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr.; original Alien design, H.R. Giger; stunt coordinator, Marc Boyle; assistant director, Chris Carreras; second-unit director, Martin Brierley; casting, Priscilla John (U.K.), Billy Hopkins (U.S.). Reviewed at the Avco Center Cinema, Los Angeles, May 18, 1992. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 min.

With

Ripley ... Sigourney Weaver Dillon ...Charles S. Dutton Clemens ... Charles Dance Golic ... Paul McGann Andrews ... Brian Glover Aaron ... Ralph Brown Morse ... Danny Webb Rains ... Christopher John Fields Junior ... Holt McCallany Bishop II ... Lance Henriksen
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more