Element of Crime: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and later Alien 3


a) First revelations about similarities
When I first saw Alien 3, I was slightly disappointed by its unfinished and fragmented nature,  I thought that I saw a review towards the end of its run that compared it to one of "Tarkovsky's opium fueled hallucinations" and suddenly thinking about the work of Tarkovsky put me in a better view about the movie in that it was more or less an abstract hallucination, but looking back through old Starburst magazines I saw a review by Kim Newman for the movie that suggested that the movie was like Tarkovsky on valium and it may well have been that which I read.

However around the turn of the millenium, I was informed about the movie "Element of Crime" by Lars Von Trier and how there were some things in it similar to Alien 3. Element of Crime was released in 1984. Later i discovered that this movie had been partially inspired by the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, before I suddenly began to make further links with Alien 3.
Here are a few ways that the story has been described:
  • A detective named Fisher, who has become an expatriate living in Cairo, undergoes hypnosis in order to recall his last case. The Europe of his dreamlike recollection is a dystopia, dark and decaying. Fisher remembers pursuing an elusive killer called the "Lotto Murderer", who was strangling and then mutilating young girls who were selling lottery tickets. He attempts to track down the killer using the controversial methods outlined in a book entitled The Element of Crime, written by his disgraced mentor, Osborne. He is joined in his search by a prostitute named Kim, who, it turns out, has had a child by his target. Fisher's search is based on a tailing report written by Osborne when trying to track down a murderer who had been killing in the same way as the "Lotto Murderer", but who, supposedly, has since died in a crash. The Osborne method requires the detective to try to identify with the mind of the killer. This he does, but, in so doing, begins to behave more and more like a serial killer himself.   (The story of the film as described in Wikipedia)
  • The English-language Danish film is set in a Europe where the sun never shines at some near-future time when the Continent has become a giant wasteland of photogenic junkyards, trash heaps and mud puddles. Fisher (Michael Elphick), a retired police inspector, is called back from Cairo to solve a series of murders of young girls.
    In his pursuit of truth, he seeks the help of his old mentor, Osbourne (Esmond Knight), who once wrote a book titled ''The Element of Crime.'' This supposedly seminal study of antisocial behavior puts forth the idea that, to track down a criminal, one must assume the criminal's point of view. Like his mentor before him, Fisher assumes the criminal's point of view only too well.
    The New York times ,1st Mayhttps://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/01/movies/the-film-element-of-crime.html)
  • The film takes place entirely within a hypnosis-induced flashback and concerns the investigation of a child serial killer, known as the “lotto murderer,” who has been terrorizing Germany. Chief Inspector Kramer has called Detective Fisher back from Cairo (after 13 years exile) to solve the case following the failure of his mentor, Osborne. Fisher discovers that Osborne suspected a man named Harry Grey (who apparently died in a car accident) and was re-enacting his journey using a tailing report from three years earlier when Grey first laid his groundwork for the murders. Using Osborne’s controversial method known as ‘The Element of Crime’ (a dangerous psychological technique for getting deep into the mindset of the killer) Fisher picks up where Osborne left off. During his investigation, Fisher teams up with an Asian prostitute named Kim and moves inexorably closer to the truth… and to madness, not unlike his mentor.  ( filmwalrus.co review.)

b) Other connections.
Another thing to note it that it's been said that William Gibson compared his own slightly early Alien 3 script to Tarkovsky's work, so it might seem as if that Russian director's influence was going to be felt one way or another.
A thing to stress is that Element of Crime film payed homage to the movies of Andrzej Tarkovsky although he is understood to have seen it and despised it,  and it seemed certain that Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" perhaps in terms of cinematography and the presence of an investigator in the future caught in some strange existential crisis.  Also it was noted by fans that there was a Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" connection.
In the commentary track for the DVD of the Element of Crime, Peter Shepelern who wrote a book about Von Trier's film and knew him mentioned that his ideas also were inspired by writers such as Kafka and Borges and discussed with Stig Bjorkman how Element of Crime would have been very much inspired by Film Noir such as films "Confidential Report" and "Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles, Trier enthusiastically Trier enthusiastically discussed how a scene was inspired by "Taxi Driver" by Martin Scorsese and that film has been labeled as Neo Noir etc. But here is appears to be more important to point out the comparisons to Blade Runner are there but perhaps negligible. 

  1. ''The Element of Crime'' is the first feature to be directed by Lars von Trier, who has clearly looked at many other people's films, including Orson Welles's ''Touch of Evil'' and Sir Carol Reed's ''Third Man,'' though without learning much about dialogue or narrative. (The New York times ,1st May https://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/01/movies/the-film-element-of-crime.html)
  2. The Element of Crime, 1984, which von Trier claims Tarkovsky saw and despised (ReFocus: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky 31 May 2021)  
  3. Stig Bjorkman: If you compare it with classic film noir films. Do you think it can be compared to those?

    Peter Shepelern: Yes in the sense that you can't imagine  "The Element of Crime" without the heritage of American film noir films of the 40s

    Stig Bjorkman : And the 50s

    Peter Shepelern: Yes

    Stig Bjorkman : Yes

    Peter Shepelern: The genre began with John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" which is normally seen as the  first film which had ... how can you put it... a dubious moral. No one is really good. Everyone's morals are more or less rotten, even the heroes . And the women, especially, are all femme-fatale types. They don't give the heroes the redemption of love, but... One of the famous films noir was "Double Indemnity", - in Danish "The Women without Conscience". It's about a woman who takes advantage of an insurance agent and makes him kill her husband to pull an insurance scam. That whole world of rotten morals, Trier has obviously learned from that. At the same time, those films had a strong sense of visual fascination as you could call it. As late as what could be said to be the last big film noir Orson Welles "Touch of Evil" which had everything in terms of demonic power and destruction in an amazing visual form.

    Stig Bjorkman :If you had to compare Lars' film"The Element of Crime" with an earlier film make,  it would have to be Orson Welles. There are passages which are very similar to the visual solutions by Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil". He also uses these very long and complicated tracking shots with lots of people and this very bizarre gallery of minor roles.

    But there is an Orson Welles film which I think is closer to "Element of Crime" It's the little known film called "Confidential Report"

    Peter Shepelern: That is also a study of evil. Welles was very good at focusing on evil.

    Stig Bjorkman:: It's about one of the wealthiest men in the world, who hires a private detective to uncover a criminal

    Peter Shepelern: Yes That's also a kind of European film noir which clearly ranks amongst the godfathers of this film

    Stig Bjorkman: Yes (Element of Crime DVD, film writers commentary


f) Blade Runner to Alien 3
Blade Runner's cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth was initially involved in Alien 3. He was well known for his cinematography for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and then due to illness was replaced by Alex Thomson who had worked on Ridley Scott's Legend, and continued with Cronenweth's ideas
Jordan Cronenweth and Ridley Scott on the set of Blade Runner

g) Alien Resurrection references Von Trier's work

However, when it came to making the following film in the Alien series, being Alien Resurrection (released 1997), Jean-Pierre Jeunet would openly cite Lars Von Trier as one of his influences for the movie. Perhaps even his earlier film Delicatessen (1991) co-directed with Marc Caro took inspiration from Element of Crime



  1. "Alien 3: Curious Similarities between Element of Crime and Alien 3" was originally posted 23rd May 2015

  2. Title changed to "Alien 3: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner via Element of Crime" and the article was expanded and edited on 27th September 2020

  3. Sorted out the statement about the similarity between the use of the small glass horse head in Element of Crime and the Blade Runner origami in Blade Runner

  4. Title changed from "Alien 3: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner via Element of Crime" to "Element of Crime: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner and later Alien 3"

  5. Title changed from "Alien 3: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner via Element of Crime" to "Element of Crime: Curious similarities to Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and later Alien 3"

  6. Have missed your Facebook postings since I don't hang out there anymore, but was thinking about this subect and found you again.

    I bought the Criterion disc of ELEMENT because of your comments and find it a sort of linking device for APOCALYPSE NOW (imagine the Do Lung Bridge scene as a world at war, and you're in the same world as ELEMENT), BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN 3. These are the kinds of unofficial imaginary movie worlds that longtime movie fans come up with in their imagination. I've read one or two comments about Fincher 'stealing' from Von Trier and that's just annoying; I suspect consciously or not Fincher thought the alien would fit in with this sort of rotting, wet world, a place from which the aliens could hatch and take over a whole planet.

    Anyway, am always glad to see your site. Hope to find you on Twitter and catch up with the posts I may have missed. Hope you are well, take care.

  7. Good to hear from you. Yes, I am making sure that I continue to not post things for the sake of "likes" on Facebook and Twitter Element of Crime and so normally get very few of them. It certainly seemed as if Fincher ran off with the whole package and thought about Apocalypse Now, along with elements of Element of Crime itself all together when he made Alien 3 and really I am thankful for it. I wouldn't be surprised if he had seen other European movies such as Le Bunker De La Derniere Rafale by Jeunet and Caro which features a lot of bald people in a bunker environment in the future with an outside word as bleak as Fiorina. But there is a mixture of things and I can't be bothered to watch movies such as Withnail & I but know that he managed to get two out of three of the actors that he wanted from the movie. Von Trier's complicated early works have been a great inspiration to me, namely Element of Crime and of course Europa. Europa looks as if it influenced Alien Resurrection in various ways but Jeunet admitted being inspired by Von Trier's work, so that's okay. I suppose that Fincher hasn't given that many interviews about Alien 3 so he hasn't been able to openly discuss the matter. But those sorts of connections certainly give me something to dream about beyond the films in my reveries.