By Jeremy Carr.
Alien 3’s tumultuous genesis and the abundant what-could-have-beens have left many fans of the Alien series to wonder how else the picture could have materialized. Providing one of the more compelling cases is William Gibson’s unmade screenplay….”
There was little doubt that whatever came next would have a tough act to follow. More than that: two tough acts. After Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, a masterfully orchestrated, pitch-perfect balance of science fiction and horror, and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, the high-octane Aliens, which amped up the action quotient to a thrilling degree, a third Alien film was all but inevitable. How this third entry would align with—or deviate from—its preceding installments, however, that was less certain.
As the story goes, 20th Century Fox was keen on the idea of subsequent films (perhaps even two) and, just as importantly, those same executives were keen on the box office potential. But others involved with the first two features had their doubts and were wary about falling into a repetitive and derivative trap, as franchises were and remain wont to do. One facet of the series was key: an emphasis on the dubious intentions of the shadowy Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hinted at in Alien and explored further in Cameron’s film. Another crucial ingredient was the militarization of space culture and the aggressions between assorted organizations with objectives of their own. But again, how these narrative threads would ultimately be entwined remained undefined. Early on, in one of many marked deviations from what became Alien 3 (or Alien3), the 1992 film, it was proposed that Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks, last seen injured by the xenomorph alien’s acid blood at the end of Aliens, was to play a much larger part, while Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the resilient heroine of both earlier films, would be reduced to a secondary or even smaller role (Weaver herself was reluctant to return, so this made sense).
William Gibson, the first of nearly a dozen different writers hired for this third installment, completed an early script in 1987, wherein Ripley would be comatose for most of the film, leaving Hicks, Carrie Henn’s Newt, the young girl rescued in Aliens, and Lance Henriksen’s benevolent synthetic Bishop, also introduced in Aliens, to be the primary, or at least the most familiar, players. These returning characters were to find themselves embroiled in a multifaceted Cold War conflict between the greedy, ill-intentioned capitalistic giant Weyland-Yutani and socialist outliers fighting for their respective cause, with, of course, the alien (or aliens) smack in the middle. Gibson wrote two drafts and left the project after being asked to do a third for assigned director Renny Harlin, who had signed on for the picture after first choice Ridley Scott declined (Scott had a busy schedule and his desire to explore the xenomorph’s origins required special effects deemed unfeasible at the time; he returned to this concept years later with 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Alien: Covenant).
So, what now? Harlin, for one, liked the idea of exploring the alien’s home planet, or possibly having an alien invasion on Earth. He brought on Eric Red for another draft of the screenplay but his radical departure from the preliminary plan, incorporating, among other things, a new breed of alien, was rejected. Then came David Twohy, who removed some of Gibson’s Cold War plot points (now that Communism was no longer as topical) and changed the setting to a prison planet of sorts where alien experimentation was underway. Fox president Joe Roth resisted this version and so entered Vincent Ward, whose new concept involved the crash landing of Ripley’s escape pod onto a planet where something akin to a monastery existed in a wooden interior housing nothing but men, men who are troubled by the female Ripley’s arrival and lock her away; they also believe the alien creature to be a devilish manifestation. This needed Weaver, though, and the star was eventually enticed to return thanks to a hefty salary and a share of the box office returns.
But how to create this wooden planet, and why did such an incongruous structure exist in space in the first place? Following what was becoming a foreboding pattern by this point, Ward was fired, though considerable portions of his story remained intact, including the controversial decision to have Hicks and Newt dead from the start and Bishop badly damaged, and—this one is significant—having Ripley impregnated by/with an alien.
As time went on, others had their say, further revisions were made, and Harlin left the film, as did Ward, also considered as director at one point. Finally, Fox chose David Fincher, who had yet to helm a feature film but had made an exceptional impact in the world of music videos. But the problems continued. The script was continually modified as shooting progressed—a previous day’s scene might be dropped altogether—and Fincher’s perfectionism caused constant consternation with those working under and above him. Furthermore, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, left the production after just two weeks (he was replaced by Alex Thomson), and the design and achievement of the alien creature changed hands and formations. In due course, Alien 3 was indeed made, but that didn’t mean additional divisions were evaded. Fincher’s overly-lengthy cut was reduced, and even the 2003 assembly cut available on home video formats, which is an improvement over the theatrical version, didn’t restore everything initially included.
Alien 3 was released on May 22, 1992, and it brought in a decent profit (mostly internationally). Reviews were predictably mixed and while some award organizations lauded its special effects and sci-fi features, Fincher disowned the film. To be sure, Alien 3, whatever version, is a bleak and nihilistic picture. The inhabitants of Fury 161, the mineral ore refinery/maximum security correctional facility that serves as its lone setting, are a motley crew of rapists and murderers and the industrial location is unsparing in its gloom and desolation. Weaver’s Ripley is viewed as an unsavory outsider by the men, who are sworn to celibacy, and she approaches everything with a justifiable paranoia given what she’s been through, especially after it’s discovered she wasn’t the only survivor of the escape pod. The ensuing disharmony is contagious amongst the populace, while the evolution of the alien xenomorph (it emerges and matures in ways dissimilar from its prior filmic incarnations) provides supplementary headway. Ripley’s defiance and hesitancy is true to her character, as is her distain for the Weyland-Yutani corporation and her pragmatic, resourceful authority. There is also the continued emphasis of a thematic maternal undercurrent previewed in the earlier films. Building on the franchise’s embryonic prominence of birth and rebirth, it’s discovered that Ripley has been impregnated by a xenomorph, and while the birth itself would kill her, the state of carrying the creature affords her a peculiar invulnerability as the existing alien will not, in essence, harm one of its own. It is the cause of her certain death and her saving grace, complicating Ripley’s ongoing rapport with the alien species.
Despite its faults, and surely Alien 3 is a sizable step down from its forerunners, as the saying goes, it is what it is, and it’s not a wholly bad film. Still, the picture’s tumultuous genesis and the abundant what-could-have-beens have left many fans of the Alien series to wonder how else the picture could have materialized. Providing one of the more compelling cases is William Gibson’s unmade screenplay, which was adapted into a Dark Horse comic series and later an audiobook. And now, his work has been transposed into a novel written by Pat Cadigan and published by Titan Books. Here, the damaged Sulaco ship from Aliens, which contains Ripley, Newt, and Bishop, as well as some unwanted extraterrestrial stowaways, drifts into a murky area of space claimed by the so-called “Union of Progressive Peoples” (U.P.P.). Their representatives board the ship and are swiftly attacked, though some manage to carry away the mutilated body of Bishop, which had contained the murderous “facehugger” alien spawn. The dilapidated vessel then arrives at an elaborate space station known as Anchorpoint, where Hicks and an extensive cast of characters become insnared in a diplomatic, scientific, and militaristic mélange of confusion and conflict. Experiments on the alien creatures and their DNA are taking place among both the U.P.P. and those at the Anchorpoint outpost, and the foreseeable catastrophes occur in due course.
Gibson’s script, as realized by Cadigan, makes every effort to recall its immediate cinematic predecessor, providing snapshots of Ripley’s backstory and her role in the preceding film (even if she remains comatose). But the reintroduction of Bishop is perhaps even more substantial. He was integral to the seemingly safe escape of Ripley, Newt, and Hicks in Aliens and he is first presented here in a “plastic cocoon,” “more translucent than transparent” with “milky-white condensation” (12). (The novel successfully renders the tactile qualities of the aliens and their progeny, just as the films have done so remarkably since the beginning.) In his damaged state, Bishop was nevertheless aware of a presence abord the occupied Sulaco—the alien queen had stowed away and her gestating handiwork, described as an “egg-shaped thing,” had embedded itself in his mangled body, “its roots indistinguishable from the ragged guts of the robot’s upper torso” (27). This alone provides an intriguing and promising development in the Alien universe, in that it was previously assumed “[n]othing grew out of inanimate objects,” (28) as one character stares, thus announcing a potential twist in the grand narrative of the series.
The aliens are not the only creatures wreaking havoc in Gibson’s space, however. The “universe,” it is stated, clearly suggesting the Cold War tone of the screenwriter’s initial conception, is “infested with capitalists”….”
Gibson continues to integrate an increased amount of stated speculation concerning the aliens as a species: their purpose, their capabilities, and their origins. It’s noted that the “intelligent beings that had engineered this species were highly complex and even more deadly than their creation,” (12) and Tully, one of the scientists, ventures that their construction “had all the earmarks of a weapons-developer’s wet dream—the worst characteristics of various reptiles crossed with a Freudian nightmare” (48). This type of conjecture would have clearly resonated years later when Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in fact explored the creation and bountiful accomplishment of these killer beings. So, when characters in the Alien 3 text hypothesize about the alien eggs and their potentially ancient construction—“Could it be that these creatures were already weaponized? That they were created as weapons? (116)—that answer would have come in Scott’s later entry. Likewise, there is much discussion about the full-grown aliens, which has often been left unstated in the Alien films. For example, one character in the book notes that the “individual creatures don’t display normal animal behavior—they don’t mate or compete for food or territory, nor do they form groups. All they do is kill, with no concern for their own safety. They don’t even try to protect themselves” (116). These overt inferences, which were basically implicit in the movies, are welcome additions as they provide conscious, proactive attempts to understand what motivates these relentless, malevolent organisms. The characters in Alien 3 are conspicuously aware of what is taking place, and the nature of a novel allows for revelatory inner monologues and continued theorizing. Notably, these individuals are awestruck and dumbfounded by the speed of the aliens’ growth, their abilities, and their adaptive advancement: “It’s as if the gene structure had been deliberately designed for ease of manipulation … As well as what seems to be a universal compatibility with other plasms” (162). Sure enough, a continual evolution of the xenomorph species became a standard feature in subsequent film iterations, from the sleek and speedy variation realized in Fincher’s film to the “Predalien” formed at the end of AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and resumed in 2007’s Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.
The aliens are not the only creatures wreaking havoc in Gibson’s space, however. The “universe,” it is stated, clearly suggesting the Cold War tone of the screenwriter’s initial conception, is “infested with capitalists,” (19) namely, of course, Weyland-Yutani, “the most corrupt operation in the galaxy” (21). Political aims are suitably rampant throughout the novel, with a multitude of ulterior motives. There is an obvious hierarchy of need-to-know staffing among the researchers and “MiliSci” archetypes, and as a basic storytelling device, these conspiratorial maneuverings are engaging enough. But the problem is that so many characters are incorporated, in varying capacities, that it becomes difficult to pin-point any single one as being exceptionally interesting or at the very least fleshed out as someone other than a generic representative of their role; there are rough and ready commandos, cautiously curious scientists, and unscrupulous bureaucrats, but it’s a challenge to remember who is who and to really care. In any event, the human elements present in Gibson’s narrative, and the damage caused by these non-alien entities, reflect a source of discord evident in all Alien films, as the men (it’s always the men) are often just as destructive as the xenomorphs.
Navigating the intricacies of this multifaceted scenario, Hicks emerges as the obvious hero of Gibson’s Alien 3, and we are afforded extensive detail about his past experience, training, and his thoughts about what transpired in Aliens. He feels responsible for Newt and Ripley and his remembrance of other characters from Cameron’s film, essentially serving as flashbacks, not only expand on their own prior appearance and serve to evoke specific scenes from the picture (usually among the more memorable—Gibson/Cadigan effectively capitalize on the most iconic Alien features throughout the text), but they provide revealing instances of how Hicks views what occurred during his last mission. After first resigning himself to routine manual labor, lest he remain idle, Hicks summarily assumes a natural leadership position and becomes the dominant protagonist of the Gibson story. His call to action launches the book’s dynamic finale, especially since its large cast has been whittled down and its endgame comes into focus.
In his caring for Newt and concern for Ripley’s wellbeing, the Gibson Hicks does express a paternal sense only glimpsed briefly in Aliens. In this, he basically takes up where Ripley left off in the film, although remnants remain, as when Hicks and Newt (a surrogate daughter for Ripley, whose own child passed away while she was in hyper sleep) visit the hospitalized heroine and the young girl “silently mouthed the words, Bye, Mommy…” (112). But here is arguably the most noteworthy departure from how the Alien films would eventually unfold. Ripley’s role as a parental figure—with regards to Newt and the increasingly symbiotic xenomorphs—is central to the film version of Alien 3 as well as, in radical fashion, 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, written by Joss Whedon and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And more than that, her position as a strong female spearhead, who nevertheless possesses strong, if somewhere stereotypical feminine characteristics, helped set the pace for Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) in Alien vs. Predator, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus, and Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston) in Alien: Covenant. Related to this, then, is the novel’s relative absence of maternal tropes and insinuations. From the central drive computer identified as “Mother” in Alien to someone like Shaw, whose inability to bare children receives explicit attention in Prometheus, this series has routinely dispensed variously applied notions of womanhood and motherhood. While not in itself a negative, this overriding current is lacking from Gibson’s Alien 3, and one wonders how, or if, the later films would have resumed such a thematic path had his version of the story been adopted.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).