I’ve had a strange history with the Alien franchise, one that I watch annually and push on everyone I love. Somehow it’s stuck in my mind despite only two films of critical acclaim, and I’ve found things to love about each entry. Ridley Scott’s opening number was a rousing success and remains the perfect body horror/creature feature film, with only John Carpenter’s The Thing to stand up to it. Aliens, the sequel directed by James Cameron that dropped seven years later, competes with a couple of other films for the title of “best action movie of all time.” These films are some of the earliest I can remember watching and led to enough money shovelled into video rental stores that my parents would have saved a lot of money by just purchasing them for me. I didn’t come to the final two entries in what would unfortunately become known as the “Alien Quadrilogy” until much later in life, when I was in my freshman year of college. I mainlined all four back to back and, five years later, took a buddy through them as we braced ourselves for Prometheus. While I adore each film in this franchise, there’s one I need to talk to you about.
I am, of course, here to discuss Alien3. What, did you think I was going to revisit Alien: Covenant? Stay tuned and I’ll give you baby birds the precious waters of Shai-Hulud another day, because for now we’re talking about one of the most fascinating things in franchise history.
Way back in the day, far before the era of cinematic universes and our submission to the Disney overlords, franchises took years to grind out and often never went beyond a trilogy. 1979 saw the release of Alien and it took seven years to get another entry. It would take another six to get a third film, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. The final product is a David Fincher shindig, one that shows teensie pieces of his style and influence throughout but is a studio mess from opening to closing credits. The assembly cut, the one put together before hacked and slashed by editors, is a much more well-rounded film but still a glorified mess. I came to this film knowing it was bad by reputation, but there are nuggets of gold in the myriad that are worth mining. What surprises me is just how beloved this shitshow wound up being, defenders emerging nearly thirty years later to make the argument for why it’s a secret masterpiece (you know, as long as you watch the assembly cut). I don’t agree with these takes, but a lot of personal research has endeared this movie to my heart and made it one that I’m always excited to revisit. Just making it to the screen was a miracle for everyone involved, but the hack-and-slash story feels cobbled together by the corpses of other works, incused with lightning and let loose upon us helpless villagers.
Once upon a time we were wonderfully blessed with the idea of Cyberpunk, a sci-fi concept that involved hackers and futuristic hellholes alongside cybernetic enhancements and robots. Films like Bladerunner or The Matrix are easily tossed into this category, but it’s important to remember that perhaps the greatest work in the genre is Neuromancer. It’s a novel, the debut of one William Gibson in 1984, and this crazy bastard would go one to flesh out an entire world and career from this idea. Gibson took new ideas and concepts with emerging technology to begin asking whether or not it would be dangerous in the coming years, eking away at our humanity as we embraced mutually assured destruction between biological and technological consciousness.
This all matters because once, long ago in the late 80s, William Gibson was contracted to write a sequel to Aliens. He was the first of three writers worth discussing, people that turned in completely insane concepts for this franchise.
Gibson had this Marxist commentary, one that took the creatures in a new direction and removed the lead character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the plot altogether. Instead he focused on Bishop (Lance Henrikson) and Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Beihn), the only other survivors of the second film. There are armies of the titular creature, new spore-like infections (which would be reused for Alien: Covenant), and a gaggle of new characters that serve to attempt to carry the franchise forward.
Gibson’s screenplay reads like an interesting novel. It’s a lot of things thrown at us in rapid succession, but at the core it merely sounds like a book I’d like to show people as a sort of expanded universe entry. Any of you that have read the Star Wars or Halo novels will know how absolutely weird they get, thinking of strange concepts and fusing genres in ways that don’t always work onscreen. Gibson was a writer working on ideas that would not be explored for forty years, at least not in ways we think about publicly. While I adore the first two films I see them as essentially the same. I mean…think it through.
- Mysterious planet with alien eggs
- People lacking knowledge (willingly or unwillingly) go to said planet and mess around with the eggs
- Creature/creatures born in a horrifying manner that proceed to escape and run rampant
- Crew that we know is reduced by picking them off one by one
- Ellen Ripley escapes to fight another day
- Main antagonist (original xenomorph or Alien Queen) gets blasted from an airlock in the climactic moment
This is the formula for a film in this story. While Scott’s film is a horror movie and Cameron’s an action flick they use the same skeletal structure to create a different cinematic experience. Gibson said, “nah, screw this,” and decided to instead take the idea of capitalism and socialism further and have them war in space while using these creatures as tools. James Cameron wanted to treat Aliens as an analogy for the Vietnam War, with cocky American soldiers headed into territory they didn’t understand and an enemy they weren’t prepared for and then have us watch them get their asses beat. Gibson decided to take this commentary further, incorporating sentiments that were considered “un-American” and paint them as also highly flawed. Our true heroes are disillusioned with everything, angry and just trying to eliminate the true enemy while higher political factions squabble in the background.
…that doesn’t sound familiar. Nope, not at all.
Gibson’s draft has continued to fascinate Alien fans for decades. It’s widely read online, has been adapted into a graphic novel illustrated and written by Johnnie Christmas, and was turned into a radio drama on Audible. The radio drama even sees Michael Beihn and Lance Henrikson reprise their roles, a welcome return after the final film we got in theatres that pissed everyone off. The entire project is fascinating and weird, allowing for revisionist history within the canon of the universe that merely wants to ask, “What if?” It’s a blatant cash-grab, but one that I think you’ll like if you’re ever interested in what goes on in the writing process of a film.
We’ve got to take a moment to talk about the potential absence of Sigourney Weaver from the early production. She wanted off-project, exhausted after working with Cameron (a common response, apparently) and anxious to leave the character behind. Gibson was asked to write around her departure and he did so, sending the characters of Ripley and Newt off into a happier life. After Gibson departed (almost working with contracted director Renny Harlin, and how wild would THAT have been?) the studio approached a few writers. The next script of note seems to be that of David Twohy, who introduced a lot of ideas that would survive to the all meddling and be released with the final product.
Twohy was asked to create a film that didn’t have anything to do with Ripley and eschewed Cold War/Vietnam references. Instead he worked on a story about a prison planet, one that included barcodes tattooed into the prisoners’ necks in a sadistic form of catalog. Renny Harlin walked after reading the screenplay due to finding similarities to other films (modern audiences would have eaten this up, as evidenced by the huge success of every Marvel film). Twohy struggled to stay involved after that.
See, the guy’s script was weird. After two movies with Ellen Ripley we were instead given a completely new cast of characters. The film would have revolved around prison inmates attempting to escape after discovering that Weyland-Yutani planned on using them for biological experiments in an attempt to create a new weapon to sell. The films had always been anti-capitalist, but now they were drifting into territory that included aggression against privately-owned prisons and inmate experimentation (things I’m also against).
All entries in this franchise have messed with the biology of the xenomorph itself, but this one sounds like the world’s coolest toy commercial. The primary antagonist for most of the film is the Rogue Alien, one that can dislodge its exoskeleton in specific ways to slip through narrow entry points (ex. between the bars of a prison cell). We get an entire scene set in an experimental lab, one that involves the company trying to create new forms of the creature to execute new tasks. There’s the Brute Alien, a large spiked version of the original that is basically a rhinoceros with a second mouth. There’s the Chameleon Alien, which should be self-explanatory. There’s also the Newbreed, an alien that becomes the final boss. After the defeat of the Rogue Alien (which is building a hive beneath the prison), the Newbreed winds up engaging the Brute Alien in a fight. It rips out the creature’s spine, then eventually dies at the hands of the remaining protagonists. Oh, and the Newbreed secretes acid from its skin and uses that to wedge through tight places. How cool is all that shit?
The final screenplay worth touching on is that of Vincent Ward, a completely batshit Kiwi that delved into artistic insanity and was invited by producers. He hated Twohy’s script and basically had to be bullied into working on the film, but once he did the guy went completely wild with his imagination.
See, Ward’s version of the film still involves Ripley crashing onto a planet inhabited by religious zealots. It still involves the deaths of Newt, Hicks, and Bishop. These are things that would survive, but you want to know what didn’t?
A wooden planet.
I’m not kidding. Ellen Ripley crashes into a planet made of wood. It’s inhabited by religious monks that were exiled from Earth for being too extreme. They maintain it by burning pieces of the planet as fuel, literally eating themselves alive as they move toward destruction. In the screenplay Ripley befriends one of the monks, known as Brother John, and their mutual respect leads to her salvation and the destruction of the xenomorph species.
Look, this is wild. Fincher’s film would embrace the concept of the xenomorph taking on traits from whatever it was birthed from. He would use a dog, but the Assembly Cut used a cow. Want to guess what Ward used? A sheep, it was a damned sheep. This screenplay involves Ripley and Brother John executing a baby xenomorph that is slick, black, and yet somehow has white wool all over it. I’m just hopeful that someone attempts to film that someday, seeing that it’s the weirdest thing in the whole franchise.
The most interesting part of the screenplay comes in the form of an exorcism. Brother John views Ripley’s infection as a demonic affliction, one that he can handle. Somehow, in a way that makes little sense to me, John is able to force the creature to emerge from her throat and offer himself as another host. It slides down his throat and he sends Ripley away in a small pod, along with his dog Mattias. He then walks into flames (because of course the planet is on fire at this point), sacrificing himself to end the threat of the xenomorph spread once and for all.
This leads us to Alien3, a film that feels monstrous and hateful in spite of the wonder it inspires. Fincher was brought on late, with an unfinished script, and asked to bring many of these ideas together into something coherent. It’s not on him, I refuse to go that far, and what he offered was a beautiful and vile look at this entire production history realized on-film.
Several elements survived from some of the scripts. The film is set on a prison planet, one that houses several male inmates that all have barcodes on their necks. Each individual is a different kind of crazy, from serial killers to serial rapists, but they all seem to function okay. The cast is wild. Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance (former Tywin Lannister), Paul McGann ( a former Doctor Who), Pete Postlethwaite, and Vincenzo Nicoli as the main prisoners are absolutely incredible in their character-actor work. Elliot Goldenthal returned to compose the score, opting from traditional film music to explore traditional classical elements with adiagos and lentos. The religious element from Ward’s screenplay is maintained, with all of the inmates living as strange zealots that only exist in the context of worship and work. And yet…the film doesn’t work.
The worst offence it commits is that it’s bleak to look at. The first two films chose green and blue for their color schemes, but Fincher had brown forced on him. It’s ugly and feels like gazing at an unkempt swamp for two hours. At points it works, but for the most part everything is depressingly ugly. Plots are all unhappy as well, each one openly doomed and depressing as they blatantly head towards demise. The best we can hope for is death, made clear from the get-go, and that’s the bar we have to reach. We’re stuck on an abandoned prison planet. Oh, did I forget to mention something? The planet is an abandoned prison, one that had many faithful inmates demand to stay and maintain the facility as they quietly waited to die. Each individual is looking to experience death, and once the xenomorph enters they suddenly feel compelled to combat this intrusion. I just don’t buy it.
The prison, barcodes, and religion may be all that remains of the ideas to come before, but somehow I don’t hate watching this film. I did at one point, but that has faded with the years. During that time I read many screenplays that never saw the big screen, heard of actors auditioning and potential composers, and even tried to imagine a Renny Harlin version of this universe. Failure can be the greatest teacher, and there’s no greater failure in the Alien world than this film. Each story, each screenplay, each cut of the film, they’re all fascinating and stunning. I dislike the movie but I can’t pretend that I’m not completely in love with all the hell it took to get it made. Whether prison planets or wild space monks, just remember where your bread is buttered and remember that this franchise revolves around creativity and vision. Alien3 is beyond flawed, but it’s worth your time. The scripts that came early on are as well, and I hope you seek them out.
Oh, and if we break quarantine we could all die. #wearagoddamnmask