Xenomorph Lost: The Curious Case of William Gibson’s ‘Alien 3’
Ever since James Cameron’s 1986 classic Aliens, Hollywood has attempted with varying degrees of success to reclaim the magic of the Alien franchise. Some attempts have been solid (Prometheus) others flaming piles of canine excrement (AvP: Requiem). While David Fincher’s 1992 film Alien 3 certainly has its detractors, I personally am not in that camp. Honestly, I think it’s excellent. I loved the gritty realism and setting the film on a prison planet populated solely with men was inspired. The only thing I didn’t like was what most people were upset about, namely killing Hicks and Newt right off the bat. Moreover, the production was a well documented nightmare chock-full of studio interference and damn near caused Fincher to stop making films altogether. (Can you IMAGINE the ramifications if that would have happened? No Se7en? No Fight Club? No The Social Network?)
While I don’t claim to be an Alien franchise sweaty, I thought I knew a decent amount about the IP Ridley Scott kicked off in 1979.
At least I thought I did.
For my 10th anniversary my wife Megan got me an incredible gift, a monthly subscription to Audible, the on-line audio-book site. One of the perks of the subscription is the ability to select two free Audible exclusive books per month. Imagine my shock (and delight!) when one of those books was an audio dramatization of William Gibson’s unused Alien 3 script replete with the voices of Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen. I was shocked. How in name of LV-426 had I never heard of this before? The recording was phenomenal, a pulse pounding story with requisite sound effects and a voice cast that delivered.
Now on the whole I’ve never been a fan of William Gibson as an author. His classic work Neuromancer I found dull and unengaging. Having said that, I respect the fact that the novel helped usher in cyberpunk and if not for that novel, we may have never gotten The Matrix.
Despite my feelings regarding Neuromancer, I can’t praise Gibson’s Alien 3 script enough. Essentially the Sulaco drifts into an area of space controlled by the Union of Progressive Peoples or the UPP. It’s analogous to the Soviet Union as the script was originally written in 1987. UPP members board the ship and end up taking Bishop’s top half eventually learning all about the alien race through his memories and cloning the alien material. The Sulaco moves on and eventually ends up at Anchorpoint station which is a biological research facility. Both Hicks and Newt are freed. Not surprisingly alien genetic material is recovered by the workers at Anchorpoint who begin to experiment on orders from Weyland-Yutani. Hi-jinks ensue.
What makes it so great is Gibson’s inclusion of two characters from Aliens that were either killed off or limited to one scene in the third film, namely Hicks and Bishop. Two parallel stories mark the plot of Gibson’s script from the perspective of both Bishop and Hicks with both storylines eventually connecting in the third act. What I found to be particularly fascinating is that we learn more about the adaptability of the alien race. Rather than have facehuggers and warriors (although they do show up) the aliens are able to transfer their genetic material directly into humans who eventually turn into aliens in what can only be described as a violent xenomorph explosion that makes what happened to Kane look like a tickling competition.
There is so much to love about this screenplay that one weeps it was never made into an actual movie.
So why was it never made into a film? What was the holdup? As much as I loved the Alien 3 movie we got, Gibson’s script is exponentially better. Well the reason can be boiled down to two words:
Or should I say the lack of Ellen Ripley, because here’s the thing about Gibson’s story–Ellen Ripley is for all intents and purposes non-existent. When the Sulaco docks at Anchorpoint, Ripley’s cryosleep tube is damaged and she spends the majority of the story in a coma. Newt is also sent back to Earth to live with her grandparents and never interacts with Ripley again on any meaningful level.
At this point you probably see the inherent problem. Gibson’s screenplay while excellent, essentially regulates the main character of the first two films to a background role. Hicks and Bishop become the new protagonists of the story. Castrating the hero of your saga thus far was an incredibly bold but ultimately flawed choice. It’s almost dismissive of what’s come before. Furthermore, Gibson takes one of the strongest parts of Aliens (the relationship between Newt and Ripley) and cuts it off at the knees.
It’s not hard to see why the studio balked at this script. Forget for a moment about the fact that Gibson went a different direction in terms of the protagonists, the chances of getting Sigourney Weaver back to perform what was tantamount to a cameo were slim to none. No amount of dynamic plot and pulse pounding action was ever going to make up for that fact.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Gibson movie never came to fruition, Fincher’s film was produced, and eventually we got the dumpster fire that was Alien: Resurrection.
If you’re not interested in listening to an audio recording I do have some good news. Recently, Dark Horse Comics made the best decision possible. They decided to turn Gibson’s story into a graphic novel. So if you’re interested in a more visual representation of what might have been you can peruse at your leisure here.
Regardless, fans of the Alien franchise and Gibson’s screenplay will forever wonder what might have been. To misuse an old adage about love, this is truly the xenomorph that got away.