More so than Jodorowsky’s Dune, more so than The Death of Superman Lives, more so than Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the documentary Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien 3 perhaps best describes a film production in development hell. Crafting a followup to James Cameron’s Aliens, one of the most successful cinematic sequels of all time, was no easy feat. Before David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl) took up Alien 3 as his directorial debut, the film went through several iterations, bouncing between the likes of action filmmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea) to the more somber sensibilities of Vincent Ward (What Dreams May Come).
Amongst the earliest scribes to take a stab at Alien 3’s screenplay was renowned sci-fi author William Gibson. Gibson (Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive) helped pioneer the cyberpunk subgenre on the written page and producers Walter Hill and David Giler thought he could bring a fresh take to the franchise. Ultimately, however, Hill and Giler would pass on Gibson’s script and the film that ended up in theaters received largely negative reviews. This has led many to speculate: did Hill and Giler make the right call?
Enter Titan Books’ latest entry into the Alien EU, Alien 3: The Unproduced First-Draft Screenplay. Based on Gibson’s script, Titan delivers a new literary dive into Alien lore. With prose written by Hugo-award winning author Pat Cadigan (Synners, Mindplayers), Gibson’s take on Alien 3 now lives on as a novelization.
The Sulaco, the Colonial Marines transport vessel carrying the cryosleep survivors of LV-426, Ripley, Newt and Hicks, docks with the weapons research space station Anchorpoint — but not before the Sulaco inadvertently drifts into the restricted airspace of a rival socialist government, the Union of Progressive Peoples. While behind enemy lines, the Sulaco is intercepted by a UPP salvage ship, the crew of which, Luc Hai and Ashok, snatch the torso of Bishop, the android fourth survivor from Aliens, in the hopes of obtaining vital intel from the synthetic’s neural processor. Before the UPP can smuggle the aforementioned android back to their own base at Rodina Station, however, their commanding officer Boris fall’s victim to a dreaded facehugger (the spider-like parasites that implant human hosts with xenomorph embryos). This particular facehugger hatched from an egg mysteriously found within Bishop’s bowels.
As Hicks awakes from cryosleep aboard Anchorpoint, he’s in for a rude awakening as he quickly discovers that both Anchorpoint and the Rodina are conducting their own rival experiments on alien genetic materials, setting in motion the beginnings of a potential xenomorph arms race that could destabilize the universe. Can Hicks and Bishop alongside newcomers Spence, Tully, Jackson and co. stop the nefarious Weyland-Yutani as well as the UPP (“yeah, you know me!”) before it’s too late?
The “xenomorph as lab experiment gone awry” plot has been done well (the Dark Horse comic Aliens: Labyrinth), and it has been done poorly (Alien: Resurrection). Gibson’s tale wallows somewhere in the middle. Cadigan’s tongue-in-cheek prose (referring to Ripley as that “crazy cat-lady” in her recap of the first two films) adds much-needed levity to an otherwise rote narrative. Still, it’s easy to see why this story wasn’t greenlit as a major motion picture. It attempts to repackage the action suspense of Cameron’s Aliens, only less so; Less marines, less suspense and less actual aliens. While Fincher’s Alien 3 also lacked guns and hordes of alien action, Fincher’s film manages to sidestep comparisons by going for something different. Fincher’s Alien 3 sets aside aspirations of being mere action fodder in favor of the more restrained, single xenomorph horror of the first film. Gibson’s Alien 3, by contrast, comes off as Aliens Lite; Diet Aliens if you will.
Hicks is alive, Newt’s alive, but is my interest alive? Offering none of the cyberpunk insight found in Neuromancer, Gibson neither seems intent on a minimal horror approach nor is he eager to ramp up the action thrills of Aliens. Surprisingly, his story fails to fix many of the issues people had with the theatrical Alien 3. The mysterious (if not poorly explained) appearance of an egg on the Sulaco for one. Furthermore, as Gibson first penned this story way back in 1987, the narrative remains fixated on a number of antiquated concepts; not least of which being a cold war with the UPP (Gibson’s intergalactic stand-in for the now defunct Soviet Union).
The xenomorph threat undergoes some interesting body horror alterations in Gibson’s take on the terrifying creature (body horror lovingly reminiscent of Cronenberg’s The Fly, Carpenter’s The Thing or even some of the more recent Resident Evil video games), however he does so at the expense of an already established alien lifecycle. While many have argued that Cameron made the xenos more insect-like in Aliens, they at least had a hierarchy and breeding structure that was clean and readily understandable. Gibson’s take is a tad all over the place, with faint hints of the randomness found in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels. One’s readiness to go with what Gibson presents herein remains largely dependent on one’s readiness to go with the Prometheus black goo, or the Covenant spores, or the Alien Director’s Cut representation of eggmorphing.
While it’s great to have an accomplished female author at the helm of this book, it stands in stark contrast to the notion that Ripley, our female protagonist from the first four films, is almost entirely sidelined in favor of military grunt Hicks (a carryover from Gibson’s script that Cadigan was regrettably tethered to). I personally would sooner seek out the original Alan Dean Foster novelization of the Fincher film. While Fincher’s Alien 3 was largely panned back in the spring of ’92, the film has grown a steady and devoted following over the years since (myself included). Though there are those within the fanbase that’ll always look to seek out one of the half dozen alt-Alien 3 stories floating about in cyberspace, Fincher’s theatrical third installment (warts and all) remains undoubtedly more unique and innovative than anything offered herein.
While William Gibson’s Alien 3 is by no means bad, perhaps its greatest sin is that it’s just kind of…meh. Say what you will about Fincher’s Alien 3, the last thing it was was bland. There’s a woefully wondrous edge to that film. Gibson’s story, by comparison, dulls any potential edge. The story is, as the insufferable Lt. Gorman might say, “smooth and by the numbers.”
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