The sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 horror/science fiction movie Alien was directed by James Cameron, who at that point only had two films under his belt. The resulting film, Aliens, was a critical and commercial smash hit, taking $81 million at the US box office, and it remains to this day arguably the best entry in the franchise. Surprisingly Cameron was pretty much left to do what he wanted on this movie and he made his $18 million budget stretch a heck of a long way. Considering that the film still holds up now, in the time of the bloated $250 million blockbuster, this is no mean feat.
Given Aliens' success, it is no surprise that 20th Century Fox demanded a third entry in their adult oriented cash cow franchise. What followed is a cautionary tale for the ages and an example of what Douglas Adams meant when he described the Hollywood development process as being like “trying to cook a steak by a series of people going into a room and breathing on it”. Careers were made, careers ruined and the films we nearly got remain infinitely more fascinating than the final product.
After the release of Aliens, producer David Giler read William Gibson's seminal 1984 cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. What he found in Gibson was a writer who somehow melded the new technology of the home computer experience with the sort of streetwise noir lingo that inspired hackers the world over. Gibson’s worlds had a lot in common with that which was presented in Alien. Gone were the pristine white surfaces of your dad's science fiction, replaced by a dirtier, grungier aesthetic. Giler convinced his fellow producers that Gibson was the man for the job and the Canadian writer was commissioned to produce a draft of Alien 3. A twelve page outline of the story concept was given to Gibson by producers Giler and Walter Hill. Their vision concerned a Cold War style conflict between the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and a rival organisation. However, the budget limitations imposed on Gibson prevented him from writing a sequel which inhabited the rich cyberpunk worlds that would have been his natural impulse. Instead he wrote something that was set in a shopping mall space station run by one of the rival corporations from the producer’s concept.
Gibson’s script picks up where Aliens left off and finds the ship from that film drifting through space carrying Ripley, Hicks, Newt and the ruined Bishop. The ship is intercepted by the rival to Weyland-Yutani, the ‘Union of Progressive Peoples’. Its personnel are attacked by a face hugger that is hiding in Bishop's synthetic guts. The UPP blast the creature into space and set the ship back on its original course for the space shopping mall. In this version of the sequel Hicks becomes the main character, uncovering rival plots by Weyland-Yutani and the UPP to breed an army of aliens, while Ripley remains in a coma for most of the film.
Another interesting aspect to the script, considering what is about to hit cinemas in Prometheus, is its conclusion. The films ends with Weyland-Yutani and UPP teaming up to track the alien menace to its homeworld and wipe it out once and for all. Gibson’s screenplay has been available to read online for quite some time and is fascinating, if a bit flat. Gibson seems to have something of a tin ear for dialogue, as evidenced by his screenplay for his own short story, Johnny Mnemonic. Hill and Giler were less than impressed with the finished results and let Gibson move on.
Around this time Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) was hired as the director of the third movie and he suggested that Eric Red (Near Dark) should be taken on to write another draft. Hill and Giler agreed, but around the same time Sigourney Weaver started to get cold feet about returning to the franchise. She had concerns about both her fee and her involvement in a film series which fetishized guns and weaponry. As a result Red was told to draft a version without Ripley in it. Red replaced Ripley with an atypical '80s gruff commando who had a grudge against the creatures due to them wiping out his entire platoon. This version still involves a space station, but it is populated by farmers who unwittingly bring on board the creature as it gestates inside a cow. A new type of alien is spawned and runs amok on the station. Giler and Hill thought that Red’s screenplay was awful, as did Renny Harlin who subsequently left the project.
A third screenwriter was hired. This time it was David Twohy (Pitch Black, Critters 2). Twohy’s version of the film went back to the political landscape of Gibson’s earlier draft, but moved the action to a Russian space station and then a prison planet. Ripley also did not appear in this draft, but ironically it was this version of the tale that piqued Sigourney Weaver’s interest. The then chairman at Fox, Joe Roth, subsequently decided that they couldn’t do an Alien film without Ripley and instructed the producers to work her into Twohy’s story. A new director was brought on board. This time it was the stylish New Zealander Vincent Ward (The Navigator).
Ward was not interested in any of the previous scripts and asked to draft a new one from his own ideas. This was the first version of the film to introduce the idea of religion into the Alien universe. It had Ripley landing on a planet filled with monks and not being accepted amongst them. Weaver had just signed on again for a $5.5 million salary and she loved the ideas that Ward was putting forward. Ward was paired with screenwriter John Fasano to bash out the screenplay even though Twohy was still working on redrafting his version. Fasano and Ward were under the impression that their script would become Alien 4 if Twohy managed to get his Alien 3 screenplay together, but Twohy was none too happy about additional writers being hired and left the project altogether.
This is where things take a turn for the surreal. Ward and Fasano’s screenplay for Alien 3 takes place on board a five mile wide, wooden planet. On the planet are several political prisoners whose technological advancement is on a par with medieval times. Ripley’s arrival brings an escaped alien into their midst and she is treated as some kind of devil woman by the head bishop. This time the alien gestates inside a sheep which gives birth to a creature that runs on four legs. The script was heavy with religious subtext and imagery.
Around this time Ward was in the UK overseeing the construction of sets. That’s how close we got to a film involving a wooden planet! Ward had even talked to HR Giger about contributing to aspects of the film beyond the creature design. Soon enough the producers cottoned on to the fact that a wooden planet was bizarre and asked Ward and Fasano to craft a more sensible version. Ward and Fasano had a spat over this and a writer named Greg Press was brought on board for yet another draft. Press’ version was the first to kill off Ripley, an idea which appealed to Weaver but not to the studio. The producers then went back to Fasano to re-write the film and bring the escalating budget down.
Ward left the project feeling disappointed with the erosion of the producer’s initial enthusiasm for his vision. As sets were already under construction at Pinewood Studios, the producers had to get a new director fast. This is where David Fincher came in. Fincher was a twenty-eight year old acclaimed director of music videos who had received recognition as a result of the success of MTV and the new style of visual artistry that was going on over there. He met with Weaver and suggested the radical hair cut that she sports in the film, which appealed to her immensely. Fincher brought HR Giger back into the fold to produce new designs for an alien, an aquatic face hugger and the infant four legged alien. Fincher was also teamed with Larry Ferguson (Highlander) to modify Fasano’s script into something all parties could work with. Weaver, however, was not happy with Ferguson’s depiction of the Ripley character. Eventually, and without a hint of irony, Walter Hill and David Giler took the screenplay back into their own hands and produced a draft close to the finished film. By this point it was December 1990.
Things didn’t end there, however, as Fox secretly brought writer Rex Pickett in to re-draft the final act. Giler quit, but was then brought back due to a contract clause in Sigourney Weaver’s paperwork. Giler worked on another draft of the film and produced a further nine revisions between January and April 1991. The film had now already missed its production date, but a teaser trailer was put into cinemas suggesting the film would be released Christmas 1991 and would take place on Earth!
Eventually the film was completed, but at about the point when it was supposed to be released, the studio saw a rough cut and were so disappointed that they demanded re-shoots and additional scenes. The crew was called back and further sequences were added. There was an extensive post-production period, but even then the ending was felt to be too similar to that of Terminator 2, which had just been a huge hit over the summer.
Alien 3 was finally released in May 1992 to almost universal critical indifference and struggled to bring in just $50 million at the US box office. Fincher later complained that it was the worst experience of his life thanks to Fox’s endless micro-managing of all aspects of the production. The cut which was released in cinemas certainly feels compromised. It is a mish-mash of elements from the twenty or so previous scripts. Fincher’s preferred cut, released on DVD in 2003, is superior but still has major problems.
David Fincher went on to have a celebrated career with the likes of Seven, Fight Club and the recent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s arguable though that the Alien franchise never recovered. Five years later we got Alien: Resurrection, directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet. This film didn’t have anywhere near the level of behind the scenes drama of the third movie, though Joss Whedon claims his screenplay was butchered. The xenomorphs would become a kind of joke in the Alien vs. Predator movies and now finally Ridley Scott has returned to the franchise that made him. Prometheus is out in June and looks to be the singular vision of one very talented man. Clearly lessons have been learnt.