An alien (left) and William Gibson.
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
One of the many problems with Alien 3 was its lack of escalation. The first film in the franchise, Ridley Scott’s Alien, was a claustrophobic monster movie about a small group of underqualified people trying to escape a murderous creature. The sequel, James Cameron’s action masterpiece Aliens, opened up the concept by adding a squad of soldiers, a massive space colony, and — as the title suggested — more than one bad beast. Then 1992’s Alien 3, the directorial debut of a young David Fincher, was … a claustrophobic monster movie about a small group of underqualified people trying to escape a murderous creature. One chest burst forward, two chest bursts back.
But there’s an alternate universe where the series’ propulsive momentum only increased — a reality in which the third Alien film featured advanced xenomorphs exploding in batches of half a dozen from people’s legs, stomachs, and mouths; where cold-warring rival space stations of communists and capitalists race to outdo one another with their genetic experiments on the aliens’ tissue; where a flock of the phallic horrors flies through the void of space, only to be beaten back by a gun-toting robot. Oh, and there’s a thing called the New Beast that emerges from and sheds a shrieking human’s body as it “rips her face apart in a single movement, the glistening claws coming away with skin, eyes, muscle, teeth, and splinters of bone.”
This is the alternate universe where legendary science-fiction writer William Gibson’s Alien III (that’s “III,” not “3”) screenplay was realized. It is, perhaps, a better world than ours. There would have been bold, weird, new ideas that pushed the series forward; ones that rethought what the aliens could be metaphors for — nuclear weapons, genetic intellectual property held by shadowy corporations, pandemics. Geeks would have gotten the thrill of seeing one of the all-time-great sci-fi concepts interpreted by one of the genre’s greatest scribes. And yet, not only was the script never produced, it’s largely been forgotten.
You can find the screenplay in an antiquated .txt file online, and there have been occasional discussions of it on message boards and niche blogs, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t been appropriately acknowledged as the remarkable genre-fiction artifact that it is. Indeed, with studio backing and the right production team, one can imagine the finished film being on par with Alien and Aliens, and it certainly would have altered the course of the franchise’s history. With the arrival of Alien Covenant — a movie that, whatever its merits, largely retreads ideas from the series’ previous installments — it’s time to tell the story of how Gibson’s Alien III came to be, why it never crossed the finish line, and what made it special.
The story behind the story begins on July 18, 1986, with the release of Aliens. The sequel was an instant smash, dominating the box office with a $10 million opening weekend and widespread critical praise. Mouths watered at the Century City headquarters of its studio, 20th Century Fox. Roger Birnbaum, the president of worldwide production, took to proudly calling the series “the Franchise,” with a capital F. “Clearly, audiences wanted more,” Sigourney Weaver later told writer Douglas Perry.
One member of that adoring worldwide audience was Gibson. The Vancouver-based author was arguably the brightest rising star in science fiction, having published in 1984 his masterful debut Neuromancer. The novel had put cyberpunk on the map and introduced the term “cyberspace” into the popular lexicon, and although it was set on Earth, it had been significantly influenced by the spacefaring Alien mythos. “I loved the first two,” Gibson tells Vulture, “and the ‘dirty spaceship’ aesthetic of the first had been a conscious inspiration in my fiction.” He published a Neuromancer sequel, Count Zero, in 1986, and was getting attention outside the world of nerdom.
Among those interested in the young author were Alien and Aliens producers David Giler, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll. With the success of Aliens, they got to work on a third installment and looked at a variety of concepts: series lead Ellen Ripley and her young companion Newt looking for an alien in a Blade Runner–ish megalopolis, a bunch of aliens congealing into a giant kaiju that destroys New York, and so on. They were dissatisfied with them all. Then Giler had an idea. He’d read Neuromancer and thought that its vision of Earth synced well with the films’ gist (not knowing Alien’s influence on the book), so he proposed that they reach out to the 30-something writer.
In the latter half of 1987, Gibson got a call from the producers and he was flown to L.A. to talk it all out over dinner. Giler and Hill had been contemplating the notion of a communist faction in space as a possible aspect of a third Alien, and they presumably brought that up, though Gibson says he doesn’t “remember anything about it other than being told that Ripley wasn’t to be a character.” Weaver has said she didn’t want to participate in any significant way because she “felt Ripley was going to become a burden to the story” and that “there are only so many aspects to that character,” but Gibson suspects contract negotiations played a part, too.
He was disappointed by that handicap, but was still full of ideas. “I probably told them of my curiosity about what you’d get if the xenomorph gestated in a kitten, say, or an elephant,” he recalls. The producers wanted to move forward with him. One problem, according to Gibson: “I had never thought of writing a screenplay before. I had literally never read one.” Nevertheless, he wanted to move forward — for reasons both creative and pecuniary. “They were offering quite a lot of money, there was never any sense that I was auditioning for the job, and it seemed like an interesting thing to attempt,” Gibson says. He got copies of the scripts for Alien and Aliens and perused them: “I decided to read the two existing scripts very closely, then try to triangulate them, creating a third that would feel like part of the one thing, but be its own critter at the same time.”
Speaking of critters, there was one big metaphor that the franchise’s titular monsters represented for Gibson, a metaphor that felt very relevant in the late Cold War. “I had long had, since first viewing Alien, in fact, this sense that the xenomorph was a bio-weapon,” Gibson says. He also had a discovery while perusing the old scripts: “Having been deprived of Ripley, I became aware of how much I’d liked Bishop” — the benevolent android played by Lance Henriksen. But he couldn’t just have Bishop in the spotlight, so he reconciled with the fact that Michael Biehn’s gentle Space Marine Hicks would have to take a more prominent role. All the elements were in place. Gibson sat at his Apple IIc, fired up Microsoft Word (he didn’t have any script-writing software; the biggest challenge of the script was “doing all the tabulation by hand,” hitting keys a million times to center things), and got to work.
“FADE IN: DEEP SPACE — THE FUTURE” reads the script’s opening. “The silent field of stars — eclipsed by the dark bulk of an approaching ship.” This is the Sulaco, the military transport ship from Aliens, now bearing the cryogenically frozen skeleton crew of that film’s survivors: Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and Bishop. We travel aboard and hear an alarm blare. Our heroes are no longer alone.
A group of spacefarers arrives on the Sulaco and start poking around. These are folks from an interstellar government known as the Union of Progressive Peoples — in short, space commies. As we later learn, they live their lives in opposition to the rapaciously hypercapitalist ideology of corporations like Weyland-Yutani, the company pulling the strings in the first two films. The Sulaco has accidentally flown into its space and has to be checked out.
Things don’t go smoothly for the multi-ethnic UPP crew — the most notable of them in the script is a female Vietnamese commando — who are soon attacked by an impregnation-minded Facehugger that had been hiding in the entrails of Bishop (he’d been ripped in half by an alien queen in Aliens’ climax). The group kills it and bring it and Bishop off-ship with them, their plans as yet unknown. They leave the Sulaco to continue its drift, and with good reason — there’s an uneasy peace between the UPP and its capitalist rivals, and they’re not interested in upsetting the balance of power. Yet.
We drift along with the Sulaco, all the way to the place where most of the film’s action takes place: a capitalist, shopping-mall-heavy society on a space station called Anchorpoint. There, the ship gets picked up and boarded again, and in the ensuing pages, we meet an array of characters who are drawn into the consequences of its arrival: lab techs Tully and Spence, Anchorpoint Marine colonel Rosetti, and a pair of mysterious Weyland-Yutani operatives named Welles and Fox. (This being the Alien franchise, everyone just goes by their last name.) Ripley’s cryo-pod gets damaged and she goes into a coma, and little Newt is wisely sent back to Earth to stay with family (there’s a sweet scene where she draws a map of where she’ll be and pins it next to the comatose Ripley), but Hicks sticks around on Anchorpoint.
Oh, Hicks, if you only knew what you were getting yourself into. Over the course of the ensuing pages, everything goes all Murphy’s Law, as things are wont to do in an Alien flick. The UPP delivers Bishop to Anchorpoint but surreptitiously do experiments on the Facehugger’s genetic material; Welles and Fox oversee similar covert tinkering on Anchorpoint with tissue samples recovered from two aliens that stowed away on the Sulaco. The UPP clones a bunch of the suckers on a space station called the Rodina (“homeland” in Russian) and their homegrown aliens run amok.
The capitalists’ problems are more gruesome. In the lab, Tully and Welles get infected by an airborne, quasi-viral version of the xenomorph DNA that incubates inside their bodies. (A similar idea was introduced in 2012’s prequel Prometheus, though a source from inside that film tells me the screenwriters had never heard of Gibson’s draft.) They, in turn, inadvertently spread the infection across Anchorpoint. The result is the creation of the aforementioned New Beasts — Cronenberg-esque human-xenomorph hybrids that emerge from human carapaces and cause, as one scene’s stage direction puts it, “blind screaming chaos.” Despite the efforts of Hicks and a group of inexperienced Marines to destroy the growing hive and their mutated queen (“Its abdomen is arched like an inverted scorpion-tail, tipped with a swollen, semi-translucent sac that ripples and pulses in the glare of Hicks’ lamp,” the script says), things continue to go to hell in a space-handbasket.
The climax finds Hicks, Bishop, and a handful of survivors attempting to flee Anchorpoint by scurrying in zero gravity across the hull to get to some escape vehicles. A pack of aliens comes after them, soaring through the void — it turns out they don’t need air — and although the normally placid Bishop goes after them with a pulse rifle, it doesn’t look good for our heroes. Just then, a UPP ship piloted by the Vietnamese commando arrives and rescues the capitalist pigs. Soon after, a massive detonation programmed by Bishop destroys Anchorpoint — an echo of the endings of both of the previous films.
The protagonists await the arrival of a ship called the USS Kansas City and Bishop points out that this unity against a common enemy may be what finally brings an end to the intergalactic Cold War — “You’re a species again,” the android says. But he notes that the only way for them to stop this sort of thing from happening again is to find the aliens’ home world, thus putting the dominoes in place for a sequel. “These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter,” Bishop muses, more or less summarizing all of the mythos up to that point. At its close, the script returns to the simplicity of its opening. “EXT. SPACE,” it reads. “Kansas City. Receding. Gone. The stars. FADE OUT. THE END.”
Gibson sent his saga to the producers in early 1988. He says their response was “‘Hollywood positive’ — ‘This is great, thanks,’ which can mean they find it passable or that you’re fired.” It wasn’t exactly the latter, but it also wasn’t quite the former. “We got the opposite of what we expected,” Giler later said. “We figured we’d get a script that was all over the place, but which would have many good ideas we could use. It turned out to be a competently written screenplay but not as inventive as we wanted it to be.” Gibson suspects they never even intended to film anything he might have written: “In retrospect, I assume they weren’t expecting to get a real script from me, but something studded with newfangled cyberpunk ideas they could then pass on to a pro screenwriter,” he muses.
Nonetheless, Gibson was asked to do a second draft. He doesn’t recall what he was told to do differently, but “whatever it was hasn’t left any memory of a great revelation, or of onerous labor, so I doubt it was very demanding.” He turned it in, got paid his second tranche, and wasn’t called back. As the years wore on, the producers went in a completely different direction and the threequel was lodged in development hell. When it finally emerged in 1992, Alien 3 inverted the basic casting premise: Ripley was the only survivor from Aliens; Newt and Hicks died in the first few minutes. Her adventures on a prison colony, running from an alien that mimicked a dog, bore absolutely no resemblance to those of Alien III.
Hollywood protocol held that Gibson would be sent all subsequent drafts from other writers, just so he could track whether or not his ideas were being reused, and he says he read “something like 30 different drafts in all. But by the end, “It seemed to me that all that had survived of mine was a bar-code tattooed on the back of someone’s neck” — a throwaway element in his screenplay — “so I told them I was okay with no credit. But that was maybe a little too much time spent watching those particular sausages being made.”
That said, geeks and cinephiles should be glad that he did spend time in the sausage factory, because what he crafted holds up. The producers may have been disappointed that Gibson’s script lacked any cyberpunk insanity, but that doesn’t mean it lacks interesting ideas. He was able to take the franchise’s existing elements of body horror and blow them out to unspeakably terrifying degrees. He put the aliens in new environments and warped forms. He built out the world of the series without overexplaining or hitting the Cold War metaphors too hard.
Most of all, it’s just a crackerjack action story — a fact that’s especially remarkable because Gibson had never penned a screenplay and only read two. Sure, it would’ve needed work, but it was a firm and solid foundation. Though Alien III may not have been what the producers were looking for, it may have been what they needed. Perhaps a comic-book adaptation could be in order? A novel? A fan film? Like a facehugger lying dormant in a cryochamber, it’s still out there, lingering in the backwaters of the internet, just waiting for a host to give it life.