How William Gibson’s long-lost Alien 3 script became 2019’s most intriguing audio drama
The director and stars discuss bringing the Aliens world back to life
Search for Alien 3 on your favorite video-on-demand service, and you’ll inevitably land on a specific movie: David Fincher’s 1992 sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien and James Cameron’s blockbuster 1986 follow-up Aliens. There are different versions out there — the theatrical version and the longer “assembly cut,” a recreation of an earlier version of the film. But they’re variations on the same work, a moody, visually striking, but not entirely successful film that drops protagonist Ellen Ripley on a lice-ridden prison planet that isn’t prepared to fend off an infestation of the xenomorphs she fought in the first two films.
Moving outside the realm of film, though, there are multiple Alien 3s, and there have been for years: Alien 3s that never shot a frame of footage, that exist only as discarded screenplay drafts. Ordinarily, that kind of draft would be read by a select few people, then forgotten. But with Alien 3, some of the earlier versions ended up online in the early days of the internet. Fans who were disappointed with the tepidly received film suddenly had a chance to fill their heads with alternate versions of the story.
Audible Studios’ new audio drama Alien III by William Gibson offers one of those alternate paths for the Alien series. Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, has his own vision of what happened after Ripley, Hicks, Bishop, and Newt nuked LV-426 from orbit in Aliens. What was once a discarded draft has, in the hands of writer and director Dirk Maggs, become a fleshed-out audio production featuring Aliens stars Michael Biehn (as Hicks, the Marine who showed Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley how to fire a high-powered gun in Aliens) and Lance Henriksen (as Bishop, the “artificial person” who changes Ripley’s mind about working with synthetic life forms). Close your eyes, and it’s like slipping into an alternate universe in which this is the third Alien film, rather than the one we know.
It’s a strikingly different experience. As a movie, this version of the story wouldn’t have radically reinvented the Alien franchise. But it’s easy to picture it being an effective thriller. Gibson’s script combines elements from the first two films with unexpected twists. And as much as the Alien films depend on their striking imagery, Maggs’ audio drama works effectively on its own terms.
The audio drama spins a gripping story that focuses on Hicks and Bishop’s adventures after the Sulaco drifts first into territory controlled by the Union of Progressive Peoples, then to Anchorpoint, a space station staffed with idealistic scientists. (Though it’s ultimately under the influence of the powerful Weyland-Yutani Corporation.) What follows echoes the Cold War: the communist-esque UPP and the Anchorpoint scientists both begin experimenting on the alien genetic material left on Bishop’s body, eventually forcing Hicks, Bishop, and some new acquaintances to confront an old threat that takes on new forms.
Maggs set out to make his Alien III as immersive as possible. Based in Britain, where audio dramas remained a popular medium even after the introduction of television, the prolific, innovative producer has worked on a well-received adaptation of the later entries of Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, X-Files stories featuring the original stars, and several previous ventures into the Alien universe. But he doesn’t see the form as a purely sonic experience.
“All of my work, I have a visual image in my mind,” he tells The Verge via phone from London. “I’ll have a sort of movie screen in front of me, and if you listen on earbuds or whatever, you hear the characters move around within a sort of cinema frame. In fact, when I was talking with Gary [Hayton], who did the sound design with me, I storyboarded scenes to show him where I felt the characters would be, and where the exits and entrances were in the room.”
Maggs was largely on his own in fleshing out the Aliens III world. Gibson’s input didn’t extend much beyond a friendly “good luck,” after Maggs reached out via their mutual friend Neil Gaiman. “It’s pretty much ancient history to him,” Maggs says, “although he did say the other day on Twitter that it’s the screenplay he’s proudest of, which is really nice to know.”
Even if its origins can’t objectively be called ancient, Alien III has had a long journey from page to speakers. Series producers Walter Hill and David Giler commissioned Gibson’s script when they decided to push ahead with a sequel to Cameron’s Aliens — and to design the third film to set up a fourth — in spite of the huge question mark around whether series star Sigourney Weaver would participate in future entries.
Searching for new ideas, they turned to Gibson, whose early short stories and 1984 novel Neuromancer had become defining texts for the movement known as cyberpunk. Gibson was a fan of both Alien films, and the acknowledged influence of Blade Runner on his writing made him feel indebted to Alien director Ridley Scott for inspiration. Gibson took on the challenge.
Working from Hill and Giler’s ideas, Gibson took two passes at the screenplay, then declined to do a third for director Renny Harlin, who had signed on to helm the film. Harlin ultimately left the project, which became the feature debut of David Fincher, then a highly in-demand commercial and music video director. Along the way, it went through wildly different drafts written by Eric Red, David Twohy, and Vincent Ward and John Fasano.
Ward and Fasano’s version, set on an artificial planet made of wood, and populated by a religious order, also went on to enjoy a second life via the internet. And the final film, which combines elements from the Twohy and Ward / Fasano scripts, gave Ward story credit, while crediting the screenplay to Hill, Giler, and Larry Ferguson.
In the end, a lot of creative people spent many hours hammering out ideas for Alien 3. No movie satisfies everyone, especially an entry in a much-loved franchise that tries to push that franchise’s boundaries. But Alien 3 created more dissatisfaction than usual. It provides an early showcase for Fincher’s visual gifts, and it has some unforgettable moments. But the story never coheres, and the climactic showdown with the xenomorph is impossible to follow.
Would Gibson’s original ideas have improved the film? That question has long shadowed Alien 3, and Alien III by William Gibson doesn’t really answer it. Gibson’s script (which also served as fodder for a recently concluded Dark Horse comic book adaptation), isn’t the treasure trove of cyberpunk-y concepts fans of the author might expect. “I think [it’s] definitely him very consciously aiming to write a tentpole summer movie,” Maggs says. “I think he’s reining in some of his more out-there instincts.”
But the film isn’t devoid of out-there instincts, either. Its boldest contribution comes in the form of a hybrid xenomorph created by the aliens’ previously unknown ability to merge with other life forms via infection. “There’s a lot of pure Gibson in that,” Maggs says. “And maybe that’s why — and I’m only supposing here — that’s why it wasn’t pursued in the end, the idea of the contagion. It’s curious that it only came into being much later on, with Ridley Scott’s prequels.”
Like the Dark Horse comic, Maggs’ version adapts Gibson’s second, more scaled-down draft, which trimmed some of the extensive (and potentially expensive) fight scenes. What the audio drama loses in visual impact, it makes up for in momentum, atmosphere, and strong performances. Maggs moves the story along at an increasingly brisk pace, and the cast captures both their characters’ mounting panic and an almost Lovecraftian bafflement when confronted with monsters beyond their imagination.
Biehn and Henriksen, both slipping effortlessly back into their famous roles, help as well. Henriksen’s voice occasionally betrays the passage of time since Aliens, but he’s still adept at conveying Bishop’s wry sense of humor in the face of death. To hear Henriksen tell it, bringing Bishop back was easy. “It’s never left me,” he tells The Verge by phone from Los Angeles. To recreate Bishop for the audio drama, he drew on the past and his experience making Aliens. “Your memories come back. I remember the sets, I remember everybody that was in the movie. And it was a high point in my life, so why would I forget that state of being? I wouldn’t.”
Maggs’ working method helped as well. “Dirk set up a climate where the material was very clear, [as were] the demands that were going to be made on us,” Henriksen says. “I found myself snapping right back into a kind of innocence about the story, and the needs, and all of those things. And it was really, really a lot of fun.”
Even serving the needs of a preexisting universe, Gibson’s sensibility similarly feels at home here. The Alien franchise has always distrusted a corporate-dominated world. It envisioned a future where technology has made human existence more complicated, and not necessarily any better. That philosophy squares with Gibson’s work, and so does the depiction of the way a foreign element can bring down even seemingly monolithic systems.
Still, Alien III is ultimately more beholden to its title than its author. Gibson seems to have regarded it as a work-for-hire situation even back then. Speaking to Starlog between drafts, he observed, “Writing a screenplay is not as demanding as writing a novel. They’ve got an unusually well-established universe.” He admitted, “It’s difficult to surprise without violating the story premise.”
Yet, all these years later, Alien III does manage to surprise audiences simply by presenting a new version of what might have been, and providing an intriguing new model for similar projects. Could we someday be able to listen to Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, or some other sequel that was scripted but never filmed? Could the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League take the form of an audio drama? Will fans someday get the Game of Thrones ending they actually want, but in a different form? For fans of some popular franchises, a multitude of alternate possibilities could be as close as the nearest pair of earbuds.
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June 25, 2019 at 02:38AM