The first two films in the Alien franchise are widely considered to be the best in the series, and for many, the perfect blending of science fiction and horror. A large reason for their success was due to the time, care, and passion that was put into making them. The first film was developed over years, had a director who cared about the project, and sourced some of the best designers and craftspeople around. The second movie, which wasn’t rushed into productions, was much the same, as the studio waited until the right director with the right kind of vision came along. But after these two films the series took a bit of a dive in quality, and I believe this is in large part due to the troubled production of Alien 3, which has now turned thirty years old.
Following the success of James Cameron’s Aliens, 20th Century Fox wanted another Alien film to come out as soon as possible. The studio were so desperate to not only make the film, but to promote it as being bigger than the first two, that it released teaser trailers announcing the film’s release before a script had even been settled on. These trailers hinted that the xenomorph would be coming to Earth, something that doesn’t actually happen in any of the films in the series.
Having now announced the film, the studio quickly set to work finalising a story; something that fans of the series will know did not go well. Compared to the first two films, which went through relatively few treatments, Alien 3 went through development hell. A script by William Gibson proposed a story that took inspiration from the Cold War, and would see Michael Biehn’s Hicks stepping into the lead whist Sigourney Weaver would only feature in a cameo role. This version would later be adapted into a novel, a comic series, and an audio drama. Another treatment by Eric Red had everyone from the second film dying, and the alien creatures attacking a small town under a bio dome on an alien planet. And another, by David Twohy would see the duplicitous Wayland Yutani corporation performing illegal experiments on a prison planet.
The treatment that came closest to being created was by Vincent Ward, and saw Ripley’s escape pod crashing onto an artificial, wooden planet populated by monks. This floating world, clad in wood and made to look practically medieval, would come under siege from the xenomorph, who would be seen as the devil by those living there. This treatment also had Ripley being infected by the alien, and giving her life by the end to kill it and save the last few monks from certain death. There are a large number of storyboards and some amazing painted art pieces and xenomorph designs for this version of the film that are well worth searching out, and there are extensive behind the scenes features that cover this version of the film in the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set.
Elements from both the David Twohy and Vincent Ward scripts were taken by series producers Walter Hill and David Giler, who crafted the basic story that was eventually put onto film. With so much of the pre-production time, and millions of dollars, having been spent just on the scripting stage, the film was rushed into production to meet its release deadline. Music video director David Fincher, who’d never directed a feature film, was brought on board to helm the project as production began at Pinewood Studios.
The now decided on story saw the survivors of the second film fall victim to a facehugger, loose on board the ship. When it causes an electrical fire their cryo-pods are moved onto an escape pod, and ejected into space. The pod makes planet-fall on a remote planet that’s home to a small prison population of highly dangerous men who’ve found religion in the far reaches of space. Sadly, Ripley is the only survivor of the crash. Or at least, the only human survivor.
When the stowaway alien manages to infect one of the prisoners’ dogs, a newer, faster, and highly deadly creature is set loose upon the universe. With Ripley being the only woman on the planet she has to fight to try and make those in charge believe her wild story, all whilst trying to avoid any of the dangerous inmates who want to cause her harm. With no help coming, no weapons, and danger around every turn, Ripley has to fight harder than ever before to survive.
Alien 3 was released to some mixed reactions, with a lot of reviewers disliking the film, and comparing it unfavourably to the previous entries in the series. Despite the poor reception, the film still did well at the box office, and made more than $1 million in profit. Despite technically being a success, director David Fincher disowned the film, claiming that excessive studio interference, tight deadlines, and poor conditions made it the hardest project he had ever worked on.
Despite the director distancing himself from the film, Alien 3 gathered a cult following over the years, and became a much loved entry in the series. An alternate cut of the film, the Assembly Cut, was released in 2003 as part of the Alien Quadrilogy box set (also later released in the Alien Anthology Blu-ray) which saw an additional half hour of deleted and alternate scenes added to the film. This version fleshed out the side characters more, had a whole new sequence where they managed to capture the creature, had the alien come from a cow instead of a dog, and featured an alternate death scene for Ripley. Other alternate versions of Alien 3 have also been released, with the William Gibson version having been adapted into comics and a novel.
Alien 3 might be considered the film that ‘dropped the ball’ for the Alien series, the film that began a decline in quality that would only become worse in Alien Resurrection. But it seems unfair to label the film as completely bad. Despite being stuck in development hell for so long it has a pretty decent, coherent story. The film has a look all its own thanks to its interesting designs and colour palette. It has a strong supporting cast, including actors like Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, and a host of great British actors. Alien 3 is not a bad entry in the series. It’s not even a bad film. It’s just been compared to the first two films for so long that people assume it’s bad. Alien 3 has been looked down upon for too long. Perhaps now, as it turns thirty, we can start to admit it’s actually a great movie.
Alien 3 was released in the UK on 21st August 1992.