In development hell, no one can hear you scream. The success of Ridley Scott’s Alien, released in 1979 and written by Dan O’Bannon from a story developed with Ronald Shusett, was belatedly followed by James Cameron’s Aliensof 1986, written by Cameron from a story developed with David Giler and Walter Hill, inevitably leading to the expectation of a third film by audiences and the studio, but the path to the release of David Fincher’s Alien 3 in 1991 was not a simple process.
The final script credited to David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson based on a story conceived by The Navigator‘s Vincent Ward, previously attached to direct, there were also versions written by Pitch Black‘s David Twohy, an abandoned attempt by Near Dark‘s Eric Red, and before any of those a first draft treatment by William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, now novelised three decades later by Pat Cadigan, another writer associated with the cyberpunk movement.
Set four years after the she left the LV-426 system, the Sulaco is adrift in space and off course, Ellen Ripley, Dwayne Hicks, Rebecca “Newt” Jorden and the remains of Bishop in hypersleep, passing into a sector under control of the Union of Progressive Peoples who board the ship and remove Bishop and samples of biological material found aboard; continuing on its way, the Sulaco later arrives at Anchorpoint where Hicks and Newt are rescued, the evolving biological material having resulted in casualties, among them Ripley who remains in a coma.
Weyland-Yutani representatives already on their way to Anchorpoint, they are adamant that research is conducted on the samples, insisting that the reproductive capacity and apparent immortality of the organism will be vital in treatments for cancer and will not be used by the weapons division; understandably dubious, Hicks attempts to intervene, but the experiments are already underway and despite precautions to ensure there is no possibility of contamination the alien lifeform is nothing if not adaptable.
The process of adapting a screenplay into a novel is a difficult art; for example, with The Search for Spock, Vonda N McIntyre represented the filmed storyline accurately and honestly while adding a wealth of additional background material, expanding characters and motivations and including additional characters carried forward from The Wrath of Khan. Crucially, McIntyre had previously written in the Star Trek universe, was familiar with the characters and situations through years of exposure, and was working with a near-final draft of the screenplay.
Cadigan, working from an unproduced first draft of Alien 3 which was rejected in its totality has none of these advantages, increasing the challenge of crafting an engaging and exciting novel which is dynamic and consistent with the established events of Alien and Aliens, even if Alien 3 will immediately chart a new course bypassing the tragedy of Fiorina 361; frustratingly, the result also reads more like a first draft, devoid of depth or atmosphere.
Given the most expansion is the UPP’s Rodina station, creating its own disaster, but despite being the central character Hicks remains oblique, a man of persistent honour and duty whose inner monologue consists solely of the voices of his recently dead colleagues, replaying scenes and dialogue from Aliens with an accuracy bordering on the synthetic, Cadigan apparently using that as her primary source which makes the continuity errors all the stranger, for example stating in the opening pages that Ripley had been in hypersleep for forty-seven years rather than fifty-seven, yet never taking the opportunity to make him more than a cog grinding the overly familiar wheels of the plot; infuriatingly, no more consideration is given as to how the alien got on board than “the queen must have done it,” and the question is never asked
Conversely, although written twenty years before Prometheus and Covenant were released, Gibson’s evolutionary path for the alien clearly anticipates the genetic malleability of the organism, corrupting its host like a virus and with an airborne state, meaning infection can be subtle until it is expressed, though it does become more akin to a zombie story in the anticipation of who will be turned next, nor is the transformation conveyed in more than mechanical terms; the Alien movies benefitting from a specific atmosphere and visual aesthetic, it is perhaps difficult to convey in prose terms, but no attempt is even made.
While the chestburster scene may be iconic after a dozen repeats the novelty fades, and with the layout, design and size of Anchorpoint never established the pursuit through levels and labyrinths while things inevitably jump out of the dark feels like a videogame, endlessly scrolling towards some abstract end point, the deaths ticked off along the way equally meaningless with characters introduced with a single line description only to be killed mere pages later, the frequent use of humour perhaps intended as a counterpoint to the bloodshed, but with the latter already so diluted the horror becomes homeopathic.
Less a novel in its own right than a transcription of the dialogue with screen directions rendered into prose, Alien 3 is a disappointment, a dried skin shed from a snake which crawled off and died regardless, the only interest the final chapter which reflects on what has happened and the implications for the human race as a whole, a jumping-off point never followed which Gibson might have been better to use as his opening scene rather than his coda.
Alien 3: The Unproduced First-Draft Screenplay is available now from Titan Books