Back in May, I wrote a brief retrospective on Alien 3 for the film’s 30th anniversary, and I mentioned that later on, I had plans for a bit of a deeper dive that would require a bit more research and time to develop. While that initial article was focused on the movie that made it to the screen (and its Assembly Cut), this is intended to be a multi-part companion piece that explores the bizarre and fascinating production of the making of Alien 3. The story of Alien 3’s development is a labyrinth of bold, peculiar artistic visions and studio politics-induced burnout. Take my hand as we descend into the bowels of this Development Hell one step at a time…
Our story begins in 1986. 20th Century Fox was trying to figure out how they were going to follow up on the success of James Cameron’s hit sequel Aliens. Now that Alien had made the transition from a surprise blockbuster to a multi-film franchise, making a third movie was the obvious choice. However, what was less clear was what it was going to be about. Enter the film’s producers: David Giler, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll. The trio had produced the previous two films as part of Brandywine Productions (with the exception of Hill working on Aliens’ story rather than producing it), and they only really had one rule for the third entry in the Alien saga: it had to be different from the other two.
One proposal was to move forward by, ironically, looking back. The studio was interested in having the producers try to bring back Ridley Scott, director of the original Alien, to helm the third film. Scott wanted to do a movie set on the aliens’ homeworld that would expand the mythology of the Xenomorph species and their origins. This plan didn’t go very far- not at first, at least. Scott was too busy to return, as he was set to work on Black Rain, and then Thelma & Louise. Renny Harlin, who would later sign on as the first director for the third Alien film, shared an interest in the “planet of the aliens” concept. “My original approach was that we would go to where the aliens actually come from,” he explains in the 2004 DVD featurette on the making of Alien 3, “Wreckage and Rage”. “We would place the story on the planet that they really originate from, and really explain what they are and maybe… maybe they are not born to be bad at all.”1
The concept was scrapped altogether when it was decided that it would cost too much to set a movie primarily on a highly stylized alien planet. The price of the practical sets and special effects immediately seemed like more than Fox was willing to pay, and in hindsight, this was probably the first indication that the studio wasn’t going to make Alien 3’s production smooth. The 2004 featurette also included David Giler musing: “It would just cost too much in those days. Now you could do it. I’d like to see Ridley do that. That would be good.”1
Interestingly enough, Ridley Scott eventually did get to make his passion project movie about where the aliens came from. After over three decades, Scott returned to the universe that he created with Prometheus in 2012 and its follow-up, Alien: Covenant, in 2017. Both prequels explained that an android named David experimented with humans and a black goo created by the godlike extraterrestrial “Engineers” to make the creatures that would become the iconic Xenomorphs.
However, back in the Eighties, the producers were stuck without Scott and his alien origin story. Giler and Hill tried putting their heads together to come up with a story, and the results were… certainly not like the first two films. One pitch saw the xenomorphs finally invading Earth, and fusing together into a giant kaiju that would try to destroy New York. Another would have featured Ripley and Newt chasing an “especially mobile” xenomorph through an off-world cityscape similar to the neon dystopia of Blade Runner.2 As fascinatingly outlandish as these initial concepts seem, all that’s known about these storylines comes from a single sentence in an issue of Cinescape Movie. Both pitches were conceived and rejected before the producers even had a writer for a script. However, if there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from this extensive autopsy of unused Alien 3 concepts, it’s that they often get revisited in one way or another. Rest assured, this won’t be the last time you hear about xenomorphs combining to form a colossal monster.
The ball didn’t really start rolling until the producers wondered “What would Ripley do?” and sought out Sigourney Weaver’s input. They hoped that including the star of the first two Alien movies in developing the third film’s story would incentivize her to reprise her role as Lt. Ripley, but Weaver felt that the film series couldn’t move forward if it was still focused on Ripley. “I felt Ripley was going to become a burden to the story,” Weaver recalled. “There are only so many aspects to the character you can do.”2 Weaver did have a point- while the first film saw Ripley simply trying to survive, the sequel gave her a clear arc where she overcame trauma and loss to relearn how to trust and bond with other people. Giler, Hill, and Carrol would need something new to say about the character if they were going to drag her away from the happy ending of Aliens and throw her back into a crisis involving ravenous extraterrestrials.
The producers were unable to think of a natural progression for Ripley’s character arc, and they knew that they couldn’t get Weaver on board without one, so they decided that in the third Alien, Ripley should be incapacitated and sidelined in some way. They didn’t plan on killing Ripley off so that things could be open enough for Weaver to potentially appear in a fourth film, but they knew that they wanted to remove her from the board for the next installment. Ripley’s place as the central protagonist was instead going to be given to Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks.
Confident that the third movie would be a box office hit, Giler, Hill, and Carroll came up with a plan to produce a fourth Alien film simultaneously to save on costs. This practice of making two films at the same time had only really been done before with Superman and Superman II, though it would later be utilized for the second and third installments of franchises like Back to the Future, The Matrix, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a strategy reserved for when studios see upcoming films as surefire successes, and it was a sign that the producers had an optimistic outlook on the future of the Alien franchise. They were blissfully unaware that the production of the third film would be a grueling process that would slowly beat the hope out of them.
Giler and Hill finally figured out which direction they wanted to take the story in. Rather than building upon the mythology of the xenomorphs, they wanted to flesh out the mythology of the humans in the Alien films. A central plot point of the first two films was “The Company” (the Weyland-Yutani Corporation) attempting to secure the xenomorphs as a bioweapon, but it was never established who they intended to use this weapon against. The producers took inspiration from the Cold War and envisioned a faction of militant socialists who had broken off from the rest of humanity. These “space communists” would exist as a clear foil to the aggressively capitalist presence of “The Company”. The two sides would be locked in a biological arms race to develop devastating weapons they couldn’t fully control. The parallels to nuclear warfare practically wrote themselves: it didn’t matter which side won, because in the end, humanity would lose.
The third movie would revolve around Hicks trying to stop both Weyland-Yutani and the “space communists”, and presumably something would go wrong and he’d have to have to fight xenomorphs. Ripley’s role would be reduced to a cameo to satisfy Weaver, though Fox was less enthusiastic about it. However, the studio realized that the alternative was possibly having no Ripley at all, so they reluctantly agreed that she would only have a small part in the third Alien movie. Still, they wanted her to fully return for the “epic battle with alien warriors mass-produced by the expatriate Earthlings” that would occur in the fourth film.2
By 1987, the producers became concerned that tensions between Hollywood and the Writers Guild of America would inevitably lead to a strike. The plan to develop Alien 3 and Alien 4 at the same time fell through, as they had to focus on getting someone to complete the script for at least one movie before the strike began. The man that Giler, Hill, and Carrol approached to pen Alien 3’s first draft had actually never written a screenplay before, but he was more than qualified to write science fiction stories about the dark side of progress. After all, he was “the Godfather of Cyberpunk”.
1. “Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien 3” (DVD Featurette)