In September of 1987, producers Walter Hill and David Giler secured science fiction author William Gibson as the first writer to pen a script for Alien 3 movie. Gibson had a reputation for strangling the last breath out of the shiny, utopian vision of tomorrow through several short stories and his debut novel, Neuromancer. While he didn’t create the dystopian future, he reinvented it for the eve of the 21st Century, depicting a world owned by a small handful of powerful corporations who saw information as the most precious currency. Criminal “console cowboys” performed dangerous digital heists in cyberspace (a word Gibson popularized) to pay for their exciting lives of sex and drugs, with brutal violence following them wherever they went. Gibson’s genre-defining take on science fiction was loud, filthy, and angry: it’s little surprise that it earned the name “cyberpunk”.
Interestingly, Gibson cited the battered, run-down futuristic aesthetic of the first Alien as an inspiration for his work. “I found a lot of things in the original [Alien] that were interesting even when it first came out. I thought there were germs of stories implicit in the art direction. I always wanted to know more about these guys. Like why they were wearing dirty sneakers in this funky spaceship. I think it influenced my prose science-fiction writing because it was the first funked-up, dirty kitchen sink spaceship, and it made a big impression on me. When I started writing science fiction, I went for that.”1 Between Alien’s inspiration and both the visual and tonal similarities between Neuromancer and Blade Runner (both were being worked on around the same time), it seemed Gibson was operating on the same frequency as Ridley Scott in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Theoretically, he was the obvious choice to write an Alien movie.
Hill and Giller laid out their “galactic Cold War” concept for Gibson over dinner. Additionally, they clarified that Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks would be elevated to the role of the central protagonist, while Ellen Ripley “wasn’t to be a character” and would only appear in a brief cameo, as Sigourney Weaver didn’t want to commit to Alien 3 if her character wasn’t going to go in a new direction.2 Gibson was enthusiastic about mixing the Cold War narrative with the Alien mythos, as this direction that the producers wanted to go in seemed compatible with some existing story ideas he had. The producers expected Gibson to submit the draft by December, as it appeared that the Writers Guild of America would strike early next year. Gibson had never written a movie script before, and he taught himself the format by meticulously studying the screenplays for Alien and Aliens.
Gibson’s script for “Alien III” (with a Roman numeral “three”) begins where Aliens left off: Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and half of Bishop are still in cryosleep aboard the USS Sulaco. An issue with the Sulaco’s navigational system leads the ship into a part of space claimed by the Union of Progressive Peoples (the space communists), and the computer adjusts the course for Anchorpoint Station rather than the planned Gateway Station from the last movie. Before the ship can exit UPP space, three UPP commandos board the ship to investigate. One finds Bishop with a xenomorph egg in his artificial intestines, which immediately launches a facehugger onto the soldier’s head. One of his fellow commandos shoots the facehugger, but its acid blood burns the man’s head off. The second UPP soldier flushes the body out of an airlock, and she flees with her surviving comrade, who takes Bishop’s body with him.
The Sulaco automatically docks at Anchorpoint, and at the request of two representatives from Weyland-Yutani’s bioweapons division, a lab technician and some marines do a biohazard sweep of the ship. The group is attacked by a pair of Xenomorphs, who manage to kill two of the marines. The remaining one incinerates the aliens with his flamethrower, accidentally setting Ripley’s cryosleep chamber on fire in the process. Hicks and Newt are awakened and informed by the crew of Anchorpoint that Ripley is in a coma.
The head of Anchorpoint Station, Rosetti, discusses the disappearance of Bishop with the two Weyland-Yutani representatives and Hicks. They deduce that the UPP has seized him since they haven’t tried contacting anyone about the Sulaco illegally entering their space. Newt shares an emotional goodbye with Hicks before leaving aboard the Sulaco to live with her grandparents on Earth. Meanwhile, Anchorpoint’s scientists experiment with the aliens’ genetic material and find that it can rapidly bond with human DNA.
Aboard their own station, the Rodina, the UPP studies Bishop’s memory banks and learns about both the xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani’s plans to weaponize them: a violation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The UPP decide to clone the alien genetic material that they found on Bishop’s body, rationalizing their decision to also break the treaty out of a fear that Weyland-Yutani will strike first (the metaphor for Cold War nuclear conflict isn’t exactly subtle). Bishop is repaired and mindwiped by the UPP, who send him to Anchorpoint as a goodwill gesture to distract from their secret plot. Hicks and Bishop reunite and agree that both parties’ experiments will only end in disaster: the aliens must be destroyed before something bad happens.
Predictably, something bad does happen. On Anchorpoint, the containment unit for a fungus-like alien pod is broken, and a scientist and one of the company representatives breathe in its infectious spores (a similar concept was used in Alien: Covenant decades later). Rather than being impregnated with chestbursters, full-sized xenomorph/human hybrids grow inside of the hosts until their skin ruptures and the creatures emerge from their remains. Meanwhile, on the Rodina, the cloned xenomorph that the UPP had been growing escapes from its tank and manages to capture and impregnate multiple victims. It has been genetically modified to have an accelerated lifecycle, so the station is quickly overrun by xenomorphs.
The script goes back and forth between Hicks and Bishop trying to stop the aliens on Anchorpoint, and an unnamed female Vietnamese UPP commando (who was first seen at the beginning of the script) trying to escape the xenomorphs on the Rodina. Hicks loads Ripley onto a lifeboat and launches her into space, and then there’s a sequence where an alien tries to kill him as he drives a jeep through dark, flooded tunnels. Hicks and some soldiers encounter a variation of the xenomorph queen, which produces spores rather than eggs, in the station’s air scrubber. They kill the queen, but in doing so they accidentally destroy the station’s ability to produce air. Back on the Rodina, the UPP commando narrowly escapes in an interceptor ship just as a larger UPP craft arrives and nukes the station.
Bishop goes off to set Anchorpoint to self-destruct while Hicks tries to get the rest of the survivors to the space station’s lifeboats, and the action unfolds across the station’s diverse settings, such as an alien-infested mall and a “forest” of thick, glowing cables. Gibson plays fast and loose with the rules of the aliens’ reproductive cycle, and the introduction of the queen’s spores means that any character can go through “the change” with no warning. Some victims produce the fully-grown xenomorph inside of them, while others develop a swarm of tiny chestbursters. The result is lots of aliens and lots of chaos, and the group dwindles in numbers until only a handful of survivors are left. Unable to reach the lifeboats through hordes of xenomorphs, the group is forced to don spacesuits and try to access the escape craft from the outside of the station. Between the countdown to the destruction of Anchorpoint, the violent transformation of one of the group members (his helmet fills with blood as an alien kills him from within), and a swarm of xenomorphs following the survivors onto the surface of the station, things look very bleak. When they finally reach the escape craft, a crew member is skewered by a queen alien waiting inside of it.
All hope seems lost when Bishop rejoins Hicks and the last survivor of Anchorpoint, a scientist named Spence. Bishop begins to even the odds a little by shooting xenomorphs with machine accuracy, but the trio ends up cornered on an antenna without any more ammo. Suddenly, the UPP commando from before flies over in her interceptor and blasts a few aliens, before picking the trio up. They fly away while Anchorpoint explodes behind them. As the UPP commando succumbs to radiation poisoning (from the Rodina getting nuked), Bishop tells Hicks and Spence that they are not infected by the xenomorphs, as they’ve both outlived the observed incubation period. The android notes that humanity is now “a species again”, as they will be forced to unite against a common enemy: the aliens. They’ve entered a new war now, and it can only end with one side completely exterminating the other. Teasing a sequel, Bishop declares that they must find the source of the xenomorphs and wipe them out there, before delivering the closing lines: “But now you’ve seen the enemy, Hicks. So has she. She’s not it. Neither are you. This is a Darwinian universe, Hicks. Will the alien be the ultimate survivor?”3 A larger ship, the Kansas City, approaches to pick the survivors up as Hicks ponders Bishop’s words.
Gibson’s first draft is probably the best movie Fox could’ve made without Weaver fully on board. While Gibson was forced to abruptly toss Ripley to the side in favor of Hicks, you can tell that he tried to fill the story with diverse and capable female characters. There’s outspoken scientist Spence, blue-collar Anchorpoint boss Jackson, and the Vietnamese UPP soldier, who receives the name “Chang” in Gibson’s second draft (more on that shortly). Jackson is the character that feels the most like Ripley, but this mostly comes across in superficial ways: she’s by no means supposed to be a “replacement” for Ripley. This script was never going to be a poster child for feminist cinema, but it definitely isn’t the dumb testosterone-fest you’d expect from a movie that jettisons the film’s most prominent female action hero.
Interestingly, Gibson’s script introduced a concept to the Alien mythos that made it all the way to the theatrical version (and Assembly Cut) of the third film: xenomorphs produced by animals. During his dinner with the movie’s producers, Gibson shared this idea: “I probably told them of my curiosity about what you’d get if the xenomorph gestated in a kitten, say, or an elephant.”2 Gibson’s first Alien III draft featured an artifical jungle aboard Anchorpoint, which contained lemurs and other primates. After the station becomes infested with xenomorphs, Spence goes into the jungle to check on the primates, only to find them cocooned up in the trees. A “tiny alien” produced by a lemur jumps down on Spence, but she quickly bats it away and runs off. The presence of “animal aliens” is very brief and inconsequential in this script, but the idea would be revisited by other writers working on the project. The concept stuck around long enough that the main xenomorph in the theatrical version of Alien3 bursts out of a dog (which is an ox instead in the Assembly Cut).
Gibson turned in his initial draft in December of 1987, as promised. He would later describe the producers’ response as “Hollywood positive”, elaborating that this meant “they find it passable or you’re fired”.2 After putting all of his efforts into writing a big, crowd-pleasing successor to Aliens, it turned out that wasn’t what the producers were hoping for when they hired him. “What we expected from Gibson was that we were gonna get fabulous ideas, but the script would be a mess and we’d have to sort it out and fix it,” Giler explained in “Wreckage and Rage”. “What we got was a perfectly executed script that wasn’t all that interesting.”4 This stance feels pretty unfair on multiple levels, but the most frustrating takeaway is that the producers told Gibson that they wanted him as a screenwriter when they actually only wanted him to pitch outlandish ideas.
Despite having a lukewarm reaction to the initial script, the producers asked Gibson to do a second draft.5 While Gibson has admitted that he doesn’t remember what exactly they requested he does differently, comparing the two drafts makes it seem as though they wanted him to cut down on the action (possibly for budgetary reasons) and stick to stricter rules about the way the xenomorphs reproduce. In the new draft, they no longer spontaneously bust out of random victims by the dozen. The first two acts of the second Alien III script are mostly similar to the original, with minor changes here and there. The UPP commandos, in the beginning, are given names, personalities, and dialogue. They leave their facehugged comrade behind on the Sulaco instead of shooting him out into space, and the chestburster that comes out of him causes problems for the Anchorpoint crew later on. Speaking of Anchorpoint, it doesn’t have any soldiers or weapons in the second draft, and Hicks has to use a wrist-mounted gun from the UPP soldier’s corpse. Ripley doesn’t enter a coma because her capsule is torched in a fight with aliens, but rather she’s given a sedative when she wakes up and becomes violent. The two xenomorphs that attack the inspection party on board the Sualco have been written out entirely. Sterling and Tatsumi- two minor characters from the first draft who are quickly killed- have greatly expanded roles this time around. The order of certain scenes is shuffled around, and some of the characters in them are switched out for others. After Ripley is sent off in one of the ship’s lifeboats, corporate goon Fox sabotages the rest of the escape craft but meets a grisly fate when he tries to get away in his company ship.
However, the biggest change is that there are only really three xenomorphs wreaking havoc in this draft. Aboard the Rodina, the xenomorph the UPP cloned kills most of the crew, but Chang launches it into space as she escapes the station before it gets nuked. The crew of Anchorpoint must deal with the standard xenomorph that bursts out of the UPP soldier’s chest on the Sulaco, and a human-hybrid xenomorph that tears out of corporate goon Welles when she inhales the alien spores. There’s almost a fourth alien from a scientist also breathing in the spores, but as he’s infected, he gets the idea to lock himself in a freezer, killing the monster as it emerges from his body.
As you can imagine, all of these changes in the second version of the script led to a drastically different finale. There are no swarms, alien queens, or shootouts in the vacuum of space. The survivors’ journey through Anchorpoint is significantly shorter and ends in a cargo bay, where the regular and hybrid xenomorphs fight one another. The standard alien rips the hybrid in half but is shot apart by Chang, who has arrived in a UPP interceptor. From here, the ending is the same as in the original draft: Hicks, Bishop, and Spence escape, Chang slowly dies of radiation poisoning, and Bishop teases the premise of the fourth film.
This version of the script does have certain advantages over the original, such as fleshing out the characters more, being more concise about the way that the aliens work, and creating more terror and tension by only giving Hicks a single weapon with a very limited amount of ammo. However, I personally think that this version of the story feels a lot slower. While the two aliens that ambush the inspection team in the first draft seem to come out of nowhere, removing that bit of action leaves the script with a very, very long stretch where there aren’t any xenomorphs at all.
Gibson submitted his second draft in January of 1988, just a few months before the Writers Guild of America strike that the producers feared hit in March. The producers didn’t speak to Gibson again until after the strike ended in August5, and by that time they’d finally chosen a director for Alien III. Renny Harlin was hired based on his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, which had been the highest-grossing entry in the franchise at that point. “When I signed on to do Alien III, my first principle was that I am not going to copy Ridley Scott or Jim Cameron,” Harlin explained in the “Wreckage and Rage” featurette. “They are fantastic filmmakers, and I felt that if I could bring something new to the series, then it was worth doing.”4 As mentioned in Part One, Harlin wanted Alien III to be about the origin of the xenomorphs like Ridley Scott had proposed, but Giler and Hill were already set on their “Cold War in space” idea.
The producers still weren’t sold on Gibson’s script, and they asked him to rewrite it with Harlin. Gibson declined and finally walked away from Alien III for good. For almost a year, he’d poured everything he had into learning a new format of writing and crafting a follow-up to Aliens that would live up to the hype, only to learn that the producers weren’t being transparent about what they actually wanted. At best, they seemed aggressively indifferent to his every effort to meet their demands, and he’d finally had enough. Gibson was only the first of many creatives who would become fed-up with the indecisive studio wasting their talent and time on the third Alien film.
While Gibson’s work on Alien III wasn’t appreciated by the film’s producers, it was well-received by Alien fans when it eventually leaked online. Many enjoyed how the draft carried over the characters and action-packed tone of Aliens, especially in contrast to the more somber direction that the final film went in. In fact, this unmade version of the film became so popular that it spawned multiple official adaptations in the last few years, starting with a five-issue comic from Dark Horse in 2018.
William Gibson’s Alien 3 (alternatively titled Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay) was adapted and illustrated by artist Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain. The series was released as part of Dark Horse’s “20th Century Fox Uncovered” line, which also featured adaptations of the original drafts of Alien and Predator. While the comic gives a visual interpretation of many of the scenes from Gibson’s Alien III, it’s unfortunately based on the second draft, meaning the bigger, more intricate finale isn’t the one that’s adapted. Still, this comic seemed like the closest thing fans could get to experiencing the unmade movie. For a little while, it was.
While fans would never be able to watch Gibson’s Alien III, they would get the chance to hear it. In 2019, an audio drama based on Gibson’s second draft was released as an Audible exclusive to celebrate Alien’s 40th anniversary. It was directed by Dirk Maggs and featured Michael Biehn and Lance Hendriksen reprising their roles as Hicks and Bishop from Aliens. The audio drama finally had the actors reading lines that Gibson had written for them over three decades ago.
A novel based on Gibson’s Alien III was released in 2022 (the 30th anniversary of Alien3). Adapted by science fiction author Pat Cadigan, the novel takes inspiration from Gibson’s first draft while elaborating and altering some elements. For example, Chang is now called “Luc Hai”, which feels like an… attempt to give her an actual Vietnamese name (as someone who isn’t Vietnamese, I can’t really speak to its authenticity).
Around the time that Gibson’s script started to get its three adaptations, the Union of Progressive Peoples was officially introduced to the canon of the Alien franchise. While the UPP first showed up outside of Gibson’s drafts in the 2011 Nintendo DS game Aliens: Infestation, that game has since been branded non-canon. It wasn’t until 2019’s Alien: The Roleplaying Game that the UPP began to get mentioned consistently across multiple projects, like the novel Alien: Into Charybdis and the video game Aliens: Fireteam Elite in 2021. Fireteam Elite even introduced the UPP flag as an unlockable weapon decal and revealed that the United States Colonial Marines have nicknamed the faction “Proggies”.
Of course, William Gibson’s Alien III wouldn’t be looked at with fresh eyes until long after it had been rejected in 1988. The film’s producers now had a director in Harlin, but once again found themselves seeking out a writer. This time, they would choose someone with more experience in screenwriting, but they’d make entirely different mistakes in managing this writer. The new screenwriter would give the producers the bizarre, out-there ideas that they had expected from Gibson, but the producers would learn the hard way that perhaps that wasn’t what they wanted after all. Buckle your seatbelts, folks, because things are going to get weird. Next time, we’ll discover what happens when you pit aliens… against space rednecks.
3. http://www.awesomefilm.com/script/Alien3.txt (William Gibson’s first draft for Alien III)
4. “Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien3” (DVD Featurette)