Do you remember your first peek at how the sausage was made? My comprehension of film production probably began with behind-the-scenes glimpses of Return of the Jedi, but Alien 3 was the first film I ground down from nose to tail. The hunger to consume every little morsel was not born from a happy appetite but out of the ravenous void of disappointment.
The 1992 summer sequel was supposed to be a masterpiece. I deemed the first two films to be so, so why not number three? With no internet to aid/misform my quest, I gathered dribbles of understanding from the odd explanation here and there within the pages of Starlog, Cinefantastique, and Fangoria. As time moved on, my dismay towards Alien 3 only soured, but the tales of all the Alien 3s that never came to be buoyed me through my self-righteous entitlement. The film we got stunk, so the scrapped screenplays must be better.
Word of a graphic novel adaptation of one of those aborted attempts sent shivers of glee through my system. Finally, a deeper knowledge of what went wrong, and what could have gone oh-so-right could be obtained. Dark Horse Comics has been in the business of Aliens spinoffs for decades, and they’ve shepherded 20th Century Fox’s bouncing baby chestburster against battles with Batman, Superman, and Judge Dredd. Oh, and they were the first to plop the Xenomorph and the Predator into the same ring. They’ve brought famed creators like Mike Mignola, James Stokoe, and Jim Woodring onto the property. For the past 27 years, Dark Horse Comics fostered fans with quality material and in the process stoked our discontent for Alien 3. These guys get it. Come on, Hollywood.
Artists Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain took the task of re-imagining one of William Gibson‘s dismissed Alien 3 scripts into an action-horror adventure as exhilarating as what Ridley Scott and James Cameron provided. There is an energy around the project that you can’t possibly find with your average Avengers: Endgame regurgitated novelization. Christmas’ paneling thrusts the eye from page to page, and the reader’s brain sizzles as it tries to place actors in scenarios radically altered from the prison pit hell David Fincher trapped us upon.
Gibson’s story begins similarly to what we found in the film with the USS Sulaco adrift in space with its few remaining passengers tucked sweetly in cryosleep. There is no fire, no facehugger on the loose. Instead, we hear an alert from the ship’s computer. The Sulaco has wandered into a territory of space claimed by the Union of Progressive Peoples. Another vessel docks with the Sulaco and a gang of pirates invade the Hypersleep vault. While they came to rob the pockets of a “rich handsome capitalists,” they discover the gutted remains of the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and growing out of his gut is a very recognizable egg.
“Shlrrk!” The egg flaps open at the top and a facehugger hops forth and latches onto the lead pirate’s helmet. The ransackers panic, rifles firing in every direction as the ship’s emergency protocols engage, and the surviving members of the crew flee with Bishop’s body in their clutches. Weyland-Yutani, “The Company,” is made aware of the Sulaco‘s distress signal. No one has heard a word of the ship in four years, and they are anxious to secure its acid-blooded contents for military application. Never change, ya corporate scum. Another vessel is dispatched from the Anchorpoint Cluster station. They retrieve Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Newt (Carrie Henn) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from their slumber; none of whom have perished in transport. Phew.
The remaining plot revolves around these two rival organizations as they fight over the ownership of Bishop and the Xenomorph knowledge he contains. If you were looking for some kind of badass redemption for Ripley, you will not find it here. The script was concocted under the premise that Weaver would not be returning, and she spends the entirety of the plot napping while Hicks, Newt, and Bishop prepare for the inevitable alien outbreak. Genetic tampering from Anchorpoint Cluster scientists causes a new stage in the gestation of the creatures, and it is gnarly and graphically satisfying; leading to a flurry of violence as the humans must shed their biases to combat an unkillable horde. Alien and Aliens were preparing Earth for an impending war, and this Alien 3 erupts the powder keg.
In his introduction, Gibson describes his time with Alien 3 as a “work for hire,” where he came to the quick realization that producers only had “given it to me not in hope of getting a serviceable screenplay but hoping for a certain amount of what might be called cyberpunk flash, which might then be laminated into someone else’s actual screenplay.” After the release of his novel Neuromancer, Gibson was the hot new voice in science fiction, and for a time, studios were gobbling up his concepts. The author blames 20th Century Fox’s eventual lack of enthusiasm for his screenplay on his own Aliens obsession; he was too geeky for what had come before, and they wanted something as different from Cameron’s take as Cameron had been from Scott’s. For better and worse, that’s what we eventually got.
In the case of most properties, I’m able to sit back and enjoy the journey that filmmakers push me along through. Marvel Studios, assemble as you will. Star Trek, please feel free to meander the final frontier. Rambo, process your worst nightmares on whomever foolishly presents themselves. Then there are those continuing stories in which I’m painfully invested, where I believe I could help if they only asked. Fan entitlement, it’s a monster and should be slain. I’m working these feelings out, but I still haven’t found the psychologist who can cure me of my obsessive mental tinkering. Let me aboard the Planet of the Apes. Superman, I’m your guy. Aliens, my treacherous little biological wonders, Weyland-Yutani might not have your best interest at heart, but I offer my chest willingly. I have dreams, desires, and plans for where these specific worlds could and should go. Put me in coach; I’m ready to play.
Why do these stories haunt me in ways that others do not? I saw Alien 3, and I wanted better for Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and Bishop. Years of Alien and Aliens rewatches fostered a sense of ownership over these characters and their fates. They were mine, no different than the G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures I kept secured beneath my bed. I knew the best poses for the most effective kung fu grips. I would flip my lid if a neighborhood kid entered my domain and dared to pit Snake Eyes against the wrong Storm Shadow variant. This childish claim on characters carried with me into adulthood, and it’s time to let the wretched self-proclaimed omnipotence go. They’re just stories, and some work for you and some don’t.
In 1992, I was an insensed 13-year-old when Fincher broke off his music video training wheels on my beloved universe by callously slaughtering both Newt and Hicks offscreen only so he could plunge Ripley to her darkest hour of sacrifice. “Music video training wheels?” Where do I get off? Fincher was barely 30 at the time and had already directed dozens upon dozens of music videos including some of the most culturally defining selections the artform offered. He was a visual master, and that’s why he got the gig in the first place. Ah, but I deemed him disrespectful to Bishop, so he had to go.
Well, I’ve now seen the What-If where Bishop and Hicks were idolized over Ripley. The clouds did not part; the sun did not radiate a new world order of perception. The Alien 3 that could have been is no better than what we got. Gibson’s script is a solid actioner where a few of our favorite characters get a moment to shine, but not all of them. In its own way, it disappoints the condescending fan who proclaims to know better. That’s good. We should not get what we want. What we want is predictable. It’s safe, and it’s not exciting. Don’t morph disappointment into disgust. Realize that your way is just one of many possibilities.