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Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the 'Alien' Saga Went Wrong

Alien was a planned B-Movie that transcended its genre and spawned the rare sequel that is neither imitation nor complete deviation. Then the saga went to hell.

In the pages of The Next Reel we take an informative (if oft irreverent) look at film history, focusing on the linkages between movies (that go far beyond sequels and remakes) and the evolution of film and filmed stories.

Case in point, our November 2012 column, "Building the Perfect Star Beast: The Antecedents of 'Alien'", discussed the amazing filmic lineage that led to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), one of the best films of all time, whether you call it Science Fiction, Horror, Art Film, the best Haunted House movie of all time or if you side with the many that claim that Alien transcends genre. This diversity has a lot to do with the many mixed parents that eventually gave birth to Alien. As co-author Dan O’Bannon put it, "I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!"

Alien’s legacy was made even more secure when a Canadian former truck driver who managed to break into B-Movies did the impossible. James Cameron wrote and directed the 1986 sequel Aliens which both carried the franchise forward (without being a repeat of the first film) and earned comparable critical praise and incredible box office to boot. Aliens is one of the few films in the Action or Horror or Science Fiction genre to earn its lead an Oscar Nomination.

Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress (one of her three Oscar nominations) at the 1987 Academy Awards for playing Ellen Ripley, a character also credited for redefining gender roles and breaking the glass ceiling in believable action heroine roles.

Backed by Weaver’s excellent acting, Ripley becomes a feminist role model. Her character is undeniably feminine, motherly to the young girl Newt (Carrie Henn) and, as all the characters are, she is terrified and vulnerable when surrounded by the threat of the title star beasts. However, it's also Ripley who takes charge, saves lives, comes up with the best plans and believably evolves into the heroine the story requires to move forward.

Aliens became a milestone in storytelling, sequel making, gender roles, recognition… and so much more. With Aliens in place, the legacy of Alien seemed to be impossible to tarnish.

And for the next six years that was absolutely true.

Behind the scenes 20th Century Fox could barely hold its xenomorphic horses before getting another sequel out. Brandywine Productions (the company behind the first two films) was commissioned to create a third iconic film for the franchise. Producers David Giler, Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll had a tall order on their hands. They wanted to replicate the critical and commercial successes of Aliens by doing what Aliens had done. However, what Aliens did was to further the saga without becoming a repeat of Alien. Thus the producers found themselves having to replicate without repetition.

The initial ideas for Alien 3 (1992) were cerebral and introspective and seemed to prove that they were going swiftly in the right direction. The plan was to formulate a two-part story to span the third and fourth films (to be shot back-to-back). The villains would, again, be less the title Aliens and more the duplicitous and money hungry Weyland-Yutani company, whose next high-profit goal is to use the Xenomorphs as biological weapons.

Aliens’s Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) would be the lead of the third film with Weaver’s Ripley appearing in a cameo. Weaver would then take the lead in the fourth film. Ultimately the Company would face off against a group of expatriated and militaristic Earth people who would mass produce the dangerous Aliens for their epic battle against the greedy Company. Weaver agreed to the cameo because she liked the Cold War parallels and soon Fox was negotiating for her return as well as that of Ridley Scott.

Anyone who has actually watched Alien 3 knows well that this is not the movie we ultimately got and the fourth film in the saga doesn’t resemble this planned fourth story in any way.

Then again, anyone familiar with Ridley Scott’s career knows that the director was not exactly "available", with films like Black Rain (1989) and most notably Thelma and Louise (1991) already in the works during the aftermath of Cameron’s Aliens.

William Gibson, the famed Cyberpunk author, was available and quickly expanded Giler and Hill’s treatment into a "Marxist Space Empire" story deeply aware that a Writer’s Guild strike was looming. Gibson’s screenplay picked up right where Aliens had left off with Newt, Hicks, Ripley and what was left of the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) still floating unconscious in their sleep chambers. Once the Union of Progressive Peoples (or U.P.P., the aforementioned militant exiles) removes the hitchhiking Facehugger and Bishop, the Sulaco drifts its way to… the mall.

No, I’m not kidding. Soon the sleeping Ripley and Hicks reach Anchorpoint, a Weyland-Yutani space station shopping center. With Ripley in an induced coma, Hicks investigates Anchorpoint to see if the rumors of Alien production are true. Soon Hicks and the stirring Ripley must team up with the U.P.P. to battle the Company and the monsters who have found new and challenging places for incubation… such as inside what’s left of Bishop.

Gibson delivered the script on time (in December 1987) and would later jokingly describe his screenplay as "Space commies hijack alien eggs – big trouble in Mallworld". Giler and Hill were surprisingly less kind. Although the story was fast paced and featured the thrilling battle that the treatment called for, the producers called the script "the opposite of what we expected". Giler and Hill expected a mess of a screenplay with all kinds of great ideas thrown in that they could use in the final product. What they got was, as Giler put it, "a competently written screenplay but not as inventive as we wanted it to be."

The true irony of this is the fact that Gibson’s well-done script was actually too close to what Giler and Hill had described. "(I)t was our story," Giler explained. "We had hoped he’d open up the story but it didn’t happen." Giler further indicated that the fault probably lay with Hill and himself, rather than Gibson

Still, they didn’t give up on the author and (as he waited patiently through the writer’s strike for word) the duo came up with their own story and production ideas. This included director Renny Harlin who had just made a name for himself in the USA with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). This was not, at the time, quite the strange choice it may seem to be today as sister franchise Predator would later pick up Stephen Hopkins for Predator 2 (1990) based on his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989).

After the strike ended, Giler and Hill asked Gibson to approach a rewrite with Harlin’s more divergent ideas (such as Aliens invading Earth and humans visiting the Alien homeworld). Gibson balked and walked, believing the producers had taken too much time to respond and had not returned any constructive feedback.

If there was any true point that the film and the future of the franchise began to break down, this was arguably it. With Gibson gone and the strike no longer an issue, Giler and Hill began to micromanage the process with story conferences and lines in the sand. Gibson’s successor Eric Red worked five weeks with a production team that (as Red described them) "didn’t know what they really wanted".

To make matters worse, with the change in direction of the storyline, Weaver also had misgivings. Thus, in spite of the presence of Giler and Hill’s story and the Gibson screenplay as his basis, Red was forced to start completely over with new characters, new subplots, new breeds of Aliens and absolutely no Ripley whatsoever. All the while Harlin, Hill and GIler were "interfering" and demanding rewrites. Flashing back to the production on Aliens, when James Cameron (who was a Hollywood newbie at the time) was ordered to turn in a screenplay without Ripley, Cameron had threatened to quit. Because of Hill and Giler’s support, Cameron had won out and Weaver was paid a record salary (thirty times that which she was paid for Alien). Red received no such support and Weaver remained lukewarm on the prospect.

However, Red did turn his screenplay in on time, in spite of the micromanagement. The new, more opened up storyline featured Space Marines discovering that Newt, Hicks and Ripley had all been done in by Aliens. Instead of the Sulaco reaching a space mall, the action moves to a small American town (actually a bio-dome space station) where the townsfolk have to do battle with the title monsters. This time, in spite of the close involvement of Hill and GIler, Red’s script was rejected for deviating too much from the original story (whereas Gibson’s had been rejected for hewing too close). Red’s accusations that Brandywine wasn’t sure what they really wanted seemed to be true. Red departed and the production company decided to give up the idea of filming two sequels back-to-back. For Red’s part, he completely disowned the script as not his own and moved on to other projects.

This was early 1989 and the film industry wasn’t the only thing facing big changes. The Berlin Wall was only months away from falling and the Tiananmen Square protests were already making international headlines. The fall of Communism and the Cold War analogies in the Alien 3 script became outdated and new writer David Twohy (who had been instructed to expand upon Gibson’s script and to ignore Red’s) removed the obvious Capitalism vs. Totalitarianism plot and changed the space station into a prison planet. The twist was that the prisoners were being used for biological experiments with the Aliens to give Weyland-Yutani their biological weapon. Brandywine may have loved the idea but Harlin didn’t, feeling that it was too similar to the previous films. He left the project to make the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990) instead.

The kibosh on the Twohy screenplay came from none other than 20th Century Fox’s Chairman Joe Roth who declared "Sigourney Weaver is the centerpiece of the series." Roth knew what he was talking about as he had recently green-lit the planned Peter Jackson Planet of the Apes revival starring the core of that franchise, Roddy McDowall. While Roth was around long enough to insist on Weaver’s inclusion (with a salary bump to $5 million), Roth left the company in 1993 and his successor on the Planet of the Apes project, Head of Production Tom Jacobson canceled Jackson’s film, in part, because he was unaware that McDowall was the centerpiece of that saga. (For more on that fiasco, check out 'The Planet of the Apes' Films They Almost Made).

Weaver’s return came not just with a bump in pay but also a percentage of the box office and demands that the story be non-dependent on guns and impressive in scope. She also insisted that the character of Ripley die at the end and that Ripley have a sex scene with an Alien (an idea she had since preproduction on Aliens). After that, who wouldn’t want to die? Twohy kept his job (for the time being) and plugged away at a newly Ripley-centric screenplay. Luckily, while Weaver had most of her demands met, the sex scene idea was nixed.

The star was back and the writer was seemingly there to stay, but Alien 3 had no director. That was until Hill saw a 1988 fantasy film called The Navigator: A Medieval Journey. Hill began to dog that film’s director, Vincent Ward, with offers to helm Alien 3 and while he eventually accepted, the project’s luck continued to suck. Ward hated Twohy’s screenplay.

Ward’s idea re-envisioned the omnipresent space station as neither a mall, nor a bio-domed town nor a prison planet but a wooden monastery satellite. One of these monks sees "a star in the East" and believes it to be a good omen. Instead, it’s actually Ripley’s escape pod that crash lands on the planet bringing forth a woman into the populace (inviting sexual temptation) and one of our favorite acid-bleeding Aliens (which the monks interpret to be a devil assigned to punish them).

Everyone from Giler and Hill to Weaver and Roth loved the wooden planet idea and epic sequences were planned. Twohy, however, didn’t have a chance to love or hate it. He was told by a friend that Fox was now working with Ward and writer John Fasano, so he left the project in frustration. As Twohy put it, "Hollywood pays its writers well but treats them like shit to make up for it."

Not quite on board was Brandywine, who found the wooden planet idea to be unrealistic. Fox executive Jon Landau agreed and thought that these ideas would turn the film into much more of an art film than a commercial project. Thus, a list of changes was drafted, all of which were refused by Ward and Ward was fired on the spot.

Please be aware that by this time four years had already passed since Aliens necessitated a sequel. No one on this project worked for free whether their ideas were used or not. The embittered Twohy himself described his work as well paid. For a similar example, as discussed in the aforementioned Planet of the Apes article, Oliver Stone was given $1 million by Fox for a script idea for a Planet of the Apes film… that never came close to production. Both Fox and Brandywine had, by this time, already spent millions on an Alien project with no director, no agreeable script and a star who could leave at any time.

Thus Giler and Hill (who were already being paid as Producers) took the pen and tried to finalize the script by Ward and Fasano. The wooden planet idea was still under consideration, but Giler and Hill found it daunting to keep this concept and have the film remain realistic and not ludicrous. Creatively drained (and who wouldn’t be after this long?) Giler and Hill petitioned Roth to allot another $500,000 for another writer to doctor their script. You can guess how lucky new writer Larry Ferguson was. He overreached his mandate and rewrote Ripley as what Weaver described to be "a pissed-off gym teacher". Like his predecessors, Ferguson was paid and walked.

One other little tidbit that Weaver managed to work into her contract was the mandate that Giler and Hill write the final shooting script (believing that only they and Cameron had ever written Ripley correctly). Thus Fox (who had just paid $500,000 for Ferguson’s unusable rewrite) agreed to give Hill and Giler an additional $600,000 for an emergency rewrite.

Emergency was the operative word. By this time Brandywine and Fox were only weeks away from the January 1991 start of production and $7 million had already been spent… with just about nothing to show for it.

Already hemorrhaging red ink, Fox hired a TV commercial and music video director to helm Alien 3 as his directorial debut. This may have seemed like a bargain for the studio and something of a blasphemy for Alien fans except for the fact that that director’s name happened to be David Fincher.

Fincher still lists the original Alien as one of his favorite films and he had a vested interest in getting this film right not only for himself and his career but for the franchise in general. Fincher did further work on the screenplay with Rex Pickett (who was also fired) and revised much of Giler and Hill’s "final" version of the script, to boot.

So finally everything was coming up roses for Alien 3, right?

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