Wait – Which Alien Movie Are You In?
by JJ McCabe
Seems like I can’t go a single day in the last couple of weeks without engaging in, or overhearing, a heated argument about the merits (or lack thereof) of the new Ridley Scott Alien prequel, Prometheus. Whichever side of this polarizing film you land on (I liked it,) it is indisputably a bit of a confused mess at times. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through the film where two major characters bump into each other after fighting two very different but equally harrowing battles, and after a brief conversation (in which they do not bother to apprise each other of the rapidly worsening conditions surrounding them,) head on their separate ways, never to meet again. It was at this point that it occurred to me that I was watching a film where two of the leads were in completely different stories, and that that was patently ridiculous.
This is, however, par for the course for the Alien franchise. The third installment of the series was a breathtaking collage of multiple screenwriters, directors, and studio meddling pushing forth an unfinished, incoherent but still fascinating mess like so many Xenomorph embryos bursting forth from a living human torso.
Alien 3 was originally drafted by the godfather of cyberpunk William Gibson, and was in many ways the complete opposite of what the film ended up being. Many of you have likely tried to forget Alien 3 or perhaps skipped it over entirely, so I’ll briefly summarize: The second film of the franchise, Aliens, is 137 minutes of watching Ripley brave unimaginable feats of physical and psychological strength to overcome the most ruthless and competent predator ever encountered by mankind to save the life of young Newt (sole survivor of a massacre and emotional surrogate for Ripley’s own daughter lost to the quantum distortions of decades spent in stasis during deep space flight) and romantic interest (to the extent that “romance” exists in a James Cameron film) Hicks. In the opening minutes of Alien 3 – picking up immediately after Aliens ends – the escape pod crashes and Hicks and Newt are unceremoniously killed off. In the six years between Aliens and Alien 3, one could be forgiven for not remembering how important Ripley’s relationship to Hicks and Newt were to the film (I know my most lasting impressions of Aliens were “Flamethrowers!” – I was nine or ten years old when I first saw it,) but try sitting down and watching the two films back to back and it’s a hell of a sucker-punch. Awakening demoralized and exhausted on a men’s prison planet to find her ersatz family dead, Ripley sleepwalks her way through a tepid liaison with prison doctor Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones,) attempted rape by prison inmates, futile attempts to prevent another xenomorph from picking off another crew of grizzled future-men one by one, and her own eventual alien impregnation and death. The final scene of her plunge into the furnace as the alien attempts to burst from her abdomen is one of the most complex and gripping images of the entire series, a perverse Madonna and Child, fiercely holding the escaping worm to her breast to keep it from doing its terrible work on the galaxy, but also as a companion that has been with Ripley so long she can no longer remember a life without it’s slimy, toothy presence.
In Gibson’s original draft however, it was Ripley who was sidelined early in the film and Hicks who took the spotlight. Ripley enters a coma early in the film, and the action takes place in the space station/floating city of a radical separatist group. As opposed to one alien, Gibson conceived of an infection of sorts that echoes John Carpenter’s 1986 film The Thing. Reportedly, the gestation of this new, Ripley-free take was due to Sigourney Weaver being uninterested in reprising her role. After Gibson departed the project, Eric Red (writer of the Katherine Bigelow vampire film Near Dark) took a pass at the script. Those old enough to remember seeing the early teasers for Alien may remember that the only information given was that the Xenomorphs would be invading earth – a promise that to this day has not been fulfilled in the 3 films since. This trailer was most likely conceived from the Eric Red script, which took place in an enclosed bio-dome on earth, and again excises Ripley from the action.
The Prison Colony concept wasn’t introduced until the third writer David Twohy (writer/director of the Chronicles of Riddick series) stepped in. Twohy also introduced a few ideas which would actually be implemented in the fourth Alien film, such as the deformed Alien clones, the half-human “newborn,” and the idea of being sucked through a small hull or window breach as a method of death.
Then a Fox producer decided at the last minute that he had to have Sigourney Weaver back. So they threw $5 million at her, and brought in Victor Ward, the New Zealand filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed film “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.” He essentially started from scratch, and conceived of Ripley’s escape pod crashing into a all-male monastery, where Ripley is locked away to keep the brothers safe from their own impure thoughts, while the Xenomorph runs amok helping itself to a monastic buffet.
Finally, due to a budget that had already spent close to $7 million in pre-production and was rapidly approaching a scheduled release date, the producers seem to have more or less taken ideas from all four scripts and chucked them in a hat, pulling the pages for each day’s filming as needed. At $160 million, the film cost more than the previous two Alien films combined. Today it’s most remembered for being the first film of David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Se7en etc).
So for those who complain about Prometheus’ strange meandering diversions, I highly recommend revisiting this intermittently brilliant disaster of a film. It’s the work of no less than five genius creative filmmakers, each with a unique vision, and the final product is… well, what’s the opposite of something that’s the sum of its parts?
Oh, and Alien Resurrection was originally written by Joss Whedon. But then, that kind of thing used to happen to him a lot.