In which a review of the latest ‘what-if’ set in the Alien universe turns into an extended exercise in what could have been instead…
Amazon’s Audible Studios have a strong track record of adapting Alien and Aliens spinoff media into full radio play-style audio dramatisations. Fans are still clamouring for an adaptation of the recent spin-off novel The Cold Forge, written by Alex White and featuring a disabled black lesbian as the protagonist. When it was announced that the next Alien audio drama would be the legendary unproduced script for Alien 3 written by William Gibson, the reaction was positively ecstatic.
Directed by Dirk Maggs, whose work adapting the latter entries in the iconic The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series for BBC Radio 4 have been (mostly) critically acclaimed*, the Alien audio dramas are of a very high standard and have converted many fans to the medium. For many fans, these annual radio dramas offer a sweet contrast to the poorly received movie prequels, taking the franchise in interesting new directions.
Despite the anticipation, what we have with this alternate take of Alien‘s most divisive sequel is a promising story kernel, but one which, ironically, never manages to be better than the final film, no matter how flawed that was perceived to be. Even in its tweaked and reworked form, it seems Gibson’s vision ‘will never be down-to-the line’.
A finely produced audio drama
First let me start by saying that the production values of Alien III, as expected, are excellent. The addition of Lance Henriksen as Bishop and Michael Biehn as Hicks makes for authenticity and authority. This is a tantalising slice of ‘what-if’, and I’ve enjoyed hurting this world three times now already. But having watched the four original movies hundreds of times over the year, I’m not sure I’ll ever play this as much.
The sprawling plot
Structurally, there’s less cohesion here than there is with the first three Alien films. Despite Bishop’s opening narration, he doesn’t quite have the central focus Ripley does in those films, which denies it the singular drive and tension of following a single protagonist through their journey to a satisfying resolution.
Working against Bishop’s expanded role is the narrative, which flits between different settings and viewpoints and thereby renders him absent (and at times unconscious) at certain key points in the narrative.
The action takes place mainly onboard the Weyland-Yutani-owned Anchorpoint station and the Union of Progressive Peoples-owned Rodina station, but the parallel action feels uneven. The Western characters get significantly more focus and character development than their Eastern (mostly Soviet and Chinese) counterparts, which reinforces rather than challenges the Cold War-era xenophobia.
As such, we follow at least two separate groups of characters through two similar (at least in audio) locations plagued by aliens. If the cast of bald, mostly British character actors in Alien 3 bugged you (though I only really hear this complaint from Americans), then the multitude of characters in both factions doesn’t really avoid that pitfall, though I suppose the obvious ethnic differences between characters may have visually differentiated them in a live action film, no matter how crudely.
Maggs does, at least, make the characters more rounded than in the two leaked Gibson drafts and the comic. I sense an earnest attempt to make the characters more than ‘the Chinese one’ and ‘the Russian one’. Though the lack of time spent with the UPP survivors is perhaps the greatest barrier to fully realising them. I wonder if cutting those sections, and relaying most of this story through dialogue with Chang instead, would have allowed the production to create one really strong UPP character (enough to give us a view into their world) instead of several weaker ones.
In narrative terms, then, it’s perhaps all still a tad too sprawling – something that doesn’t matter too much in the space of a novel, but which can work against the dramatic tension of a Hollywood movie script. The result is a story that isn’t as compelling as it should have been. There’s no real dread or adrenaline rush – just a story that hurries along without much in the way of escalating stakes.
The four main films begin with what narrative theorists call open space and open time. In layman’s terms, the scripts initially cover longer periods of time (hours, days or longer portrayed in minutes of screen time) and wide stretches of space (fields of stars, space ships and space stations, alien worlds and alien derelicts). However, the genius in the format is that what starts off open rapidly contracts.
Open time becomes closed time (the real-time or near real-time countdowns at the end of every movie) and open space becomes closed space (claustrophobic corridors and air ducts). This never quite happens with Gibson’s Alien III. We continue to see what happens to the Rodina, pulling us out of the tension building on Anchorpoint, and thus we lack the same closing in of the world that drives the excitement of the denouement. Moreover, Anchorpoint is the size of a small moon and, unlike the not-quite-as-large Nostromo, we never feel threatened by the space itself. Its wildlife preserve and laboratories never manage to take on the ominous emptiness of the deserted Hadley’s Hope colony, and we never feel the closeness of its corridors.
Tweaks and adjustments
Maggs certainly tightens up the script, so this version is certainly more tense than in Gibson’s earlier versions. The fault is more with the source material than the production itself.
Maggs beefs up Bishop’s role and gives him the most character development. This is unsurprising, given Gibson’s interest in cyberpunk. In fact, Bishop seems snarkier than before, and takes ‘the long view’ to protecting humans (although this directly contradicts his programming as described in Aliens), changing quite a bit from his previous, more passive role.
The audio drama also heads in some different directions, although subtly, than its comic-book counterpart. In general, the few story changes Maggs does make are sensible and strengthen the narrative. It would be interesting to see what he could could do with an Alien movie.
The evolving lifecycle of the alien
The airborne-contagion idea still doesn’t really work, despite a bit more explanation in this version. Bishop at least theorises why the viral mode of reproduction might occur in certain circumstances – it’s an adaptive measure, presumably secondary to the usual egg-laying method of procreation. However, as this method of reproduction is far more efficient (and rapid) than the egg-chestburster-alien model, it begs the question why such a ‘perfect organism’ would bother with the multi-stage process at all.
A virus, especially one that appears to be airborne via spores, could quickly sweep planets and create aliens in matter of hours. The traditional method would take days, weeks or even months, as hives spread and hosts are immobilised.
This secondary reproductive method could be triggered by genetic manipulation, but it’s never very clear if this is so and how that might occur. Perhaps it’s a defence mechanism of the eggs – they emit spores when threatened to ensure the survival of the nest, but these spores are limited in mobility and number, so can only infect a small number of hosts. But the reaction of the proper alien to the hybrids is one of hostility, suggesting these are not standard parts of the alien ecosystem.
One thing is clear, though: the less precise the alien lifecycle becomes, the less realistic it becomes. And the less believeable its biology, the less scary it is and the more ridiculous it becomes as a result.
It’s all too radical a departure, and on-screen the hybrids probably would have been corny (think about the Newborn in Resurrection which hit screens a whole 10 years after Gibson’s 1987 first draft and still looked awful). Finding an alternative hook to the ‘alien as virus’ idea would have been better.
In the audio drama itself, the hybrids emerge through a moulting process which sounds like a person cackling and mimicking an ape at the same time. It’s unintentionally comical and is perhaps my least favourite part of the story. To be fair, though, how do you illustrate a human shedding her skill to reveal an alien underneath? The potential for disaster was always going to be high.
Cold War anxiety and 80s xenophobia
The Cold War allegory still feels dated, but the UPP aren’t quite the faceless ‘space Commies’ of the earlier drafts. The more I think about Gibson’s story, the more I wonder if the script would have been better served had the UPP instead been replaced with a rival corporation – perhaps with its own spies in the Company, mirroring but not quite the same as the previous traitors, Ash and Burke.
That would fit the Alien universe more closely, and allow for further development of the themes of corporate greed and backstabbing, while expanding the setting in interesting and plausible ways. The rival goals of each megacorp could be tangibly different, to underscore the cynicism of Wey-Yu: the rival wants to develop ‘new alloys, new vaccines’, while the Company wants to develop weapons.
And rather than relying on a series of unfortunate coincidences to free the aliens, it could have been industrial sabotage. This would again mirror, but remain distinct from, actions taken in the first two movies. Either of Fox and Welles could have been the spy – or perhaps one of the scientists, for scientific or ostensibly altruistic purposes. The Cold Forge does this well, with the spy being the protagonist herself.
Characters absent, or put on a bus
Another character sorely under-utilised in the script is Ripley. Putting her in a coma seems lazy, and the character is sorely missed. Reducing her to a weak, passive character goes against every bit of character development she’s had so far. Eventually, Fox realised she was essential and brought her back. I would, however, like to see the version of this story that manages to include her sensibly.
Likewise, Newt is shipped off to Earth with little to do, and that, too, feels like a wasted opportunity. Imagine if she’d snuck off the Sulaco and tried to stay on Anchorpoint – her natural hiding place is the ventilation system, after all. Ripley could have tried to find her, giving her another reason to work against the clock instead of just escaping and blowing the station up.
Or Ripley could kept her holed up on an escape pod while she went to set the self-destruct protocol, telling her to stay put at all costs (and evacuate if an alien tries to enter) only to find that Newt (being Newt) had crept off to rescue one of the lemurs we see earlier, but which seem like a dropped plot point. Ripley’s heroism could have rubbed off on the little girl, resulting in our tall, curly-haired protagonist tracking her adopted daughter and the animal she’s rescued in a dying space station, only to find Newt ahead of her and tracking her down instead. The student would become the master, and we would have a neat callback to the Jonesy/Newt rescues of the earlier films.
Chang, the hero that could have been
Moving onto the UPP main character, though, this adaptation again does it better. Chang is an interesting character who could have been given more airtime to truly flourish. Perhaps, if the film had reached completion, she could have been elevated to protagonist status to replace Ripley. The inciting incident (the point at which things start to happen) could have been Chang arriving at Anchorpoint (at that point still in control of its samples, though the civilians on the station wouldn’t know), warning of impending doom (the audience still unaware of exactly what went down at Rodina except for her testimony), and then teaming up with the survivors of the Sulaco when everything inevitably turns to shit.
In fact, such a structure could easily have been adapted for Ripley instead, when Sigourney Weaver inevitably decided to return, if that were needed. But Chang would be an interesting protagonist in herself – a former supporter of corporate interests (albeit different interests to the ones we usually see) who nevertheless joins the side of the ‘good guys’ and helps bridge the rivalries on both sides. As a mirror to Ripley, she would be a strong character even if the series’ star had returned (which, of course, she eventually would do).
Theme and clarity
The only real benefit of having the UPP as a nation is that it allows the story to explore xenophobia against other humans – there are political aliens as well as literal aliens, and the hybrids represent another ‘alien’ faction subject to xenophobia from the ‘true’ breed. But it all becomes a little muddled in its complexity, and it loses the elegance of the earlier movies.
When the films are at their best, there is a clear story, well executed, without too many fiddly bits. Maggs manages to make the most of this script, but with more dramatic licence (something he may have shied from, or which Fox might have expressly forbidden) could have delivered something more compelling. Ridley Scott’s prequels largely flopped for the same reason.
In truth, I think the simplicity of a slightly tweaked alien (like the runner) actually worked better in Alien 3 than the idea of vastly changed monsters. Mostly, audiences aren’t looking for cool new critters (consider the lookwarm reactions to the neomorph and Newborn). But the idea of aliens taking on their hosts’ traits has been around since early interviews with Scott after Alien, so why hybridise the creatures even more?
The Alien 3 that was
What both the eventual adaptations of Gibson’s script show, however, is that the film Alien 3 ultimately made the right choice and settled on a monster that stays true to its origins while also spicing things up a little with its ceiling- and wall-racing antics. It has a strong central character with a strong arc. Its themes are clear: woman as alien in the male space, bodily autonomy against that starkly patriarchal world, redemption for the supposedly irredeemable, taking power in the face of powerlessness. Its ambience is disturbing and unrelenting.
Its weaknesses are well known. The script was being rewritten during filming. The film was edited to remove its key B plot and major character development, leaving many characters as disposable. In the much more fairly appraised Assembly Cut, the supposedly interchangeable characters included the brooding but sympathetic Clemens, set up as a love interest and fellow protagonist, only to be dispatched quickly in a surprise twist; the authorian Andrews, who objects to Ripley simply because she represents a loss of his control; the passive ’85’, whose constant deferring to authority gives way to heroism and redemption at the end; the fanatical Golic, who worships the ‘dragon’ and attempts to free it; Ripley’s would-be rapist Junior kills himself to capture the beast after he sees Ripley rescue his burning co-conspirator; and the preacher-like Dillon, who was once a vicious criminal and learns to set aside his own ‘temptation’ to do the right thing.
William Gibson’s script contains much that is intriguing, but needs development and finesse. Anecdote has it that producers David Giler and Walter Hill had expected a messy script with bold ideas from Gibson, but had instead received a perfectly serviceable script without the originality they’d wanted. I think that’s a fair assessment, and the reworking by Dirk Maggs confirms that enthusiasm alone couldn’t really make the script work without massive changes.
But this is a strong production based on that material, and despite the limitations of the script, it’s an enjoyable experience.
Would I recommend Alien III to die-hard fans? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to casual fans of the series? Probably not.
Sound off in the comments section below and let us know what you think.
*Except for the last and final entry, The Hexagonal Phase, which was based on Eoin Colfer’s official sequel, And Another Thing... However, the criticisms mainly centre on the material itself, which never reached the satirical heights of Adams’ own work, and which many fans disliked for its posthumous attempt to wrap up in the series.