Though today has been agreed upon as a time to celebrate Alien and its action-packed sequel Aliens, I can't help but think of the third installment in 20th Century Fox's sci-fi horror franchise.
The film went through many permutations. At one time, Sigourney Weaver was definitely out and several writers, including William Gibson, were drafted to refocus the series on Michael Biehn's Corporal Dwayne Hicks. Renny Harlin was signed to direct the picture during this stage of development and one wonders if, perhaps, the following trailer was conceived of during that time:
The promise of getting to Earth is one the series has never actually delivered on short of Ripley entering the atmosphere at the end of Alien Resurrection.
Oh, and of course the Alien vs. Predator flicks.
But Weaver was eventually enticed to return with co-producer credit and some story input. As the story goes, she wanted to sleep with the Alien and she wanted Ripley to die. By this point, director Vincent Ward was developing a decidedly different film featuring monks in space abandoning almost all technology except for the systems keeping their wooden monastery/space station operational.
The film would also feature wildly different Aliens based on the creatures they impregnated. H.R. Giger returned to design some of these new takes on the Aliens. A key scene would see the monks fighting Aliens in a wheat field and it all ending up set ablaze. The apocalyptic vision sounds incredibly appealing, but it is unclear how Ward would have actually realized his mad, wonderful ideas.
Fox was ultimately unsure as well, so they let Ward go and brought in first-time director David Fincher. They also converted the already under-construction wooden sets to a more traditional steel appearance for the first — frankly — uninspired Alien film.
The plot finds Ripley surviving a fire on the Sulaco and landing on the penal planet Fury 161. The religious aspect remains somewhat as the prisoners/custodians of the planet's enormous furnace are believers in a faith devised by lead prisoner Dillon, played by Charles S. Dutton. From here, things get murky and as one reviewer described the theatrical version, it devolves into a bunch of men who look like Pete Postlethwaite — including Pete Postlethwaite — running around corridors.
In a so-called "assembly" cut of the film released on DVD and Blu-ray, Fincher emphasized the religious aspect more as a prisoner named Golic, played by Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, comes to believe that the Alien is a sort of divine deliverer. Dillon also has a chance to outline his faith a little more and when Ripley asks him to kill her, lest she birth an alien queen, his reticence becomes more underlined as a principle of his faith.
After a grueling shoot in the UK, Fincher would leave the film and its ultimate form was decided by Fox executives. That theatrical version is lean, but nonsensical as the Pete Postlethwaite look-a-likes (and Postlethwaite himself) never have a chance to distinguish themselves, making it difficult to keep track of characters and geography — evaporating the tension. Golic's newfound faith in the Alien and his ultimate fate are excised, making it seem that McGann just disappears from the film. The first few viewings, it seems he is taken by the Alien alongside Charles Dance's well-meaning medical officer in a sequence that is hard to parse. Much of the film is similarly unclear as it edits itself around abandoned ideas and characters.
Despite its flaws, Alien3 is a fascinating part of the series history, both for what it is and what it nearly was. We'll never know if the Ward version would've ended up a startling vision worthy of its predecessors. We'll never know if the Hicks series would've gone on and launched Biehn into super-stardom. But thanks to the film and its troubled history, we have these fascinating windows into franchise movie making and films that could've been.