What is the strange story behind the creation of “Alien 3”?

Quick Answer: Following the critically acclaimed Alien and its sequel Aliens, the franchise took a considerable nosedive with Alien 3. The film is considered vastly inferior to the previous installments for several reasons, including the producers’ decision to kill off a number of major characters. But behind the camera, the film’s inferiority has a storied underbelly, one that extends beyond an underwhelming plot. After a bevy of production problems and a rotating cast of screenwriters, 20th Century Fox landed on Vincent Ward to pen the story. His concept, however, which Sigourney Weaver described as “original and arresting,” was abandoned by Fox. Had Ward’s version panned out, the result could have been vastly different; Alien 3 could have been infinitely stranger and arguably grander than the first two films.

Following Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed Alien (1979) and the positively received sequel Aliens (1986), it’s fair to say that the Alien franchise took a nosedive upon the release of Alien 3 (1992). Although the film could have possibly stood alone as a cult hit, the comparison to its predecessors has caused fans and critics alike to consider Alien 3 vastly inferior to the previous installments. (The film is held in such low regard, in fact, that the eventual Alien 5 will ignore the events of Alien 3, thus wiping it off the map of the franchise.) One obvious complaint is in regards to the plot; Newt and Hicks are killed off immediately, which became one of the biggest gripes among viewers. That said, the film’s inferiority has a storied underbelly, one that extends beyond an underwhelming plot. In reality, Alien 3 came close to being a much stranger film than the one that ultimately came to fruition.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3

Following the success of the first two Alien films, 20th Century Fox was keen to keep the franchise alive with a third movie. Thus began a years-long attempt to get Alien 3 off of the ground. After approaching and working with various writers and directors, Fox opted to take the franchise in a new direction. Following the arrival and departure of several screenwriters, they appointed writer Vincent Ward to come up with a story. Having initially turned down the project, Ward eventually said yes to the persistent studio and accepted an invitation to Los Angeles to pitch his ideas.

Although the miscellany of Alien 3 screenwriters each introduced a variety of storylines that would have vastly altered the mythology of the franchise, Ward’s doomed screenplay promised to be visually arresting and grandiose in scope. Indeed, his vision was immortalized in David Hughes’ book, “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.” After pleasing Fox executives with his pitch, Ward was quickly given the green light to develop the idea further. Crucially, Sigourney Weaver gave her seal of approval as well, describing Ward’s concept as “original and arresting.” The project gained momentum quickly. About a month or so into the process, Fox announced a release date for the following year.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3

Ward’s story focused on his vision of a “Wooden Planet,” an archaic celestial structure that’s around 3 miles in diameter. The planet is inhabited by Luddite monks who live in a religious order. When Ripley’s ship crash-lands in a river on the biosphere, she unknowingly releases an Alien into the space station’s sewerage system. When the monks begin to disappear, they quickly blame Ripley, as they believe she has bought a demon with her. Although few of Ward’s ideas survived the final cut, some crucial plot points remained. For one, Ward conceptualized Ripley’s being impregnated with an Alien, as well as her decision to sacrifice herself in order to kill the creature in utero. In Ward’s version, however, he further explored the concept of Ripley’s parental instincts kicking into gear. He even showed the character experiencing morning sickness. The writer also wanted to delve deeper into Ripley’s character. In the movie’s Blu-ray extras footage, Ward says, “If Alien was about a rookie [and] Aliens was about a veteran, Alien 3 was about someone looking back at their life and the choices they had made.”

As Ward’s vision expanded in scope, some of the major players began to cast doubt over the concept. Anticipation of logistical problems associated with constructing a wooden planet incited doubt among the production crew in particular. Similarly, funding such a project was worrisome to studio execs. As construction began on the wooden set, Fox pulled the plug on Ward. He left the project and made way for a young music video director named David Fincher.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3

Although the film’s complications didn’t end after the studio founds its final director in Fincher, Some of Ward’s ideas did make it to the final version of the movie, indicating some semblance of compromise within Fox. Both versions take place in a male community in which the men are celibate. Additionally, both versions see the deaths of Ripley, Hicks and Newt. And, in both Ward’s and Fincher’s versions, Ripley befriends one of the inhabitants and is blamed for the men disappearing. Despite these elements, Ward maintains that his version would have been a completely different version of the story. Sure, there were many elements that survived, but in a bid to commercialize the project, the studio toned down the art house vibe, which resulted in less exploration into Ripley’s character after the previous films. Ripley’s demise would have made a lot more sense if Ward had stayed on and saw out his idea that Ripley was questioning her life choices.

Could Alien 3 have ever been as good as its predecessors? Probably not. But had Ward’s version panned out, the result could have been vastly different. Moreover, Alien 3 could have been infinitely stranger and arguably grander than the first two films. Ultimately, given the third film’s host of production and script issues, it is amazing that the movie ever got made at all. What we ended up with is a mishmash of ideas and concepts, something that could have been avoided had Fox stuck it out with Vincent Ward.