Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
When David Fincher made his directorial debut in 1992 with Alien 3, there was nothing ambiguous about his intent. Before the opening credits were even finished, Fincher killed off every surviving character from the previous film but Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, negating the happy ending of James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens and announcing himself as a bleak cinematic poet of despair and cynicism – a promise that would be kept with brutal force in Fincher’s subsequent film, Se7en. Although Alien 3 gets better with every repeat viewing, and the context provided by Fincher’s later work has confirmed its philosophical seriousness, at the time of its release I must admit that I was taken aback by the swift, merciless brutality of that first scene. While I admired the clarity with which Fincher announced his willingness to pull the rug out from under the audience – it was immediately obvious that we were not in safe hands with this guy – as a fan of Cameron’s film, I was bummed out that characters like Hicks (Michael Biehn), Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and Newt (Carrie Henn) were so cavalierly dismissed from the series.
Like any true Alien disciple, I eventually became aware of the fact that Fincher’s approach to the mythology was far from inevitable; in fact, it was simply the last in a long line of premises that producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill explored following the success of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original and Cameron’s ambitious follow-up. Renny Harlin, who toyed with an idea in which the aliens came to earth, was attached as a director for months, as was Vincent Ward, who was weeks away from production when creative differences led to his exit and Fincher’s arrival. Fincher inherited a number of Ward’s designs and some of his narrative ideas, though the script was considerably rewritten and reconceived throughout production by Giler and Hill, who delivered new pages to Fincher on a near daily basis. Before all of this went down though (and before writers including Eric Red and David Twohy came and went from the project), there was an incarnation of Alien 3 written by cyberpunk visionary William Gibson, whose script became legendary among Alien enthusiasts after it leaked online and was ultimately adapted into a Dark Horse comic series.
Now Gibson’s script has been realized as an Audible audiobook, and my desire to experience a version of Alien 3 that retains Bishop and Hicks as significant characters has finally been fulfilled. (Though what Gibson giveth, Gibson also taketh away – Ripley spends most of the story unconscious, a decision that was evidently made when there were concerns about Sigourney Weaver’s reluctance to return to the series.) Like Fincher’s film, Gibson’s script picks up right where Aliens left off, with Ripley, Bishop, Hicks and Newt floating through space in hyper sleep; in Gibson’s story, however, the passengers aren’t killed off but survive long enough to encounter both socialist commandos from the “Union of Progressive Peoples” and a space station manned with soldiers and technicians in the employ of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose desire to exploit the discovery of the aliens for their weapons division is a constant throughout the Alien series. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Bishop left planet LV-426 with alien genetic material that creates serious problems for all of the battling factions in Gibson’s world – and raises interesting questions about the origins of the species and about Weyland-Yutani that look forward to Ridley Scott’s eventual prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Experiencing Gibson’s script as a radio play with evocative sound design and music isn’t exactly the same thing as seeing it fully realized on screen as a feature film, but the audiobook is both a satisfying substitute for the movie that was never made and a unique artistic achievement in its own right. The best thing about it is the way that director Dirk Maggs strikes a perfect balance between clarity and mystery, providing enough detailed aural information to make the world come alive but then leaving enough to the imagination to allow the listener to picture his or her own version of what is happening. As a result, each audience member in effect “directs” their own movie in which the action is as gory or restrained as they find most effective and the alien creatures appear in the form most terrifying to each individual psyche. This brings the franchise back to Ridley Scott’s original intentions when he directed Alien in 1979 and opted to spend most of the film showing his creature only in brief glimpses and fragments, relying on the assumption that what the audience imagined would be scarier than anything he could show them. I’ve never entirely bought into this idea that what you can’t see is scarier than what you can – in that case, wouldn’t the scariest movie ever made be a blank screen? – but I do think the best horror filmmakers are the ones who know how to calibrate the balance between the known and the unknown.
Maggs, who has directed several Alien audiobooks for Audible, is terrific at striking this balance, and his Alien 3 is a wonderfully eerie and involving creation. The expert modulation of tone isn’t the only thing that reminded me of Sir Ridley’s original; there’s also a great deal of sheer delight taken in the old-fashioned pleasures of classical storytelling, a delight one can sense in Maggs and his actors that is infectiously shared with the listener. For all its innovations, the original Alien was in many ways the most basic kind of scary story told around a campfire that you could imagine, and the Audible version of Alien 3 is similarly primal in its stripped-down, back-to-basics sensibility. I find it fascinating that with all of the changes in the ways we create and consume art and entertainment, we’re now finding, via audiobooks and podcasts, a renewed popularity for the kinds of radio plays that galvanized listeners almost a hundred years ago. The satisfactions of Alien 3 are the same as the satisfactions of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, and the ability to stage Gibson’s work without the expense of mounting a studio feature film opens up all kinds of new possibilities. Series like Alien can now exist on multiple parallel tracks – I’d love to see Maggs and some other writers pick up where Gibson left off and continue this version of the story, creating a whole other version of the mythology to coexist alongside the one Scott has now expanded upon in Prometheus and Covenant. As someone who wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Hicks and Bishop, the chance Alien 3 offers to continue their adventures – with Biehn and Henriksen gleefully reprising their roles – and imagine new ones is a real gift.