Book Review: Alien 3 by Pat Cadigan, based on the Unproduced First-Draft Screenplay by William Gibson

Alien 3 has been saddled with challenges since it was first announced. Multiple directors and screenplay efforts came forward, and the end product borrowed elements from a few different ones, resulting in a 1992 theatrical release that fell a bit short with critics and viewers alike. In 2003, the Assembly Cut was produced to reintegrate much of the character development removed for the original release, and this produced a better version of the film, though still not one that could reach the heights of its predecessors Alien or Aliens. Almost 30 years after the original release, we get another look at William Gibson’s unproduced first-draft screenplay for the movie, in the form of a novelization by Pat Cadigan.

It picks up right where Aliens left off, with the Sulaco adrift in space, presumably on its way back to Earth. Due to a navigational glitch, it wanders into the territory of a group known as the Union of Progressive Peoples (UPP for short), who board the craft, get attacked by a stowaway facehugger (a similarity between this version and the film), and once that threat has been dealt with, they salvage the damaged artificial person, Bishop. Once the navigational course is corrected, they depart back to Rodina Station and analyze Bishop’s intel gathered during the events of Aliens. This leads to the UPP attempting to develop aliens in a lab. You can imagine how that turns out.

The Sulaco next shows up at Anchorpoint, a capitalist dream of shopping and research and administrative overhead. When the ship docks, the boarding crew gets attacked by additional stowaway aliens. Newt, Hicks, and Ripley are brought onto the station and not long after, Newt and Ripley depart separately, and the story becomes about Hicks and the inhabitants of the station. This seemed like a strange direction to go in, given that the first two movies leaned heavily on Ripley, and the bond between her and Newt became pivotal by the end of Aliens. For them to unceremoniously step out of the story, while a curious move, didn’t seem well justified. Maybe it made more sense in 1987 when it was written, back before Ripley had become firmly established as the long-running face of the franchise.

The most interesting part of this story is the new reproduction method of the aliens. There’s a strong emphasis on adaptation and how alien cells can seemingly merge with anything to create a new breed of bug. It seemed to channel components of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to explain (and not terribly well) this new means of reproduction. Rodina Station had already fallen to an alien infestation, and rather quickly and without much attention as far as the text is concerned, so too did Anchorpoint. Seriously, one minute there were one or two aliens and the next — seemingly in the span of a power nap — the entire station had been demolished and overrun with chitinous critters.

Several chapters are devoted to the evacuation of the station, but this only involves about a dozen characters, many of which exist primarily to get eaten, and those who do make it don’t demonstrate much development besides surviving an alien scourge. Bishop does play a much bigger role, but it’s not that different from his role in Aliens, though reading his internal monologue and how he viewed various situations was new. Despite having a marine presence on board Anchorpoint, they fumble making much of a dent in the alien menace and sprint for the lifeboats. I remember the Lord of the Rings movies getting teased for having excessive footage of people walking. That was my impression of the last third of this book. Walking, taking a break, quarrelling, walking some more, taking a break, some more quarrelling, a bomb is set to thwart any would-be inhuman followers, an alien shows up, kills a couple of people, then gets killed itself, and so on. It didn’t grab me. I didn’t get much excitement out of this long stretch. It seemed like it took them days to get to the lifeboats. I would have thought emergency exits would be easier to reach, but I suppose this could have been a sly jab at corporate inefficiency.

There are quotes and references to Aliens scattered liberally throughout the novel, to the point that they became practically expected and somewhat predictable. Before landing on LV-426, Hudson inquired whether their mission was going to be a stand-up fight or another bug hunt. While that movie featured both, this story ends up not really being either one — there are the usual Weyland-Yutani “let’s weaponize the alien” shenanigans that always go horribly awry, then a lot of reactionary behavior when they have a Marine who has dealt with the aliens before available to consult, but of course he gets ignored until it’s too late. And at that point, they run for the exits. It reminded me more of The Poseidon Adventure than something that belonged in the Alien universe.

The book itself is well produced, hard-cover with a soft dust jacket that has raised lettering and a nice sheen to the artwork. The green hue will surely help it stand out on your bookshelf. The material did make some unusual squeaky noises rubbing against the cover while I was reading. Nothing serious, just something I noticed. Acknowledgments follow the story, as well as information about the author’s other work and achievements, along with promotion of additional titles from Titan Books.

It’s hard to imagine a world where this story became Alien 3 instead of the movie we actually received. Would I have enjoyed it more had I seen this on the screen in 1992, before 30 more years of alien movies and books and games had come along? Hard to say, but in 2021, it serves mostly as a tepid tale of what might have been rather than an exceptional example of what still should be. It’s worth a read for fans who haven’t experienced this screenplay in any other form yet, and the birthing of the new alien type is something I’ve not seen anywhere else in the Alien universe, so that might be enough to draw in some readers on its own. However, it didn’t wow me enough to replace the existing Assembly Cut as the definitive story of what ultimately happened to Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and Bishop.

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Mark Buckingham

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