William Gibson’s Alien3

…the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien. [William Gibson’s description of a wasp’s nest, from Neuromancer.]

Alien3As a sort of followup to my previous look at Anthony Powell and Ursula Le Guin’s script for an Earthsea film, I thought I’d look at another un-produced film script by a favourite author: William Gibson’s go at Alien3. It’s odd to think, given the William Gibson we have now — author of three trilogies of literary techno-thrillers set in a series of progressively closer futures — that he might once have been considered the obvious candidate for an Alien script. The draft that’s out there on the internet (I got mine here) is apparently an early one, Gibson’s first ever go at a movie script, for which he only had the scripts for Alien and Aliens as a guide. (According to Gary Westfahl’s book on Gibson, this is actually a “shortened version” of what Gibson produced.) Gibson’s Alien3 is far more the sort of thing you’d expect as a followup to those first two films than what we actually got. It’s also far more a product of the 80s, when it was presumably written, than the overpoweringly dark 90s film David Fincher ultimately produced.

The Sulaco, from Aliens

It starts with the Sulaco — the spaceship carrying Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Bishop at the end of Aliens — straying briefly into the territory of the Union of Progressive Peoples, a clear USSR-analog, considering the fact that they exist in an uneasy nuclear standoff with the “capitalist cartels” that include the Weyland Yutani corporation, and the fact that their people have names like Suslov and Lenko. The UPP board the Sulaco, lose one man to a face-hugger (Gibson gets the alien action in quickly — a face-hugger and full-size creatures within the first few pages), then depart with android Bishop’s upper body, before letting the Sulaco drift on, to be picked up by the space station Anchorpoint (“the size of a small moon”). Anchorpoint supposedly has no military or Company loyalties — it’s populated by what the Company’s Milisci division dismiss as “idealists”, “liberals”, and people with “a certain antipathy to Military Sciences”, in other words ordinary citizens — but the Company have been wanting this bio-weapon since Alien, and they’re not going to let anything get in their way. The trouble is, as they soon realise, the UPP have probably got the alien, too, and it’s at this point the script seems most of its era: the UPP and the Company both suspect that the other is going to develop the alien for potential use as a weapon, therefore the only thing to do is develop it themselves just to keep up. A biological arms race begins. And, with the alien creature as technology rather than just a movie monster, this seems far more like William Gibson territory.

Gibson reworks the alien, stripping it back literally to its DNA. In one scene, we get to see how a strand of alien bio-matter wraps itself around human DNA and transforms it instantaneously. (In a nice touch, a microscope shot of alien bio-matter reveals how its micro-structure echoes the macro: its “lines and textures recalling the interior of the derelict ship in ALIEN.”) Suddenly, the alien is not just the creature we’ve encountered in the previous two films, it’s a virus that works at the genetic level. Gibson’s “New Beast”, as he calls it, doesn’t emerge as a chest-burster, but as a full-person burster, ripping off its human host like the Hulk rips off a shirt. And it’s not only humans who get the alien-DNA-bonding experience. Gibson gives us an alien lemur, primates strung up with Giger-goo awaiting “the change”, and even an alien-ised cabbage.

Yes, an alien-ised cabbage:

Two of the Styrofoam structures have been overgrown with a grayish parody of vegetation, glistening vine-like structures and bulbous sacs that echo the Alien biomech motif. Patches of thick black mould spread to the styrofoam and the white deck.

HICKS: It was… cabbages or something…

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from the Doctor Who story, The Horror of Fang Rock

Back in the UPP, before the aliens escape, Gibson has one of his pseudo-Soviets speculate on the technological nature of the aliens:

SUSLOV: Perhaps it is the fruit of some ancient experiment… A living artefact, the product of genetic engineering… A weapon. Perhaps we are looking at the end result of yet another arms race…

(Which chimes in nicely with the direction Ridley Scott took the franchise in with Prometheus.)

For about half the script, Gibson’s Alien3 brushes against the sort of futuristic Cold War techno-thriller that’s more his kind of thing. Then the alien breaks free in both the UPP space station and Anchorpoint, and we’re where we expect an Alien film to be: a race to escape from the base before it self-destructs, but on a larger scale than the previous two films. Gibson sticks to the Alien and Aliens formula, but uses his new, viral version of the alien to provide some interesting riffs on what we’ve already seen (including a man turning into an alien while in a space-suit, and an alien chase in the vacuum outside the space station).

Ripley is all but absent, waking up only to see an alien and become instantly catatonic. Newt, too, is seemingly there for continuity’s sake alone. (She gets shipped off to Earth before the aliens escape. And Ripley is jettisoned in a lifeboat while still comatose, so she can return for a sequel.) The main stars of this version of Alien3 are Hicks (the surviving marine from Aliens) and Bishop.

Newt and Ripley

The script has a few signature moments of laconic description from Gibson the hard-boiled techno-writer and futuristic beatnik: “The cubicle, terminally sloppy, resembles the nest of a high-tech hamster.” “His office is furnished in the best futuro-Pentagon style…” “…his smile a heartless display of state-of-the-art enamel-bonding techniques”. A chest-burster is “suspended there like an eyeless fetal dolphin”. Best line of all, though, has to be: “The Aliens tear into the Marines like living chainsaws.”

At the end, Gibson opens the way to further sequels by having Bishop suggest it’s time to stop running from the aliens, track them down to their source, and wipe them out:

BISHOP: This goes far beyond mere interspecies competition. These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter.

He even suggests this might be a way to end the Cold War:

You’re a species again, Hicks. United against a common enemy.

I quite like Gibson’s Alien3. Had it been made, it would have been more what people expected from the franchise, though its transformation of the aliens from large-scale creatures to a sort of genetic virus would have ramped up the pace of future films to near Apocalyptic proportions — suddenly, anything could at any moment turn into an alien version of itself. And with Newt (infected?) already shipped off to Earth, and Ripley drifting yet again in a lifeboat, you can see how an Alien 4 might map out.

According to David Giler (on the making-of documentary on the Alien3 Blu-Ray), they got Gibson to write the script because they were expecting a lot of good ideas that could then be formed into a proper film script, but what they got, in his opinion, was “a perfectly-executed script that wasn’t all that interesting.” I can see what he means, in that Gibson toes the line of the previous two films, rather than providing the sort of game-changing wild ideas you might have expected from this happening, hip new writer. But this expectation may have been down to misunderstanding just what it was that was happening and hip about Gibson. He wasn’t — and isn’t — a machine for transforming genres, although that may have been how he was perceived at the time; he’s a writer who’s best at doing his own thing, who just happened to transform a genre (SF, cyberpunk) on the way.



I will, usually, watch sequels & prequels to my favourite films, but never with any raised hopes. Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of my top three favourites (I can’t name a top one — the other two are Amelie and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), so of course I had to see Prometheus, Scott’s prequel-of-sorts to his breakthrough film. I don’t think it’s the sort of film to be ruined by discussing its plot — I heard one review beforehand and gleaned a good enough idea of what it was about to be in no way surprised — but this is a reaction to the film, not a review, so I’ll say it now: spoilers ahead.

My main feeling was Prometheus was pretty nihilistic. This may sound like an odd criticism for a horror film, but it was only after watching it that I realised how much Alien (and Aliens), being about survival in the face of terrible odds, are so life-affirming. They use their horror elements to increase the sense of the preciousness of life. Prometheus, though it does have many similar situations, doesn’t have the same feel at all. Perhaps because it’s more preoccupied with philosophical questions, its survival/action elements are tainted with a dour fatality, a feeling of “Yeah, but survive for what?” In a sense, the horror elements — one coming from the threat to individual survival, the other dealing with the ultimate source of human life — come from both sides at once, trapping the viewer in a pincer movement, and leaving no room for a sense of hope. I’ve come across criticisms of the film saying it doesn’t answer the philosophical questions it raises, but I don’t think that’s a weak point — the raising of philosophical questions (“Where do we come from? Where are we going?”) without answers is entirely valid, as it acknowledges very real areas of doubt. And doubt is okay. There’s a lot of it about. Besides, what possible answers could the film provide that would be in any way satisfying?

So, why does the film feel so nihilistic? It could be because a core trio of the main characters are so cold to each other (one, David, being a robot, another, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, whose utter coldness at the beginning — she changes midway, with no real reason — prompted what I thought was the best line in the script, when Captain Janek asks her “Are you a robot?”). But the closest I can come to identifying it lies in the imagery of the film. Alien was famous for having a lot of H R Giger’s warped images centring on the idea of impregnation and gestation (the way the alien enters & gestates in its human prey, for instance, or the way the main action takes place in the confines of a spaceship addressed as “Mother”); while Aliens was much more about motherhood (Ripley’s adoption of the traumatised Newt, plus of course the vast alien mother she fights at the end). Prometheus‘s main image, though, is of abortion, both actually (Doctor Elizabeth Shaw’s rather tacked-on super-fast pregnancy, and its termination) and metaphorically (what the alien Engineers are planning to do to their creations). The film also brings in what could be called a paternal strand, with the selfish, unfeeling presence of trillionaire Peter Weyland, and his quest to meet his makers (expecting, for some reason, paternalistic Gods, but not, of course, getting them). And this brings up a sort of flipside to the abortion imagery, voiced by the android David, who at one point asks, “Doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents?” An idea the film seems to accept without argument. So, Prometheus seemed to be mostly about parents wanting to kill their children, and children wanting to kill their parents — actually, metaphorically, and theologically. The result is a picture of a totally bleak, uncaring, in fact actively hostile, universe, with none of the contrasting, messy, crew camaraderie of Alien, or Aliens‘ feel of an impromptu family developing in the face of danger. In Prometheus, human survival has no point, because humanity isn’t human enough.

After Alien, Aliens worked so well because it took the basic idea of the first film (the perfect killer alien let loose on a bunch of humans) and put it in a slightly different genre. Alien was survival horror, and was about the individual; Aliens was a military film, and was about the survival of the group, the protection and raising of children (and, on the flipside, a new generation of alien creatures). After Aliens, I thought there was only one way to make a third film, and that was to bring the creatures to Earth (and so be about the survival of the race). I was disappointed, then, when the third Alien film settled for a sort of half-and-half Alien/Aliens hybrid, which worked on neither score, while the fourth (made by one of my otherwise favourite directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was totally wrong for the series) might have worked as a dark comedy, had he been allowed to go really OTT, but was never going to be anything more than a footnote in the series. Prometheus, though it abandons the Alien creature, and though it is about the survival of the race, doesn’t do anything sufficiently different from Alien or Aliens to be judged on its own merits. (Considering the difference in plots, the film has an awful lot of similar scenes and situations, some of which feel they’ve been inserted merely for similarity’s sake.)

Guillermo del Toro saying he can’t make Mountains of Madness because Prometheus covers too similar ground is a great pity; Mountains of Madness would at least take the threat to Earth, and would make it that much more immediate and visceral. It also wouldn’t have had the baggage of previous films to feel it had to conform to. Not that Prometheus is bad, just that it isn’t as good as Alien or Aliens.


The Terror & Drood by Dan Simmons

Two books I enjoyed recently, both by Dan Simmons, are The Terror and Drood. Both are set in the 19th century, both feature elements of supernatural horror against a strongly-researched historical background and some good, convincing characterisation. Both are pretty big books, too, but more than justify their length — they’re the sort of novels you want to dwell in, just to linger in their very real-feeling worlds.

The Terror is about the Franklin expedition to find a northwest passage through the arctic, which set out in 1845 and, after last being sighted on the 26th July in Lancaster Sound, was not heard from again. The expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — fitting names considering the grisly end they came to, as subsequent missions to at first rescue, then simply find out what happened to the expedition, uncovered hints of cannibalism after the two ships became icebound in a vicious Arctic winter. To this already taut mix of dwindling food supplies, freezing temperatures, treacherous weather, scurvy and other diseases, not to mention the very real threat of mutiny as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Simmons adds a supernatural element from Inuit mythology — a demonic creature out there in the frozen wastes, preying on the explorers more out of a need for vengeance than food. At times, this supernatural element can seem superfluous, considering the hell Simmons is already putting his characters through, but towards the end of the novel it becomes increasingly central.

I knew I’d like The Terror from the start. Like Alien, and (even more) like a 19th century version of Carpenter’s The Thing — both films I love for their tense, bleak, claustrophobic atmospheres — it’s about an isolated group of human beings in hostile surroundings facing a dreadful, demonic threat. Simmons conjures the harshness of the environment, the desperation of the situation, and the arrogance of the age brilliantly, thus making the supernatural element all the more believable.

Drood, on the other hand, is set in more civilised climes — the London of Charles Dickens, to be precise — though parts of it prove to be anything but civilised. Narrated by Dickens’s sometime friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins, it addresses the enigma of Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood (in Simmons’s Drood, not Dickens’s) is an almost supernatural figure, somewhat like the Phantom of the Opera in appearance, and, like the Phantom, he lives underground — in the catacombs, sewers and cellars beneath London, where an equally Dickensian sub-city exists. But the real focus of the book (though for the most part in a gently simmering subtext) is Wilkie Collins’s barely friendly rivalry with the effortlessly superior Dickens (it was Simmons’s description of Wilkie Collins as Salieri to Dickens’s Mozart that got me wanting to read the book).

Both novels are evidently highly researched, but whereas the wealth of solid detail in The Terror only ever made the setting and story more concrete and believable, sometimes the need to stick to the actual events of Dickens’s well-documented and necessarily complex life diffused the purity of Drood‘s central story for me (though this was perhaps because I didn’t know that much about Dickens’s life). Although, as narrator Wilkie Collins is an opium addict who has frequent encounters with perhaps hallucinated, perhaps real supernatural beings, it’s difficult to see how the book could have worked as well if it were tightly focused. Its edge-of-control messiness may well be an inseparable part of it.

I enjoyed both books a great deal — The Terror a shade more, perhaps, because its story was a little tighter, but the way Wilkie Collins’s narration surrounds you in his very real, sometimes feverish world pretty much made up for that, and, of the two, it’s Drood I feel I’m more likely to re-read, simply because of its appropriately Dickensian messiness.