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Alien 3: The Lost Tale Of The Wooden Planet
We investigate Vincent Ward's Alien movie that never was...
Everyone knows that Alien3 had a troubled production - but what people don't know is just how far down the line director Vincent Ward's "wooden planet" version of the story got before it was jettisoned in favour of the prison planet which eventually appeared onscreen. What follows is Empire's investigation into the history of this lost movie, with input from Ward himself and his creative team on what went on and what went wrong...


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Stephen Ellis renders the
Stephen Ellis renders the "ants' nest" world in all its glory.

The fact that Alien3 was a nightmare for virtually all involved is not entirely unknown. Its director (actually the third hired) has since disowned it. It went massively over-budget; at $63 million, it astonishingly cost more than twice as much as Alien and Aliens combined. The production overran to such a degree that its initial announced Easter '90 bow was pushed back to Memorial Day, 1992. Despite a robust eventual $160 million worldwide gross, it opened weakly and was critically drubbed. "A muddled effort that offers little more than visual splendour to recommend it," shrugged Variety at the time. "[It] goes back to square one and proves inferior to both its predecessors."

In particular, commentators bemoaned the fact that, unlike James Cameron's combat-movie sequel, which displayed inventive genius in evolving the story of harried Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley while locating it in an entirely different genre to Ridley Scott's horror/sci-fi original, David Fincher's Alien3 amounted to little more than a glum retread of the first outing. But Alien3 didn't have to have turned out that way. Indeed, it very nearly didn't. For a brief time, it was shaping up to be something daring, fascinating and, in terms of the setting at least, unique.

The history of sci-fi cinema is littered with intriguing, shadowy almost-movies; dark, fantastic visions that never quite coalesced into celluloid reality. So it's hardly surprising that, determining immediately after Aliens stormed the box office in 1986 that there should be a third instalment, saga producers Walter Hill and David Giler midwifed a whole brood of alternative futures for Ripley and her phallic-headed nemeses during the next six years.

Initially, Giler and Hill hired Neuromancer writer William Gibson, the man credited with creating the cyberpunk genre. They handed him a 12-page treatment and suggested he might turn it into something interesting. Gibson recalls it as "like a Cold War in space with genetic manipulation of the Alien replacing nuclear war". He set about adapting Hill and Giler's idea, but the '87 writers' strike hit, and Gibson abandoned the project after rushing an unsatisfactory draft (although he did manage to inject the motif of barcode tattoos on characters' heads, something Fincher stuck with for his version).

Mike Worrall's original art from 1989/'90, here showing the Alien launching itself out of a trap door.
Mike Worrall's original art from 1989/'90, here showing the Alien launching itself out of a trap door.
Whatever Gibson achieved during this time, it was enough to attract the project's first director. In late 1988, burly, blond Finnish helmer Renny Harlin, who had just made A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, was announced as the man to make Alien III (its working title) - an appropriate enough act to follow James Cameron, at least in terms of physique and love of explosions and hard women. His "first principle", he states on the Alien Quadrilogy's excellent documentary, was that he wouldn't copy either Scott or Cameron. "My original approach was that we place the story on the planet where the Aliens originate from, and really explain what they are, and maybe that they're not born to be bad after all."

This concept was swiftly nixed by the studio, 20th Century Fox. Alien homeworld? Far too pricey. Even so, Giler, Hill and Harlin needed more development funds out of Fox; they hired Near Dark and The Hitcher scribe Eric Red for a quick write to keep the suits satisfied. His script played further on the idea of genetic experiments on the Alien. And, at the producers' behest, it ejected Ripley entirely - they liked the idea of allowing her time out, then bringing her back for a fourth instalment. (It would also, conveniently, free the project from the constraints of Sigourney Weaver's availability; and besides, she was in the process of suing Fox for unpaid profits from Aliens.) But Harlin remained unconvinced. Red's script was shelved.

Next at the keyboard was David Twohy, who had just written Critters 2 and who, a decade later, would pen and direct the incredibly fun, Aliens-alike Vin Diesel vehicle Pitch Black. Twohy's setting was an interstellar penal colony, the main character a prisoner. (It was here, one imagines, that the seeds were sown for Pitch Black and Diesel's Riddick character.) Harlin, however, lost interest. He went to Hill and complained that all they'd done for the past year was circle the same idea, which offered little more than "just having more guns and more Aliens". He walked. His next film was Die Hard 2.

The new boss at Fox wasn't too happy, either. Joe Roth was quick to read Twohy's script, and even quicker to announce, "I won't make this film without Sigourney." Weaver was never that ecstatic at the idea of returning. "It's a little like childbirth," she told Premiere magazine in '92. "The first couple of years after you make an Alien film, the idea of doing another is not that appealing." Still, she agreed with Fox that she'd do it, on condition that the story be suitably impressive, original and non-dependent on guns (as a vocal member of Handgun Control, Weaver had never been comfortable with Aliens' heavy-duty pulse-rifle antics) - and that she approved of the director. Twohy duly set about writing Ripley into his screenplay.

Around this time, Hill was in New York, where he serendipitously saw a film called The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time. Low-budget and ostensibly 'arthouse', it opens with stark, monochromatic, grainy footage of a Celtic medieval island-village whose snow-whipped, shivering inhabitants shelter from the encroaching Black Death, and goes on to tell, in vivid, hallucinatory colour, the story of a group of villagers led by a boy-visionary, who somehow tunnel through the Earth to 20th century New Zealand. Never preoccupied by the mechanics of 'time-travel', never burdened by expository 'What year is this?!' dialogue, it's a feast of sensory dislocation, about as near as you'll get to seeing the modern world through the eyes of someone born in the 14th century. Hill was blown away. He'd found the director of Alien III.

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