Ghosts of Arceon: Tales from a Wooden World

Note: This is a blog post adaptation of Ep. 69 of Perfect Organism. To listen to the episode—which includes lots of interview audio, music, etc.—please click here. If you would like a copy of the script, you can access it here, for free.

by Patrick Greene

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

The history of film is full of ghosts. Ghosts of stories that never got made because they were too ambitious, or too expensive, or too weird. Too new. Too old. Too different.

In the late 1960s, Stanley Kubrick poured all of his considerable talent and stamina into a nearly 150-page treatment for a film on Napoleon. It would’ve called for 30,000 extras, and it would’ve cost more than the gross domestic product of some small nations. But he was coming right off the heels of the Oscar-winning 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he was the hot young talent in Hollywood. MGM tried to make the financials work, but ultimately passed. United Artists decided to explore the project, but got spooked when Rod Steiger’s Waterloo bombed at the box office. Ultimately, Kubrick was unwilling to compromise his vision—or his budget—and the project evaporated into the musty closets of history.

In the mid-nineties, Superman was everywhere—thanks largely to the infamous “Death of Superman” comics arc. Seeking to capitalize on this zeitgeist moment, Warner Brothers hired Kevin Smith to write a screenplay. The story, which he titled Superman Lives, looked to be a surefire hit. At Smith’s suggestion, the studio hired Tim Burton to direct the project. And to play their leading man, the studio signed none other than Nicholas Cage. Things were looking good for a release timed with the 60th anniversary of Superman’s first comic appearance. And then everything fell apart. A series of script rewrites ruined the cohesion of the original story. Burton, feeling like the project was stagnating, moved on to direct Sleepy Hollow. The script went through another two rewrites, and eventually the anniversary passed and everyone just sort of moved on.

But my favorite unfilmed script—my favorite Hollywood ghost—is a fantastical tale that a New Zealand director dreamt into life on an overseas flight about a vast wooden satellite filled with monks and candles and nightmares.

This is the story of Vincent Ward and John Fasano’s Alien III.

An unlikely hero

Things were not looking good for the third franchise installment by the late 1980s. The production had just lost its director, Renny Harlin, who would go on to direct Die Hard 2. The Gibson days were long gone, and the bones of those early scripts were settling into the cold earth.

But then David Giler happened to see a crazy feature out of New Zealand called The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time. It was about a band of 14th-century villagers seeking to escape the Black Death, and it featured a hell of a plot twist, and it'd gotten a five-minute standing ovation at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Giler, thinking he might've just found Hollywood's next big thing, got in touch with the filmmaker: a New Zealander named Vincent Ward.

Ward had spent much of his time post-Navigator on a new film called Map of the Human Heart. Things hadn't been going well. As he told The Independent in a 1993 interview:

At the time I was working on Map with my co-writer. I was broke, I'd spent a lot of money on going to the Arctic and interviewing anthropologists and dam-buster bomber pilots, and we were driving each other crazy. I was living in this basement in Australia, and the phone call came and I turned it down. But then they rang me back and said, 'We'll send you the script anyway.' I read it, I said no again. And then they rang me back a third time, and said, 'You can change the script if you like.' Well, by this time that basement was driving me crazy, so I said yes just to get out.

The script he's referring to, of course, was David Twohy's prison story.

So Ward got on a plane to Los Angeles and started thinking about what a new Alien film could look like. He'd been immersed in medieval imagery for the previous few years, having wrapped Navigator and written a book on the same time period called Edge of the Earth. Somewhere over the Pacific, these aesthetics began to merge with his understanding of the elements that made the previous two Alien films so successful, and an idea began to take shape.

By the time he'd landed at LAX, he had a story. With the help of John Fasano, an accomplished screenwriter and weapons expert, that story became a script they called Alien III.

The story

It begins inside a monastic glassworks. Light is playing off the dark walls; fire from molten liquid. By all appearances, it is the Middle Ages.

Brother John—a clear corollary to the character we'd eventually come to know as Clemens—is tending to the wounds of an injured monk. A monk named Brother Kyle sings a mocking song about how Brother John can always be counted on to administer aid to others, but can't fix his own problems.

Brother John emerges early on as the protagonist. He makes his way to the enormous library with his dog, Mattias. The Abbot—a character who'd eventually transform into Superintendent Andrews—allows Brother John to enter the library because he is using the knowledge he acquires there to keep the population of monks healthy, and the official Abbey Physician, Father Anselm, had recently died.

Brother John and Mattias the dog leave the library and take a journey through the abbey. We are then treated to a series of dramatic reveals, as the true nature of this wooden world comes to light.

From the script:

The door has opened onto the surface of a planetoid!

The curving horizon broken only by the very top of the Abbey bell tower poking through the levels below. Smoke curls from vents set into the surface. Sunken areas of the planet's surface are seas.

This is Arceon. A man-made orbiter. A shell of lightweight foamed steel, five miles in diameter.

Constructed by The Company on Special Order, with the habitable levels within finished in whatever material suits its end user.

John and Mattias stop for awhile on the exterior of this enormous satellite. They watch the cosmos by the shore of an artificial lake on the planetoid's surface. And then, this monk and his dog see something strange in the sky.

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

There is a star that stands out. It's brighter than the others, and it's moving quickly enough to be dragging a slight tail behind it—almost like a comet. And it appears to be moving towards them.

Other monks come out to watch the strange star. Over the course of a few days, three hundred monks have come out to rim the lake with Brother John and Mattias. The comet is getting closer. It's surrounded with fire. It is going to land on their floating abbey.

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

The comet smashes into the lake. Brother John hops into a small boat and furiously paddles out to see what it is. What he finds is an EEV—something unlike anything he's ever seen before. The monks, you see, are Luddites. They have shunned all forms of modern technology. It might as well have been a dragon landing in a medieval fortress.

In some ways, it is.

Brother John pries open the hatch and climbs in. He finds a complete mess of blood and torn fabrics, and the head of a child's doll. He also finds two cryotubes: one is destroyed, and one contains Ripley, who is alive.

The idea of killing of Hicks and Newt at the beginning of the film—arguably the most controversial and hotly debated aspect of Alien 3 as we eventually received it—originated here, in Ward's script. It was his idea. He wanted to clear away the baggage of the previous films—including Newt, whom he found "annoying"—and start afresh. He was still very interested in the ideas of parental bonds, as we'll see later in the story. But he wanted to explore those ideas from new angles, and felt killing Newt and Hicks off right at the beginning would set the story up to start with a clean slate.

Anyway, the monks are completely dumbfounded by the technology. It is completely alien to them. They manage to gather themselves enough to pull Ripley out of the wreckage, but not before Brother John finds a distress message Ripley had left before entering cryosleep. She says that the Sulaco was completely overrun with xenomorphs, prompting her to find an escape vehicle for herself and Newt. Hicks and Bishop, she says, were killed in the xeno struggle.

We are then treated to another early nightmare sequence à la Aliens. Ripley is laying in bed, recuperating. Brother John is in the room with her, keeping watch. Without warning, a xenomorph appears. It caresses her abdomen, cocking its head like a dog. Ripley screams and realizes it was all a terrible dream.

Eventually she recovers enough to make some sense of her surroundings; unfortunately for Ripley, the surroundings themselves make very little sense. She sees vast fields filled with monks working the land; she sees fishermen piloting small vessels across tiny lakes; she sees teams of workers building cottages out of wood and nails.

But she also sees enormous scaffolding, and realizes the monks on top of it are painting the sky.

She realizes that this whole world is inside the planetoid. The curved ceiling, which has enormous windows to let natural light inside, is actually the underside of the interior of the planetoid.

The Abbot then appears, followed by Brother John. We are quickly brought up to speed. From the script: "This is the Minorite Abbey within the man-made orbiter Arceon."

Ripley asks for a radio, and the Abbot replies that they have no radio, as they are "a monastic order that has renounced all modern technology. We live the old way. The pure way."

Ripley inquires about Newt, only to find out she hadn't survived the crash. Ripley had been the only living thing found on the ship.

Ripley then realizes that she must have brought a xenomorph with her. She panics, grabbing the monk's cassock. She tells him she has brought a monster with her, and it's been running free since she crash-landed nearly two days earlier. The monk looks at her, according to the script, "the way you'd look at that guy on the corner of Santa Monica and 3rd who's babbling about judgment day."

She calms herself down, explaining that she'd been on a mission to LV426 with a platoon of Colonial Marines. She says they'd left Earth six months to a year ago. The Abbot tells her this is impossible, and then lays out the background of where and (somewhat) when they are: From the script:

When we left Earth seventy years ago, it was on the brink of a New Dark Age. Technology was on the verge of destroying the planet's environment. A computer virus was threatening to wipe away all recorded knowledge. There didn't seem to be any way it could be averted. In the almost forty years since we were towed out here in hypersleep, the news that came with occasional supply ships only got worse. Finally, the ships stopped coming. We had to resign ourselves to the fact that worst had come to pass, and the Earth no longer existed.

Ripley decides she's getting nowhere with this insane conversation, and tries to refocus the Abbot on the danger a xenomorph would pose to the men in the colony. He dismisses her as having a "troubled mind," and leaves her in a locked room patrolled by two burly monks. No one—including Brother John, whose room it is—is allowed to enter.

Concept art by Mike Worrall

Concept art by Mike Worrall

Later on that night, a frantic monk wakes Brother John (who had been sleeping in the library) and tells him that one of his sheep—Sandy—is sick. Brother John grabs his medical kit and heads to the barn. Sandy is convulsing uncontrollably. Horrified, the two monks watch helplessly as an infant alien explodes out of the sheep. Here we get a trope which will show up in the Runner of Fincher's Alien 3 (and more extensively in the aborted Operation: Aliens cartoon): the alien "shows the characteristics of the animal in which it has gestated." The creature has an elongated xenomorph head, but is also covered in downy wool. It walks on all fours, and has black, glass-like eyes.

Sandy's owner, hysterical, attacks the creature with a pitchfork. A fire breaks out after acid blood sprays onto dry straw, and the burn is quickly engulfed in flame. The monk pushes the alien deeper into the fire with his pitchfork, and it is consumed. It dies with a half-sheep, half-xenomorphic wail.

We then cut to a tribunal. The Abbot and his governance team are charging Ripley with bringing "evil" to Arceon. She uses this opportunity to once again attempt to warn the gathered assembly of the true extent of the danger, but she is quickly shut up and sentenced to solitary imprisonment. The monks think she is aiding the devil and lying to them. She is locked in a cell in the bowels of Arceon.

Brother John, believing Ripley is worth listening to, uses a secret passage to get to her at the bottom of the planet.

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

We then get one of the great unfilmed shock scenes in the whole Alien Saga. The Abbot and an unnamed member of his tribunal are using the stalls in a bathroom shortly after the trial lets out. Suddenly, an alien—it's unclear where exactly this particular one came from—grabs the tribunal member through a hole in the ground and drags him under the floor.

The plumbing—the sinks, the toilets, etc.—all emit an eruption of gore as the monk is slaughtered.

Meanwhile, as Brother John and Mattias are still making their way to the subterranean cells, Ripley learns she's not alone. There is an android named Anthony on the other side of the wall, and they're able to converse through a hole. As with everything in this script, there is more to Anthony than one might initially think.

Brother John finds them, and the three of them escape into the dark corridors. We're then treated to another series of cascading revelations: Anthony was a spy who'd been planted on the colony by The Company. Anthony tells them what the true nature of Arceon is: it's not a monastic paradise, but a prison for countercultural exiles.

It turns out the Earth had been crippled by that computer virus the Abbot had mentioned, which was called the New Plague. Data was being erased on a global scale, and an emergent Luddite-like movement started to emerge. The monks on Arceon had started as members of that movement encamped on a retreat on Earth. Thousands began to join their cause, and The Company—realizing that the mass abandonment of worldy possessions would be bad for business—used their control of world government to sentence the monks to expuslion for political dissidence. They built Arceon and peopled it with ten thousand members of the order. It was initially kept running by regular supply ship visits, but they eventually stopped. At this point, Anthony revealed his true nature, and was banished to the bowels of the wooden world.

We also learn more about Arceon itself: it's split into three main sections. A Heaven, a sea, and a Hell (where Ripley and Anthony had been held). Anthony tells them that there is also a technology room where the live-sustaining elements of the satellite are housed. They decide to head there, thinking it might be their best bet for figuring out how to deal with the xenomorph problem.

Concept art by Vincent Ward

Concept art by Vincent Ward

She also feels something moving in her chest for the first time.

The action shifts back to the Heaven setting, which has become one of the most vivid depictions of Hell I've ever read about. We see the Abbot. He is completely covered in blood. The world is on fire. Fields of wheat are ablaze, and monks are frantically trying to escape the conflagration. Within one of the burning fields, we see the alien. It has adapted the ability to camoflouge with its surroundings, and it attacks the monks with astonishing ferocity. Slicing them apart like "a scythe through wheat." As the blood-drenched Abbot shivers in terror, the xenomorph emerges from the wheat field. It's nine feet tall, and it's colored like golden straw.

Concept art by Mike Worrall

Concept art by Mike Worrall

Back to the quartet, still making their way to the technology room. Ripley is beginning to think the alien onboard the EEV somehow impregnated her with an embryo. Anthony has a vision of Boschian demons. It is his programming regurgitating. He is old and afflicted—a shadow of what he once was.

They come across the Abbot, who somehow survived the wheat field. He leads them to the technology room, which is completely covered in bear traps. They trigger the traps with wood and make their way to the entrance.

Suddently, the alien leaps out. Anthony gets caught in a bear trap, and the alien sprays acid over him from its mouth. They manage to free Anthony and gain access to the technology room, locking the alien outside.

And here we get another remarkable reveal: the technology room is full of windmills. Enormous windmills. And nothing else. No electronics. No circuitry.

Windmills similar to the ones in the technology room, but in public areas of Arceon. Concept art by Stephen Ellis.

Windmills similar to the ones in the technology room, but in public areas of Arceon. Concept art by Stephen Ellis.

The only things keeping the colony alive are plants and wind. It is exactly as primitive as it appears to be. The planetoid was designed to be a slow death trap. The monks would slowly suffocate as the atmosphere decayed over years and years. The available oxygen would be depleted.

And nothing eats oxygen quite like fire.

And their small wooden world was burning.

Suddenly, the Abbot starts acting like he's having a seizure. Gibberish is erupting from his mouth. And then his head explodes.

Atop this headless monk is a headburster, and it is pissed off. It grabs the Abbot's exposed spinal cord and guides the headless body towards Ripley, who smashes it across the room with a staff Anthony had been carrying. It escapes into the corridors.

Ripley realizes she has certainly been impregnated, but decides not to tell her companions.

She also realizes that their only way out of this nightmare is to find her EEV. Anthony, having suffered tremendous damage, stays behind. Ripley, Brother John, and Mattias make for the EEV, and Anthony is destroyed once and for all by the xenomorph after they leave.

They make it to the library, but get caught by the enraged xenomorph. They fight the creature, inadvertently starting another acid fire—this time, the fire eats through the wooden floor of the library and reveals the molten ocean of the glassworks below.

Ripley, Brother John, and Mattias manage to avoid falling into the liquid glass, but the xeno isn't so lucky. Just like Fincher's Alien 3, though, the creature survives the heat and leaps out to attack our protagonists. Ripley, in a moment of genius, opens a dump tank and the alien is covered in cold water. It explodes in a moment of thermal trauma.

They realize all of the dead monks are going to be hatching bursters soon, so they need to hurry. Ripley decides to tell Brother John the dark truth: she herself is impregnated with an alien embryo.

He decides to perform an overtly sexualized "exorcism" on her, forcing the alien out by straddling her body and pounding her chest. He covers her mouth with his, a sort of fatal kiss, and the alien embryo passes through into his body. He tells Mattias to stay with Ripley, and walks back into the flaming Abbey. He is burned to death, taking the monster with him.

She and Mattias make it to the EEV and pilot it off the surface of the planetoid. She puts the dog into cryosleep. She spots a note Brother John had written. In the note, which is sort of a final will and testament, he says he believes Ripley was right about there still being an Earth to go home to. Ripley reflects, in voice over, that regardless of whether the EEV makes it home, she's found some measure of peace.

Then the screen goes black, the credits roll, and we get a crazy little bonus line: a teenager, "in the back of the movie theater," shouts, "It's in the dog!"

Another one bites the dust

So, what happened?

Right away, there were complaints about the wooden planet. From a technical standpoint, it would've been extremely difficult to produce. But also presented some nearly unanswerable—or at least very difficult to explain—scientific questions. Like, how could an artificial planetoid that's only a few miles from top to bottom sustain a six-foot-tall atmosphere that would allow monks to spend days laying by a surface lake? How could a closed system sustain that much life for that long with no life-support technology?

Tremendously creative, if a little impractical. Concept art by Stephen Ellis.

Tremendously creative, if a little impractical. Concept art by Stephen Ellis.

And even though Ward clarified in multiple places that the planetoid itself wasn't made of wood—it was only clad in it—it was still a constant source of confusion on set. As David Giler reflected:

We went back and forth about the wooden planet and the monks ... Look, fine, we like the wooden planet. Just tell me how it got there, and what it's doing there, and how it hasn't rotted away ... What is it doing in space? How was it built? What's sustaining it? ... The more you went into it, the more you just said 'No, never mind.'

There were also, as we'll explore momentarily, some pretty big problems with the script that needed to be addressed. One of the most glaring issues was Ripley's dialogue, which Sigourney Weaver felt was entirely wrong for the character.

The tricky thing about writing a character like Ripley is that one of the first instincts is to write like some kind of butch gym instructor. And she's really, I think, a lot cooler than that.

And it wasn't just the dialogue. The whole character feels "off." She says virtually nothing for the first 32 pages of the script that isn't a variation on 'You guys are so screwed right now, but you aren't listening to me!' I mean, she's right. And she should be warning them. But there are under a hundred pages total in the treatment, and she spends nearly half of them just yelling about how everyone's an idiot and should be listening to what she's warning them about. In the Fincher script, she goes through the same basic sequence of events—crash landing, being ignored even though she's correct, bonding with a man who administers medical care, realizing she is carrying an embryo, and bringing about a series of events that result in the embryo being destroyed—but she is given much more nuance. The dialogue feels like it was written for that character played by that actress. In the Ward/Fasano script, it does eventually get there—especially as she and Brother John become closer—but the overall impression is that the character wasn't accurate.

Anyway, to make a long story short, it became quickly apparent to all involved that this wasn't going to work out. The studio was already under a huge amount of budgetary and temporal pressure to get this project moving, and Ward was unwilling to sacrifice control of his vision in service of the Hollywood studio system.

By the time they got into pre-production in England, things began to fall apart once and for all. Giler, again:

David and I and this writer (Ward) went to London, and we got a draft of the script and everybody walked off and said they weren't going to do it. By now we were building sets and there had been a considerable amount of money invested in it.

Indeed, entire sections of the wooden planetoid—including portions of the Abbey—had already been constructed. And because Brandywine, Fox, et al. were already feeling the pressure of these constant rewrites and staffing changes, and because they had already committed considerable financial resources to the project by this point, they decided to just keep much of what had been built. That's why, if you look closely while watching the Fincher film, you'll occasionally see Gothic arches and church accoutrements lining the prison sets.

And now most of the creative staff were assembled in London and actively at work on a film that was, once again, without a director or a creative direction. As Alec Gillis of ADI reflected:

The production essentially shut down while the script was being finished. So we were kind of there, you know? What do we work on? What do we do?

Of course, what they did was rewrite Ward's script by cobbling together ideas from other script proposals (like Twohy's), fixing the dialogue, finding David Fincher, having him modify the script they'd Frankensteined into being, and making the theatrical cut of Alien 3 under extraordinarily stressful production conditions.

What could've been

Before I get into all the things I love about Ward's vision for the third Alien film, let me be clear: Ward and Fasano's Alien III is a complete work of genius that, had it gone into production with the script undergoing no further rewrites, would've been a genuinely awful Alien film.

Aside from the obvious problems with Ripley's dialogue, there are some pretty glaring issues. For one thing, it's unclear how the egg ended up on the Sulaco (a pretty major omission from the Fincher film as well). It's also not at all clear where the xenomorphs on the planetoid came from—the sheepomorph was killed in the barn fire, and within a very short span of time a nine-foot tall chameleon alien is towering over the monks.

There are also problems with the film's treatment of androids. Some of these are expositionally penciled over with some facile explanations like Anthony being a different generation of synthetic, but the problems are more fundamental that that. Why is he old? Why is he senile? Why does he get mortally wounded by the acid blood? Why is he having nightmares?

And similar to the problems with Ripley's character, the treatment of the xenomorph itself is complicated-bordering-on-inaccurate. It's remarked at least three or four times that the creature seems to have "a vendetta" against Ripley. Its purpose, it seems, isn't to set up a viable hive, considering it's spraying everything in acid and burning the whole planetoid to the ground. It's also making little-to-no effort to cocoon any living hosts, acting more like a murderous psychopath than a drone or a world-building member of an any colony. And the headburster device, which is completely without precedent elsewhere in any Alien material, seems like a deus ex machina designed to explain how this bloodthirsty serial killing xenomorph could also be impregnating hosts. But even then, it's never explained how any of this happens.

One of my personal favorite xeno illustrations is this piece of concept art by Mike Worrall, created for the Ward film. Note the logarithmic spiral of the tail section.

One of my personal favorite xeno illustrations is this piece of concept art by Mike Worrall, created for the Ward film. Note the logarithmic spiral of the tail section.

Also, although there are hundreds of monks on Arceon, only a handful of them have speaking parts. Aside from Brother John and the Abbot, Brother Kyle has a few lines (and they're actual very memorable, suggesting Kyle gradually grew into the beloved Dillon character in the Fincher film). There are a couple of brief interjections from characters with names like "Bald Monk" and "Burly Monk 2," but other than that there is very little development of minor characters. And while that's certainly an issue in the Fincher film as well, the Alien 3 we ended up with at least brings out characters like Morse, Jude, Eighty-five, etc.

So yeah, if the script as it was was translated directly into a movie, it would've been sort of a mess. But if things had been different—if the studio hadn't been rushing to try to accommodate an unreasonable production timetable because the project had stalled out so many times—they could've easily gone back and rewritten the problematic sections. Things would've been smoothed over. Inconsistencies would've been fixed. Dialogue would've been cleaned up. And we could've ended up with one of the most fascinating, idiosyncratic, poetic science fiction movies of the modern era.

The first—and most unmissable—strength of the Ward story is the setting. There's simply nothing else like it in the history of film. This huge world within a world, an ancient paradise hidden in a hyperfuturistic planetoid. A vessel from the future containing our past. A refuge from technology created by technology so advanced we can't even imagine how it could possibly work.

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

Concept art by Stephen Ellis

I have no idea how they would've pulled it off. The production art is truly jaw-dropping. But that's why we make science fiction films in the first place, right? To visualize the impossible. We come up with solutions. And if Ward had been given time, patience, and bandwidth to work on the technical difficulties Archeon would've represented, I have no doubt he could've figured things out.

It also contributes meaningfully to the mythology of the xenomorph. By doubling down on this idea of an elemental, ancient evil—a proto-devil—Ward is deepening the mystery and terror of the creature in the wake of Cameron's Aliens, which—though a masterpiece—demystified the beast somewhat by having scores of them slaughtered by pulse rifles. Some of this devil mythology survived into Fincher's film, and it's some of that film's most effective dialogue. It also made its way into other arms of the Expanded Universe; most notably, perhaps, in the wonderful Aliens: Salvation. Ward has a scene where Brother John is reading ancient manuscripts on evil by candlelight. Lucifer, Shaitan, Ahriman, Asmodeus, Satan. Works by Lichtenstein, Gruenwald, Bosch. It's wonderfully evocative imagery, and it serves to deepen and broaden the elemental mystery at the heart of this mysterious saga.

And it's got some truly astounding set pieces, like the insane beauty of the xenomorph attacking the monks shortly before the core group makes it to the Technology Room. Picture the scene: a vast expanse of wheat—an ocean of it—on fire. A terrifying, golden xeno scene from a high-angle shot, parting the corn and the flames like a shark in the ocean, emerging to slice the monks in half like so much chaff. A bloody Abbot trembling in the presence of the ultimate evil. A cavernous chamber filled with screams and smoke and blood and terror.

Or, for that matter, the notorious "bathroom scene."

Indeed, when asked to give her thoughts on the Ward script years later, Weaver recalled:

"I think the alien attacked one of the monks as he was sitting on the toilet, or something. ... I thought it had a cool setting. The monastery-in-space thing was cool, I thought."

Nightmare concept by Mike Worrall

Nightmare concept by Mike Worrall

Another unmissable aspect of the Ward story is the preoccupation with dreams. From the very beginning, we, the audience, feel almost like we are dreaming. It starts, remember, with an ancient glassworks. We are sitting in a theater with "Alien III" on the marquee, and we are watching a film about medieval monks. And even as the true nature of Arceon is revealed to us, the whole thing makes less and less sense. It isn't until nearly halfway through the story that we find out why there is this wooden world floating in space in the first place, and only then does it make some sort of sense. Otherwise, we feel the way Ripley does as she comes out of her fugue state: what we are seeing is insane.

Concept art by Mike Worrall

Concept art by Mike Worrall

But actual dream sequences pervade the script as well. One of Ripley's first scripted moments is a nightmare that closely resembles (and, one would assume, eventually gave birth to) one of the more iconic shots in Fincher's film. From the script:

The Alien stands alongside her bed.

Extends a six-fingered hand ...

Gently rests it on her stomach.

Cocks its head—like it's listening to something.

The implication is clear.

Ripley then awakes with a scream, but the idea that there is an alien inside of her never leaves. And the idea that she is somehow being protected from the alien because of her cargo is one of the most poignantly frightening things in Fincher's movie. The genesis of that idea—as well as many others, some of which we will explore momentarily—is here, in Ward's story.

Perhaps the most frightening nightmare sequence occurs later, when Ripley has a vision of being raped by the monster. This plays off many of the most deeply frightening themes cycling through the Alien mythos from the very beginning, starting with the implied possibility that Lambert was sexually violated as her screams rang down the Nostromo's claustrophobic hallways. The way it's scripted makes this allusive connection overt. From the script:

(Ripley) begins to panic—

Senses the Alien's presence.

Looks left, right, up—no Alien ...

Looks down.


She turns—

Right into its grasp.

The useless flamethrower SKITTERS across the floor.

She PUMMELS the beast with balled-up fists.


The Alien spins her—pushes her over across the sleep tube—

Like it's taking her from behind!

Ripley looks down into the sleep tube:

Newt is gone.

Her doll's head lays in a pool of blood.

The Alien wraps his arms around Ripley.

Thin lips pull back for a kiss.


Even Anthony, the android, is haunted by dream visions. This Morphean quality pervades every aspect of the script, from the setting, to the dialogue, to the creature, and it gives it a uniquely phantasmagoric aspect that I think would've translated extremely well into an Alien film.

And though the dialogue could use some work, I do think Ward had a fundamental understanding of Ripley's character. I think he understood her arc, and I think he and Sigourney Weaver were actually very closely aligned in some key ways.

Indeed, a point of contention between Ward and the studio was that Ward felt Ripley had to die at the end of the film. He felt like the arc of her character had brought her to a moment of redemption and finality, and a noble death was the only way to do justice to her. The studio insisted that they needed the franchise to continue with Ripley at the center, which is how they eventually got to Brother John's sacrificial ending, but Ward wasn't happy with it. And luckily, the studio eventually relented and let David Fincher film a version granting Ripley a noble, heroic death.


It might seem like we never saw Ward's story come to life, but that's not entirely true. Fincher's final shooting script is full of it—which is perhaps why Ward received partial story credit. The monks became a religious order of convicts. The wooden world became Fury 161. The glassworks became a lead foundry. Brother John became Clemens, Brother Kyle laid the groundwork for Dillon, and the Abbot transformed into Superintendent Andrews.

Newt and Hicks are killed off at the beginning, leaving Ripley alone in a hostile environment populated exclusively by male strangers.

The environment is antiquated, and there are no weapons. Just as Ripley asks, incredulously, in Fincher's film if the men have access to fire, she wonders if there is any sort of technology of any kind on Arceon that can be used to fight the alien.

Just as the dog-burster (or ox-burster, depending on which version you're watching) inherits traits from its host, the sheep-burster in Ward's script is a quadruped covered in downy wool. And when the xeno is finally destroyed in Ward's script, it is through the rapid temperature shift caused by dumping cold water on a hot exoskeleton—the only difference being Ward's alien leaping from glass vs. Fincher's alien leaping from molten lead.

And just as Ward suggested the only noble end for Ripley's character was to self-sacrifice in a lake of fire, Fincher's film ends, unforgettably, with Ripley killing herself and taking the embryo—another Ward element—with her. If the studio hadn't intervened in Ward's original ending, the final five minutes of each film would've been virtually indistinguishable from one another.


Sometimes a dream is so powerful—so strange, so haunting, so unique, so beautiful—that we feel like we never really wake up from it. Sometimes a dream becomes part of our waking life. We wake up in the middle of the night to write down what we've learned before it escapes us. Before we wake up too much to retain anything taken back from that semi-mystical realm.

Ward's film might never have been made, but it's with us. It's in Fincher's film. It's part of Alien fan lore. There are hundreds of concept images floating around the internet, and fans are drawing new ones of their own. We are telling the story over and over again, and something about it is sticking within our collective unconscious. And that's sort of beautiful, when you think about it. It's like a dream we all had together. You can't quite touch it, but it's there.

And sometimes, if you close your eyes, you just might see a little wooden planetoid on the horizon. And if you listen really closely, you might even hear a scream or two.

NB: All interview excerpts (unless otherwise noted) taken from the Alien Quadrilogy/Anthology Blu-ray set.