CS Soapbox: Did Alien 3 Beget Riddick?
Director David Twohy’s 2000 Pitch Black (out this week for the first time on 4K!) would not exist without Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. From its pacing and atmosphere to its characterization and setting, 1979’s Alien is easily one of the most influential sci-fi films of all-time. With 1986’s Aliens, Scott relinquished his directorial duties to James Cameron, paving the way for a sequel that upped the action ante while simultaneously capitalizing on everything its predecessor had put in place. That said, expectations for David Fincher’s 1992 “classic” Alien 3, were high. For many, it did not deliver.
Alien 3 almost didn’t get made. Its muddled journey from script to screen was plagued with studio interference, contract negotiations, and a revolving door of creators. By the time a young Fincher (equally as dark and ambitious) found himself picking up the pieces, his obsessive/perfectionist nature proved incompatible with the ill-fated production. Ultimately, the director became so frustrated that he abandoned Alien 3 in post-production, the studio editing it without him, and has since disowned it. Decades after Alien 3’s disappointing reception and release, the film’s behind-the-scenes drama is more intriguing than Ellen Ripley’s Christ-like demise.
There were at least three different versions of Alien 3’s script before it even went into production. Those scripts are so dissimilar to the final product that they might as well be considered something else. One of the earliest versions of the screenplay was written by William Gibson. His script followed Aliens’ Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and Newt (Carrie Henn) while Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley remained in a coma. Unfortunately for Gibson, this draft was shelved, although certain aspects of it found their way into the final film. Enter Pitch Black’s David Twohy.
Twohy wrote a screenplay about a Weyland-Yutani prison space station, Moloch Island, whose inhabitants served as biological warfare experiments, or hosts for Xenomorphs. The story follows the inmate Scott Styles, who is serving a 20-year sentence for fraud and two failed escape attempts. We are also introduced to a handful of other inmates, all whose crimes are much more deplorable than fraud. During his incarceration, Styles befriends an infirmary technician named Packard, and becomes her assistant. At this point in the story, Xenomorphs begin breaking out of the lab and killing inmates, something Weylan-Yutani is aware of as they attempt to cover up their experimentation on death row inmates. Having witnessed all of this, Styles is thrown into solitary confinement.
The core relationship in Twohy’s Alien 3 is that of Styles and Packard. Styles manages to convince Packard of all that is happening on Moloch Island, prompting Packard to free Styles and escape with him. During their escape, the station is ruptured by gunfire, killing thousands and releasing more Xenomorphs. Following the explosion, Styles and Packard team up with a group of survivors to get off the space station alive. Styles ends up confronting the Weyland-Yutani representative, Lone, attempting to flee aboard his shuttle, and throws him to his death, while simultaneously revealing Lone to be an android. Ultimately, Styles and Packard leap into space (wearing space suits) and board Lone’s shuttle, which they fly directly into the last Xenomorph, killing it.
Twohy ended up leaving Alien 3. While his idea of an intergalactic penitentiary made its way into Alien 3’s final draft (as well as The Chronicles of Riddick via the prison moon, Crematoria), the bulk of his plot and characters were scrapped. In case you were wondering, Twohy’s draft sidelined Ripley due to uncertainty surrounding Sigourney Weaver’s return to the franchise. So the concept of new, non-stock characters was very much at the forefront of Twohy’s mind. Years after Alien 3, Twohy was approached by Ken and Jim Wheat with a story called “Nightfall.” The brothers told Twohy that if he could refine their script, he could direct it.
Nightfall eventually became Pitch Black, the story of a deep-space transporter’s crash landing on an alien planet inhabited by photophobic monsters. Among the crash’s survivors is a ruthless criminal: Vin Diesel’s Richard B. Riddick, the man that would become just “Riddick,” the face of two more theatrical releases, animated features, video games, and novels. A franchise that not only makes clear allusions to the Alien films early on but is intertwined with Alien 3.
Riddick can be seen as an amalgamation of all the inmates in Twohy’s draft of Alien 3. He’s convicted of much more than just fraud, but he’s not beyond redemption. The core relationship in Pitch Black is that of Carolyn Fry and Riddick. Unlike Twohy’s Alien 3, the roles are reversed here: Instead of the convict protagonist teaming up with an inherently good female character, an inherently good female protagonist teams up with the convict. The ending of Pitch Black also seems to mirror Twohy’s ending for Alien 3, the latter sees its heroes escape their circumstances and use a craft to triumphantly slay the alien, while the former sees Riddick delay his launch to incinerate as many creatures as possible to avenge Fry.
The Riddick franchise’s Alien 3 references go beyond just Twohy’s draft. The first and most obvious wink (aside from “cryosleep”): Riddick is part of a race called Furyans who hails from a planet called Furya. The prison planet in Alien 3 is known as Fiorina “Fury” 161. The second (and less obvious) parallel to Alien 3 came early on in development.
In Twohy’s original Pitch Black script, Riddick/the convict was female (*cough* Ellen Ripley), insinuating that Alien 3 still permeated Twohy’s creativity. Make no mistake, Diesel’s Riddick is not Weaver’s Ripley. The latter can be seen as inherently “good,” while the former is presented to the audience as “bad.” Pitch Black’s Riddick arguably shares more similarities with Holt McCallany’s Ted “Junior” Gillas from Alien 3—a character that resembles a rapist character (a more deplorable convict) Howard Grimes from Twohy’s draft of Alien 3.
Aside from their bald heads and obvious affinity for goggles, they’re both anti-social and hate humanity (understatement). Not only is Junior a serial rapist, but he leads an attempt to assault Ripley. In the theatrical version Junior is killed in an explosion, leaving him completely amoral and unworthy of redemption. However, Alien 3’s special edition/assembly cut sees Junior survive that initial explosion, aid Ripley in saving Gregor, and sacrifice himself to lure the Xenomorph AKA “the Dragon” into a nuclear waste dump, a death that suggests something much more complex.
The studio’s assembly cut is an edit based on notes left behind by Fincher and, presumably, other creatives who were involved early on. Due to the many conversations and drafts consolidated during the production process, it’s hard to know what details came from/inspired Twohy during the production of Pitch Black. Riddick is a “better” person than Junior but his arc in Pitch Black is certainly one that (at the very least) suggests redemption.
Near the end of Pitch Black, Riddick means to abandon his fellow survivors and asks Radha Mitchell’s Carolyn Fry (the one character that could be equated to Ripley) to come with him. When she refuses, her selflessness inspires Riddick, even if only for a second. Like Ripley, Fry dies, leaving the worst of humanity, in this case, Riddick and a child.
Junior’s sacrifice in Alien 3 (albeit unintentionally in the theatrical version) furthers Ripley’s survival. Riddick’s actions further Fry’s survival. While Fry’s actions inspire Riddick to be “better,” Ripley’s prevent the creation of Xenomorph bio-weapons—both circumstances creating a better future.
Pitch Black was an obvious response to sci-fi horror films of the late 80’s and 90’s. The idea of an external tormentor provoking the inward exploration. From its dark atmosphere to its contemplation of human nature, Pitch Black is like the second cousin of Alien 3. The preface of Pitch Black’s script reads: “the focus of the finished film will not be on what the creatures do, but on what the creatures do to reveal the inner nature of the characters.” It’s not a stretch to imagine Fincher’s mission statement for Alien 3 being similar (before he left of course).
If it weren’t for 2004’s bombastic space opera The Chronicles of Riddick (and its protagonist’s retconned backstory), and 2013’s Riddick, Pitch Black could easily exist in the same canon as Alien 3. Twohy reportedly didn’t want to create stock characters when making Pitch Black. That said, it’s ironic that the evolution of the Riddick character saw him become just that. Like all great things, the Alien franchise has begotten many inferior spin-offs, sequels and copycats that are now something entirely their own.