Maybe it’s not quite a bombshell on par with the National Gallery of Art’s announcement last fall that one of its Vermeers was more of a veneer. But Ryan Lintelman, the entertainment curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has determined that the giant prop egg 20th Century Fox donated to the museum in 2003 comes not from the 1979 sci-fi/horror landmark Alien, as one of his predecessors believed, nor from the trigger-happy 1986 follow-up Aliens, as Fox originally claimed.

Instead, Lintelman believes the object, made of a blend of wax and latex over a form of plaster and wire mesh, was built for the 1991 teaser trailer for the divisive third film in the franchise, Alien3—viewed by many critics as a less imaginative iteration of the visual and thematic ideas that had made the first two pictures in the slime-dripping series so widely admired and imitated. The eerie prop is now on display in the museum’s new exhibition “Entertainment Nation.”

Both Alien and Aliens were brilliantly executed pop expressions of the anxieties of their respective eras. Arriving at the end of the bummed-out 1970s, Ridley Scott’s Alien presented space travel not as adventure or exploration but as just one more way for greedy corporations to exploit their employees. Weaver, in her first major film role, played Ellen Ripley, a warrant officer aboard a cargo ship that answers a distress call and unknowingly picks up a horrifying stowaway—the magnificently ugly “xenomorph,” designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Ripley is the only member of the crew to survive the encounter.

Alien 3 Teaser Trailer

Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, began with Ripley’s lifeboat being recovered after she’d drifted in a state of hibernation for more than half a century. Unable to shake off the dual traumas of her alien encounter and the deaths of everyone she had ever known while she was missing, Ripley agrees to return to the distant moon LV-426 as part of a military expedition.

Aliens seemed to channel aggressive 1980s militarism as powerfully as Alien had expressed post-Watergate, post-Vietnam cynicism. But it also slyly undercut the bravado: Despite their superior weapons and technology, all but one of the “Colonial Marines” who accompany Ripley on her quest are picked off in battle against the creatures, leaving her to slay the dragon on her own once again.

Though its worldwide gross of $183 million was only a little more than half what that year’s box office champ, Top Gun, brought in, Aliens far exceeded Fox’s expectations both critically and commercially. It wasn’t just a buzzy hit—it earned Weaver, then in her late 30s, her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, an unprecedented achievement for a so-called genre film in those days. (Jamie Lee Curtis alluded to this historical reluctance to honor genre movies in her Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards just two weeks ago.)

Indeed, says Lintelman, it’s the socio-cultural impact of Aliens that earned the egg prop its place in the new exhibition, where it’s nestled in a display case alongside country music legend Willie Nelson’s bandana and Farm Aid concert program, as well as a pair of ice skates from Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley cradling Carrie Henn as Newt
James Cameron's Aliens exceeded Fox’s expectations both critically and commercially, and it earned actress Sigourney Weaver (above, on set with Carrie Henn as Newt), then in her late 30s, her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Corbis via Getty Images

Lintelman says the egg is emblematic of the cultural import of Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley, a resourceful if reluctant warrior who has a habit of being both dead right and disbelieved or dismissed—usually by men.

Behind the egg in the display case is a large photograph from one of Aliens posters, which pictures a sweaty Ripley cradling Newt, the orphan girl she’s rescued, in one arm and a “pulse rifle” duct taped to a flamethrower in the other. In the heady 1980s, the Sweaty Dude with a Big Gun genre was at its apex. But a sweaty woman with a big gun—and a child—was radical.

“We were thinking about [Ripley] as a working mother,” Lintelman explains, “and the way this idea of, ‘Can women have it all in American society?’ is reflected in Aliens. That’s not really what it’s about, but that’s what the cultural conversation was around it at that time.”

Sigourney Weaver at the museum for the donation with the egg
At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in December 2003, Weaver unveiled the egg prop as part of a donation ceremony that included a script from the film and an orginal poster from the film Aliens. Alex Wong, Getty Images

That cultural conversation—coupled with the movie’s healthy profit, naturally—made Fox much hungrier for a third entry in the R-rated, kid-unfriendly franchise than it had been for a second one. Seemingly without knowing it, the studio had tapped into the zeitgeist: Weaver wasn’t quite the first woman to headline an action picture, but in 1986, three summers after astronaut Sally Ride had become the first American woman in space, the public was primed to embrace her character more completely than ever before.

The demand was there. All Fox needed was a story.

The Alien3 teaser, made after Fox had already spent millions of dollars on script development and set construction but before its producers had agreed on exactly which of the various screenplays they’d commissioned was actually being shot, misleadingly implied that the Alien three-quel arriving in cinemas Memorial Day weekend 1992 would be set on Earth. (It wasn’t.)

Following up on Alien’s classic tagline—“In space, no one can hear you scream”—Fox’s marketing arm had come up with a sequel tagline deemed too good not to use: “On Earth, everyone can hear you scream.”

It’s a good bet that any Earthlings in the orbit of producers David Giler, Gordon Carroll and Walter Hill circa 1987-1990 heard plenty of screaming as the trio tried to answer Fox’s demand for another sequel.

Here’s how Alien3 grew so divisive.

In 1987, William Gibson, author of the 1984 award-winning science-fiction novel Neuromancer, wrote a script that extended the Cold War into the 22nd century, pitting capitalist and communist factions against one another as each attempted to secure a xenomorph specimen from which to develop bioweapons.

Gibson’s storyline was also designed to allow the saga to continue without Weaver, who was being noncommittal about returning. But with the Soviet Union lurching toward democracy under President Boris Yeltsin and then dissolving altogether, Gibson’s Cold War concept was rendered obsolete. (Other creators would separately adapt Gibson’s unfilmed screenplay into a novel, a comic book series and an audio drama more than 30 years later.)

After that, the producers bought and discarded several other screenplays before finally committing to a radical vision pitched by New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward.

Ward imagined a sort of space monastery populated by an all-male religious order that used futuristic technology only insofar as necessary to sustain life support on their artificial planetoid, which was patterned on 10th-century Earth, complete with artificial lakes and wheatfields. Their built environment looked like it had been made entirely of wood and glass, with its occupants eschewing all post-industrial conveniences, even electricity.

When Ripley crash-lands on the planetoid along with one xenomorph running loose and a another one growing inside her, the monks regard her as a kind of witch. Ripley begins to suffer quasi-religious hallucinations and to doubt her own sanity. In the end, she walks into a fire, sacrificing herself to save the others from the Alien Queen gestating inside of her.

Weaver loved that version and finally signed on, and set construction began at Pinewood Studios in London based on the Ward script.

Then Fox assigned the film an inflexible Memorial Day 1992 release date, even as its leaders were getting cold feet about making their pricey presumptive blockbuster so depressing and weird.

With preproduction well underway and millions already spent, the studio demanded big changes intended to make the film more resemble the grimy industrial aesthetic and the action-oriented thrust of the first two Alien films. Ward refused and was shown the door, though he’d retain “story by” credit on the final film.

Predictably, the studio also wanted Ripley to survive, but Weaver put her foot down: She would only make the movie if she got to die at the end. (This would explain why the next sequel, and Weaver’s last, was called Alien Resurrection.)

Ward’s replacement was David Fincher, a 28-year-old wunderkind who’d worked at Industrial Light & Magic and directed eye-catching commercials and music videos but never a feature film. As with Scott and Cameron, the young guns who’d made Alien and Aliens, respectively, Fincher would go on to become a major industry player—his subsequent movies have included Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network.

But unlike his predecessors, Fincher had such a miserable experience on his seminal creature feature that he’s refused to discuss it since. When Fox assembled its extras-packed Alien Quadrilogy home video set in 2003 (the same year it donated the egg to the Smithsonian), among all the previous contributors, only Fincher declined to participate.

The Alien3 on which cameras finally rolled in January 1991 was a much-diluted version of Ward’s idea, hastily rewritten by Giler and Hill in a way that recast the monks as convicts, threw out all the religious stuff, and still allowed them to use the massive sets they had already built. But rewrites continued throughout the shoot, and Fincher never saw a completed screenplay.

After months of filming, and with the production hemorrhaging money, Fox finally recalled the principals from London, knowing the movie was unfinished. After assessing what Fincher had shot—some two or three features’ worth of footage, in the estimate of film editor Terry Rawlings—the studio greenlit a few weeks of additional photography in Los Angeles in early 1992. By the time the movie came out that May, Fincher had all but disowned it.

The 2003 Quadrilogy set includes a much longer “Assembly Cut” of Alien3, which restores some of what Fincher tried to bring to the hopelessly compromised movie, made from his circa 1991-92 notes but, again, without his latter-day input. While it’s still a mess, this is generally the version fans prefer.

So, while the Alien3 egg shares space in American History’s “Entertainment Nation” exhibition with props and costumes from more artistically whole—and infinitely more upbeat—films, like Rocky Balboa’s robe and Captain America’s shield, it also functions as a sort of accidental emblem of the way franchise-driven filmmaking can go awry.

The Rocky costume just a few feet to the left of the egg represents a film that in its optimism and general sense of uplift felt utterly radical upon its release in 1976.

Certainly Alien, with its depiction of a beleaguered blue-collar space crew whose bosses turn out to be entirely willing to sacrifice their lives to obtain a potentially profitable specimen, is, for all its innovation, much more characteristic of its era than Rocky was. And, of course, both Rocky and Alien would beget many sequels of variable quality.

While the Giger-designed eggs seen in the series have a slimy, leathery texture and a four-petaled design at the top, this one more resembles a chicken egg, with its mottled surface and grayish hue. The crack across its front surface, recognizable as the point from which a fluorescent green light seems to emanate in that 1991 trailer, is the identifying feature from which Lintelman determined its origin.

He says he and other curators even considered placing a lightbulb inside of it to replicate its on-camera effect, but they determined putting an electrical connection inside the display case was too risky.

Considering the film’s fraught history, you can’t blame him for being reluctant to tempt fate.

“Entertainment Nation / Nación del Espectáculo” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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