Screenwriter Jon Spaihts talks about the PROMETHEUS that never was

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Whether you loved or hated Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (I fall in the middle, sitting on the fence like I had pigeon DNA), you can’t deny that it sure has become a great conversation starter among film geeks (replace “conversation” with “no-holds barred fight” in certain corners of the web).

Personally, I really enjoyed the film from a technical viewpoint, but felt there were some serious missteps made with the script. And while the script we eventually saw on screen came from the pen of Damon Lindelof, he was working off an earlier draft done by Jon Spaihts. One that would have had rather a few differences.

With the home release of Prometheus on Blu-Ray and DVD today, Spaihts did a little write-up for Empire on what it was like to create what was essentially an origin story for one of the most highly regarded sci-fi films of all time. (No pressure!) With everything being kept tightly under wraps during pre-production, Spaiths says that he felt “like a Cold War spy walking around with my briefcase handcuffed to my wrist.”

And just like some explosive state secret, Spaihts’ original draft, before he handed it over to Damon Lindelof, has never really seen the light of day. Until now. Kind of. While the physical screenplay is not available publicly (“legal complications” he says), Spaihts did describe a large number of the differences between his and Lindelof’s visions.

“The medpod sequence is one of the reasons I got the job in the first place. It’s one of my favourite scenes and it’s visually realised in an extraordinary way.

One of the things I realised was that we hadn’t seen anyone survive a classic Alien chest bursting. And I was really intrigued by the notion that a character might be infected by the parasite and know that it was coming, know they had a timeframe of a few hours, and that we would have set up previously a nearly omnipotent medical device, designed to extend life for explorers in foreign places. Our heroine would have a short time to get to the machine and extract the thing inside her. It was a very gory sequence and it plays out very much like the sequence in the film. The main difference is in choreography. At the end of the sequence as I first conceived it, the heroine manages to get the creature extracted from her and it is expelled from the pod and she’s sealed inside, whereas in the final film it goes the other way.

Then she lapses in and out of consciousness for a number of hours as the machine puts her back together. As she comes back to consciousness, she sees the thing growing in the cabin outside and even killing people. So by the time she emerges from the pod eight hours later, the thing is abroad in the ship and big enough to be a huge danger. That was the original conception of the medpod scene.

In the final film, obviously, that monster has been de-Alien-ised and become something a little more new and hybridised. And it’s trapped inside the medpod while she rolls out, and it grows into something dangerous that’s pushed to the end of the film.

As for how she recovers from her surgery so fast – well, it was more of a protracted process in my original notion. My script underwent a number of major evolutions as we were working on it, and then Damon came in and made further changes still. But that sequence and its place in the story was one of the anchors.”

That actually addresses pretty much every criticism about the Medpod scene that I’ve across, including my own, from Shaw’s miraculous recovery to the fact that nobody bats an eyelid to her just having gone through this crazy procedure. Yay, Spaihts! Boo, Lindelof!

He also spoke about how he was looking to expand on the biology/mythology of the “xenomorph”:

“We imagined that there might be eight different variations on the xenomorphs – eight different kinds of Alien eggs you might stumble across, eight kinds of slightly different xenomorph creatures that could hatch from them. And maybe even a rapid process of evolution, still ongoing, in these Alien laboratories where these xenomorphs were developed. So Ridley and I were looking for ways to make the xenomorphs new.

We did a bunch of things that are still represented in the final film. We toyed with the notion that the xenomorphs might have a soft carapace like a soft-shelled crab, and be flexible and able to squeeze through cracks; that they might be pale rather than black; that they might retain inside some gelatinous cowl some resemblance of the human being in whom they’d incubated. We played with a lot of ghoulish notions like that.

Different head shapes – we toyed with a peaked head shape that you actually see in the creature that hatches from the Engineer at the end of Prometheus.”

Ultimately the xenomorph, in any form we’re aware of, had it’s screentime dialed way, way down to the point of just a single reveal in the film’s final moments. Previously Ridley Scott had indicated that the reason for that was due the xenomorph having been de-monstered and diluted by subsequent franchise sequels and spinoffs. Something that Spaihts confirms and expands on:

“But the most dramatic change was the removal of the xenomorph from the film. That was a shift that happened at the same time as I stepped off the film. A lot of that push came from the studio very high up; they were interested in doing something original and not one more franchise film. That really came to a head at the studio – the major push to focus on the new mythology of Prometheus and dial the Aliens as far back as we could came down from the studio.

So one of Damon’s major jobs when he came onboard was to replace the menaces of the xenomorphs with other things. Largely the other menaces in the film were present in my drafts as well – there was a black mutagenic compound that could change people in unpredictable way, Fyfield did morph into a monster and become a real danger in his own right, and of course the Engineers, the Space Jockeys, proved to be terribly dangerous creatures. In my draft, as well, we did resurrect one and he tore off David’s head. Much of the mayhem of the final film was present in the drafts I wrote, but the xenomorphs were the major change, as well as the stockpiling of this black liquid as opposed to Alien eggs.”

With the removal of the xenomorphs, also came the removal of what could probably have been two of the grisliest and creepiest scenes in the film, as Shaw and Holloway knock some rather deadly boots and the android David takes a much more blatantly antagonistic role with the help of a couple of facehuggers:

“I did have facehuggers in my original draft. David, as he began to get fascinated by the science of the Engineers, doesn’t deliberately contaminate Holloway with a drop of black liquid. Instead, Holloway hubristically removes his helmet in the chamber, is knocked unconscious, facehugged and wakes up not knowing what had been done to him, and stumbles back into the ship. In my draft, he returns to his cabin, is embraced by Shaw, who is delighted to see him having feared that he had died, and the two of them make love. And it’s while they’re making love that he bursts and dies. So that lovemaking sequence echoed my original lovemaking sequence where he explodes! It was messy.

Subsequently, David, fascinated by these creatures, begins delaying the mission and going off the reservation on his own, essentially because he thinks he really belongs with the Engineers. They’re smart enough and sophisticated enough, great enough, to be his peers. He’s harboring a deep-seated contempt for his human makers. So at one point Shaw goes to stop him and David ties her up and deliberately exposes her to a facehugger. He caresses an egg open and out comes a facehugger. David doesn’t smell like a person – his breath isn’t moist – so he can handle the thing like a kitten. It doesn’t want him; it’s not interested. But then he exposes it to her and it goes for her like a shot. He toys with her for a bit and then lets it take her. That, in my draft, was how Shaw was implanted with the parasite that she had to remove with the medpod sequence.”

While I prefer this far more direct method of Shaw’s implantation to the unnecessarily convoluted method employed in the final film, I’m not too sure how I feel about this overtly malevolent David though. The ambivalence behind his actions is one of things I really loved about his character, and one that Michael Fassbender realized brilliantly in his performance. The fact that you never knew what his motivations are, added a great deal of tension to the scenes.

And if you weren’t a fan of Lindelof’s eventual non-ending, then you probably would have liked Spaihts’ ending even less, as instead of Shaw and the beheaded David flying off for some retribution and answers, Spaihts simply left them stranded on the surface of the planetoid, with no easily recognizable way of getting off (Sitcom spinoff here we come: He’s an Android head without emotion, she’s a scientist with the body of an Eastern European gymnast and the accents of the entire Eastern Europe. Hi-jinks ensue!).  The reason for that was to leave it even more open ended so that the next film (he planned for a trilogy) wasn’t just forced “into the search for the Engineer homeworld” but could go in a number of different directions.

Spaihts’ script does appear to have addressed a number of the concerns that I had with the final product, but there is unfortunately still one outstanding burning question that I was hoping his draft addressed: Is it even physically possible for Charlize Theron’s Vickers to turn left or right while running?

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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