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!

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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.

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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?

Last Updated: October 9, 2012

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.

  • Rincethis

    “Is it even physically possible for Charlize Theron’s Vickers to turn left or right while running?” This is one of the things that pissed me off the most. It was like it was directed by a 12 year old who can’t fathom an adult’s logical behaviour. Is there confirmation that there will be 2 more films now?

    • Well Spaihts wanted a trilogy and so did Lindelof, if I recall correctly. But at this point, Ridley has just said that it could be a trilogy, and all the evidence is pointing to at least one more film, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

    • I’m willing to cut her slack on this one. It would be the obvious and logical thing to do. But there are many, many Youtube videos and shock-video shows on TV that demonstrate how, under serious duress, some people tend to go entirely the other way.

      • Rincethis

        Hate to break it to you, but this was a movie directed by Ridley Scott, not something caught on home camera. That’s the point I was trying to make, this was not done to achieve realism, it was just more crap writing.

        • Maybe, but I suspect that this gripe from fans is not about that. At that stage of the movie, the audience had already decided to hate it and thus nitpick on such a detail. Plenty of movies – even good ones – use irrational character action to get through a plot moment. Yet we rarely really complain about it.

          I never hear fans complain about the stupid shit they do in Avengers – and admit it: Loki’s plan makes no sense and doesn’t add up. Also, Nick Fury fires an RPG at a fuel-heavy jet and manages to simply disable it, instead of a flaming fireball. That is pretty much impossible. And let’s mention the fact that the Hulk suddenly does a 180 and CAN control himself. No explanation, other than some throwaway line by Banner.

          The difference? Avengers was a better film, so nobody cared. Prometheus wasn’t, so everyone nitpicks.

          • Rincethis

            Totally agree! But the reason we nitpick is to show why it was a crap movie. Avengers was awesome, it had problems but we ignore them for the majority of awesomness:D

        • I’m not sure what your problem with this is. If its already established that it’s natural reaction for someone in a state panic not to think about running to side, then why pick at it any further? To me this moment was quite tolerable and arguably even pivotal to her role. It shows that shes not as in-humanly logical as she likes to pretend she is. She’s dethroned by death in a way that shoes shes just a human being in the end.

  • The ‘honest’ Prometheus trailer – http://youtu.be/RBaKqOMGPWc

  • Hmmm, I actually prefer the routes they took in the movie. Excluding the Xenomorphs was smart – it elevated the plot into a more original direction instead of another ‘me too’ addition to the franchise. If anything, the original route could have spoiled much of the Xenomorph mythos by tacking on an origins story. This is the particular reason why Prometheus’ ending annoys me. And I liked the whole Engineers thing. That’s what makes sci-fi so interesting.

    As for the medical pod – it’s over a century into the future. Consider anesthetics and medical procedures a century ago. Removing an appendix was dangerous and left you bedridden for a long time. Today it qualifies as a minor procedure. Exponentially-speaking, by 2100, surgery, recovery and numbing the pain would be lightyears ahead.

    I kinda think that for sci-fi fans, many people are being pretty short-sighted about this aspect. They can keep people in suspended animation – something we really can’t do yet. Surely they will be able to have an abdominal operation with quick recovery time.

    • That would have been fine if we actually didn’t see the medpod scene happen, coz then we can draw our own conclusions like that. The problem is that we see exactly what is done to her in excruciating detail, leaving little to no room for interpretation.

      I also prefer them losing the focus of the xenomorphs as it broadens the mythology considerably, instead of just being another number in a franchise.

      • But the detail actually covers that. She is sprayed with an anesthetic. Now, if you can apply localised anesthetic with a spray, you are dealing with some really, really advanced stuff.

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