There are two types of “Prometheus” fans: those who are huge fans of the “Alien” franchise and thus have poured over every ounce of the amazing bounty of extras in the “Prometheus” Blu-Ray, and those who are more casual, who want to know a bit more, are perhaps a bit puzzled and intrigued by the Damon Lindelof-penned, Ridley Scott-directed sorta-prequel to the 1979 film. We’ll assume you’re in the latter camp.
What’s likely old hat for you right now is that Spaihts — largely known as the go-to guy for space thrillers after his sci-fi romance “Passengers” hit the Black List (Keanu Reeves had hired him to write the script) — was tasked to write a more or less direct prequel to “Alien.” This meant following the familiar beats including xenomorphs, face-huggers, etc. — all the traditional elements of an “Alien” franchise film. Somewhere in that development process Ridley Scott changed his mind and felt he needed something less direct.
He asked Damon Lindelof what he thought, and the screenwriter candidly told him they needed to go in a more autonomous direction with less direct lineage to “Alien,” and the result is what you see on screen with “Prometheus,” which both enraged and thrilled fans with its mysteriousness (something that we should all realize has been completely revealed/solved by Ridley Scott in various interviews, including the commentary on the “Prometheus” DVD where every character’s intention is spelled out in big, bold letters).
Over the weekend the screenplay “Alien: Engineers” leaked online, and despite a lot of skepticism, Spaihts himself verified its authenticity. So what changed from Spaihts’ draft to Lindelof’s? Well, considering Lindelof was hired to deconstruct it somewhat and dial back its connection to “Alien,” quite a lot.
Here is what we learned from reading the script and paying deep attention to the commentary track featuring Spaihts and Lindelof.
1. One version of his script had the explorers discovering a star map under water.
Though Spaihts says there were several versions of this scene, his favorite was cut for budgetary reasons: it was a submarine expedition in the Mediterranean, at a sunken city. On the commentary track he explained they found a giant tablet with a starmap on it. Another version had the starmap found on Mars. This version of “Alien: Engineer” has the underwater scene in it.
2. Mars factored in more than once.
Spaihts reiterates in the commentary that the the biggest changes in his version of the script were the shying away from xenomorphs and chestbursters, and structural differences, placing similar types of information in different places, or rewriting them in different ways. In one of Spaihts’ original drafts, there was 20 minutes of Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) pitching their trip to Weyland, and similar info that was eventually delivered in the starmaps exposition scene in the final film. One scene had them visiting Weyland in a space station above Earth, much like the one in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Another scene had them visiting Weyland on Mars where his house had a view of the terraforming taking place on the planet.
3. Shaw was originally called Watts, and the relationship between her and Holloway was different.
Shaw was Holloway’s younger student in Spaihts’ drafts and then they got together. It was a sort of “inappropriate” age difference, he said on the commentary, but that changed in Lindelof’s script. There’s some evidence of that in “Alien: Engineer” — Holloway says she was his student specifically — but it appears to be a backstory that Spaihts had in his head.
4. Spaihts Explains why Milburn and Fifield were such idiot scientists in the film.
One of the biggest complaints in the film is how the scientists Milburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris) are complete idiots. The geo-tracker Fifield manages to get them lost, and the biologist Milburn essentially plays “here kitty kitty” with what looks like a deadly alien snake. “Milburn and Fifefield, for two people scared to death, do an enormous amount of poking around,” Spaihts admitted on the commentary track. “You and I in this scenario would run as far away as possible.” Spaihts explains that Milburn, however is a xenobiologist, and he’s very excited and interested in this creature. He also laments the loss of dropping a previous scene (present on the DVD extras), where Milburn is extremely excited about finding evidence of life in a very harmless looking worm (the entire team is elated and practically do high fives). “It really showed how excited Milburn was by experiencing any extra-terrestrial, sophisticated life. That sort of explains why he’s acting like a complete utter moron here. The last thing you do when you see a snake in the wild is get your face really close to it and start smiling and extending your hand like you wanna pet it.”
5. Ridley Scott had the idea of the ship ramming another ship in the climax.
Here’s possibly a good example of what screenwriters have to face in Hollywood sometimes, especially when working with a well-known director. Spaihts said Ridley Scott conceived of the idea of the Prometheus ship ramming itself into the Engineer’s Juggernaut ship. Why? It was Spaihts job to discover that, to “justify it and build a ramp to that moment and figure out how your hero can survive that and how the plot will allow for it. “
6. Spaights invented the horrific caesarean section scene and more.
Spaihts said he wrote 5 drafts in total, with the first one tied to the derelict ship in “Alien” very directly, and in which the crews would move back and forth between these ships. But things soon evolved. The juggernaut ship was the primary location in Spaihts first draft, but by the last one, it was just something hidden within the larger pyramid framework as you see in “Prometheus.”
The medpod and caesarean section scenes were all his idea. Spaihts said he thought what got him the job in the first place was pitching the idea of the heroine getting impregnated by a facehugger/alien and then surviving it via a medical process. Spaihts’ version also had Fifield (Sean Harris) come back as a mutated creature, but in his version, Fifield killed Vickers.
Recorded before “Prometheus” hit theaters, the screenwriters’ commentary track is worth listening to, at the very least to hear Lindelof seemingly acutely aware of just how much audiences might hate him for the final version of the film (he apologizes often) and to hear Spaihts mildly complain about what’s missing in the film from his drafts.
Lindelof: “Or you hate me. One of the things I love to do in my writing is not answer things definitively. As frustrating as this is I rely much more on the human imagination and your ability to theorize what may have happened. Although that may be frustrating, it’s what makes people talk about movies when they’re over.”
Spaihts: “That is the thing I miss most. David deliberately exposing our heroine to a facehugger, and her knowing, having seen what happened to her lover that she had hours to bloodily and painfully save herself.”