How Alien: Engineers differs from Prometheus

Feature Ryan Lambie 14 Nov 2012 - 07:47

As a leaked early draft of Prometheus leaks online, Ryan looks at the Alien prequel that never was...

This piece contains spoilers for Prometheus.

In retrospect, the marketing campaign for Prometheus created an atmosphere of anticipation the movie itself couldn’t hope to match. And so it was that, when Prometheus arrived in cinemas early this year, more people were leaving their seats with looks of pained bemusement than joy.

Far from answering the questions posed by its trailers, Prometheus added to them. If those god-like alien Engineers create human life on Earth, why did they decide to destroy it? Why did they use flutes to turn their spaceships on and off? Why did everyone in the cast behave like unruly 12-year-old kids on a school trip? With questions like those on our lips, it’s little surprise that the advertising for Prometheus’s Blu-ray release was based around solving some of those conundrums: “Questions will be answered” the blurb ran.

While the home release’s host of extras - particularly Charles de Lauzirika’s exhaustive The Furious Gods making-of - did indeed answer some of those questions, the discs were lacking one important piece of the jigsaw puzzle: Jon Spaihts’ script.

As you’ll already know if you’ve followed the progress of Prometheus through its production, Jon Spaihts was the screenwriter from its early stages, back when it was still described as a true Alien prequel. After turning in successive drafts, screenwriter Damon Lindelof was brought in to rework Spaihts’ script and incorporate director Ridley Scott’s ideas. By this point, the project was no longer a prequel, but a less direct predecessor - a directive, we later learned, which was handed down from the people in suits at Fox.

This origin story immediately begs the question: what was Prometheus like before it was Prometheus, and prior to Damon Lindelof’s involvement? Was Spaihts’s script a superior piece of work that became sullied and muddled in the process of its rewriting, as some had hinted?

Earlier this week, those questions could finally be answered, as a leaked copy of a Spaihts draft appeared online. Although there were initial doubts over its provenance, Spaihts later confirmed that it was genuine. Titled Alien: Engineers, it’s unclear exactly which of the writer’s drafts it is, but one things for certain: it was written before the project mutated into what we now know as Prometheus. So what’s it like?

Old gods


Initially, it appears to be markedly similar. The story opens in Earth’s prehistory, and we see an Engineer descend from a shadowy spacecraft, and in a ritualistic fashion, sacrifice himself to further life on our planet. Moving forward in history, we meet our two central characters, a pair of archaeologists hunting for clues of alien visitations in ancient art.

In this draft, the duo are rather different; the one played by Noomi Rapace in the movie is called Jocelyn Watts in this version of the script, and not Elizabeth Shaw. Although roughly the same age (early 30s), Watts is less overtly religious than Shaw, and no reference is made to her being unable to conceive (a fairly major plot point which was clearly introduced in later drafts).

Her fellow academic and lover is still named Charles Holloway, but he’s a much older (48 years old) and erudite chap than the bullish, somewhat unsympathetic character played by Logan Marshall-Green. This version of Holloway does, however, have an annoying habit of quoting the Bible all the time in the second half of the film.

Broadly speaking, the spine of Spaihts’ script is entirely recognisable. Piecing together a star map from ancient art, Watts and Holloway lead an expedition to a distant moon, all funded by the unfeasibly rich Peter Weyland. A refined and faintly sinister robot butler named David is sent along to assist, as is Vickers, Weyland’s corporate attack dog with a heart of ice.

Some of the character motivations, meanwhile, are somewhat different. For one thing, Weyland isn’t obsessed with the pursuit of eternal life, but with further lining his pockets with new technology. Buying into Watts' and Holloway’s theory that the alien Engineers have the ability to terraform planets, Weyland bankrolls the expedition in order to acquire that ability for himself.

Naturally, things go awry when the ship touches down on that distant moon, which, in this draft, is LV-426: the site of those nightmarish events in Alien.

After a brief search, Janek - the ship’s captain, who still plays an accordion as Idris Elba did - brings the craft down near the entrance of an alien pyramid. Within lurk long-dead Engineers, scuttling, centipede-like creatures, and leathery pods containing some very familiar parasites.

It’s at this point - roughly around page 40 - that the Alien: Engineers script diverges more obviously from the events in Prometheus. Yet even here, there are two comically hapless chaps named Fifield and Milburn, and they still end up spending a stormy night in the alien pyramid. Milburn is still attacked by something weird that wraps around his arm, and Fifield still mutates into a big, fleshy monster with an elongated head.

One thing is missing, though: alien goo. It’s a relatively minor detail, but the goo of Prometheus - a substance that could both create life and mutate it into new, aggressive forms - is described as a cloud of tiny black insects, whose bites cause those savage mutations. Its presence is also far more limited here, and the insect cloud only shows up twice in the entire script: once to devour that luckless sacrificial Engineer at the start of the movie, and again to turn Fifield into a rampaging beast.

Instead, Spaihts concentrates on gradually reintroducing the acid-spitting xenomorph immortalised by HR Giger in 1979. As he does so, it’s notable how some of the events which seemed so mystifying in Prometheus make far more sense in this early draft. Watts and Holloway still find a severed Engineer’s head (pulled off aeons ago by a xenomorph here) and take it back to the ship, but this time, it simply dissolves in the ship’s atmosphere. It doesn’t explode like a pumpkin with a firecracker inside it, and it doesn’t start peering around and curling its lip like Elvis before it goes pop.

Moreover, the kidnapped head actually serves a dramatic (if rather peculiar) purpose. In her scientific probings, Watts discovers that the Engineers wear goggles that allow them to see rays of light invisible to the naked eye - rays that David already knows an awful lot about.

Ah yes, David. An android with murky agendas in Prometheus, he’s the outright villain in Alien: Engineers. While Vickers and her minions begin to saw sections of the pyramid apart to work out how the alien terraforming tech works, David’s sneaking around other parts of the ancient structure with mischief in mind...


As in Alien and Aliens, Spaihts’ prequel takes its time before letting the acid spitters loose. It’s at the mid point where the true horror begins; Holloway, while exploring the alien pyramid, falls down a shaft and disappears. He’s found later, dazed, without his space helmet and unable to remember where he’s been or what happened. A tell-tale mark on his neck - like the bruise left from a stranglehold - is a clear wink to the audience: he’s doomed.

It’s during a sweaty love-making session with Watts that Holloway goes into labour; the infant starbeast erupts from his chest, spattering Watts in blood before scuttling off into the bowels of the ship. It’s a shocking, blackly comic scene even on paper, and while it’s difficult to imagine Fox allowing this nexus of sex and death to be committed to film - they were, after all, still toying with making the movie a PG-13 at the time - it’s difficult to fault the grim power of Spaihts’ imagination.

Nor can we fault the brilliance of a later incident, which ranks alongside Vincent Ward’s abandoned wooden planet idea as one of the greatest Alien franchise moments never filmed.

In it, David reveals his true villainy. Dragging Watts into an alien egg chamber, he teases open one of the leathery pods, and coaxes out the facehugger within. The creature, he explains, isn’t interested in the cogs of an android. But Watts’ body, on the other hand, is a far more enticing prospect. David handles the facehugger like a kitten before he deposits it onto Watts’ screaming face.

Here, then, is the genesis of not only the med-pod scene - perhaps the most convincing moment in Prometheus - but also the whole idea of David spiking Holloway’s drink with a spec of goo, Holloway’s impregnation of Shaw, and her later caesarian section at the clanking hands of an automated machine.

These moments in the script exemplify the difference between earlier drafts and what ended up on the large screen. Many of the same elements ended up in Prometheus, albeit in distorted form. Holloway is still ‘infected’ and dies, yet the process bears more dramatic weight in the script.

This isn’t to say, however, that Alien: Engineers is perfect. The earlier introduction of the med-pod is just as clunky and pointed as it is in the finished movie, and the Fifield monster still reads like an extraneous addition to a story already overflowing with monsters of all sizes. And, as was the case in Prometheus, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the various secondary characters apart, or even keep track of how many are alive or dead. For the most part, they’re screaming alien fodder.

What’s most notable about Spaihts’ draft, though, is what it lacks when compared to Prometheus. Peter Weyland is introduced at the beginning of the script, and never returns. He doesn’t make a dramatic last-act appearance on the ship, and there isn’t the rather tepid late revelation that Vickers is Pete’s daughter.

Although an Engineer is still prodded from his slumber, and still pulls David’s head off like a champagne cork, the old gods are less of a presence in Spaihts’ script, and the story feels leaner and more focused as a result. There’s a greater sense that events are building inexorably to a climax, in which David, in his eagerness to speak to an intellectual superior, kicks back into action the Engineers’ plan to wipe out humanity.

Admittedly, the motivation for that extermination is still obscure. The Engineers wanted to “destroy their wayward children” is David’s somewhat glib explanation, before launching into another of the script’s quotes from scripture: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth... for it repenteth me that I have made them.”

In an early scene, one character makes the suggestion that Jesus may have been an Engineer - an echo of Ridley Scott’s frankly worrying idea that the Engineers’ facehugger Armageddon was intended as punishment for crucifying one of their representatives.

Reading Alien: Engineers is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, it’s a gripping read, rattling along like an express train full of ghosts and monsters. On the other, it’s frustrating that what’s on these pages was never filmed. Had Fox not insisted on downplaying the presence of aliens, chestbursters and facehuggers, it’s likely that what we’d have seen in cinemas this year would have been fairly close to this draft.

Ridley Scott clearly liked it, because, for all the curious choices made afterwards - the thawed-out old men, the exploding head, the flutes - Scott worked hard at keeping most of its salvageable elements in, even though they didn’t quite make as much sense in their amended form.

Although some have been quick to point an accusatory finger at Damon Lindelof for Prometheus’ faults, it’s arguable that he faced a thankless task: taking what was an Alien movie and dreaming up ways of writing all those xenomorphs back out again. 

Sadly, we’ll never know for sure what Alien: Engineers would have been like. We can only read the script’s final confrontation - a battle between Watts and an alien freshly emerged from the corpse of an Engineer among the debris of the crashed ship - and imagine what might have been...

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After reading Spaihts' script, I can’t help but feel the most satisfying outcome would have been somewhere between his and Lindelof’s treatment. Spaihts' version does feel
too literal and comes across too much like AVP for its own good so it makes
sense that someone was brought in to refine the ideas somewhat. I mean, would
anyone have bought into the scarab transformation? For all the criticism the
goo was a better device and adds more mystery to the final version. What would
have worked brilliantly was the inclusion of the more familiar facehugger/xenomorph. That would have been a hell of a lot more satisfying than just random variations of saved all the bleedin' exasperation.

I don't really understand this huge negative fixation with the flute sequence..? An alien ship can be controlled with a musical instrument - its not a major plot point, it doesn't ruin Prometheus, its just an aesthetic intrigue.

Same here, we all have passwords right? We all have little chip and pin devices don't we? Sound has far more frequencies and subtle changes than a pin number. Get the note slightly wrong the ship remains dead, only that one person who can play that particular frequency will be able to activate the ship similar to the old Pilots back in the 1500s with their rutters written in code and secreted away. Don't forget David didn't notice the flute until he watched the playback and being an android he can record and play back exactly what he listened to.

To be honest, from that appraisal I'm happier with the film we got than that one.

It may have it's flaws but it's not a retread and it expands the Alien mythology which was something I always wanted ever since Aliens.

Agreed. Music has been the basis of communication with alien life for decades. We send symphonies into space, Spielberg uses his keyboard to chat to space crafts, and more recently Ben Stiller acts like a dick in The Watch and unfortunately doesn't get eaten, maybe his friendly tones were just enough to save him.

Anyhow, music and aliens go hand in hand, just look at the canteena scene in Star Wars. So, a flute ignition, seems slightly logical to me.

Just looks ridiculous, that's all.

I like Prometheus and the only thing that spoiled it for me was the 2 idiots that where supposed to be scientists, they could have still behaved like scientists and met a grizzly end so here it goes:
They get scared and decide to go like in the movie, but act normally rather than children.
The group say fine and the captain starts to navigate them back using the map from the ship.
On the way back where can be a rumble like a mini eathquake or so kind of disturbance that happens to mess about with their comms
However on the way back the floor gives way and one of the scientists is holding on to the edge whilst the other is trying to pull him up and both of them fall.
and thats where end up in the room with the creatures.
However this time the biologist is scared of the python and tells the other not to make any sudden movements and steps back slowley, not realising that one is behind him which attachs him
and then I would bring it back into the film
its not perfect but to me alot better than what we got.

You actually misrepresented one of my favourite differences in the script in this article. The evidence of the engineers presence on earth is mainly to do with research into genetics, technology and architecture - not 'pieced together' from art. The star map is not a recurring motif in tribal art, but comes from a discovery of an ancient, Engineer produced monolith This is the catalyst for the expedition, but it is backed up by years of research. In the film, the idea that so much money would be sunk into a journey based only on vague paintings was ridiculous - was much more convincingly put across in this script.

On the whole I find it a much better story in script form. The new forms of the Alien sound great, and a more menacing threat than the Engineers. The absence of Weyland later in the story is much better, and Vickers is portrayed better without the burden of the 'shock' revelation later in the film.

The most positive change is the character of Holloway for sure, and in general people acting with more sense. The medi-pod scene is amazing in the script - I can't believe they changed this. Much more tense and horrifying, and it makes more sense as it goes into greater detail about the time taken to heal the wounds. In the film it was so stupid how quickly she recovered. The moment when she escapes the medi-pod, shoots the Alien and walks away naked, covered in blood and re-loading her gun would have been a truely iconic and symbolically right moment. Maybe this was a bit too on-the-nose about female empowerment and its relation to control over the female body/abortion for the studios to accept? What a wasted opportunity.

Overall, I think the only thing done better in the film is the character of David. The whole Lawrence of Arabia thing was pretty inspired, and he was better as a more morally ambiguous character than an out-right villain. Maybe a slight change so that instead of putting the face-hugger on Shaw he just did nothing to stop it and watched on curiously would have fixed that problem? Either way, the chess-game ending would have been brilliant if David was a bit closer to his film character.

Other than that, the script does a much better job at leaving some mysteries open (why were they going to destroy earth? Can we know the motivations of beings so much more advanced than us?) while giving some solid answers on how Engineers interferred with human development, why Weyland funded the mission and how this connected with Alien.

The main changes seem to have been motivated by lowering the rating of the film, taking out some of the more controversial imagery and setting up for a sequel. While the script isn't perfect, these motivations seem to have added to, rather than clean up, the problems with the story.


In the original script something very similar to that happens. They are heading back, but storm interference means they can't use the map or communicate with the ship. Unlike the film, they don't go back to the room they were terrified of minutes ago, but stay where they are as they have missed the window to leave without getting caught in the storm. Rather than go up to the snake-alien, one of them picks up a centipede-like creature. It is described as thumb-sized, so it isn't realistic to think that a scientist in a very secure spacesuit (the script mentions that the suit's material is very strong) would pick up a very small, seemingly harmless alien creature. It is only when it reveals its teeth, and their attempts to get rid of it cause it to bleed acid which penetrates the suit, that the threat becomes apparent. It still isn't the strongest bit in the script, but it is at least a lot more rational. A re-draft could have made it even more sensible, but for some reason they re-drafted it in a way which made it ten times more stupid!

After reading the leaked script I was even more angry with the final product. Just like Alien 3 another example of too many cooks in the kitchen. I remember seeing the Original trailer for 3 at the theater where the Marines are ready for battle on a rain soaked Earth as hundreds of Aliens attack the city. I was so pumped. Then it was shelved and the problematic actual version of 3 came out and became the forgettable (for all the right reasons) version we got. Prometheus showed the same promise in the trailer and again swung and missed. Read the leaked script yesterday and couldn't help but think that even though it may have been a little of the same as the the first two, it was still worlds better than the overindulgent POS we got. Style over substance seems to be Scott's MO as he ages. Love the first two films and as Blade Runner is my all time favorite I get a knot in my stomach every time there is talk of a Prequel/sequel. In conclusion it seems that the Alien franchise has been criminally under realized.

I agree. As a Lost fan, Lindelof does bring a lot of interesting ideas to the table. But just like George Lucas, he needs someone to edit and refine those ideas in order to make them palatable to the general audience.

it is a shame as its the only part i didnt like

Really? Has that trailer ever seen the light of day since? I thought I'd seen all the trailers for these movies.

Can something as utterly insipid and uninspired as Prometheus actually have spoilers?

Hear hear. Excellent piece from d.o.g as per.

I'm with darkbill: which trailer was this?? It sounds like you're talking about a teaser trailer based on a completely different script (and nothing like Vincent Ward's original vision).

My belief had always been that the Engineer at the start of the movie who created human life did so against the wishes of the other Engineers for reasons of his own. He was the "nice" one, if you like, and the "Prometheus" of the movie. Prometheus, after all, stole fire from the Gods, gave it as a gift to mankind and was punished by them for his generosity. The Engineers wish to destroy us was to correct a mistake/unauthorised experiment carried out by a rogue member of their own species.

the script was awesome, shame

I loved the film.

The only 2 things that confused me were:

1. No one seems amazed/shocked that Shaw has just had a C-Section and given birth to a giant squid. Surely someone would have gone "Jesus christ! Are you ok!??? What the f**k was that? How the hell are you walking?".

2. Shaw and Vickers at the end running INTO the direction the Engineers ship is crashing? All they had to do was take 2 steps either left or right and no one would have been squashed. Could have come up with a better way to kill off Vickers.

Other than that, LOVED it. Was better than Alien 4, arguably better than 3 also.

1: I did not have a problem with this - they wee they not too busy dealing with an emergency at the time?

2: yes they could have just run to one side but at some point the ship was going to fall of to its side, it was better to try and outrun the wheel than take a 50/50 risk of being squashed when it fell over on to its side IMHO.

I too loved Prometheus. That's not to say it didn't have a few issues. I felt the whole idea of us being engineered was a bit cheap and unnecessary. Like you, I too had the problem with the running trajectory. I mean, they could have EASILY remedied the problem by bottlenecking them into a canyon or something so they were forced to run in the path of the giant rolling wheel of destruction. But I found David and Weyland FASCINATING characters and wanted to learn more about them. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable but was doomed by fans for being an 'Alien' movie. But it's still better than 3 and 4.

Come on DoG, you're better than this. Maybe "the marketing campaign for Prometheus created an atmosphere of anticipation the movie itself couldn’t hope to match" should actually read "Den of Geek created an atmosphere of anticipation the movie itself couldn’t hope to match".

As for the flute, who cares? It's just an iginition key, maybe a bit naff but not a baffling "question". Why does Luke Skywalker press the LED buttons in that order in his X-wing? What did the symbols on the buttons mean? It doesn't fit with my understanding of the established method for starting a vehicle.

And the DVD tagline about answering questions... Jesu effing Corbett haven't we already covered this? It refers to answering questions about the origins of mankind. QUESTION: where do we come from? ANSWER: An alien species created us as part of an experiment.

But WHY WHY WHY? I don't UNDERSTAND [crying]. It's a film about a mysterious alien species, with planned sequels. The Space Jockey in Alien remained a mystery for 33 years. Now we have a little bit more information about their nature and their technology. Can we just hang on for maybe 3 more years for a bit more? Maybe? If we cross our legs and jiggle about? And then we may get even more 3 years after that, if it's a trilogy. I hope it is a trilogy, and I hope there is no point at which David finds an ancient scroll of runic writing, from which he reads us all the exposition we could ever want, or, better yet, melts it down (it's a plastic scroll) and feeds it too us on a spoon. Probably we are some sort of military experiment, or maybe just scientific, but it looks like we'll find out later. Why couldn't they just tell us that [SPOILERS] the Rebel Alliance defeats the Empire at the start of Episode 4, rather than finding out at the end of Episode 6? It's confusing and annoying and I can't take it and I won't take it.

The only valid "unanswered question" was "Why did everyone in the cast behave like unruly 12-year-old kids on a school trip?". But that's not going to be rectified, not even if we eventually get a 3-hour version. It might help a bit, but not much.

My mate looks ridiculous putting his car key in the ignition, although that's more symptomatic of his appearance in general, than of the act itself.

That's a great theory and fits the name of the movie better than mine! I always thought the Engineer in the beginning did so according to orders. This would clearly show that the Engineers' value self-sacrifice for the good of the collective, the mission, the greater good, etc. Humans, being very individualistic and self-serving, were considered a failure. The point is driven home when a rich old man puts an incredible amount of resources into traveling across the Galaxy to find the Engineers and ask them to give him longer life. If you came from the self-sacrificing culture that the Engineers come from, you'd probably be pretty disgusted too.

Hmm. Prometheus was rather 'meh' to me, while the draft discussed here sounds more interesting to me. But on principle I'm usually against prequels of any kind, so I'd rather just see a good Alien-movie after the style of either the first or the second one. Preferably a spiritual successor to Aliens, like a movie-version of "Colonial Marines".

... and easy as that, almost anyone could have come up with a better way to kill them off instead of making look like a couple of morons... that scene certainly ruin the whole thing...

I liked Prometheus... but, with some exceptions, that script does seem better. I think the Black goo substance makes more sense as a mutating agent than biting bugs, and the I think I might prefer the more ambiguous David. *That* scene was suitably nasty though!

Yeah, the bugs sound rather hokey so the goo is an improvement. But otherwise I have very little positive to say about Prometheus, except that it looks very good and that David is the only character I found interesting.

As in: people laughing out loud in the cinema ridiculous. See also the 'running in a straight line from the giant rolling spaceship' scene.

The problem with this ancient Astronaut themed version of Alien is that if these Engineers species seeded earth then that would make them a incredible old ancient civilization. So how come's the space ship they fly is able to be knocked out by a species (Humanity) that's just started exploring space. It don't make sense. These engineers would be almost god like with very advanced technology.

Why stop there at abortion and inject the whole propagation with out the opposite sex to promote your sodomy agenda as well. Wasted you say? Gratefully ignored and dismissed.

I agree, although I did understand the choice of scarabs, as at some point one of the characters mentions how the Egyptians built the pyramids as a sort of mock-up of the Engineer's terraformers, and all know about how prominent scarabs were in Egyptian mythology. I do understand, however, that this could have been a bit confusing to the majority.

That's great, considering that never even began to occur to me. That whole sequence at the beginning was rather confusing to me, and the draft in the script is much more comprehensive.

On the contrary, I liked the bugs much more than the goo we got, because it fits better with the whole idea (explained in the script) of how human mythology is just paying homage to the Engineer's tech. For instance, one character explains that the Egyptians built the pyramids as an imitation of the Engineer's terraformers. In the same vein, ancient Egyptian mythology had a lot about scarabs being the bringers of life, and in the original script, the Engineers used the black bugs as a method of seeding DNA into primitive humans for genetic advancement. I just thought the script worked better overall.

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