How Alien: Engineers differs from Prometheus
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?
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...