What went wrong behind the scenes of Prometheus?
Prometheus should have been one of the greatest films of the decade, yet it fell flat for many fans. Original screenwriter for the film, Jon Spaihts, offers some insight into what happened.
Prometheus was a beautiful film, but that's nearly all it had going for it. The characters were idiots, the premise was confused, and the plot went so far off the rails that one can hardly believe that it passed the pre-production approval stages.
As I noted in my review, it seemed like the film was being made with too many conflicting ideals, like the director wanted two different things with the film, and ended up doing neither very well.
As it turns out, that's almost what really happened. In an interview with Empire, Spaihts explains how the film came to get so mixed up, and it reads like a filmmaker's nightmare.
It started with Spaihts being hired to write an actual Alien prequel. "The head of [Scott Free] brought up the notion of an Alien prequel and asked if I had any thoughts on it." he told Empire, "I hadn't prepared for that and hadn't developed a story, but I found in the moment that I had a lot of opinions about it. I thought there was only one way you could go. So I started riffing in the room and held forth for 30 to 35 minutes on what the shape of the story should be and what kind of things we could do that hadn't happened before."
Spaihts wrote a first draft that included a lot of the elements that wended up in the final film, including the Medpod scene, which is one of the most visually and conceptually interesting scenes in the film, despite not making any sense where it is. Scott Free loved it. Director Ridley Scott loved it. So, Spaihts was hired. He wrote several drafts of the film with Scott's help, all the while creating a prequel to the original Alien film, filled with Xenomorphes and Facehuggers.
"I did have facehuggers in my original draft," Spaihts continues. "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."
That sequence actually makes sense, as well as the remainder of David's plotline.
"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."
That sounds like a great bit of filmmaking. David's motivations are more clear, and the medpod scene actually fits with the remainder of the film. The early versions of the film were coming together well. So what happened? Another vision entered the arena.
The studio changed its mind about the film after 8 versions of the script. They no longer wanted an Alien prequel. Instead they wished the film to be a standalone production. Spaihts was not asked to write another version. Instead, Damon Lindelof was brought on to de-Alien the Alien prequel. He was to rewrite the script, keeping all the major elements, but removing the Xenomorphs and Facehuggers.
Unfortunately, that's not what Scott wanted for his film, so the Xenomorphs were removed, but this extra plot was left in, keeping the Alien prequel connection. David was made more malicious, but less "bloody-handed" and his motivation for betrayal became mostly unclear.
Finally, Spaihts talked about his ideas for where the future films would have gone, had he remained on as the lead writer. " I did have a plan for multiple films and the conversations I had with Ridley was about a new franchise, from the beginning. We talked about a possible trilogy, or a duology, but more often as a trilogy. And I did have pretty broad notions as to how we were going to get from this world to the original Alien - the baton pass, closing the circle, if you will. So yes, I did have plans for two other films. I came up with an even more twisted sequence than the Medpod, but I cannot tell you what happens...
"My vision of the trilogy would have involved the arrival of the Yutani Company and a couple of other major plays around the Engineers themselves: the revelation of an additional grand Engineer design, and the possibility of seeking an Engineer homeworld. That shot of the ship flying at the end offers a lot of creative ways to play with this. But it feels like it brackets you into the search for the Engineer homeworld and home civilization. That's an interesting challenge."
The original ending had Shaw and David still on the planet, rather than flying away.
If the films had been left with Spaihts original vision, perhaps it would have been the classic it was meant to be, or at least would have not been quite so derided as it is now. Not that Lindelof isn't a good writer; he was just given an impossible job, trying to reconcile those two visions. No one could have made a good movie out of that situation.
The main thing to take away from this, for me anyway, is that it's not Scott's fault that Prometheus was so bad, maybe he hasn't lost his touch after all, and maybe we really can trust him to still make good sci-fi. I guess we'll see with his next genre film.
Prometheus is available now on Blu-ray.