There are few names in the horror genre bigger than the Alien series. And fewer whose record has been so contentious. After the second film, Aliens, was released in 1986 to the sound of $131 million in unadjusted earnings, 20th Century Fox has regarded the franchise as one of its golden geese, a property worth continual revisiting. Too often however, attempts to recapture the enthusiasm and acclaim of it and its predecessor have fallen short and met with, at best, reserved praise. Ridley Scott’s prequel Prometheus was no different.
No film in the Alien franchise is perhaps as contentious as Prometheus. While films like Alien Resurrection or Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem might inspire nigh-universal loathing, the reactions to Scott’s 2012 reprise run the entire gamut from love to hate; only Alien3 comes close to inspiring similar divisiveness. At once a prequel to the original 1979 film (also directed by Scott) as well as something of a new beginning, Prometheus drew confused reactions even before its debut, as inconsistent statements, viral marketing, and an aura of mystery surrounded the film, causing many to wonder what it even was. When the film was finally released, confusion gave way to polarized and vehement debate.
Many critics praised the film, calling it a “magnificent science fiction film” (Roger Ebert), “brilliant” (Richard Roeper) and “something like genuine grandeur” (A.O. Scott), but their accolades were not without some reservations: Peter Bradshaw called it “more grandiose, more elaborate—but less interesting [than Alien]” and Andrew O’Hehir wrote that “portentousness and grandiosity ... is at once the film’s great strength and great weakness.” Audience reactions were decidedly less enthusiastic. According to the market research film CinemaScore, audiences awarded the film a modest “B” score (for comparison the critically scorned Batman v. Superman and Independence Day: Resurgence also earned a B)1 and in the weeks after its release many disappointed or even angry fans took to the internet to express their opinions. Since then those who’ve seen the film have been divided into camps that see the film as an underappreciated classic, an ambitious but fatally flawed gem, or an utterly ruinous entry in the Alien series best forgotten.
But might it have been different? Might the return of Ridley Scott to the franchise he helped create have been welcomed with open arms instead of polarized reviews and internet flame wars? To some, the discovery and leak of an earlier draft for what would eventually become Prometheus offers a tantalizing clue as well as a look at “what might have been.” Titled Alien: Engineers, the script was penned by Jon Spaihts and was what might have been filmed before Scott decided to bring on the controversial Lost scribe Damon Lindelof to do a rewrite. Since the release of Prometheus the screenplay has made its way online and, after being confirmed as authentic by Spaihts, is now fairly easy to find. Curious, I eventually decided to give it a look.
At first glance, it’s clear that Alien: Engineers is much closer to the film that many expected when Ridley Scott first announced he was returning to the Alien universe. A direct tie-in to the 1979 film instead of an original story, Engineers features the franchise’s titular antagonists and many more clear references to earlier films in the series, even taking place in the same location as Alien and Aliens did, instead of on a neighboring world as the final film does. These details alone have made the script popular in some circles of the Alien fandom, where it is frequently lamented that Scott chose to go with Lindelof’s rewrite instead.
That being said, the script is far from flawless and indeed features many of the same elements found at fault for Prometheus’ polarized reception, such as the way in which the film’s cast are frequently killed off through poor decision-making. It is also the origin of the vaguely pachydermic Space Jockeys’ rebranding as the humanoid “Engineers” as well as the decision to link them with the origins of humanity. Coupled with some extra weirdness of its own (which I will detail further on), it’s not clear to me that Alien: Engineers actually is the superior story some have proposed. At the very least it’s not any less messy.
I should preface the following with the admission that I did in fact enjoy Prometheus—quite a bit in fact despite its flaws—and so I am less inclined to look favorably upon an “alternate take” than others who were disappointed by the film. That being said I hardly think Alien: Engineers is unworthy of a look: it has many interesting ideas of its own and provides a fossilized look at the film development process (the sausage making if you will). So whether you enjoyed Prometheus or hated it, I think it’s certainly worth a read if you’re a fan of the series.
It all started with a failed pitch. It was 2001 and plans for a sequel to Alien Resurrection had fallen through: Joss Whedon’s Earth-centered script was rejected by the series’ star actress Sigourney Weaver. Weaver, already fatigued with the franchise and uninterested in filming an entry set on Earth told Fox she’d only be interested in returning to the series if the next film was set back on LV-426, the location of the first two films. Not wanting to lose Weaver, 20th Century Fox began pursuing that avenue and approached James Cameron, the writer-director of Aliens, who’d gotten along well with Weaver in the past. Whedon was dropped and Cameron began work on a script for the project with another writer, in accordance with Weaver’s wishes. Then Ridley Scott showed up.
When Scott came on board he brought with him a different approach, one which would soon subvert the original intent. With a return to LV-426, Scott suggested that the new film should focus on the connection between the alien monsters and the mysterious giant or “space jockey” seen in the first film. James Cameron, at this point in charge of the project, took to Scott’s idea rather well (“we were in violent agreement”) and the two soon agreed to split duties, with Cameron writing and producing while Scott directed. Weaver, however, lost interest and with her, Fox as well. Instead, Fox decided to pursue a separate pitch based off of the Alien vs. Predator crossover. Dismayed at their decision and utterly uninterested in the concept, Cameron backed out leaving the project in limbo. By the end of 2003, it seemed a return to LV-426 had been permanently postponed, though Scott still had enough interest in the idea to mention it in his commentary for that year’s DVD release of the original Alien.
Skip forward four years later. Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, though modest successes, were nowhere near the blockbusters Fox had expected and both had been widely deplored by critics and fans alike. It was at this point that Scott, still interested in his “gods and monsters” pitch, reapproached Fox. Considering Scott a safe box office bet, the studio agreed to put the project into production, but on one condition: Scott would have to direct. Initially, Scott wavered: he was interested in producing but he had wanted Carl Eirik Rinsch to direct while he pursued other projects. But Fox was insistent and made clear the film would have no future without Scott behind it. In the end they got their way and Scott signed on to direct the prequel to the film which had first made him famous.
At this point, a script was needed, Cameron and Scott’s early work more or less obsolete. In 2009, Ridley Scott met up with then little-known screenwriter Jon Spaihts.2 In the process of their discussion, Scott shared some information about the project and Spaihts, enticed, gave his own pitch for the story as a “bridge” between the film’s new characters and the original Alien films. Scott was intrigued and brought Spaihts to the attention of Fox, who were likewise hooked by his take. Spaihts was almost immediately hired and began work on the new screenplay, now titled Alien: Engineers. A release date of December 2011 was set and pre-production officially began.
Though Spaihts’ script would eventually go unused it ultimately formed the bedrock upon which Prometheus was later built. Struggling to find a way to emotionally connect the audience to the enigmatic space jockeys, Spaihts decided to tie the species in with humanity’s own past, so that “their [story] is somehow ours, and deeply enmeshed with the human story.” It was an idea Scott, already a fan of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, took to heart immediately, resulting in the jockeys’ reimagining as the engineers of humanity. Beyond that, Spaihts made his primary goal the weaving of the script’s story into the events of the first film so that Alien: Engineers would lead directly into it.
But it was not to be. Despite their broad agreement, Spaihts and Scott frequently argued over details and specifics; in July of 2010 Scott opted to bring in another writer, Damon Lindelof, to revise and rewrite Spaihts’ script after its fourth draft. Spaihts was given the boot. Now in charge of the script’s fate, Lindelof transformed Alien: Engineers into Prometheus, jettisoning most of the direct connections to Alien and restyling itself both as an indirect prequel (or side story) to the original as well as a stylistic successor to Blade Runner, Scott’s other acclaimed science fiction film. Scott was enthused with Lindelof’s new approach and later said that while Alien had been a jumping-off point, Prometheus had “evolved into a new, grand mythology.”
Spaihts’ work, however, would not be forgotten. After Prometheus’ release, the final version of Alien: Engineers before Lindelof’s rewrite made its way online and after attracting attention from the fandom, Spaihts confirmed it was genuine. For fans and critics of Prometheus alike it was a gold mine, providing insight into the initial planning of the film and an interesting look at what might have been had Scott stuck with Spaihts’ “bridge” pitch.
Alien: Engineers begins much the same way that Prometheus does: a cold opening on a desolate, prehistoric Earth. We watch (or read) as a single Engineer sacrifices itself, disintegrating into raw biogenic material in order to steer the native life down a particular evolutionary pathway. The Engineer’s sacrifice is witnessed by others,3 the artifact is a swarm of scarab-like creatures, and the presence of primordial humans later on in the scene establishes clearly that is not the ultimate origin of life on Earth, but sequence is essentially the same as is its point: life on Earth was guided by ancient beings from beyond our world. Humans are a creation.
We jump forward several millennia and find ourselves in another familiar, yet distinct scene. Two scientists explore the ruins of an ancient civilization on the floor of the Mediterranean, discovering a map pointing toward the the Zeta2 Reticuli system 39 light-years. The female scientist is named Jocelyn Watts instead of Elizabeth Shaw and Holloway’s first name is Martin instead of Charless but for all intents and purposes these are the same protagonists we followed in Prometheus. Convinced by their find of their hypothesis that aliens played a role in the evolution and development of humanity, Watts and Holloway aspire to visit the distant star and turn toward the richest man alive, Peter Weyland, to make that happen. The two meet him aboard a space station in orbit of Earth.
Although Weyland’s right-hand woman Lydia Vickers is skeptical, Weyland himself proves receptive to Watts and Holloway’s proposal. Watts and Holloway share with the tycoon not only their archaeological finds but genetic and climatological evidence they suggest “proves” aliens have been terraforming Earth and tampering with its local inhabitants for countless millennia. This particular bit proves to be what draws Weyland in: although he’s been hiding it from the public, his efforts to terraform Mars haven’t been going smoothly. Weyland agrees to fund Watts and Holloway’s expedition in exchange for exclusive rights to whatever technology they find at their destination. In addition, he presents them with his “son” David, who is described as “cunningly built, but no one would mistake him for a real human being.” Weyland makes David and Vickers’ presence mandatory, largely over the objections of Vickers who believes she’s being removed from the line of succession.
Skip forward two and a half years, the length of a trip at faster-than-light velocities from Earth to Zeta2 Reticuli. Aboard the Magellan, the ship commissioned for Watts and Holloway’s expedition, the crew and passengers awake. Disagreements quickly set in as different members of the expedition have different objectives: Watts and Holloway want to discover humanity’s makers, Vickers wants to find technology that will land her the position of Weyland Industries CEO, and the blue-collar crew just wants to get paid. We learn that many of the crew are skeptical about the mission’s merits: it turns out that other probes have visited the system in the past only to find nothing of interest.4 What’s more, Captain Janek notes most of the crew are contractors who sign on for a percentage of the profit in any prospecting run but that this mission doesn’t offer any shares, only triple the hourly rate. The crew, regarding this as a rip-off, are pretty irate as a result.
Despite the initial skepticism and disagreement however, Watts and Holloway are vindicated when the spacecraft’s scans pick up a moon in the system with a primordial atmosphere and near-Earth mass: LV-426. In response, Janek directs the Magellan down towards a region of the world that looks particularly promising. On the surface, the crew is astonished to find an enormous pyramidal structure and a landing party is launched to investigate. Within its ruinous chambers, Watts and Holloway find what they were looking for: unmistakable evidence of an advanced extraterrestrial society and, even better a massive alien corpse to dissect. It as this point that Fifield, the team’s geologist, freaks out and insists on leaving the tomb-like chambers along with his friend Milburn, the team’s biologist.
Before the landing party can investigate much further a storm rolls in, forcing them to evacuate back to the Magellan. In the chaos, Fifield and Milburn, lost in the catacombs, get left behind. Aboard the Magellan, Watts and Holloway dissect the alien giant’s severed head and discover it to be remarkably humanoid, with nearly identical facial features to those of a human. Watts also uncovers the fact that its eyes are capable of seeing aura-like phenomena around living creatures that are invisible to human eyes and, curious, she removes its lenses. For her part, Vickers proves more interested in the pyramid itself, surmising it to be enormous terraformation engine. Watts and Holloway concur, adding that it seems likely the pyramids of ancient Egypt and other civilizations were modeled after identical structures built on Earth.5 Meanwhile, back in that same pyramid, Fifield and Milburn run into trouble when they encounter a group of centipede-like creatures. Over Fifield’s objections, Milburn attempts to befriend one and even picks it up, after which it quickly turns hostile and kills him, sending Fifield fleeing into the dark catacombs.
Convinced that the mission is going to be profitable after all, Vickers reveals the ace in Weyland’s sleeve: a secret platoon of heavily armed security contractors who rapidly seize control of the Magellan on her command, denying Watts and Holloway access to the pyramid except by her say so and allowing her complete control over their data. Vickers directs an armed expedition into the pyramid, partly to search for Fifield and Milburn but primarily to secure control of the alien technology within. Watts and Holloway join the party but Holloway gets separated from the group shortly before the group finds another pile of Engineer bodies, this time with mysterious chest wounds that seem to have been made from within. Watts breaks off from the group to look for Holloway and after a frantic search she and David find him, disoriented and without his helmet. Together, they escort him back to the Magellan.
It is not long after Watts, David, and Holloway return to the ship however that Holloway violently gives birth to an alien parasite which was apparently gestating within him. Those familiar with the Alien series will immediately recognize similarities but also differences: this chestburster is octopoid and pale white. And instead of bursting through Holloway’s ribcage it wrenches itself from his abdomen. The newborn parasite immediately shuffles off into the dark corners of the Magellan, leaving behind a shocked Watts. While Janek attempts to track the creature down, she sets about trying to discover how Holloway was impregnated. Her search eventually leads her back to the pyramid and a chamber full of strange alien eggs lining the ceiling. From there she find her way to an ancient Engineer warship, within which she finds David. David reveals to her the truth about humanity’s creators, that they’d planned to destroy their children with another creation: the parasites, which they modified and weaponized into a more “perfect” form. Then, demonstrating his true intentions, David forces Watts’ impregnation by the modified parasite, throwing her into unconsciousness.
After she awakes, Watts realizes what has happened and sprints towards the Magellan to surgically remove the alien embryo growing inside of her. Climbing into one of the ship’s med pods she almost succeeds before it bursts from her chest, nearly killing her before the med pod is able to resuscitate her. She awakes several hours later to find the creature nearly full grown. Although initially terrified, Watts catches the creature by surprise and kills it, after which she reunites with the rest of the crew, who have been picked off by Holloway’s horrific offspring. After briefly explaining the situation and sharing one of the cheesiest lines I’ve ever seen in the franchise, Watts takes control of the survivors from Vickers and Janek and leads them into the pyramid to confront David, who she believes is attempting to resurrect the last Engineer alive on LV-426. Before she leaves she takes the lenses of the dead Engineer’s head and fashions them into goggles (yes, really) to give her a “god’s eye view” of the pyramid.
Vickers accompanies Watts and the rest in the pyramid, hoping to use her authority over him to override his personal objectives. Unfortunately, David has “learned to think in trinary code,” making him completely free and allowing him to awaken the last Engineer. Unfortunately for David, the Engineer had gone into hypersleep to prevent its death by chestburster and in a fit of rage it dismembers and decapitates the android before setting off to destroy humanity with his ship’s deadly cargo. Chaos ensues: adult forms of the modified alien parasite appear from out of the shadows, attacking the crew, while the Engineer slays his way through the rest. A mutated Fifield appears seemingly out of nowhere and kills Vickers. Desperate, Watts pleads to Janek to destroy the Engineer’s ship mid-flight by ramming into it with the Magellan, crippling both ships. Shortly thereafter, the foiled Engineer dies as the alien parasite within him rips out of its chest, proceeding thereafter to hunt down the survivors of the Magellan.
Watts is then left to face off against both Holloway’s offspring and the Engineer’s on her own, though she remarkably manages to kill both. Afterwards, Watts hunts down the decapitated head of David and recovers it, forming an unlikely and uncomfortable camaraderie of sorts with him. With no way off of LV-426, Watts resigns herself to surviving in the wreckage of the Magellan, waiting for a rescue mission that might never come. As she faces off against David in a game of chess, a beacon activates unbeknownst to her within the ancient pyramid, signaling the disaster that has befallen its creators; the same beacon which will ultimately draw the Nostromo to LV-426.
Truth be told, when I approached the script of Alien: Engineers I did so with a fair degree of skepticism. As aforementioned, I was more or less satisfied with how Prometheus turned out and I wasn’t really interested in an earlier version of the film with the classic aliens. But there were actually some things about the script I found quite interesting, even enjoyable after a fashion. Certainly, the script follows through on the promise of being an Alien prequel in a way that Prometheus does not and while, personally, I don’t count that as a mark against the final film the way some people do it is interesting to see a more thorough exploration of the eponymous aliens’ origins. In particular, the idea that the aliens once had a prototypical, natural form prior to tinkering by the Engineers is an intriguing one and I enjoyed the ways in which the “Holloway Alien” and its kin differed from the classic design in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways.
Likewise, while I was largely fine with the way Prometheus handled the crew dynamic, which was largely along the lines of an ill-fated archaeological expedition similar to that of the Dyer party in At the Mountains of Madness, it was interesting to see Alien: Engineers adhere more directly to the classic working class roots of the franchise.6 The crew of the Magellan are grumpy, ornery, and know they’re being taken advantage of, drawing direct comparisons to the crew of the Nostromo in 1979’s Alien. There’s a definite level of management-labor conflict riding beneath the surface of the interactions between Vickers’ thugs and Janek’s crew which harkens back to the way the earlier films dealt with class issues but which is lost in the finished version of Prometheus.
With all that being said, I think there are some critical flaws present in the Alien: Engineers script as well. So many in fact, that I will go against the common grain and say that the Prometheus screenplay is actually the more polished, professional work and, for me at least, the more entertaining one. One of my biggest qualms with Prometheus was that it felt a bit scattershot: instead of focusing on just one horrific discovery or alien monstrosity, the film featured several (although all tied together through the black goo and the Engineers). As a result, the story lacked the kind of focus present in even some of the weaker earlier entries in the franchise. But if anything Alien: Engineers suffers from the same problem considerably more: it still features the hammerpedes, the black goo (or rather scarab-like insects in their place), a mutated Fifield, and the last Engineer but it also features three different versions of the alien: the classic variants seen in the original films, the prototypical forms from which they were created, and the gargantuan ultramorph birthed from the last Engineer. It’s just too much and it leads to a lot of scene hopping or even just plain forgetting about one of the monsters for a large portion of the film.7 It’s sloppy.
The characterization isn’t really stronger here either. For all the complaints that Prometheus’ characters acted foolishly, they act just as incredulously here: Fifield and Milburn still freak out and get hopelessly lost only to coddle up to the hammerpedes later. Holloway’s still the abrasive jerk he was in the final film. And Watts/Shaw, love her or hate her is pretty much the same wide-eyed, reckless adventurer of the final film until she discovers the horrible truth about what she was looking for and rather abruptly transforms into an action heroine with little purpose or explanation.
The only real differences in characterization are David and Vickers and they are decidedly for the worse. Whereas David was arguably the most fascinating character in Prometheus, animated by a twisted Oedipal complex about humanity that made him equal parts Ash, Lore, and Roy Batty, his original self in the Alien: Engineers script is just a pale imitation of Ash, without any of the nuance. He also alternates wildly from being decidedly primitive compared to later androids in the universe (he’s described as obviously artificial) to considerably more advanced (exhibiting a strength and speed in the last act not seen in other models). Meanwhile Vickers, who exhibited a more subtle form of the corporate malfeasance represented by Ash, Burke, and Michael Bishop in the original films and who was actually praised by some fans for exhibiting more practicality and sense than any other member of the crew, is just a cardboard stereotype in this script, serving little purpose other than to obstruct the main characters and put them in danger.
Altogether, I’m glad Ridley Scott and Fox decided to give Alien: Engineers a makeover. It’s not that the script is altogether bad—after all, it still shares many similarities with the final film which I enjoyed—but it suffers from even more flaws than the controversial rewrite. I think it’s fairly evident after reading the script that Jon Spaihts was still refining his craft whereas Damon Lindelof, however one may dislike him personally, was already a seasoned screenwriter with several acclaimed scripts under his belt. Spaihts certainly had some interesting ideas though and while I hope the controversy over Prometheus does not tempt Fox to steer Alien: Covenant too strongly back its direction, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of those ideas implemented in later films.
In the end, I’m glad I read the script. It’s not perfect and like I said I do prefer the rewrite, but it had its unique strengths as well and, if nothing else, provides a useful insight into how Prometheus was made. It’s clear, for example, that from the very beginning Ridley Scott wanted to make a film that was as much about the origins of humanity and malevolent space gods as he did a film about the franchise’s eponymous alien parasites. And it’s likewise curious to see what in particular he felt was worth keeping from the original script and what he wanted to change. And who knows? Maybe one day one of those scrapped ideas will make their way into a released product.
1 Aliens earned an A, Alien3 a C, and Alien Resurrection a B-; the original Alien was never rated by CinemaScore
2 Best known today perhaps as the author of this year’s Doctor Strange and the upcoming Passengers; he also penned the script for Universal’s new reboot of The Mummy
3 Though this is also the case in a deleted scene for Prometheus
4 Nestled in here is an odd oversight in the script, which describes the last probe as having visited LV-426 a century ago and the current date as 2172, putting Alien: Engineers considerably further in the future than Alien, which took place in 2122.
5 Not long after this, Holloway floats the infamous “Jesus was an Engineer” idea that Ridley Scott commented on shortly after Prometheus’ release
6 JANEK: So there’s two of these things on my ship now. WATTS No. I brought it in. (hefts her gun) I took it out.
7 The “Holloway Alien” for instance disappears for a very lengthy period of time, from about its initial discovery and attacks to when Janek tries to ram the Magellan into the juggernaut