It’s time to put the controversy to rest. Which draft of the Prometheus screenplay was better? Spaiths or Lindelof’s?
Premise: A group of scientists head to a distant star system in search of intelligent life. But what they find instead is an ancient race hellbent on destroying Earth.
About: This is the last draft of Prometheus that Jon Spaiths worked on before being replaced by Damon Lindelof.
Writer: Jon Spaiths
Details: 117 pages (undated)
The emergence of this script is strange. There’s been a lot of chatter since the release of Prometheus that Damon Lindelof ruined Prometheus’ screenplay, with the assumption being that the writer before him, Jon Spaiths, had written a much better draft. So one has to wonder, did Team Lindelof release this draft to prove that he didn’t “ruin” anything? Or did Team Spaiths release this draft to prove, “Hey, the rumors are true. My version was better!” It’s a particularly strange situation here on Scriptshadow because I’m one of the only people who actually LIKED Prometheus. So I can’t even voice the same concerns as the masses. I thought the script for the film I saw was pretty solid (though, admittedly, the subject matter was right up my alley). Another thing you have to factor in is that Ridley Scott was guiding the creation of the story. So many of the ideas in the script were, I’m assuming, his, and therefore may have nothing to do with Spaiths or Lindelof. Anyway, I’m just curious as a script-lover to see what changes were made and what we can learn from those changes. Let’s check it out.
Reading through the opening of “Alien: Engineers” triggered some major deja-vu. In fact, after the first half of the script, I wondered how the hell Lindelof even got credit on the screenplay. Everything was exactly the same. We follow the same two main characters, Doctor Jocelyn Watts and Professor Martin Holloway, as they discover evidence pointing to the whereabouts of alien intelligence (this time deep underwater instead of in a cave – I assume they changed this for budgetary reasons).
The rest of the characters are exactly the same as well. You have the seriously grouchy Lydia Vickers (Charlize Theron) as well as our favorite OCD android, David (Michael Fassbender). You have the goofy guys who go into the tunnel and the deadly serious Captain Janek.
They get to Moon LV-426 and, just like before, find the engineers beheaded in the hallway. They start doing research and gradually realize that the engineers were here to terraform this world but something stopped them before they could do it.
Where things change significantly is that the ALIENS (and I mean the ORIGINAL aliens) play a bigger role in Spaiths version of the screenplay. A two foot long caterpillar attacks one of the goofy dudes and I guess that caterpillar lays the first alien egg. This leads to one of the facehuggers emerging, which later impregnates someone else, which results in a slightly bigger alien, and so on and so forth until we have full grown aliens running around.
The thing is, this still doesn’t happen until way late in the screenplay. After the mid-point. So for those hoping for more of a classic “Aliens Contained Thriller” like we got in the first two movies, you don’t get that here. By the time the aliens actually get dangerous, the script is almost over, so I can see why they decided to nix it. You either gotta go all in with these things or not. You can’t go half-way, which seemed to be the case here.
I’m also imagining that at some point someone said, “We got two competing ideas here. We gotta choose one or the other.” Which is true. You had aliens running all over the place, and then you had these completely separate big engineer dudes waking up. It’s kind of confusing, so when Lindelof came in, I’m guessing Ridley just went, “You know what? Let’s scratch the aliens and commit to the engineers.” Was that a good decision? Hmm, probably. Like I said, if you’re going to go aliens, you gotta go all the way. And I think they realized they weren’t making an alien movie anymore.
Another change was the late twist. Instead of the Old Weyland being released from hyper-sleep, four secret soldiers were woken up, who were apparently there to enact “Phase 2.” While the soldier thing had potential, it wasn’t effectively utilized here and I’m not even sure what happened to the soldiers ten pages after their arrival. They disappeared off the face of the moon. Lindelof likely noticed this and decided to change the twist to the old man – and this is what lead to a lot of people complaining that this plot point didn’t make sense. It was a neat idea, but Lindelof didn’t have the time to implement it in a logical way. That’s the thing you have to remember. With us amateurs, we have as much time as we want to get our plot points in order. These guys are on a deadline, and sometimes that means not being able to perfect your additions.
The other big change Lindelof made was fleshing out David. In Spaiths’ draft, David always seemed to be on the brink of going mad, but for the most part stayed on the sidelines. In the shooting draft, obviously, he goes full blown nuts and you can even argue that the second half of the film is his. My take on this choice? I think it was a good one. David was clearly the most interesting character on the ship, so exploring him more and expanding his storyline made sense. Again, it looks like they ran out of time to ensure that all those changes made sense. In the movie, it wasn’t entirely clear why David decided to be the bad guy or do what he did, but it was almost there. They just needed a couple of more drafts.
A big problem with both drafts was the unfocused second act. So many characters had been introduced and the writers were trying to keep track of them all and they just couldn’t. There’s a period of about 20 pages where everybody’s running around, both in the ship and in the pyramid, and I have no idea why or what any of them are doing. That’s the danger you run into when you have tons of characters. You have to keep track of them all. If two people are getting killed off in this room, you have to have a good reason why nobody else is around to help. Where are they? What are they doing? These are the kinds of things screenwriters never get credit for yet it’s one of the hardest things about the craft – keeping track of everything. And if you don’t have enough time or you don’t give it enough attention, these large-character pieces can get confusing quickly, which is unfortunately what happened here.
It’s also interesting to see how little things get lost from draft to draft and how that can lead to unintended “WTF” moments. For example, I remember seeing Vickers sprawling over-the-top sleeping quarters on Prometheus and thinking, “There is no way in hell they would spend all that money on that room. This isn’t a stay at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s a spaceship where every cubic foot needs to be utilized.” Well in this draft, we learn via a quick line of dialogue that Vickers refused to go on this expedition unless she traveled in luxury. Somebody probably decided to cut that line since it wasn’t essential, but just that little cut made the writers look sloppy.
After reading “Alien: Engineers,” my assessment is that Lindelof’s draft(s) did make the script better. Nothing major was really done. Lindelof fleshed stuff out a little more and got rid of an alien subplot that felt half-baked. But the drafts really weren’t that different. When you get this many drafts into the script, you’re never going to see that much of a story transformation. The quality of the story is likely going to be the same, with just some slight differences in the specifics. I thought this script was decent, but still enjoyed the final draft better.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me.
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Many writers spend 40-50 times as much time on the first half of their screenplay as the second. This happens because whenever someone opens their script to start working, they start from the top. So scenes in the first 30 pages have likely been gone over 50 times as much as scenes in the last 30 pages. Seeing how much sloppier this script was in the second half as opposed to the first, it just reminded me that you gotta give both halves equal attention.