It's been almost three years since the release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and while most people I know have had no trouble establishing a pro or con position on the film (most of them opt for the latter), my relationship with Scott's unofficial Alien prequel is a bit more complicated. From the beginning, I've recognized the film's numerous problems and understood that, even at its best, Prometheus probably can't be considered a "good movie," much less a great one. But three years later, I can't honestly say that I dislike Prometheus. For all its flaws, there's simply too much awesome going on in the film for me to write it off entirely. And so, I find myself returning to Prometheus again and again, reveling in the stuff that it does get right and then muttering darkly to myself when the film inevitably goes off the rails.
My attempts to understand the abusive relationship I've entered into with this movie have led me to the following conclusion: Prometheus started out with a strong foundation (Jon Spaihts' original screenplay, then titled Alien: Engineers), but along the way it was mangled by an incredibly ill-advised studio mandate ("Tone down the Alien mythology stuff"), and further mangled by the "fixes" that were applied (in Damon Lindelof's reworking of the Spaihts draft) as a means of implementing that mandate. Understanding this is key to understanding why Prometheus doesn't really work.
There can be no question that Spaihts' screenplay is a superior take of the same basic story told in Prometheus: many of the final film's most baffling scenes and glaring inconsistencies simply don't exist in the Spaihts version. Characters are more clearly defined, choices made from scene to scene make more sense, pivotal moments carry more dramatic heft. And, most tragically of all, the script features a number of sequences jettisoned from the final version that would have been just as shocking to audiences today as Alien was to audiences in 1979.
Chief among these deleted sequences is the "chestburster sex scene."
In the final film, David (Michael Fassbender) infects Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) with an insidious black goo that rapidly rewrites his DNA. After being infected, he has sex with Shaw (Noomi Rapace), impregnating her with a proto-version of the Xenomorph chestburster. In the Spaihts version, the net results are the same - Holloway gets infected, Shaw (named Watts in the original draft) eventually ends up impregnated with a proto-chestburster - but the mechanics are different, rooted more firmly in classic Alien mythology. Here's what happens after Holloway gets infected in the original version:
Not only is Spaihts' "chestburster sex scene" effective in its own right, but it's also a clever, surprising twist on the iconic chestburster scenes from every other Alien film (at this point, we've seen chestbursters erupt from people across half a dozen different movies; who would've expected one to pop up mid-sex scene?). The problem, of course, is that this was one of many sequences that worked against the studio's desire to set Prometheus as far apart from the Alien franchise as possible. Speaking to Empire Online about the changes, Spaihts said:
...The most dramatic change was the removal of the xenomorph from the film. That was a shift that happened at the same time as I stepped off the film. A lot of that push came from the studio very high up; they were interested in doing something original and not one more franchise film. That really came to a head at the studio - the major push to focus on the new mythology of Prometheus and dial the Aliens as far back as we could came down from the studio.
The studio's desire to "dial the Aliens back" is, to say the least, hard to understand. It seems counterintuitive to bring Ridley Scott back to the Alien fold, only to ask for him to reduce the amount of Alien mythology he'd be bringing to the table (It seems especially ridiculous considering how much Alien mythology did make it into the final film: you've got Space Jockeys, Peter Weyland, that proto-Xenomorph tag at the end). But then, it's also the same kind of boneheaded studio note Hollywood's become infamous for, so it's not really all that surprising.
It is, however, particularly depressing in this case. No one walked into Prometheus hoping for less Alien, and the more Alien-centric moments in the Spaihts draft are among that version's best scenes: the reveal that the crew had landed on LV-426, David forcing a facehugger onto the face of a captive Watts/Shaw, the various proto-Xenomorphs introduced throughout (including a ghostly, all-white version that would've had a killer visual impact). The chestburster sex scene, though...that one would've been an all-timer, an instantly iconic moment that might very well have usurped Scott's original chestburster sequence in terms of sheer shock value and number of nightmares induced. If only they'd stayed the course.
Read Spaihts' original draft of Prometheus here, and weep for what could have been.