Ridley Scott's Train Wreck
Scott’s influence on modern science fiction movies cannot be overstated. As the director of the original Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), Scott’s depictions of the future as dark, dystopic places where technology is hardly the savior of humankind were disturbingly more plausible than the antiseptic utopias prevalent in contemporary sci-fi. Movies like The Matrix and City of Men inhabit future worlds that owe a great debt to Scott’s vision. Though both Alien and Blade Runner are now considered classics worthy of preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress — Blade Runner in 1993 and Alien in 2002 — for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," the failure of Blade Runner at the box office and the breakdown of Scott’s next sci-fi movie, The Train, kept Scott away from the genre for nearly three decades.
Scott had basically sworn off sci-fi after Blade Runner, but he was nearly enticed back by a script written “on spec” by future Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls called Dead Reckoning. Described as “Alien on a train” by Uhls in David Hughes’ Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?, the movie was set in the future aboard a high-speed underground train and featured a “humanoid with a genetically-altered brain that was intended to be used as the ‘hard drive’ in an artificial intelligence project.” Independent production company Carolco Pictures purchased the script and producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna thought it would be “the perfect vehicle” for Scott, who apparently felt the same way. Writes Hughes:
No sooner had Scott coupled himself to the project than he contacted H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist with whom he had collaborated on an aborted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel Dune and, more successfully, Alien, for which Giger had won a special Academy Award.
Scott and Giger reunited for a new sci-fi movie featuring a deadly alien? Sounds like cinematic history in the making. So, why is Scott making an Alien prequel today instead of a prequel to Dead Reckoning, later renamed The Train? According to Hughes, Scott bowed out after having a dispute with producer Joel Silver and moved on to direct Thelma and Louise. Unfortunately, Giger ended up being the first casualty on The Train’s trip through Development Hell.
At this early stage, Giger noted [in Giger’s Film Designs], there was no agreement between Scott and Carolco: “he told me to just think about the project and to capture my ideas in sketches. He would negotiate a contract with Carolco in the meantime.” … “If somebody is telling me something I am always so enthusiastic that I don’t wait until the contracts are done, otherwise I will lose interest,” he explains. “I have to do it when I have the spark.” Giger worked for almost nine months, between the summer of 1988 and the spring of 1989, working up numerous bizarre designs for trains, stations, passenger compartments — even a radical new kind of emergency exit in which passengers are ejected into a spontaneous ejaculation of soft foam.
After Scott left The Train, Silver began tinkering with the movie, changing the name a second time, to ISOBAR (Intercontinental Subterranean Oscillo-magnetic Ballistic Aerodynamic Railway), and retooling the creature to be “a super-adaptive humanoid” found thriving in an “environment that’s hostile to humans.” A succession of writers was hired to rework the script, resulting in the creature changing yet again, to a “fast-growing hybrid plant” with a “tremendous thirst for water.” Despite this, ISOBAR managed to attract the interest of Sylvester Stallone, who wanted the movie to be less “sci-fi Rambo” and more like John McClane (Bruce Willis in Die Hard) on a train. The movie actually managed to get the green light, but when Carolco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy everything fell apart.
Scott would regain his superstar director status in the ‘00s with such hits as Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, but would also turn in some misses like A Good Year before deciding he had spent enough time away from sci-fi. Scott has Prometheus hitting theaters this summer and he is "quite a long way in" on the development of a sequel to Blade Runner. But, hey, whatever happened to Giger’s designs for The Train, you ask? According to Hughes, you've probably seen them in another sci-fi movie that didn't get derailed on its trip through Development Hell.
Giger was able to exploit some of unused designs for The Train when he was engaged to work on designs for ‘Sil’, the beautiful but deadly alien at the centre of the science fiction horror movie Species. “I had an idea about Sil dreaming about a ghost train,” he explains, “a train which comes and picks up people who are waiting in the station, [and who] she eats to get power.”
Next page: How and why we got stuck with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for Indy’s fourth (and probably final) big screen adventure.