Contemporary science fiction cinema is fascinated by the fate of mankind. Visions of the future no longer look like the sterile worlds seen in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run. Grim is in. Dark and seedy dystopias governed by shady corporations pushing questionable technology are the norm, a result of Ridley Scott’s influential early works Alien and Blade Runner. While Scott took a lengthy hiatus from the genre afterwards — only returning to it recently for 2012’s Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus — one of his most talked-about near misses would have seen him delve back into that post-apocalyptic chaos.
Bearing the brunt of Blade Runner’s box office failure, Scott abandoned science-fiction for his next feature’s fantasy caper Legend and noir thriller Someone To Watch Over Me. It wasn’t until a script entitled Dead Reckoning made its way onto his desk that the auteur reconsidered his stance. Described by its author as “Alien on a train,” the screenplay was written on-spec by Jim Uhls who explained the broad strokes in David Hughes’ book Development Hell:
“It was a sci-fi action thriller set in the future, in which an altered form of life gets loose on a high-speed runaway underground train. The creature was a humanoid with a genetically-altered brain that was intended to be used as the ‘hard drive’ in an artificial intelligence project.”
He sold the script to independent production outfit Carolco, which had yet to experience the success of Robocop or Terminator 2, and hoped to launch into science-fiction in a big way. Carolco’s Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar — attached to produce — saw Scott as the perfect candidate to both shape the movie and, in-turn, make Carolco a success. Luckily for them, Scott showed serious interest in directing the film now retitled The Train.
Such was his dedication, he recruited production designer Norris Spencer and reached out to an old friend with whom he had worked on his 1979 masterpiece: H.R. Giger.
“Sometime in 1988, Ridley Scott telephoned me and asked me if I would like to make a science fiction movie with him,” Giger later recalled. “For me, there is nothing greater than this. I was enthusiastic about it and immediately accepted, because a remarkable movie always originates from a director like Ridley Scott.”
By agreeing to help Scott, Giger saw an opportunity to bring to life his Ghost Train passion project. The concept of a train constructed from biomechanoid skeletons had long since fascinated the artist, who rolled out a series of new sketches to inspire Scott. At that point while Giger knew Scott was not locked into a contract with Carolco, his enthusiasm guided him toward some of his most menacing creations. Locomotives, bizarre train stations, and even the more risque were the passenger compartments that ejected patrons via a foamy ejaculate.
If the idea of Scott and Giger reuniting for another original movie about a futuristic alien sounds too good to be true, then that’s because sadly, it was. While Giger was hard at work from 1988 to 1989 amassing a ton of original concept art, Scott remained curiously quiet. It turns out he had already jumped ship to start work on Thelma and Louise after butting heads with Producer Joel Silver.
Following Scott’s exit, Silver lobbied the film around town. He puttered with the script, changed its title to Isobar, and offered it to several screenwriters, who each added their own spin on the project until it eventually caught the attention of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. By this stage, the central idea had undergone so many fundamental changes that it barely resembled Uhls’ original screenplay.
“The creature was changed to be an evolutionary leap,” Uhls told Hughes. “A super-adaptive humanoid that was caught thriving outside, in the environment that’s hostile to humans. It is put onto the train to be transported to a special lab. It breaks free, then it must adapt faster and more dramatically to stay alive inside the train. It requires massive doses of adrenaline to do this, so it kills people to get it.”
While Devlin and Emmerich rustled up a new script based on that idea, Silver commissioned Die Hard scribe Steven De Souza — who called the most current draft a shameless Aliens rip-off — to put his own spin on it.
It got worse. An even later version retitled The ISOBAR Run swapped out the monster for “a highly mobile plant hybrid, an aggressive organism capable of hunting down water in arid conditions.” Years later, The Happening would end the debate over whether or not vegetation makes for a good antagonist once and for all. As it turns out, the far-fetched script wasn’t the final nail in the coffin for Isobar; instead, Carolco’s eventual bankruptcy put the project on the permanent back burner.
Scott returned to sci-fi two decades later for Prometheus, with Giger at his side reverse-engineering the xenomorph design for the creation of the alien ancestor known as the Deacon. It’s still not the same as imagining what The Train could have been, its inherent claustrophobic environment like the Nostromo hurtling down the tracks. Who knows if ‘The Company’ de Souza referred to in the script was in fact Weyland-Yutani, and the speeding locomotive was carrying another variety of species to its headquarters. In retrospect, perhaps that might have been the prequel worth developing.
Not all was lost, however. Giger’s designs for that terrifying train were repurposed for Species, a so-so film that carries the only trace of what could have been greatness.
Images from Giger.com