Warning: This article contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant.
Before the movie’s release, Alien: Covenant was extensively teased via an array of prologue scenes intended to flesh out the backstories of various characters. One such scene dubbed ‘The Last Supper’ introduced the crew of the Covenant, including its captain Branson (James Franco), by showing them all having one final meal together before going into hypersleep. When the movie finally came out, many were shocked to see Franco’s Branson die a horrible, fiery death in the opening minutes and only get to speak lines via a video viewed by his widow Daniels (Katherine Waterston).
Franco’s death is so abrupt that it seems like a stunt to even have him in the film at all, but it turns out his character was originally meant to play a larger role in the film, a role that has now been revealed by one of the movie’s writers.
In an interview with THR, Dante Harper gave some details on earlier drafts of the script and how Branson fit into Ridley Scott’s overall conception:
“Originally, the James Franco was part of what was a larger storyline, involving learning a little more about his background and actually getting to see some of his dreams that he’d had while he was asleep. It had to do with the backstory of both Daniels [Katherine Waterson] as well as Billy Crudup’s character, Oram. Part of Ridley’s idea was that this was a ship that not only had this external problem, but it also had this problem that there was this captain who was not the original captain who is now going to lead the mission and maybe make some terrible mistakes. The James Franco character is in that teaser a good bit more and I think in different versions of the screenplay as it went along, he had a larger role, but his role was always to be an absent captain.”
In the finished film, after Branson’s sudden death, Oram takes over as captain of the Covenant, and at one point talks about how he was originally passed over to be captain because the people who put together the mission had doubts about his fitness to lead due to his religious faith. Clearly, earlier drafts of the script focused more on Oram grappling with the responsibilities of being captain despite the doubts about him, but a lot of that was dropped in the finished film in favor of a more stream-lined horror narrative.
Many of the prologue scenes and bits of additional material that were released before Alien: Covenant feel like things that originally were meant to be included in the film but were cut for various reasons. This includes a rather extensive sequence that shows what happened to David (Michael Fassbender) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) between the events of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant when they were traveling to Paradise aboard the Engineers’ ship. As we learn in the film, David eventually killed Shaw while performing the experiments that led to the creation of the Xenomorph.
The question one must ask is whether Alien: Covenant would have been better off including the Franco backstory as well as the David/Shaw prologue material instead of reducing all that to a minimum in order to focus on the more straight-forward action-horror elements that ultimately made it into the final film, including a final half-hour that goes back to the barest Alien basics. While fans of Promethus may end up being the ones most disappointed in the exclusion, those that prefer the style of the original Ridley Scott Alien and its James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens, doubtless prefer the theatrical cut. Regardless, this is something fans will be debating for quite some time.