David–by far the most interesting character in Prometheus, insightfully realized by Michael Fassbender–dyes his hair.
To me, this was one of the most striking and memorable shots in the movie. The one I’m still thinking about the next day. That’s not a knock on the rest of the movie, it’s amazing. But it’s Fassbender’s David that’s the crowning achievement of the film. His performance, and the filmmakers decision to make a movie about the android, to me, justify all the shortcuts the movie takes elsewhere. His performance is daring and exploring and challenging. It’s a testament to Ridley Scott the storyteller that in and amongst all this high concept science-fiction and amazing design that I’m thinking about a robot who dyes his hair even when there’s no one to see it.
We think we know what the movie’s about. Humans journey to a distant planet to see if Mankind owes its origin to an alien intelligence. But that’s not what it’s about. We think we know it’s a horror movie, it’s not. It’s a science-fiction movie. It asks science-fiction questions. It owes a far greater debt to the cerebral science fiction that predates Alien than it does Alien. Owes more to Blade Runner than Alien. When David asks a question about what we all want of our parents, it is quite literally a line that Roy Batty could have asked. In a sense, did ask. Did more than ask. Batty does what David dreams of.
It’s a scary movie, but not relentlessly, bowel-freezingly terrifying like Alien. There are many sequences, awful horrifying sequences, that left me nauseous. It’s like one, long, body-horror anthology. Lots of bad things happen to and in people’s bodies. Brrrrr…..
The film is not a masterpiece the way Alien was, but it’s more ambitious. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but that’s what a heaven’s for. Plus, we already have Alien. It seems to me the major flaw in the film is pacing. The film drops critical little character details in what sometimes seems like a parody of a soap opera. “But…how can I appreciate your art when, as we both know...I’ve been blind my whole life.” Ok, that doesn’t happen, but something very similar does. And I was like…what? You can’t just dump stuff like that on us. You can’t just grab an axe out of nowhere like they’re laying around behind everything. If there is such a thing as the opposite of Chekov’s Gun, it’s that axe. Chekov’s Axe. Don’t worry, the axe ends up useless.
And I don’t think it’s ok to just gloss over character stuff and expect the audience to follow along. Yes, I understand intellectually that the Captain is going to finally side with Elizabeth, but I knew very little about him that made me understand why he would do that. Yes, I understand that Elizabeth is in love with the poor-man’s Tom Hardy they cast as her husband…but he seems a colossal douche and so I have no understanding of why she loves him, except for the obvious reason that he looks like Tom Hardy.
But if the character and pacing are given short shrift, it’s because both have to get out of the way so we can explore some interesting ideas. And if David is the only really interesting and believable character in the movie, that’s made up for by how fascinating he is, and the questions Ridley Scott uses him to ask. That’s what Prometheus is about.
David has a lot in common with HAL. In fact, I think it’s entirely accurate to say that David is precisely what you’d get if you gave HAL legs. This movie is a direct descendant of 2001. More a child of that movie and that kind of science fiction than it is of Alien. Alien asked no questions, provided no answers. It was too busy causing our bowels to freeze and shiver in terror, than it was in asking questions. Prometheus is nothing but questions.
I know how silly this sounds, but Prometheus also owes a certain debt to Wall-E. Both movies spend time, a lot of time, with a lone robot puttering around amidst the ruins of humanity. Allowing Man’s culture to project itself onto the robot. Allowing us to draw conclusions about the robots based on what they take away from the Human Experience.
The persistent question I come back to–and perhaps there’s an answer in the movie, took me 20 years to really wrap my head around 2001–is David’s nature. In fact, I think it’s the entire point of the movie. Everything else is a way to frame, reflect, reiterate the central question of David’s existence.
Left alone, without humans to annoy him or tell him what to do, David seems happy, curious. He watches one of my favorite movies, quotes it. I would like to think that, given a chance, free of his obligation to humans, he would be a moral person. But I do not know this, because there is nothing moral or immoral to do when he is alone. When he quotes a movie, it’s to himself. He’s not trying to impress the humans on the ship. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in them, in fact he largely appears to have the same attitude toward them that HAL does toward the crew of the Discovery. “Why do I need these monkeys?”
Like Wall-E, David is fascinated by the remains of humanity. Both robots watch our old movies. But while Wall-E watches movies with music and romance, David watches movies about desolate landscapes with heroes who feel like outsiders everywhere.
Is it a surprise that David’s favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia? It should not be. Lawrence was someone fascinated with Arab culture, accepted as an Arab, but was not an Arab. When push came to shove, when the film demands Lawrence answer the question “Who are you?” He has no answer. He doesn’t know. The question leaves Lawrence speechless.
I watched Lawrence, one of my all-time favorite movies, just after seeing Prometheus and I was struck by how obviously David thinks he is Lawrence. A wise old man picks him because of his unique talents to journey to a far and distant land, there to solve a thorny problem. Lawrence is a bastard, he has no roots, no family, no home. David would watch that movie over and over thinking “that’s me up there. I can relate to him. I am him.”
David also watches Elizabeth Shaw’s dreams. He watches dreams and movies. I imagine, to an Android, these would seem like the same thing.
I think, in his own way, David loves Elizabeth. We see him watch her dreams. We see him looking on when she’s debriefing the crew, with an immense smile on his face, incredibly proud of her. Because he’s gotten to know her in Hypersleep and loves that she’s getting to do what she’s always wanted. Loves her faith and conviction. He takes her cross, not to decontaminate it, but to keep it. Has it with him for the rest of the film. Why? Because he thinks she’s going to die in “childbirth” and wants something to remember her by. And…he murders her husband. His only rival. I don’t think David has designs on Elizabeth, I think Halloway gives him plenty of reasons to dislike him on his own, but I think David enjoys killing Halloway, and part of that comes from his conviction that the Brofiend is the wrong guy for Elizabeth.
When she responds to the question in the debriefing “How do you know?” with “I don’t. But it’s what I choose to believe,” David is momentarily taken aback. This is something he does not understand. He literally says so at the end of the film. “I don’t understand.”
“Well, maybe that’s because I’m a human being, and you’re a robot.”
Apart from Elizabeth, David doesn’t like people much. He wants the approval of Peter Weyland, responds with a prideful look when Weyland describes him as the closest thing to a son he will ever have. But he is then immediately disappointed when his creator points out he has no ‘soul.’
How frustrating that must be, to David. For David does not believe anyone has a soul. He says so, at the end, in an oblique way.
“David,” Weland says, his last words, looking eternity square in the face. “There’s nothing.” No afterlife. No meaning. No eternal soul. Peter Weyland’s final realization.
“I know,” David says. He’s always known. The only thing separating him from a true son of Peter Weyland, was something he knew never existed in the first place. “Have a pleasant journey, Mr. Weyland.”
David appears to yearn for liberation from the demands of his father. He dotes on his father, literally washes his feet, but at the same time dreams, aches for his father to die. Wants it so badly, it never even occurs to him that other people don’t want the same thing. He knows how Elizabeth Shaw’s father died and though to her and us, it was horrible, to him it seems delightful and, indeed, he presumes she feels the same way.
Servitude to his creator seems to have twisted David into some dark mirror reflection of a Man. Is David in the Waste Land? If so, it’s the same Waste Land Charlize Theron’s character, Meredith Vickers, is. Yearning for the death of her father. If that kind of hate, obsession with death, has twisted David from something Not Human into something Unhuman, then it has done the same thing to Vickers.
And now we have to get into the realm of real spoilers. Because David has a chance to leave the Waste Land, a chance denied Meredith Vikers. Vikers is so Unhuman, other characters in the movie ask her–not entirely joking–if she’s a robot. She and Michael share a lot of physical characteristics. And a lot of emotional characteristics. But they are opposites!
David wants to look like Vikers. Wants to be her in a sense, the real daughter of the Creator. That’s why he dyes his hair. Whereas Vikers wants to be David. Emotionless, unaffected by human weakness and frailty. The one time she shows some emotion to her father, kisses his hand, he makes her instantly regret it, regret that moment of humanity, by clenching his fist.
Each of them, Man and Not-Man are reflecting each other. Yearning for the one thing the other has which they do not want. This movie is like a nested series of Greimassian Squares. You have the Man, and Anti-Man, the Not-Man and the Alien. And then inside there, the progeny, and the not-progeny, and the anti-progeny. The Creator, the Not-Creator, and the Anti-Creator. Layers within layers.
It’s a challenging film. It provides no answers. It will require repeated viewings just to understand the questions. Walking out of the film, I felt I knew what was going on with the Prometheans. Or, at least, I had enough known-unknowns to construct a plausible theory. What I didn’t know, but was desperate to know, was what did David say to the Promethean?
Because if David is Pinocchio, and he is, he wasn’t talking in that instance to his creator. He knows his creator. Has known him intimately. Has washed his feet. He was talking to his creator’s God. What would you ask of the God of the God that created you? Would you ask “Why the fuck would you create these bags of meatshit? Are you as disappointed in them as I am?”
I don’t know the answer. But I know that David seems delighted, rapturous, as he basks in the brief attention of the Promethean. I believe, I suspect, that David convinced himself he belonged more with the Prometheans than with Man. Had more in common with them than the feeble, stunted, humans he’s spent his entire existence serving.
We never get to see what David does once his father is truly dead. He has a chance to leave the Waste Land. Does he become a good person? Does such a concept even have meaning for the Not-Man? I don’t know, but I really wanted to know. I liked David, when he was alone on the ship. I even felt for him, when it became obvious everyone treated him like walking toilet paper. But he is not a good person. At best, he is an amoral tool of his creator. But I think that’s being generous. I think poisoning, worse: experimenting on, murdering Elizabeth’s husband is something he takes a perverse joy in. He has no idea what’s going to happen, but he knows it’s going to be bad, and he’s looking forward to it. Hard to continue to like the guy after that.
But he works with Elizabeth after his father dies. Helps her. Does he have to? Does he have a choice? I want to believe he does. I want to believe he chooses to help her find the Prometheans, even though he doesn’t have to.
Because that makes him more interesting.
This post has turned into the first in a series. For which also see:
- The Prometheus Podcast. In which another game industry vet and I talk about the movie.
- Prometheus Explained. In which I take a stab at interpreting the themes evident in the film.
- Two Kinds of Prometheans. Is the last Promethean we see a unique Hybrid between organic and biomechanical organism?
- Peter Weyland, and Film as a Consumer Product. We know it’s Peter Weyland’s mission. Why do we believe Shaw when she says otherwise?
- The 2001 Podcast, spiritually related to this movie and these posts.