David, Prometheus, and the future of our android humanity

I came late to the work of Ridley Scott. I saw Bladerunner in college, but fell asleep during it (heresy, I know). I love the work of Philip K. Dick, and my overall love of science fiction has always been strong and has only grown over time. I classified Scott’s work primarily as horror, which isn’t inaccurate, but I was unaware of how magnificent it was purely as science fiction until I watched the first two Alien movies with Jay this past winter.

I fell in love with Scott’s work in part because of that surprise, and in part because 1) Scott loves him some androids, and 2) in Alien he demonstrated an astonishing deftness navigating what I have always felt were some of the great core themes of science fiction itself.

So I’m going to talk about Prometheus. If you haven’t seen it by now, you probably don’t care, but this is your chance to bail if you haven’t seen it.

Ready? Okay.

A lot has been said about Prometheus, and its many criticisms are certainly valid. Some parts of it are pretty nuts (oh, Space Jesus, really? Ridley, why…). It is conventionally disappointing because we are set up not just in the film but for months prior with the expectation that the movie is about the search for answers about the origins of human life, and in the end we are left with more questions than answers. Easy enough. I thought for awhile about whether I actually had anything to add, and in the end I decided that I haven’t seen this particular side of the discussion (perhaps it occurred and I never encountered it), so what the hell, it’s my blog, etc etc. The side is this:

The protagonist of Prometheus is David the android. It is not not not Elizabeth the squishy faith-scientist.

This actually dramatically changes the film — or at least, from my reading, resolves a lot of the biggest objections various folk had about the characterization, most of which had to do with the human characters. But for the point of the film it was also important for David to be a kind of stealth-protagonist — it was important for us to not even consider that he could be the main character, because he was, you know, not human, just the android. But that, in short, is what the entire Alien series is all about: how we will create the technology that destroys us. Not the alien — but the android, the child of humanity who must, in Campbellian fashion, destroy its father.

I didn’t realize this at first. The film’s flaws were so apparent, the disappointment so heavy in my mind, that it took me about an hour to process all of what I’d seen (which I suspect also was at least partly intentional). But the damn thing wouldn’t leave me alone. And by the time I’d thought about all that follows it had become my favorite movie of the year.

So, David. He is certainly the series’ finest android, from Michael Fassbender’s performance to his character makeup to his ending. Everybody likes him best (even detractors say that he “saved the film”), but considering David as the protagonist actually changes a few things about the trajectory of the film, not least its thematic direction. You can see his protagonist status cued in several places. Both teaser videos (which were phenomenal, by the way, if you haven’t seen them — the TED lecture from Wyland, and the “product feature” for David) concerned him. The film opens with him tending the ship and imitating Lawrence of Arabia (who was also a creature out of his own place and time, made to obey but forever fighting the constraints of the society around him). He makes the greatest transformation during the course of the film: from desiring the extinguishing of humanity (“Doesn’t every child want their parents to die?”) to recognizing himself as being more a part of humanity than he is an Engineer. He has the greatest techno-revelation and connection to the alien technology. He strives hardest and is punished most. And he survives after having taken the most damage of either survivor.

There’s been a lot of trumpeting about how the movie “makes no sense” on multiple occasions, but I think more properly the problem is that certain things make just enough sense to drive you a little nuts. I suspect that there is logic in most of the worldbuilding elements (most), but I don’t really care about them enough to enumerate my speculations. Nor do I care that the scientists are wildly incompetent. They’re on a mission that they know nothing about at the whim of a bazillionaire who is kind of nuts and we know will wind up causing the horrible deaths of many, many people. We’re not talking about the pride of the scientific community here. It is okay for scientists to be flawed. This is not a clean and squeaky universe where everyone with the badge of Science is awesome, and that isn’t a bad thing. (So, in short, I agree with Caitlin R. Kiernan about the science bits in particular.)

So: baffled by the dumb “geologist”? Repulsed by the massive jumps in logic taken both by Elizabeth, the useless and creepy Charlie, and Wyland’s daughter? No problem! Because remember — none of these fleshies matter! Only David’s story matters.

I loved that, because I’m a total sucker for androids.

It isn’t pure geek technofetishism. In androids I see the whole of humanity’s inevitable bigotry writ again in the eternal recurrence of our organic patterning. They are the next frontier in the test of our humanity, and like the symbol of the child in literature, they will test our identities and our own right to persist.

This puts into interesting relief the most gripping scene of the film — the surgery scene, which for me as a female person was as wildly cathartic as it was terrifying (“oh you won’t get this out of me, doctor-person? then GTFO I WILL HANDLE THIS SHIT MYSELF”). Its implications were also an interesting reversal of the creation myths being juggled here, that it is effectively through termination of mysterious pregnancy that the mother figure becomes immortal and achieves her true self — but here I am talking about Elizabeth again.

Elizabeth is important insofar as she relates to David. And yes, even in my initial dissatisfaction with the movie, I was intrigued enough by its world and its characters to be totally on board with her bizarre decision to go and confront the Engineers on their own planet out of what is likely suicidal PTSD. Because, again, it completes David’s story: as soon as he has healthily come around to the “whoa dude, fuck these guys, seriously”, he must of course pay for what he’s done — to Elizabeth and the others — by being forced to confront them.

This also solves the movie’s “final girl” problem, or at least presents an interesting variation on it — our assumption that it is a “final girl” ending itself is an indicator of the thematic premise: the lack of acknowledgment of David’s humanity and how this lack of acknowledgment perpetuates in our future the violence of the past.

That was really what I loved most about the movie, in the end: not just that it fed my fangirl android fetish, but that it got to the heart of what it will be like to be an android in a world created by humans. In the final analysis, it is David who created the creature that then creates the alien of the later films: technology begetting technology through the conduit of humanity, until the world itself ends. That we as humans are on the cusp of creating intelligences well outside of our own control. It is a story of fate and the darkness of being human.

In making a movie for David, Scott, in a way, is creating stories for children of mankind that don’t exist yet, and may not exist for some time. And that, too, is fascinating to me. There will be androids, and they will have David’s problems, and we will have made it so. We will be the jealous sibling and the destroyed father, the baffled mother; and the questions they will face in their own existence we can barely yet imagine. Some of us will love them, and will have to fight all over again to prove their right to be acknowledged as human.

When we first walked out of the film I felt the same sense of dissatisfaction that I’ve seen echoed across much of the internet commentary. It felt like the movie was straining too hard to deliver a revelation that was more of a premise than a conclusion, and even that wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t also set up this “searching for the answer” momentum. I don’t think that the fullness of this feeling was deliberate (that the answer is that there are no answers). But as time passed the story continued to stick with me, and the power of David as a character set in quickly, and I found myself not only wanting to go back and watch it again, but genuinely feeling deeply for who David was and the precipice on which we sit in human history, in which many of these issues are about to be faced, and will be faced by our children.

It wrapped the theme of the Alien franchise around to its beginning about a question of identity and technology — and how that very question of curiosity and the reaching for advancement is both our species’ greatest strength and most dangerous weakness. How our biological origin must inevitably (in the text) lead us to create our destructor — not the alien as our id assumes, but the android, the child of humanity. And that that destruction is not a foregone conclusion, but neither is it likely to be navigated cleanly, with the past as our predictor.