Prometheus: Is David the Franchise’s Hidden Protagonist?

Does Prometheus make more sense if it's viewed as David the android's story? And where does it leave Alien: Covenant? Here's one theory...

This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.

NB: The following contains spoilers for Prometheus and speculation about this year’s Alien: Covenant.

One of the best bits in 2012’s Prometheus was one of the quietest: an early sequence where Michael Fassbender’s android David pads around a deserted ship, alternately watching Lawrence of Arabia, styling his hair after Peter O’Toole, and watching over the slumbering humans in their cryo chambers.

It’s a great introduction to a character who, like the androids of Alien and Aliens – Ian Holm’s Ash and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop – is so isolated from the motley crew of scientists, soldiers, and grasping industrialists that surround him. Indeed, one of the things we’ve often noted about Prometheus is just how oafish and generally dislikeable the human characters are. Religious space archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is alright, we suppose, but what are we to make of her horrible jock boyfriend, Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who delights in belittling and generally bullying David at every turn? Or hapless scientists Fifield and Milburn, the movie’s Shaggy and Scooby?

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We’ve written before about director Ridley Scott’s affinity for the artificial humans in his movies, whether it’s Ash, David, or the Replicants in Blade Runner. Yet Scott seems to be going a step further in his Alien prequel franchise, which began with Prometheus and continues in this summer’s Alien: Covenant. Far from a supporting character, as Ash or Bishop were, David might actually be the movies’ driving force and all-round anti-hero. 

Watched this way, Prometheus becomes a kind of black revenge comedy, where David, the put-upon servant of tech tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), turns the tables on his human masters. Let’s face it, among the generally neurotic, bickering mortals crammed into the Prometheus, David’s easily the smartest guy in the place: while they’re off prodding corpses and blowing up alien heads like kids on a sci-fi school trip, David’s quietly figuring out what the Engineers have been up to on LV-223. Although initially acting under orders from Peter Weyland – who wants to somehow snatch the secret of eternal life from the planetoid’s god-like beings – David evidently enjoys sneaking around, solving mysteries, and quietly sowing the seeds for the cast’s destruction.

Look at how drunken and sulky Holloway gets when he discovers that the inhabitants of LV-223 are (seemingly) all dead. Here, David cleverly uses Holloway’s petulant mood to further his secret experiment.

“How far would you go to get what you came all this way for?” David asks.

“Anything,” Holloway replies. 

Holloway doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s just filled out a verbal consent form that exists solely in David’s head – hence the tiny drop of black goo in Holloway’s drink, his eventual mutation and, much later, the deadly space squid that hatches from Elizabeth Shaw’s stomach. David didn’t necessarily foresee that Holloway and Shaw would create a monster together, but then again, it’s possible to detect a certain amount of glee in David’s face as Shaw experiences her first couple of birth pangs. Indeed, David’s antics in Prometheus might just provide the key to one of the movie’s most urgent underlying themes: the existential meaning behind humanity’s creation.

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The main cast in Prometheus – Shaw, Holloway, and Peter Weyland, mostly – have all travelled to LV-223 with questions. Why did the Engineers create life on Earth? If they can create life, are they also capable of extending it? As an android whose creators are indifferent about his existence, David already has his own answers to those questions. When Holloway remarks that humanity made David “because we could,” the android responds: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”

David already knows how it feels to be the progeny of an uncaring and capricious species, and he may well have divined that the Engineers are as callous about humans as Weyland and Holloway are about David and his supposed lack of a soul. One by one, the crew of the Prometheus either die or are subjected to bouts of terror and extreme disillusionment. Peter Weyland, far from discovering the secret of eternal life, is instead beaten up by a bald alien and left to observe the emptiness that lurks behind the veil of death.

“There is nothing,” the old man wheezes.

“I know,” David replies, perhaps with a touch of tenderness at last. 

Prometheus‘ themes of creator, creation, and existential despair look set to continue in Alien: Covenant, which had its debut trailer launch on Christmas Day. In it, a crew of another title ship – that’s the Covenant – make a trip to a leafy planet which turns out to be infested with yet more hideous creatures. In the intervening years between the end of Prometheus and its sequel, David’s been up to his old tricks, it seems: note how, in the trailer, he’s shown stalking around in a hooded cloak uncannily like the one the Engineer wore at the start of Prometheus. Having apparently crash-landed on this new world in one of those Juggernaut ships from the previous movie, it appears that David’s used the Engineers’ black goo to create new and dangerous lifeforms there – lifeforms with some distinctly familiar teeth and gestation habits.

If David really has been playing god again, as that cloak implies, then the android may wind up being the grandfather of the big bad Xenomorph from Alien. Perhaps David’s been trying to find a way to turn his mechanical body into something fleshier; maybe David’s tinkering explains why the Xenomorph winds up looking so biomechanical. It would certainly give the Alien franchise a near circular quality, with the Engineers creating humans, humans creating David, David creating the Xenomorphs, and the Xenomorphs killing – well, everyone and everything they see. 

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David isn’t the only android in Alien: Covenant, either. Fassbender’s also playing Walter, an artificial human who accompanies the latest group of explorers on their ill-fated mission. Whether Walter turns out to be less conniving and more sympathetic to his creators’ cause or not, his presence could be a sign that Scott’s Alien prequel series isn’t so much about the human characters, who still have a habit of trampling all over the local flora and making things difficult for themselves, but for the new form of life that may wind up replacing them. In Prometheus, there was the suggestion that the Engineers were destroyed by their own creation, just as Victor Frankenstein was in Mary Shelley’s seminal novel (subtitled, significantly enough, The Modern Prometheus). It’s a theme that looks likely to continue into Alien: Covenant, and any other prequels Scott might get to make after it.

In Ridley Scott’s view of the universe, the repeating cycle of a creator being destroyed by its creation is just the natural order of things; empires rise and fall, species evolve and become extinct. As Charlize Theron’s Vickers observes in Prometheus, “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable.”  

Prometheus is therefore the story of a vain, hubristic, and clumsy species pottering and prodding its way to its own downfall – all quietly observed by David, who watches from the sidelines with a wry smile and a mischievous glint in his eye.