If it’s been awhile since you’ve been aboard Prometheus, or if you’ve yet to see this stellar viral, check it out. The viral is probably more impressive than any sequence in the actual film, and a lot of fun to revisit after having seen it.
Technological. Intellectual. Physical. Emotional.
Critics and auds have pointed out that David shares more than a little of the DNA of any number of artificial boys, foremost the treachery of HAL, and the antagonists of a wide catalog of films depicting AI insurgence, including, of course, Alien. This isn’t especially remarkable or impressive. For self-reflexivity, perhaps only the Western and Horror genres rival Sci-Fi, where it’s nearly impossible to break from the motifs, conventions, and by now rather canned discourses first hashed out on screen in landmark works like Alien, Blade Runner, 2001.
One such discourse is invoked by David in the first words of the viral: “What is it about robots…that makes them so robotic?”
Well, for the ones allegedly designed to facilitate human interaction (Terminators and Agents being another, related category), usually:
· They must abide by certain rules, a la Asimov’s laws. These laws will be disastrously interpreted by the AI itself and/or will have been secretly tampered with by the manufacturer to facilitate a specific mission.
· They have limited free will due to above laws, and a tendency to care only or overridingly about functional activities that facilitate their mission.
· They have increased physical and cognitive prowess relative to humans, though they exhibit blunted affect and have some difficulty exhibiting and empathizing with emotions, and processing humor and figurative language.
Let’s just get something out of the way. Prometheus is not a good film overall. Taken in full context, it’s a ponderous, mythology overladen vehicle for questions to be explained in later installments, whence audiences can connect most of the dots, achieve catharsis, complain that it didn’t all mesh up with Alien quite as much as they were led to believe it would, and if they’re die-hard, buy some peripherals that answer gory details. Yes, Mr. Scott, it’s a prequel, that’s how it was designed, regardless of exactly how you define “prequel,” and you let them do it. Do you think God will save you because the film industry is risk-averse?
Still, David was remarkable, even inspired. Fassbender of course deserves most of the credit for a terrific and essential performance, but the filmmakers deserve some credit too. For all its shortcomings, David, quite miraculously, succeeds as a great character because of Prometheus‘s plot, rather than despite it. He succeeds because neither Fassbender’s performance nor the film itself precludes him from being an original, compelling departure from the longstanding android archetype and story arc.
The role androids typically fill in mainstream sci-fi cinema is as a site where the laws guiding AI behavior either break down or are revealed to be nefarious, and chaos ensues. The androids themselves are ethically neither here nor there. They don’t have a will worth questioning, and the lesson learned time and again is on the hubris of creating beings we can’t control, or want to control for selfish ends. That was great and exciting and canny when Dick was writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Clarke was writing 2001 while Kubrick was filming it, but by now it’s just a convention. It’s been done, and done. In Alien it still served as a legitimate dramatic development, but even then it was part of a film chiefly remembered for other things. We haven’t had the whole “hubris, then comeuppance” story arc meaningfully updated in mainstream action-adventure cinema since Jurassic Park swapped out robots for dinosaurs in explication of our then burgeoning genetics industry. More to the point, we arguably haven’t had a truly unforgettable AI character (that wasn’t obviously trying to kill us from the start) since HAL, and he came to us from a film old enough to posit that we’d have cryostasis and manned deep space travel by 2001.
Fassbender’s performance and Prometheus’s willingness not to explain or assert very much about David’s directives make him something new, and infinitely more compelling. Physically, reviewers compare him to David Bowie circa Space Oddity, which I certainly see in the suave blonde space man with a bit of a British accent. I actually saw someone else in him. If you care to, go back to the viral and listen to how Fassbender enunciates David’s greeting, “Hello. I’m David.” Pause him at about 0:32. Where have we seen those clinical, piercing and unpierceable eyes before? Can you picture him wearing Hannibal Lecter’s mask? I saw in David a young Anthony Hopkins, and more than a little Lecter. While Bowie is known for that cosmic, effortless, sensual vibe, which David certainly has a bit of, he’s also played as calculating, devious, predatory, even supercilious. Like Lecter, he has a superiority complex, and takes on a female ward–perhaps jealously. He’s interested in her dreams. Pathological. In any case, David’s a very cool combination of mannerisms, and this necessarily flies in the face of the third archetypal aspect listed above: David very much betrays irritation, pleasure, a sense of irony, even joy. Physical. Emotional. He’s a bit understated in his delivery, but that makes him all the more effective. As far as allusions go, while David is visually and audibly descended from other performances, I love how the film–no doubt aware of connections that can and must be made with other works–has David explicitly model himself after a character of his own choosing. It’s Peter O’Toole of Lawrence of Arabia that David is interested in alluding to, a film about the past, not the future, and he emulates Lawrence in more ways than his hairstyle. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the film, but I selected some quotes from IMDB that are dropped in Prometheus, and others that would suit David astonishingly well.
Quoted by David upon an excursion from the ship:
Prince Feisal: …. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.
Scene depicted in-film (anticipating Dr. Shaw’s ordeal, and David’s high opinion of her survivability):
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
Moments where David could stand in for Lawrence:
T.E. Lawrence: It’s my manner, sir.
General Murray: Your manner?
T.E. Lawrence: Yes. It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really.
T.E. Lawrence: I killed two people. One was… yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was… well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
General Allenby: That’s to be expected.
T.E. Lawrence: No, something else.
General Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
T.E. Lawrence: No… something else.
General Allenby: What then?
T.E. Lawrence: I enjoyed it.
Jackson Bentley: What attracts you personally to the desert?
T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.
General Allenby: You acted without orders, you know.
T.E. Lawrence: Shouldn’t officers use their initiative at all times? General Allenby: Not really. It’s awfully dangerous.
Prince Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?
T.E. Lawrence: To England, and to other things.
David, like Lawrence, finds himself an intermediary between factions with conflicting interests (corporate interests; scientific inquiry; folks who just want to get paid and go home already) and a disastrously untamable “desert” that’s equal parts deathtrap and trove of ancient, powerful relics. Also like Lawrence, he’s debonair, a bit conceited, eloquent, and pragmatic. He draws from and exhibits keen interest in a film known perhaps above all for a lot of rather inspired, Shakespearean, comedic wordplay, double-meanings, and subverted expectations–in short, exactly the things robots should struggle to process, much less enjoy. Unlike many AIs before him, David deals in language games with relish. “Well, it’s not a traditional fetus”. In all, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and unexpected spiritual connection between films, and I’m glad Prometheus doesn’t over-explain it.
So David breaks from the third rule of filmed robotics, and part of the second: he’s emotionally adept, charismatic, and he seems to take interest in things seemingly unrelated to any likely hidden mission. He shoots hoops, watches movies. The other half of what makes Prometheus refreshing is that it doesn’t assert the other half of the android archetype: it allows for the possibility of David having a free, ethically-interesting will, unhindered by directives. It leaves his motives unknowable, unpredictable, compelling. Possibly dynamic. At no point does David or anyone go over what he is programmed to do or not do. He seems to display a certain loyalty to Weyland, but there’s little to suggest his actions are existentially ‘bound’; indeed, he’s given the somewhat-out-of-the-blue line (I’m paraphrasing) “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” The one scene that suggests David may have a treacherous pre-determined mission is a very important one, but I’d argue that the scene portrays David as very willful, even whimsical. Here‘s a clip of it (unfortunately it’s abridged).
After this, David flashes a wry, victorious smile and pours the fateful drink. Does he know something bad will happen? Almost certainly, but there’s not a lot to suggest that David knows exactly what will happen, and even if he does, there’s not a lot to suggest that Weyland Industries knew that the crew would be discovering some sort of pathogen which would be worthwhile to infect them with via treacherous android as an experiment. From what the film gives us, it’s more likely that David was, independently, able to discern from its writing or pictography that the ‘temple’ does contain some sort of pathogen designed to infect a host, and, perhaps he does a little advanced research upon getting a sample back to the ship. Crucially, and kudos to the film makers for this, there can’t be too many of us for whom David is not the protagonist of this scene (if not the whole film) as far as being the character with whom your sympathies or primary interest lies. Holloway is something of a cocky, snarky, entitled asshole who looks before he leaps in this film, and in this fateful scene especially he’s a petulant and mean-spirited crybaby. David betrays more than a touch of irritation at Holloway’s snubs, and when we factor in Holloway’s answer to David’s final question, it’s a bit hard to argue that he isn’t getting what’s coming to him. Yes, David comes in pre-calculated, and takes advantage of a drunk, but who’s to say that if Holloway doesn’t give the exact answer most validating of David’s intentions, or, if he answers something remotely along the lines of, “well, I certainly wouldn’t do anything astoundingly short-sighted, destructive, or unsustainable. We humans aren’t that pathetic,” maybe things proceed a bit differently? Even if David has had this planned long ahead of time, it’s so much more interesting to be allowed to believe that the turns of phrase used here, the ironies established, were mapped out by an interested agent on something of a whim. And part of you, if not all, wants him to do it.
It’s the sort of delicious moment that doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen as satisfyingly, if David is simply an instrument to someone else’s agenda. He is a being seemingly not only with a free will and his own designs, but with more latitude than anyone to enforce them due to his capacities and security clearances aboard the ship. And so he does. The film allows this to make sense, rather than explaining it away. Prometheus is not a good film viewed as a conspiracy mystery, and it’s a bad, cynical film as a set of questions with which to sell tickets to future such vehicles. But as a story about a charismatic android with a bit of a superiority complex (and is it a complex?) who decides to help his “father” get his wish, while doing a nasty experiment on some humans who are hell-bent on getting themselves killed anyway, finally eloping with the survivor of said experiment, whom he seems to truly respect….it’s not too bad at all. At least David isn’t. And I do think David endearingly comes to find a measure of unexpected respect in Dr. Shaw, something an android without a will wouldn’t be capable of.
I noticed that in some reviews of Prometheus, critics point out that the technology on Prometheus seems quite a bit more advanced than on the Nostromo or other earlier Alien locales. In the same vein, you might argue that canonically, it might not make sense for David to be so much more advanced than later androids in his universe. Perhaps Ridley Scott would say, “well, I said, it’s not technically a prequel….”. I’d say, if 21st century pre-determined blockbuster cinema has taught us anything, it’s that this sort of dot connecting doesn’t make for inspired drama. To hell with the mythological cause and effect, already. Perhaps humanity in this universe later decides to dumb their androids back down. I think it’s refreshing that Prometheus at least allows for a society that’s ready for characters like David, and I guess I hope they don’t undo it a few years from now, when I probably will pony up to see the sequel if Fassbender’s involved. David’s the sort of character we need more of. Call him an unexpected protagonist, or a compelling villain (nearly unheard of in action-adventures like this these days). Thankfully the parallel between humans being disappointed in their makers and David being underwhelmed by his was not spelled out too bluntly or rendered too heavy-handedly. While the rest of the crew’s disappointment is rendered by much death, bad decision-making, and gnashing of teeth, David takes his all in stride. He has his assumptions, but he’s open to new ideas, and unlike his makers, he’s learned to enjoy the ride.