Thursday, June 14, 2012

About David (from Prometheus) (PROMETHEUS SPOILERS)

Science fiction is a genre that, in film, often falls victim to special effects.  That is, most sci-fi films seem to become about looking at big spaceships and cool explosions rather than about telling the story of how science could change the face of society.  Prometheus is one of these films, though I can't say that this makes it a bad film.  Either way, my disappointment about Prometheus as a whole is not the focus of this "review."  Instead, I want to examine the character of David (brilliantly portrayed by Michael Fassbender), and how he was almost the most interesting character I've ever seen in a science fiction film.

For those who haven't seen the movie, Prometheus is about a scientific expedition of 17 people to a remote moon that may have been the home of a hyper-advanced alien race that created humankind.  The movie serves as both a stand-alone story about the origins of life on Earth, as well as being a prequel to Ridley Scott's well-respected horror film Alien.  That said, this movie is nothing like the movie Alien.  It is not a horror film, nor is it truly an action film, as it lacks any complex action sequences.  I would compare this film more to another of Scott's classics, Blade Runner. 

Blade Runner focuses on the story of androids - human-like robots - and what makes someone human.  Prometheus has a similar subplot revolving around the character David, who is the ship's android butler.  For the first half of the film, David looks as though he will be the most interesting and dynamic character at least of this decade.  In the second half of the movie, however, the plot starts moving away from David's character, and by the last third of the film it seems as if the writers forgot they had a subplot about David at all.  To me, throwing away such a brilliant character is Prometheus' biggest flaw. 

Prometheus opens to a brief prologue about some giant humanoid alien, whose presence in the film is irrelevant to David's subplot.  After this intro sequence, the audience is treated to a truly fascinating and incredibly well done series of clips demonstrating David's life aboard the Prometheus while the rest of the crew waits in stasis.  For two and a half years, the android butler studies ancient languages, monitors the crew and makes sure the ship operates properly.  More interestingly, however, we see that he also enjoys playing basketball, riding bikes and eating cereal (or some kind of space-food).  Even more enthralling is David's interest in old British films.  We see him imitating movie lines, dying his hair and grooming himself to look like old British actors.

This is exceptionally strange behavior for an emotionless robot programmed only to serve the Prometheus' human crew.  When the crew awakens from stasis, David begins to hide this behavior and acts more like you might expect a robot to.  As the film progresses, however, the scientists discover strange alien goo (something that the film never decides to explain), which intrigues David and brings out this oddly human behavior once again. 

This is also where David's character begins to become incredibly interesting.  He steals a vial of this strange black alien goop, and brings it aboard the ship.  In secret, he examines it and hatches what can only be described as an evil plot, which he kicks off with the ominous quote "Big things often have small beginnings."  (or something similar to that)

Basically, his plan is to infect a crew member with the black goo, then wait until this crew member sleeps with his girlfriend and impregnates her with an alien embryo.  David goes about this devious mission of his with strange, macabre quips such as "All children want to kill their parents," and "I didn't know you had it in you," (once the girlfriend somehow survives being impregnated with the alien egg and then having it cut out via cesarean).  This behavior speaks of some kind of "robot insanity," implying that David may have some dastardly agenda of his own. 

During this mission, David also demonstrates various types of emotion that accompanies his earlier imitation of the British actors.  He gets disappointed, angry and even vengeful at times, mostly when someone treats him poorly because he is an android.  Despite being this "emotionless" robot, David starts out as the most compelling and multifaceted character in the movie (which is especially true because of Prometheus' poor writing, but would likely be true in any other movie as well). 

This, of course, is where David's character falls apart: this kind of behavior demands explanation!  A huge subplot has been set up in which the crew's loyal robot servant appears to be plotting their demise, potentially out of anger or jealousy or spite.  In the end of the film, however, David acts exactly as you would expect a robot to - completely loyal to his human masters, willing to help them with whatever they need.  Because of this sudden character change, the previous, unquestionably sinister actions of this character are pushed aside and forgotten about. 

That's right: we NEVER find out why exactly David wanted to infect the human crew with this strange alien goop.  We never find out why David was acting strange and imitating British films and feeling anger. 

At the very end, the two different types of aliens have decapitated David and killed every crew member except Shaw (the woman who had been impregnated with an alien embryo, through David's devious plotting).  This is where the worst, most disappointing line in the entire film rears its ugly head.  Dr. Shaw is determined to find the humanoid aliens' homeworld, just so she can ask them why they created humans (and then subsequently tried to destroy them with the unexplained black goo).  David asks her why, and says he doesn't understand what the point is.  Shaw then responds "That's because I'm human, and you're just a robot."

That one line completely destroys all of David's previous characterization.  He acted human - he liked movies and tried to emulate his favorite actors, he liked cereal, played basketball and even felt human emotions like anger.  But in the end, David was reduced to being just another robot.  His strange behavior earlier in the film is now not only unexplained, but made irrelevant.  The entire subplot involving the black goo and alien embryo no longer matters if there's no payoff about why David did those things, and the many (phenomenal) scenes where he acts human no longer matter, because in the end he was just another robot.

Now, don't get me wrong - I enjoyed Prometheus.  It wasn't a quality film, but it was certainly fun to watch, and the special effects were mind-bogglingly incredible.  But the movie falls flat when it comes to story and character.  Even David, who had the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in science fiction, was eventually reduced to a one-sided cardboard cutout.

1 comment:

  1. David's reason for infecting Holloway are only suggested, rather than spelled out. The scene before he poisoned him, he was talking to Mr. Weyland and Vickers got him to admit that the gist of the conversation was he was being told to "Try harder". We can only guess what he was supposed to try harder at doing, but given his following actions, it seems like he was being told to learn more about the aliens and their technology.

    Mr. Weyland was clearly looking for some type of life extending/rejuvenation technology. So it's highly implied that David's key programing was to do anything necessary to discover if that were possible. Including going so far as to sacrifice others if necessary, especially when basically given permission (as Holloway did by saying he'd go to any length to learn more).

    David's emotions were there as a statement that he had grown beyond being a simple tostar (which is how all the humans treated him) and yet none of them cared. If they cared so little about the life they had created, why would the Engineers care about humanity?

    I loved all the questions the movie raised. But I think you hit a lot of the high points with a pretty fair shake. Thanks for the post!