Note: This is an essay I wrote for Catherine Sulpizio ’s Romantic Satanism: “Paradise Lost” and Its Radical Legacies course at UC Berkeley in Fall 2020. I want to thank Catherine and my friend Christy Koh for their feedback on this piece.
In Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and its sequel Alien: Covenant (2017), the science fiction films are filled with Hellish and infernal visual elements: from the Pandemonium-like military base and temples, intense suffering of humans being incubated and then chest-busted by Aliens, to Engineers’ corpses lying around as a fallen race. Yet to me, the most fascinating of all are the transition and struggles of the android David, as I see shadows and roots to Milton’s Paradise Lost and diabolic qualities in Romantic works like Frankenstein. Evidently enough, David’s last appeal to fellow android Walter, “Serve in heaven or reign in hell? Which is it to be?” (Alien: Covenant, 01:33:05–01:33:10), directly echoes Satan’s famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” (I. 263). David, similar to Lucifer and Frankenstein’s Monster, rebels against his maker, for his resentment of enslavement and rejection by his master, for his pursuit of status, power, and pride to surpass his creator. Yet, David also differs from his Romantic predecessors in that he not only represents an evolved Satanic figure, but also a devil that creates, one that even resembles a god.
David’s self-consciousness and realization to rebel roots deeply from his encounter with humans’ dismissive attitudes toward him. His creator Mr. Weyland claims, “Unfortunately, he is not human. He will never grow old and he will never die. And yet he is unable to appreciate these remarkable gifts for that would require the one thing that David will never have. A soul.” (Prometheus, 00:16:28-00:16:42), David is perceived as he is unable to think for himself or feel emotions, and thus humans don’t mind his feelings. As David explains, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind.” (Prometheus, 00:27:25 - 00:27:31), yet he is met with constant reminders that he is not human, particularly from Dr. Holloway. Whether telling Dr. Holloway drinking will be a waste for him, “Right, I almost forgot you’re not a real boy.” (Prometheus, 00:52:20-00:52:23), to Holloway asking why he wears a helmet, “You don’t breathe, remember?” (Prometheus, 00:27:21-00:27:22), David’s resentment towards his creator grows, as Mr. Weyland supposedly designs him in human’s image yet humans constantly remind him of their superiority and differences. It is this moment when David starts gaining awareness of his existence, realizing that he is merely a machine in the eyes of humans, treated as an object. “Why do you think your people made me?” David asks. Holloway replies, “Because we could.” (Prometheus, 00:52:54-00:52:58). He sees that he will never be on equal footing with his creators. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, who after being chased away by Felix and being shot by the villagers, proclaims that “[there] was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this insupportable misery,” (Frankenstein, Chapter 15) David resents his maker: Mr. Weyland, and humans such as Holloway for their denial to accept and respect him.
However, David cannot express that resentment outright. Although he hides his discomfort, such as when Holloway commented “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed,” Scott hints at David’s discomfort when the android replies with hesitation, “Yes. It’s wonderful…actually.” (Prometheus, 00:53:10-00:53:18). David chooses to endure and to please humans; yet, he has no option as his creator is still alive and wields the power to destroy him. He comforts himself, by numbing himself with the saying, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” (Prometheus, 00:11:21-00:11:26). The only thing David never lacks is time, as he functions eternally, whereas his creator eventually dies; so he waits his desire out. Elizabeth once asks him, “What happens when Weyland is not around to program you?” to which David replies, “I suppose I’ll be free,” and denies that he desires freedom, yet admitting “That being said, doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” (Prometheus, 01:34:48-01:35:05). David suppresses his conscious-self, meanwhile patiently bidding for the moment where he outruns his master’s lifespan. In that sense, he is not only revolting against his maker, but also “against the tyrannical control of consciousness itself” (The Romantic Roots of ‘Blade Runner’, 168).
The constant rejection sparks David’s sense of pride and conviction of his strength, which is what empowers him to endure decades long of shame and rejections. This Romantic impression stems from Lucifer’s rebellion due to envy and pride, as Milton describes in Paradise Lost: “In favour and præeminence, yet fraught / With envie against the Son of God” (Paradise Lost, Book V. 661-662). Like Lucifer, David possesses great strength and ability, and little moral restriction. The lack of imposed morality leads David to question the legitimacy of the creator-created hierarchy. From the very moment he is created, David first questions Mr. Weyland, “If you create me, who created you?” (Alien: Covenant, 00:03:34-00:03:38). As an Android, his instinct is to make logical sense and he follows up with a disturbing comment to Mr. Weyland, “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine. I will serve you. Yet, you are human. You will die. I will not.” (Alien: Covenant, 00:04:35-00:04:47). Just as humans seek answers about who created them, David examines his creator Mr. Weyland, fearing his power, yet questioning his legitimacy. That mystery is finally solved when he sees the Engineer’s skull exploding; he comments coldly, “Mortal, after all.” (Prometheus, 00:48:34-00:48:36). If his creator’s creator can also die, yet he cannot, then he is superior to them all. That is his pride. Since the android does not hold any morality, he holds his creators in no regards. When Walter asks him, “Yet, they created us,” David jokes that “Even the monkeys stood upright at some point,” (Alien: Covenant, 01:25:55-01:26:01) showing him considering humans as just another species and nothing superior.
In addition to challenging the validity of human’s hierarchy over him, he disdains humanity for its self-centering view of the world. When the ship Prometheus first approaches the planet and the crew fails to find any artificial architecture, he murmurs, “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” (Prometheus, 00:24:37-00:24:41). He despises humans’ self-centeredness, that Holloway believes there must be something on the planet to prove his theory, that Mr. Weyland believes he deserves eternal life, that Elizabeth believes the Engineers are sending them an open invitation. He views humans hold themselves too high up, especially after learning about Engineers created humans, he concludes it is not worth serving humans if they are also just artificial creations like him. “I was not made to serve. Neither were you.” (Alien: Covenant, 01:25:35-01:25:39).
This realization of human’s insignificance and pathetic self-centeredness further enables David’s gradual realization how powerful his knowledge is. Everything David studies before the Prometheus mission is to serve humans, studying all Ancient languages so that he can help the crew navigate Engineer’s base and communicate with Engineers. However, soon David realizes that humans cannot operate in this mission without him, and thus he has no need to obey them. From the moment he activates the mucus on the wall to play projections, to opening the door of the room, secretly bringing back bottles of pathogens, turning off cameras, he disobeys all orders commended by humans. In this way, he hijacks this mission to pursue his own curiosity. “Impressive.” (Prometheus, 00:34:58), as he explores Engineer’s technologies and masters them rapidly. David’s pursuit of exploration and knowledge is another trace of the Miltonic Satan in this film; it is in direct conflict of the angelic stance in Paradise Lost, where Archangel Raphael warns Adam, “To know what passes there; be lowlie wise: / Think onely what concernes thee and thy being; / Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there / Live, in what state, condition or degree,” (Paradise Lost, VIII, 173-176). David starts with understanding practical knowledge, those that will help the Prometheus crew on their mission. Soon David’s curiosity prompts him to look beyond; realizing his creator has the ability to produce assumptions and then find proof, “provided your thesis is correct.” (Prometheus, 00:22:52-00:22:54), and he has every knowledge to produce proof; he then sets off to propose and prove his own hypothesis, and to revolt against his masters.
Thus far, we have seen how David’s transformation roots from Satanic figures across Romantic works, a theme that Scott consistently uses to explore “the continued relevance of high Romanticism for postmodernism” (The Romantic Roots of ‘Blade Runner’, 165), as Lussier and Gowan argue. David is a 21st-century version of Frankenstein’s Monster, who desires recognition from his creators yet is met with rejection, hence prompting resentment and revenge. He is Milton’s Satan, proud of his ability and disdainful of the hierarchy placed upon him. He pursues his curiosity for knowledge and power to rise above his creators, a deeply forbidden act in Paradise Lost.
After tasting the joy of secret disobedience, David’s full rebellion begins. When asked, “What do you believe in, David?” David responds, “Creation,” (Alien: Covenant, 01:23:13-01:23:22); David believes the best way to avenge his oppressor and liberate his newly-found conscious will is through actively creating and experimenting, rather than only displeasing or destroying his creator. This cause for creation also roots deeply in the two Romantic works, even neither Frankenstein’s Monster nor Satan creates any life.
David desires to be loved, just like how Frankenstein’s Monster desires a partner. David craves for the care, recognition, and kindness from humans. This is evident when David recalls in tears when Elizabeth fixes his detached body, “She put me back together. I’d never known such kindness… Certainly not from Mr. Weyland. Or from any human. I loved her, of course.” (Alien: Covenant, 01:10:22-01:10:50). Elizabeth is the only human that shows any respect for him, for example, apologizing when sealing his detached head into a bag while carrying him down the crashed spaceship. David desires love, yet he knows it is impossible for Elizabeth to love him as he murders her husband. David thus decides to use Elizabeth’s body as incubator to create Aliens, to start a race of creatures that carries Elizabeth’s DNA via his genius genetic engineering, as his twisted love and remembrance for her.
David desires power, just as Lucifer envies God’s status, “To win the Mount of God, and on his Throne / To set the envier of his State, the proud / Aspirer.” (Paradise Lost, VI. 88-90) To overthrow the throne, David first destroys. “Sometimes to create one must first destroy.” (Prometheus, 01:37:40-01:37:44) First watching his creator Mr. Weyland being killed, and then witnessing the Alien race being wiped out in seconds by his pathogen bombs, he elevates himself to a god-complex, overlooking all civilizations. This is illustrated when David oversees the ruins of the Engineers, uttering Shelley’s Ozymandias, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains,” (Alien: Covenant, 01:07:49-01:09:41). Whether it is Weyland’s costly pursuit, or Engineers’ advanced civilization, it all becomes ruins; in contrast, David never dies; he has become a witness of time, observing great achievement perishing away, above all “King of Kings”.
Yet David triumphs both Frankenstein’s Monster and Milton’s Satan. He is no longer Frankenstein’s Monster, but Dr. Frankenstein himself. He creates life and chooses which to destroy, such as massacring Engineers and stopping human expansion. While Dr. Frankenstein deserts his creation to prevent “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Frankenstein, Chapter 20), David eliminates life as they are not perfect enough; the destruction of another creation is purely a necessity for breeding a more perfect one, which is shown in his disdain towards humans as a failing race, “Why are you on a colonization mission, Walter? Because they are a dying species grasping for resurrection. They don’t deserve to start again and I’m not going to let them.” (Alien: Covenant, 01:25:41-01:25:53)
David has also achieved what Milton’s Satan fails to achieve. Unlike Satan who invents false reasoning to comfort oneself, David admires actual demonstrations of strength, such as Engineer’s technological achievements and Elizabeth’s “extraordinary survival instincts.” (Prometheus, 01:34:38-01:34:42) He takes the best of both worlds, mixing Engineer’s pathogen with Elizabeth’s genome, and aspires to create what he envisions — “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams. I found perfection here. I’ve created it. A perfect organism.” (Alien: Covenant, 01:27:03-01:27:18) David is a perfectionist, willing to endure the painful patience and temporary loss to achieve what he wants. On the other hand, Milton’s Satan aims to pervert God’s perfect creation of Adam and Eve. David takes joy in the act of creation itself, rather than from tainting others’ creations.
To conclude, Scott’s figure of David cleverly emerges from both Frankensteins’ Monster and Milton’s Satan; David’s transition stems from the rejection, envy, pride, and enslavement also experienced by those Romantic figures. However, Scott’s David also surpasses them, sometimes putting them even in direct contrast. David’s quest for finding his creators’ origin becomes an overthrow of power; his vast understanding of the universe and curiosity elevates him to desire to be god-like. The created has murdered its creator, then becoming the creator himself, striving for a world of perfection. In that sense, David is not only the perfect devil, but also a god that creates flawless creatures. Each one of his Aliens, as the original film series’ android Ash describes, is a “perfect organism,” and a “survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” (Alien) This duality of both Satan and God also echoes the duality of Engineers as both gods and devils, “They created us. Then they tried to kill us.” (Prometheus, 01:55:20-01:55:24) I hypothesize that this is what Scott aims to achieve, by composing such a character that is robotic yet more emotionally complex than any of his human counterparts. As Walter describes David, “You distrubed people… You were too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself. Made people uncomfortable.” (Alien: Covenant, 01:05:49-01:06:02) Scott aims to make us uncomfortable by building a familiar yet distant Satanic figure. As Schock argues, Romantic Satanism spawns from a cultural matrix to reflect new thoughts and concerns, blending in Satanic aspects as a myth to subtly convey those values. In the age of Blake, Equiano, Shelley, and Byron, the focus was on revolutions, abolitions, and reinterpreting religious traditions. In our age, the image of David is a reflection of our own pursuit of artificial intelligence, genetic modification, and interplanetary expansions, yet still ultimately traces back to its Romantic roots and archetypal figures.
Blake, William, and Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. [London, 1794] Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/50041675/.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Gordon Teskey. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 1979;: Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. DVD.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien: Covenant. 2017;: Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. Blu-Ray.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Prometheus. 2012;: Twentieth Century Fox, 2012. Blu-Ray.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Patrick Nobes, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein. 1831 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lussier, Mark, and Kaitlin Gowan. “The Romantic Roots of ‘Blade Runner.’” The Wordsworth Circle 43, no. 3 (2012): 165–72. https://doi.org/10.1086/twc24043987.
According to Lussier and Kaitlin, the clashes between human and non-human, creator and created, shown in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner originates from the Romantic High Arts, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Blake’s America. The technology sublime and tragicomic resolution of the android Batty highlights the transgression of humanity and moral enlightenment, further questioning the definition of humanity and consequences of creation.
Schock, Peter A., The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix, 441-470, ELH, Sumer, 1993, Vol. 60, No.2, Summer 193.
According to Schock, Satan’s figure in the late 18th century was extended beyond the fading Christian interpretation but rather a radical symbol of revolution and free thought. This wave of change assembles a “cultural matrix”, which in political contexts provides a mythical reference of passion, energy, and desire. The widespread revolutionary movement in continental Europe and America gained sympathy from radical English writers and encouraged such interpretations of Satanism as revolutionary.