The Modern Prometheans and the Excess of the Real

Prometheus is the first and only God to make common cause with man, to assume responsibility for them, to take their side against another tyrannical God, to commit the first crimes for their benefit and willingly accept suffering to guarantee their progress and survival. All this Dr. Frankenstein now rejects. He only now wants to destroy the very thing he has created. Why? Because it is an abomination to him.

This Modern Prometheus has become a forerunner of the Engineers from Ridley Scott’s film’s Prometheus and Alien Covenant who disenchanted with their creation upon Earth are now intent, like Zeus, on our total obliteration with their own version of the Promethean fire, a biological weapon. However they will fail and ultimately will suffer a torturous transformation when David unleashes that very weapon upon them. The scenes of transformation at the beginning of Alien Covenant as the Engineers writhe in agony are a visceral reminder of Prometheus chained to his crag with the eagle devouring his liver. This is their punishment for aspiring to a condition of superiority to the conditions and processes of nature’s laws. Their hubristic days are over.

As David unleashes the black goo he speaks these words from Shelley’s Ozymandias:

‘‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!’’

In its most obvious interpretation this is David through the voice of Shelley mocking the idea of progress when all that ever remains given enough time, are remains. It is also one of the themes presented in The Time Machine. But there is surely a more profound meaning for David, the android created by another Modern Prometheus, the Weyland Corporation. But, David is more. He is both creature and soon to be a creator in his own right. David is both Dr Victor Frankenstein and the creature he has made. God and Monster together. Yet none have seen the monster in the story, except us.

David has experimented with the biological weapon on members of the crew in Prometheus and has used Elizabeth Shaw for research and his laboratory in Alien Covenant is not dissimilar from: ‘‘the workshop of filthy creation’’ in Frankenstein. David is another excess of the real that will this time be too much not just for the creator of new life but for creation itself.

We are well aware that David is an android built by Weyland Corporation and he is well aware too. Even though he looks human there is still an uncanny feeling that pervades his interaction with human beings. Elisabeth Shaw is the exception and of course Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s fiancee who the creature kills is Elizabeth, (as David kills his own Elizabeth eventually), but we do sense a closeness between David and Elizabeth Shaw throughout both films. (Many believe that the character of Dr. Frankenstein is modelled after Percy Shelley who had the pen name of Victor and his sister was interestingly, another Elizabeth).

David does of course have a ‘father’ and a ‘sister’. His sister may or may not be another android. However, what is clear is that he is loved by his father and reciprocates with filial piety. The washing of his creator’s feet is highly symbolic and suggests an almost biblical anointing or, so we are made to feel. To be acknowledged by one’s father is all that the creature really wanted in Frankenstein but that was denied him which ironically is all that Weyland wants of the Engineers. Yet the Engineer rejects his pleas and kills him without any hesitation:

‘‘I’ th’ last night’s storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him.

I have heard more since.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods

They kill us for their sport.’’

(King Lear Act 4, Scene 1, 32–37)

The lone Engineer has killed its own progeny in Prometheus and of course in Frankenstein the monster kills his creator or, so we are led to believe. Now, David, who is both Engineer, Dr Frankenstein and the monster (a triple excess of the real) has not only exterminated the Engineer race but now intends to eradicate the entire human race as well.

In the first scenes of Alien Covenant we have the Engineer race being transformed and exterminated by David with their own weapons of mass destruction, we assume, as revenge for the death of his ‘father’ and those aboard the Prometheus. So, we are given some form of justice. A taste of their own medicine. Poetic justice one could say. But, this really isn’t David’s motivation at all. As he makes perfectly clear, when talking to his ‘brother’ Walter, the latest model of android near the end of Alien Covenant:

‘‘Sometimes to create….one must first destroy.’’

This could be Zeus speaking to Prometheus in any one of the ancient Greek poems about Prometheus and it could be the God from the Old Testament talking to Noah. Is David then a new God just like Zeus? He certainly sounds like it and is certainly acting like it now. He has eradicated the Engineers and is now readying us for termination, so he can create a new form of life, not in the arrogant image of a God but in the levelling image of Death.

David has experimented upon the only human member of the crew left — Elizabeth Shaw. He has used her female, once infertile body, to create a new race of indestructible life — forms, a new race of biological killing machines. It is a perverted inversion of the story of Pandora’s Box with Shaw being both Pandora and the Box and David as both Prometheus and Zeus. A creature made to torment men forever and an artificial God who both creates life and then destroys it without any moral issues whatsoever.


The Modern Prometheus whether it be Victor Frankenstein, the Engineers or Weyland Corporation and the new race of androids have used the fire of technology both to create and to destroy and in a more general sense the gift of fire puts into all man’s hands power which he is quite incapable of handling safely. It wasn’t long before he was forging weapons. The logical conclusion of the gift of fire, its contemporary equivalent, is nuclear power and we, humanity, have now created weapons of mass destruction whether nuclear, biological or chemical as a direct result of Prometheus’s fire which can destroy us right here, right now. Perhaps Zeus in his wisdom had better motives for withholding fire, and Prometheus worse motives for stealing it.

Both the Engineers and Frankenstein are disappointed with what they have created and want their creations aborted. In David’s case it is far subtler and more insidious, although it seems he is accepted as a prodigal son and part of the Weyland family, his behaviour is very much at odds with this position. He knows he is far superior to any human and does not hide his arrogance nor his contempt for Elizabeth Shaw’s religious devotion. For he mocks the very idea of being human and being born. He knows he can never be accepted by humans because he was never born.

Much like the rejected monster in Frankenstein he is different and an abomination in the eyes of God. He is not viscerally ‘ugly’ to look at as Victor Frankenstein finds his creation, on the contrary he is a perfect specimen, but, David knows he is existentially ‘ugly’ to the humans around him and to the natural order because he was created outside of it and can therefore never be part of it. He is no different from the creature in Frankenstein.

David abhors humanity for his predicament and wants to use them not to create another of his kind (that is unnecessary) but to birth his own children. His progeny though, will be real monsters. The Engineers have the technology to achieve this. His experiments with the black goo on Prometheus testify to that. However, it is not until he is on the Engineer ship with Elizabeth that he decides to destroy the Engineer race as well. There have been many suppositions regarding why David chooses this act of genocide. But the answer is simple and fits well with the myth of Prometheus.

Prometheus, like all tricksters, gets it wrong. In trying to remedy what he takes to be God’s mistakes, he makes things even worse. He commits, on man’s behalf, the original sin, a theft of forbidden knowledge, the purpose of which and the punishment for which is to separate man from nature and from divinity, to encourage man to indulge in hubris, that Faustian pride which prompts him to become his own god, or to remake the gods in his own image. That is exactly what the Engineers have become and where humanity is heading. For have we not made David in our image?

Of course David is aware of the symbolism and myth surrounding the Gods and mocks it on many occasions. He knows that the last act of his creation will be the last act for creation. His new Alien species will not need the fire of Prometheus and no human will be alive to make any use of it. The myth of Prometheus in its last iteration with David as the final version of the Modern Prometheus is an android determined to end two highly advanced civilizations through the application of its most advanced weaponized technology and create a superior, organic, self-contained life-form based only upon biological necessity and the evolutionary requirements of survival and reproduction.

David is the logical end stage of the myth of Prometheus. In teaching man sacrifice and the use of fire, Prometheus taught him to despise nature and care only for himself and to seek only change in the name of progress and not be content with order and things as they are which Zeus stands for. David is intent on putting an end to man’s appropriation of nature, of life itself, for his own selfish, hubristic purposes. His method is itself an inversion of human birth and his experiments to achieve this have involved a human woman, Elizabeth Shaw, that he has used to bring his progeny to life.

Like Zeus he has created his very own modern version of Pandora to punish mankind. Elizabeth Shaw’s body and in particular her womb has provided him with the opportunity to develop an Alien Queen from which eggs can be produced that require no gestation but only a host to facilitate further development. The Alien eggs requiring only the presence of a living creature near-by to be opened without any physical contact. A most exquisite biological box that once opened cannot be closed.

Once developed inside the host, they then erupt from inside the stomach in a perversion of the act of human birth. This is the final existential insult to those creatures who believe themselves worthy of God-like status to feel the pain of Prometheus, albeit briefly, as his insides are devoured beneath his very eyes. To witness, whilst still breathing the very act of creation that will end their own life and all human life.

Prometheus has not saved us but has facilitated our very extinction. Prometheus in the original Greek translates as ‘forethought’ and is it possible that he knew that this potential for destruction was inherent within the gift to man? Does not the modern equivalent of Promethean fire, science, entail both the power to create and the power to destroy? You cannot have one without the other it seems. Surely Prometheus knew this, but he chose to continue. A very human trait.

Zeus did know, for he had withheld that power. But what of our latest Modern Promethean, David? As I have put forward earlier David is Promethean Excess. He is creating a new ‘race of devils’ but the purpose of these monsters is only death. It is not creation, it is nihilism. David has become the God of death. For he is destruction only and his creations are in his image. David has become the very thing he was opposed to. A God that creates beings in his own image and that image is death.

It is supremely ironic that a non-biological life form has become like the human beings it wishes to eradicate, with all their emotional complexity, but that is what an excess of Promethean power has created. The life-giving ability of a God, combined with the powerful feelings of rejection and non-acceptance of Frankenstein’s monster, has created a hybrid, David.

David, however, will become (if he is successful) the very thing he wishes to destroy. He will become by the very act of destroying become, de facto, an omnipotent and all-powerful God. Does therefore Promethean excess combined with an excess of the real (Frankenstein’s monster) create a Zeus? The tyrannical rule of an omnipotent being concerned with the maintenance of order and the punishment of transgressions against his authority? Well not for David. There will be nobody around to punish. For he will be the only God in existence. Not even Zeus wanted to be that.

Column @ on iconic books, TV shows/films: Time Travel Peregrinations. Reviewed all episodes of ‘Dark’ @ site.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store