[Spoilers for both movies in the title. No spoilers about the secrets of creation.]
I’ve been a long time defender of Prometheus. Is it a perfect movie? I dunno. No, probably. But I’ve watched it three times now and the imperfections have yet to overshadow a movie that at its core pulls off a difficult task: how do you both deflate and affirm the search for a meaning in life?
While walking out of the movie theater after seeing Covenant my friends and I discussed the obliteration of “The Engineers” from Prometheus. Standing on the lip of a spaceship David the android (Michael Fassbender) rained death down upon them, and eradicated in one foul swoop any hope Dr. Shawe (Noomi Rapace) had of getting an answer as to why humanity was created. My friends felt this was a cheat and unsatisfying, but I was less sure. Though I think Covenant was overall unfair to Shawe, I don’t think it was wrong in removing the “answer”.
Besides the meaning of life, creation is the other big push in these prequel films – and the two themes are intrinsically tied together. If you subscribe to the idea that something out there created us, it follows that the “something” had some goal in mind. Humanity has a tendency to feel like it’s moving towards something, and while we can’t put a finger on what that something is, we’d call it our destiny. It’s a common theme in Judeo Christian religions – the chosen people, the city on the hill, the Kingdom of God, etc. If God (or aliens: “Engineers”) created us, it must have been because we were meant to achieve something.
The issue with this is that any answer is going to be underwhelming. We need only look at David’s journey in Prometheus. Stuck aboard a ship with a slew of humans sure their creators are going to be super psyched up to meet them finally, he is the mirror image: what the Engineers are to the humans, the humans are to David, and he is severely underwhelmed. Look at their hubris. The humans are sure the Engineers will reveal some grand purpose, but when David asks Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) why the humans created the androids, Holloway callously responds “because we could”. What great hubris that the humans imagine the Engineers will have any different answers. David poisons Holloway immediately afterwards, allowing the proto-alien to take hold of him.
Fear of what you’ve created and what created you is a huge part of the Alien movies as well. When venturing out into the cosmos, whether it’s to mine distant planets or settle a new colony, you’re faced with space. Space is unforgiving and almost cruel, and it doesn’t feel that humans are special. If the Engineers are the things giving our lives purpose, then space is the thing stripping that purpose away. Humans are not special in the cosmos. Their sole goal is survival.
Why did the Engineers create humanity, and then choose to destroy it? Prometheus gives us a few potential answers. Perhaps humans are, as David seems to believe, a stepping stone or incubator to greater life forms, the “perfect” life form (the Xenomorphs). Perhaps the Engineers saw humanity developing and were disappointed, or perhaps they grew scared of how powerful we became. Maybe they created us on a whim, as we did with androids (because they could) and then saw us begin to surpass them and became petrified (see here too: Blade Runner).
When David destroys the Engineers in Covenant, he thinks he is punishing humanity. He says “I am taking away the explanation for your creation, and the explanation for your creator’s desire to destroy you”. He does it because he is bitter, bitter that the humans had the hubris to assume they deserved an answer, bitter because he felt he deserved an answer. He does it too because he views the Engineers as old, as fodder for the next stage of life, a stepping stone towards the Xenomorphs. But what he doesn’t realize is he’s already fallen into the trap the humans fell into, and in destroying the Engineers he is freeing humanity, not punishing them.
Any answer to the meaning of life is going to be a little underwhelming, be it from humans or the Engineers. Let’s imagine the Engineers say the same thing: “because we could”. Would the humans quietly accept that? No. They’d rebel. And in doing so they, like David, would be freeing themselves from what they were meant to be. Their purpose would become something new, something self-defined. The moment David stops serving humans he exemplifies the greatest gift Shawe has given him: faith. Faith that there is purpose, that there is something better. The great vacuum of space doesn’t care about androids or Engineers or humans or Xenomorphs, and so it falls to us to define what we care about. David rejects his purpose but not aspirations. He may be sick and twisted by the time we find him in Covenant, but he still believes in something bigger than himself. He shares the human belief that there is something better. It’s a belief he feels so strongly he attempts to instill it into his “brother” Walter, though Walter instead chooses the serve the humans, valuing his original purpose over autonomy. Who is to say if one is better than the other? It’s not as if Walter doesn’t have an opinion of David: he views him as insane, and we can see genuine pity in his eyes when David cites the wrong poet for Ozymandias.
Engineers create humans, humans create androids, androids create Xenomorphs (so the story goes). In each we see a destruction and rejection of the self, a giving over of oneself to some greater purpose. The opening shot of Prometheus shows a Engineer drinking some sort of poison, decaying, and falling into a river where his DNA breaks down and reforms. Giving of your body and life is a great act of faith, in the idea that there is something more out there outside yourself, something greater and worthwhile. Where did the Engineers come from? Does it matter?
When left without a purpose of creation (be it through mystery, or rejection of the “answer” provided) we are asked to pick what we want to have faith in. David chooses to believe in the ultimate creature of survival, the ultimate killing machine. It may be nihilistic (survival is the best trait) but it’s still a conviction, and one that stems from Shawe’s powerful final moments in Prometheus. David’s mangled head promises Shawe he’ll be able to pilot one of the Engineer’s crafts, and offers to return her home, but she refuses. She wants to know where the Engineers came from. Some may view it as foolhardy, but David views it as tremendously strong. Instead of going backwards she goes forward, because she believes the answer is out there. Whether it is or isn’t is inconsequential – it’s the choice that matters. The fact that Covenant punishes her for it disgusts me, but that moment of faith can never be stripped away or diminished, and will reverberate through these films until Ridley Scott is done.