God Presents: At the Movies

If there’s one thing about Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi opus “Prometheus” that stand out, it’s this: the movie sure seems to have God on its mind. In fact, a viewer would not be remiss to refer to it as a philosophical pondering on the nature of humanity to its creator or creators before calling it a science fiction film.

While Scott and the screenwriters of “Prometheus” have no desire to preach, they nonetheless reflect one of the more unexpected changes that Hollywoodcinema has undergone in recent years: the shift from wondering if God exists to wondering who he is and why he exists. It seems that God, in one form or another, is becoming a given in the eyes of many prominent filmmakers. For Scott, at least, this subtle-yet-powerful change in perspective is reflected in his own changing beliefs. In an interview with The New York Times, the filmmaker said he had “converted” from atheism to agnosticism. His attitude towards God? “Now my feeling goes with ‘could be.'” Perhaps more important than Scott’s searching is his willingness to admit such a thing in public and, even, express such thoughts through his art. But he’s not the only one asking questions.

One of the most theological filmmakers working in the industry is, and always has been, Terrence Malick. He has never provided many answers, but has always asked excellent questions. His latest film, “The Tree of Life, focuses on the life of a family living in the South, and how God intervenes in their lives in the midst of tragedy. At the beginning of the film, Mrs. O’Brien says, “there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Malick establishes a world where there is an intersection between tangible creation and the realm of the spirit. Despite this intermingling, the two are nonetheless distinct entities. Compare this to say, the presentation of the Earth and the spiritual as one and the same, as in James Cameron’s Avatar. 

Some recent movies have been a bit more overt in their spiritual implications. In “The Adjustment Bureau,” we find two people who meet and fall in love, despite the fact that it wasn’t part of the “plan.” This plan is created by the “chairman” (aka God) and enforced by the “adjustment bureau” (aka angels). In this world, there is a clear force that guides humanity on a set path. When the politician David Norris deviates from the path by risking his political career for the sake of love, the bureau comes in to set everything right.

In one telling scene, Norris, played by Matt Damon, asks bureau agent Thompson, “whatever happened to Free Will?” Thompson responds, “We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of theRoman Empirewe stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries… until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you’d brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix. You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.” Here, the creator gave humanity a chance, but we proved to be inept at running ourselves, so he kindly stepped back in to guide us on the path.

A film with more overt Judeo-Christian implications is the Denzel Washington vehicle The Book of Eli. Washington plays a man on a mission from God to travel West while protecting a powerful “book,” the last of its kind, which is clearly the Bible. Eli reads the book religiously and protects it at all costs. At the end of the film, Eli prays to a clearly-defined God: “Dear Lord, thank you for giving me the strength and the conviction to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path. And for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost. Thank you for your protection and your many signs along the way. Thank you for any good that I may have done, I’m so sorry about the bad.” Eli’s mission is never his own, but is guided by a clear light from above. God is omnipresent, even in a violent, apocalyptic wasteland. Returning from a screening, a friend of mine excitedly proclaimed, “I want to read the Bible. Like, right now!”

Back in the world of “Prometheus,” the android, David asks the scientist, Charlie, “Why do you think people made me?” Charlie responds, “We made you because we could.” David’s reply: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear that from your creator?” That’s pretty heavy, even by sci-fi standards. I don’t think people of faith want to go see “religious” movies. Like any good moviegoer, they want to be challenged. They want to know that popular filmmakers are taking the idea of God seriously.They want to hear good questions. And, for a generation increasingly wary of religion and its role in the public sphere, people are being asked to ponder these questions in the last place they’d expect; a dark and crowded theater, as they sit down to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.


“Prometheus” Review

       Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the kind of sci-fi movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Big, ambitious, and waxing philosophical, it’s a film of intelligent ideas, which is not something you can say about most movies featuring sentient beings from another planet these days. And, while it can sometimes be lumbering, and is certainly too epic for its own good, Scott proves that, like the mythological Titan from whom the film gets its name, it is sometimes better to try and fall short than to not try at all.

      After one of the more enigmatic (not to mention disturbing) openings in recent memory, the film introduces us to the crew of the spaceship Prometheus, who believe they have found another planet that may play host to extraterrestrial life. But these aren’t just any aliens; they are our creators. At least, that’s what scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) think. Others on the ship, such as Captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), are not so sure. They’re just in it for the money. Conflict ensues between the scientists, who are eager to ask their creators why they were created, and Vickers, who has no desire for contact, only proof of the creators’ existence.

            The cast here is phenomenal. Theron turns in another great performance a second week in a row, and Rapace is very believable as the scientist who is just trying to put everything together. The star of the show, however, is Michael Fassbender as the android David. Praising Fassbender is par for the course these days, but I am not yet done being   surprised by how consistently excellent he is.

Searching for the origins of life is not a task to be taken lightly, and Scott treats the subject of man’s search for meaning in the universe with appropriate gravitas. It’s refreshing to see a blockbuster filmmaker ask big questions about God, man’s place in the universe, and even the place of the universe itself without offering definitive answers one way or the other. And, rather than glossing over the theological implications of such an expedition, screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (a Lost veteran) allow us to revel in the mystery.

Unfortunately, some of the mystery reveals itself in unresolved plot points and incomplete character development. This is most evident in the character of David, who makes a major decision in the first half of the movie that is never explained. We see the consequences of his actions, but are never led to why he did what he did in the first place. It’s a shame, because Fassbender’s performance is so good, that we can never really understand if we’re supposed to be rooting for him or against him.

While the film’s reach extends its grasp in some areas, it benefits from Scott’s minimalistic filmmaking. The film is gorgeous, yes, but it’s not flashy, and there’s nary an explosion in sight. He allows the story to unfold slowly, the pace rising alongside the intensity. Other than one scene, it never reaches fever-pitch levels of horror like his original Alien consistently delivered, but that does not make it slow. The pacing fits the more contemplative and philosophical nature of the screenplay.

Whether you like it or not, Prometheus is the kind of film that sticks with you. Ever since leaving the theater, I find myself mulling over its lofty themes and reflecting on the beauty of its cinematography. It’s the most obtuse film this side of The Tree of Life, but that’s what makes it stand out amidst a Summer sure to be filled with explosions and check-your-brain-at-the-door plotlines, Prometheus is far from perfect, but it’s haunting, thrilling, and, most importantly, has something to say. What is that something? Beats me. Just sit back and enjoy the mystery. 

“Snow White and the Huntsman” Review

At the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman, it is established that the King of the land marries the Queen the day after he meets her. I was inclined to think that this was a sly mockery of the whole “we just met let’s get married” motif that runs throughout most classic fairy tales (not to mention their Disney adaptations). If I had known of the generic dark fantasy adventure that awaited me, I wouldn’t have been inclined to give the film that much credit.

It all begins well enough. After the death of the Queen, the King grieves, but gets over it pretty quickly when he finds a beautiful blonde (Charlize Theron) as a spoil of war. She appears innocent enough, but it turns out she is actually evil (gasp!) After killing the King and taking over the throne, she locks the King’s daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a dungeon. The film shrugs off the rather important question as to why the Queen keeps Snow White alive in the first place (because then she’d be dead and we’d have no movie, probably).

You know how the rest goes. There’s a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), dwarves (eight this time, providing some much-needed comic relief) and a poisoned apple. The movie, however, twists some of these familiar plot points in some occasionally surprising ways, but even these small twists can’t help the film from falling into bland familiarity.

The problem is not so much the story, but rather the way in which the story is told. In a post-Lord of the Rings world, generic fantasy just doesn’t cut it anymore. The film is constantly caught between its desire to be a revisionist fantasy and its constant reliance on the most staid of fantasy tropes. We get large battle scenes straight out of a Ridley Scott film ( flaming projectiles and tar are present and accounted for) and sweeping, birds-eye-view camera shots of traveling companions ripped wholesale from The Lord of the Rings.

It’s a shame, because the visuals are, on the whole, rapturous, particularly the scenes in the enchanted forest. Some top-notch CGI work even leads to some winking references to the original Disney animated film. They’re some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a long while; I just wish they were wrapped in a better package.

The acting is also a mixed bag. Theron is fantastic in the role of the evil Queen. Her beauty notwithstanding, she really knows how to have fun with and add complexity to a familiar character. She expertly balances the fine line between terrifying and campy, and that is meant as a great complement. Hemsworth is just playing Thor again, and Kristen Stewart does, thankfully, cut down on the lip-biting. I appreciate the film’s attempt to paint her character as a capable feminine hero, rather than a damsel in distress, but her character arc is practically non-existent. Early in the film, she tells the Huntsman that she can’t imagine ever having to kill someone. By the end, she’s killing enemy soldiers with panache. Maybe the training montage had to be cut.

There is an excellent movie here somewhere, but it is trapped in a package of bland familiarity. While it may be ambitious for a Snow White adaptation, as a dark fantasy epic, it plays it way too safe.

I’m all for violent, revisionist updates on classic fairy tales, and hope to see more in the future. Next time, though, I would appreciate a bit more originality.