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.