Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: March, 2015

Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014)

There has been so much criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics were generally unimpressed, arguing that the film’s technical achievements overwhelmed its human interest. For a number of Christian outlets, however, the trouble did not lie in director Ridley Scott’s love of CGI but, rather, in his all-too-loose rendering of biblical events. Muslim audiences raised similar concerns, so much so that the film was banned in countries such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Still others bristled at Scott’s penchant for casting Anglo-Saxon actors as Egyptians and Hebrews — a move that Scott defended as financially necessary. And, finally, there were the comments of Christian Bale, who plays Moses in the film. Bale admitted that, in his view, Moses was “troubled” and “mercurial,” possibly even “schizophrenic.” Needless to say, such remarks attracted more than a little attention, not all of it flattering.

Geez. Can’t a guy make a 150-million-dollar, biblically-based epic action film anymore?!

In truth, the controversy surrounding Exodus: Gods and Kings has made it almost impossible to evaluate the film on its own merits. For my own part, I am sympathetic with much of the criticism mentioned above. At the same time, however, I found Scott’s attempt to depict the Exodus story intriguing, albeit far less so than Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Indeed, unlike Aronofsky’s magical adaptation of the Noah cycle, Scott treats his source material with flinty seriousness. He wants it to be a credible adaptation of Exodus, but credible according to whom?

One might tender a number of reasonable answers. For the faithful, Scott clearly portrays Moses as a hero, who, despite an independent streak (which, it should be added, is attested in Scripture), relies on God for his power. For the skeptics, he suggests that the great miracles of Exodus — for example, the parting of the Red Sea (Exod 14) — were actually triggered by natural occurrences. For those desiring drama and romance, he attends to the fraternal tension between Moses and Ramesses (an awkwardly cast Joel Edgerton), as well as Moses’ desire to return to his wife, Zipporah. And, yes, for those merely wanting a Hollywood adventure flick, he’s got battle scenes and dazzling special effects, not to mention Bale and his Occidental cast members.

The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to be all things to all people — a point borne out by the widespread criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings. But there may be a deeper issue here as well. Artistic renderings of biblical events tend to fail just to the extent that they lack commitment, and, by that, I don’t necessarily mean creedal commitment. For instance, George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is measured to a fault, featuring an all-star cast (sound familiar?) rather than inspired filmmaking. In contrast, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) stirs with its combination of neorealist cinematography and varied film score (from Bach to Odetta), in spite of Pasolini’s atheism.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott is more Stevens than Pasolini. Certain only of a hefty box-office draw, his film fails to move or to hearten or to perplex. But this means that the text has been domesticated, turned into a means to an end. And, as Kierkegaard points out, such is a common yet perilous tendency in the “reflective” age of modernity, when the cost is often counted in advance.

The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956)

By all accounts, John Ford’s The Searchers is not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time but one of the greatest films of all time. Indeed, according to the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (TSPDT), it stands as the ninth most-acclaimed movie ever released, and no less an authority than Martin Scorsese has called it one of his favorite films. But what, exactly, makes The Searchers so special?

Taken by itself, the plot doesn’t seem unique. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in an iconic role) is a Confederate veteran who has returned to his home on the Texas frontier — hard country matched only by Ethan’s hard-bitten personality. Clamorous, bigoted, and possibly criminal, Ethan is a poor fit for the homestead of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who hopes to quietly go about his work and to provide for a family that includes a son, two daughters, and an adopted son of Native American extract, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Yet, when a Comanche war party attacks the ranch — Ethan and Martin had been lured away to help round up stolen cattle — tragedy ensues. Most of the family is murdered, and the two girls are taken hostage. Ethan, Martin, and a ragtag bunch of Texas Rangers head out in pursuit of the Comanche band, but, outnumbered and weary, the Rangers give up, thus leaving Ethan and Martin to fend for themselves. Even worse, when the corpse of the oldest daughter is found, it becomes clear that they are the last hope for the youngest girl, Debbie (Natalie Wood).

The tension between the two “searchers” lies at the heart of the film and, along with Ford’s captivating landscapes, accounts for The Searchers‘ reputation. Whereas Martin loves his sister and is hopeful that she can be rescued, Ethan is bent on vengeance. Indeed, he is convinced that, with the passing of time, Debbie has either been murdered or has assimilated into Comanche ways. In either event, she is less important than the killing of her abductor, a Comanche chief known as Scar. Moreover, Ethan swears that, if Debbie has become a Comanche, he will kill her too — a prediction that comes horrifyingly close to being true.

In this way, Ethan emerges as an icon of postlapsarian Adam. The world, in his view, is a cruel, merciless place. It has hurt him, and so he is right to hurt it back. For him, in short, the measure of a man lies in the degree to which he refuses compassion and, instead, imposes his will on others. Yet, when a tip leads Ethan to Scar (and to Debbie) again, he is given a chance to see — at last — another side of life, to bestow mercy instead of seeking revenge.

The German cardinal and theologian, Walter Kasper, has recently argued that the shift from a rigid sense of justice to an excessive, even unfathomable, mercy is central to Christian belief: “[T]he call for mercy surpasses the cry for justice in the Bible. The Bible understands mercy as God’s own justice. Mercy is the heart of the biblical message, not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it.”

Of course, it would be a stretch to say that Ethan represents such a lofty notion. Nevertheless, in coming to save Debbie, he takes a first step toward redemption, which, in truth, is tantamount to a life in service to mercy. Indeed, it is no accident that Ford’s famous closing shot — his camera peering out from a dark doorway — frames Ethan as he wanders into the light.

Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn, 2014)

Richard Dawkins — Oxford don, evolutionary biologist, and world-famous advocate for atheism — has written that “[n]atural selection is a deeply nasty process.” That is to say, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, there is no reason to expect that any organisms (including human beings) would ever exhibit “super niceness,” which Dawkins defines as a benevolence that goes beyond “reciprocal altruism” and therefore puts the good of the stranger above one’s own. Indeed, as he explains, “from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb.”

Where, then, does this “super niceness” come from? Dawkins isn’t quite sure — after all, “in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection” — but he admits that it has much in common with religion. Both “super niceness” and religion are, he says, “stupid ideas” that spread through human culture like viral epidemics. Yet, whereas the latter is something that ought to be eradicated in society, the former is something that should be promoted. What we need to do is take the methods responsible for the transmission of religious belief — namely, tradition and rhetoric — and apply them to “super niceness.” In this way, we could exchange one form of “irrational belief” for another.

With this in mind, a film like Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as an interesting test case. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that its makers were concerned with either evolutionary biology or religion. Released in July 2014, smack in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, it features all of the hallmarks of a profitable popcorn flick — big special effects, a catchy soundtrack, extended action sequences, and a cast of zany characters that appeal to a variety of viewers. And yet, its underlying theme is nothing other than “super niceness.” The protagonist, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a young, cocky space pirate in the mode of Star Wars‘ Han Solo. Through a series of misadventures, he finds himself the leader of a motley crew of outcasts, ranging from an acerbic talking raccoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), to a lissome alien assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldona). Each of these characters wants something different, but, as time passes, they come to recognize that they have much in common, starting with a mutual hatred of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) — a vicious military leader who, as an agent for the nihilistic super-villain, Thanos, is bent on dominating the universe. In order to stop Ronan, Quill and his band have to put aside all self-concern and, instead, risk their lives not only for one another but also for the entire solar system. In other words, they learn to live according to a code of “super niceness” rather than one of “reciprocal altruism.” And it is only with this decision, which indeed proves costly, that they are able to become “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Of course, this is a fairly typical plot in superhero films. And, even if it does not redefine the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy pulls it off well enough. But what interests me in this case is not so much the film itself as the fact that it was made at all. After all, if Dawkins is right, such parables of “super niceness” really shouldn’t speak to us. We should receive them as pia desideria — spiritual aspirations that have little-to-no purchase in our daily lives. Or perhaps we should reject them as thinly-veiled repetitions of the Christian mythos, where the courageous self-denial of a Star-Lord (Quill’s adopted moniker) overcomes evil and gathers together a fractured community. At best, Dawkins would argue that films like Guardians of the Galaxy serve to encourage “super niceness” in a post-religious era, effectively fostering a virtue that would otherwise be absent from our species. On this reading, we don’t watch such films because they’re true in some ontological sense; rather, we are hoping to make them true, to render them meaningful for our culture. “Super niceness” is a meme and nothing more.

And yet, none of these rationalizations seem to stick, because, in the end, they don’t explain why people turn out in droves to watch a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy — or why we should even prefer “super niceness” to brutality if, in fact, it is brutality that allows our species to thrive. Dawkins’ account, then, is reductive. It can explain our world to us but not why it matters to us like it does. It can explain what Guardians of the Galaxy, qua film, may hope to achieve but not why we continue to thirst for its message of “super niceness.” In short, might not the popularity of such films be an indicator of human singularity, of an ineradicable longing for redemption, reconciliation, and charity, of what thinkers from another age called the imago dei?