Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2014 films

Deux jours, une nuit (dir. Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014)

The Belgian filmmaking tandem, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, are well known for their minimalistic films, which focus on the economic burdens and moral ambiguities facing working-class persons in the Low Countries. Deux jours, une nuit [Two Days, One Night] builds on this foundation. Though it features a bona fide movie star in Marion Cotillard, it is a typically unassuming film, which presupposes that mundane concerns — even, and perhaps especially, when seen as mundane — best reveal the flaws and virtues of human beings.

Cotillard plays Sandra — a working mother in Seraing, Belgium, who has taken a leave of absence from her job in a factory. The reason for her leave is not explicitly stated, but it is psychological in nature. Sandra is alternately frenzied and wearied, and she pops pills in order to cope with anxiety. Supporting her through this process is her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), whose patient encouragement is equaled by the recognition that, if the family is to keep their home, Sandra needs to return to work. Unfortunately, however, the factory has been able to maintain productivity during her absence, so much so that the management has presented her coworkers with an offer: if they vote to liquidate Sandra’s position, they will provide a cash bonus to everyone on staff. After learning of this proposal, Sandra has only a few days (thus the film’s title) to convince her peers of her worth. With this in mind, she sets out to meet with each of them prior to the vote.

Though at times this quest strains credulity, the Dardennes resist the temptation to melodramatize it. Sandra is not so much a “hero” as a nervous wreck, and her coworkers are not so much villains as ordinary persons facing ordinary problems — rents, childcare, and the like. With only a couple of exceptions, none of Sandra’s opponents want to see her removed; it’s just that they need the money. Herein, then, lies the tension at the heart of the film: will these ordinary people be able to muster the courage to deny themselves what, in purely economic terms, makes good sense? And can Sandra summon the strength to ask them to do so?

Without divulging the ending, it is worth noting that, for the Dardennes, even these questions withstand the pat answers typical of Hollywood. Ultimately, Deux jours, une nuit is neither a comedy nor a tragedy but, rather, something in between. But in this “in between” is precisely where the film’s connection to theology lies. As the Christian tradition has long professed, the field of human activity certainly is not heaven, but it is not hell either. On the contrary, earthly life is shot through with ambiguity, and so the ethical challenge — for human beings, anyway — is not to vanquish evil but to pursue the good amid uncertainty. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, and yet willing the good and possessing it are two different things. Indeed, to will the good unreservedly may very well entail that one lose something. Alas, this is a lesson that Sandra must confront, though, as the gospel emphasizes (Lk 9:23-24), she also learns that sacrifice is the condition for new life.

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Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Since its premiere in October 2014, there has been more than a little debate about whether or not Interstellar is a “religious” film. Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus claims that, for all of its metaphysical interests, Interstellar never really addresses the question of God — an omission that he contrasts with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), another sci-fi film that clearly broaches religious themes as it braces for its dénoument. And yet, Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson calls Interstellar an “inescapably (r)eligious film,” as does Megan Garber of The Atlantic, who considers it an exploration into “the spiritual implications of space.” What gives?

Part of the issue, doubtless, has to do with what counts as “religious” in today’s increasingly secular culture. For, as Wilkinson and Garber note, the very plot of Interstellar bears concerns that can’t help but raise questions about the destiny of human beings and the role of the supernatural therein. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph “Coop” Cooper, an astronaut and scientist, who is led by a series of uncanny experiences to a secret NASA plant. There he learns that the crop blight plaguing the Earth will not abate and that he is to head an expedition to a wormhole near Saturn, where, it is hoped, he will find a new planet for the Earth’s population or, at the very least, a place where several thousand human embryos can be raised and the human race preserved. Preceding him in this endeavor are twelve other persons, and, while a number of them are presumed dead, three have sent back encouraging feedback about planets near a black hole, Gargantua. Though torn — Coop is leaving behind a family, including his intelligent yet fragile young daughter, Murph — he agrees to lead the mission and leaves with a small crew of scientists and robots. The journey to the wormhole alone will take roughly two dozen years in Earth time, and Coop is unsure if he’ll ever see his family again.

Already, then, a key theological question is indicated: what, if anything, binds human beings to the Earth? And, in Interstellar, an answer is given: nothing. Indeed, the film might be fairly characterized as anthropocentric. Human beings are in charge of their own destiny, and so not only can the Earth be left behind, but there is no reason to be attached to it. It’s just the “rock” where humanity got its (accidental?) start and, sensu stricto, is in no way preferable to any other planet. But this is a far cry from the biblical account of creation, which was recently emphasized in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si. As he writes:

The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Of course, Francis’ reading is in line with Catholic orthodoxy, to which Nolan need not adhere. And yet, one might wonder just what is lost in the transition from the older, Catholic perspective to Nolan’s more Darwinian approach. If human beings are not, in a certain sense, bound to the Earth, then why should they care for it? Perhaps human development, following the law of evolution, will ultimately transcend what the Earth can provide, and so the planet should simply be stripped of its resources and discarded as a sign of “progress”? This viewpoint is not explicitly stated in Interstellar, but it is telling that, in one scene, Coop laments how human beings have wasted too much time “staring in the dirt,” rather than seeking their place in the stars.

In any case, as the film moves on, the plot becomes as cumbersome as the imagery sublime. Coop’s crew lands on a number of potentially habitable planets, including one whose gravitational force results in recurring (and destructive) tidal waves:

Moreover, due to gravitational time dilation, Coop’s experience in space is occurring at a startlingly quick rate in Earth-time. Murph is now an adult, working with NASA to find an equation that might harness gravity. Her efforts have proven unsuccessful, but then something unexpected occurs. Coop plunges his ship into Gargantua, only to emerge into a tesseract wherein he is capable of interacting with multiple dimensions of reality. Thus he is able to transcend spacetime and to communicate with Murph through gravity waves — a discovery that dovetails with the uncanny experiences that inaugurate the film. Eventually, the tesseract collapses and, in a whir of color and light (which suggests Nolan’s fondness for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Coop finds himself in a space station orbiting Saturn, where he is reunited with the now elderly Murph. The mission to save humankind has proven successful, but, just as importantly, Coop has been reunited with his daughter.

Here, again, Interstellar skirts up against various theological issues. For example, Coop’s ability to outstrip the normal limitations of human nature (finitude, temporality, perhaps even mortality), not to mention his “second coming” at film’s end, suggest godlike status — a point arguably intimated by his initials, J.C. And yet, Coop’s powers are not conferred by a deity, nor are they intrinsic to his nature. Rather, they were bestowed by a future human civilization, which has learned to master the very conditions that burden human beings.

In the end, then, Interstellar dares to imagine a humanity that itself has become divine. It is a theme, I suppose, that could be spun in a Christian direction. After all, as Nolan sees it, science itself is not a dispassionate discipline, motivated by objective data and perfunctory inquiry, but is driven by love — love of our children and, if not our planet, then our race. And from where, one might ask, does that love originate? Why, indeed, are we the way we are? Such questions are ripe for theological interpretation, but, as noted at the outset, Nolan doesn’t bite. Just why is a matter of speculation, though it seems safe to say that, for Nolan, it’s far more interesting to think about where humanity is going than where it came from. For when we look to the stars, not as a heavenly abode but as a world to conquer, we are able to save ourselves. And, in this conclusion, Nolan turns science into a religion unto itself.

Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

In January 1996, the American philanthropist, scientist, and heir to the Du Pont family fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont, shot and killed a man on his Pennsylvania estate. That man was Dave Schultz — an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling and the head of du Pont’s “Team Foxcatcher” wrestling team. After his arrest, du Pont pled “not guilty by reason of insanity” and was found guilty of murder in the third degree. He would die at a Pennsylvania correctional institute in 2010.

Such are the bare, yet grim, facts of du Pont’s demise. But why did he kill Schultz? And how did this ornithologist and philatelist become intertwined with U.S.A. Wrestling, so much so that he housed a training facility on his property? Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher aims to explore these questions, and it does so with muted tension and an almost palpable sense of dread — qualities that earned Miller “Best Director” honors at Cannes in 2014. That Foxcatcher also bears political undertones, treating du Pont (Steve Carell, a long way from Brick Tamland and Michael Scott) as a symbol of American privilege and conceit, casts a wider light on its narrative. In trying to understand du Pont, Miller suggests, we may be to able to better understand why hard-working persons like Dave Schultz are “shot down” in their pursuit of the American dream.

It is an ambitious premise, and Miller’s execution is admirable. Yet, I’m not sure that it ultimately works. For one thing, Miller is only able to guess at du Pont’s motivation, both with regard to Team Foxcatcher and with regard to his killing of Schultz. Perhaps it was a lonely upbringing, exacerbated by a demeaning mother? Perhaps it was suppressed sexual desire, particularly in relation to Schultz’s younger brother, Mark (Channing Tatum, in a breakout performance). Perhaps it was drug and alcohol addiction? Or perhaps it was the realization that, wealth aside, du Pont really never had anything — indeed, that money just can’t buy me love?

Ironically, any of these reasons might lend themselves to theological exploration. After all, human fallenness and the concomitant frustration of desire are classic theological motifs, which have their roots in the very first chapters of the Bible (Gen 1-3). But Miller fails to delve into these topics, even in a philosophical mode. The socio-political symbolism — he relishes the fact that du Pont refers to himself as “Golden Eagle” — is just too inviting, too “important.” Even worse, such speculation may simply be beside the point. Further exploration of the du Pont case suggests that, while du Pont certainly was rich, he was also certainly mentally ill. Doubtless it is convenient to turn him into an archetype, but, in this case, there is a very real question about the suitability of such an approach.

Du Pont was a fallen human being, compromised by the frailty of our condition. And there is a depth, a genuine sadness, in such a truth. But, alas, the stuff of political tragedy it is not.

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.

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?

Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

What intrigued me was the idea of how difficult it must be to uphold a sense of truth and goodness when you’re being vilified. We’re in a very strange time now where it’s difficult for people to believe in heroes any more – it’s kind of revolutionary now to think of goodness as an aspiration, but I believe we’re swimming against the tide with Calvary. The story is about the notion of goodness.

— Brendan Gleeson

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is not a great film: its plot requires more than a little credulity, and its stabs at humor miss more often than not. It is, however, an important film — one, I daresay, that will remain with its audience long after they view it. With a nod to Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), Calvary begins in a confessional in a small church in the West of Ireland (probably County Sligo, given the lurking presence of Benbulbin). An unidentified parishioner confesses to Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that, as a young boy, he was horrifically abused by a Catholic priest and that he wants to take the life of Fr. James as recompense. He reasons that the depth of his hurt and vitriol will be clearer if he murders a good priest rather than a bad one. For his act is as symbolic as it is personal: he does not want to simply kill Fr. James but the very idea of a priesthood — that is to say, of a group of persons who mediate the will of a loving God.

Fr. James is given a week to get his affairs in order, and so the film unfolds as a kind of Passion Week, chronicling each day of the priest’s slow but certain ascent up his own Calvary — a term that references Golgotha (“place of the skull”), rendered Calvariæ Locus in Latin, the hill on which Jesus died. What we see is an unflinching look at the challenges of being a priest today: some of Fr. James’ flock admire his commitment to the Gospel but openly ignore his counsel; some prefer to mock his faith, noting the quaintness of believing in God amid the brutality of the universe; some distrust him, wondering if his kindly persona is nothing but a cover for nefarious motives; still others actively disdain both him and his office and are unafraid to express their feelings with violence. And this is to say nothing of his fellow clergy, who either want to avoid contact with the laity or who are beginning to explore popular skepticism (one priest is seen perusing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). Of course, these responses to Fr. James are also responses to God. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “[A priest] represents Jesus, who is never absent in the Church,” and hence, insofar as his office is concerned, a priest “never acts in the name of someone absent, but in the person of the Risen Christ.”

But this task, Calvary suggests, is precisely what’s at issue. In re-presenting the person of Jesus, Fr. James is offensive to others, whether in his presumed arrogance (in claiming to mediate on behalf of God) or in his palpable lowliness (in doing so in such humble fashion, without wealth or honor). Indeed, one cannot see the good he is seeking — to comfort and to encourage the afflicted — without passing through the crucible of offense. Within the context of the film, one such person is Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Fr. James’ daughter, who has struggled to accept his priestly calling after the death of his wife and her mother. In particular, Fiona resents the fact that, rather than focus on the healing needed in his own life and family, her father has chosen to minister to a parish of ingrates and misanthropes. Towards the end of the film, however, the pair arrive at an understanding: both of them, albeit in different ways, have spent far too much time worrying about what’s wrong than doing what’s right. As Fr. James puts it, “[F]orgiveness has been highly underrated,” not just in his relationship with Fiona, but in the Church’s ministry and its relation to the world — even a world as bellicose as this one.

It is this wisdom that gives Fr. James the strength to complete his passion and to meet his would-be killer — a conclusion that is no less gripping despite its inevitability. But is Fr. James’ witness in vain? McDonagh does not answer this question directly and perhaps for good reason. In the wake of the abuse scandal in Ireland, America, and elsewhere, there are no straightforward answers. What Calvary does suggest, however, is that the Church can only regain its footing through a commitment to goodness — a commitment that refuses to waiver in the face of scorn and suffering. It’s a cutting message, but not a hopeless one. Like its namesake, Calvary is not so much about death (death of the good, death of the Church, death of God) as about what comes after death. Life.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (dir. Peter Jackson, 2014)

In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien seeks to elucidate the nature and purpose of fantasy writing. As he explains, the intent of fantasy literature is not to spin idle tales of fanciful places but, rather, to cast distinctive light upon the known world: “For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” Thus the fantasy writer’s talent is in the employ of reason. “The keener and the clearer is the reason,” adds Tolkien, “the better fantasy will it make.” And the better the fantasy, the fresher the perspective on our own affairs. In this way, fantasy facilitates a kind of “recovery” of our senses or, perhaps more accurately, our sense of the way things really are.

This purpose is brought to the forefront in Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of Tolkien’s literary corpus — namely, The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final film based on Tolkien’s 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit. In an exhilarating sequence, the movie begins with the dragon Smaug’s fiery attack on Laketown and its human inhabitants. Yet, when Smaug is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a social and political quagmire ensues. The dragon had left untold riches in Erebor — the great mountain he once stole from the Folk of Durin (dwarves) — and now various parties want a piece of the wealth. The dwarves, led by the brave yet troubled Thorin Oakenshield, hole up in their ancestral home, hoarding their inheritance. Meanwhile, the men demand payment for the killing of the beast, even as the wood elves arrive to claim what they see as rightful recompense for their aid. Both groups amass armies outside Erebor and contemplate a siege. And this is to say nothing of the orcs, whose chieftain, Azog the Defiler, is bent on destroying the dwarves and taking the spoils for himself. That war will ensue is all but inevitable. The question is: how will it proceed? Will the dwarves, now strengthened by reinforcements from the Iron Hills, forge an alliance against the orcs, who are counting on the fragmentation of their enemies? Or will they allow their former allies to perish as they watch from the belly of the mountain?

This is, in effect, the entire plot of The Battle of the Five Armies, and it is exhausted in less than 90 minutes. Yet, with a running time exceeding 140 minutes, Jackson fills up the remaining time with an assortment of battle sequences, a number of which are too cute by half. Such was the cost of trying to squeeze three epic films from a children’s story. Nevertheless, the moral imperative of Tolkien’s story manages to shine through. So often social and political divisions crystallize over trivialities, pitting groups that otherwise have much in common against one another. What Tolkien suggests, however, is that these sorts of disputes are dangerous just to the extent that they blind us to the ultimate source of trouble: neither the dwarves nor the men nor the wood elves are aware of Azog’s army until it’s almost too late, and they are oblivious to Sauron’s growing power at Dol Guldur, which (Jackson loves to remind us) will eventually push all of Middle-earth into war.

Of course, with the help of Gandalf, not to mention an ever-handy band of Great Eagles (the story’s fifth army, for those keeping score at home), tragedy is averted. But the larger point remains, even if time has rendered it more complicated. To be sure, in our age of 24-hour news coverage and seemingly bottomless digital information, it’s not so easy to distinguish elf from orc. (One can imagine a twenty-first century headline: “Azog the Defiler: Why He Fights, Plus His Top-Five Tips for a Fabulous Beach Body!”) Indeed, as Kierkegaard predicted in A Literary Review (1846), it’s even morbidly satisfying to argue over trifles rather than confront what’s truly wrong, not only with ourselves, but with the world — a point that echoes Tolkien’s message in The Hobbit. Yet, whereas Tolkien uses the Eagles as a kind of deus ex machina — a “eucatastrophic” move that, in his view, is essential to fantasy writing — Kierkegaard warns that there are no easy answers here. For him, salvation will not come in conquest but in suffering. For the great evil of our age lies in our failure to perceive that (or what) we are losing.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Much of the buzz surrounding Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has to do with the director’s technical prowess. The film is largely set in the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, and Iñárritu revels in its labyrinthine structure — his handheld camera following the actors as they dart hither and thither around the place, bounding up narrow stairwells, slipping (or tumbling!) into dressing rooms and break rooms, almost unfailingly accompanied by the chaotic percussionist score of Antonio Sánchez. Moreover, as numerous critics have noted, Iñárritu edits the film as if it were done in a single continuous take, even though it is set over a few days. As the plot barrels toward its denouement, this technique serves to heighten the urgency. We don’t so much observe the anxiety of leading-man Riggan Thompson (an Oscar-worthy Michael Keaton) as experience it ourselves. The medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, assumes the message. Indeed, Birdman is the kind of film that epitomizes the very nature of cinematic art: its combination of camerawork, soundtrack, special effects, voiceover, and editing “re-present” life in a way that only film can.

And yet, is there more? Does Birdman have a message beyond Iñárritu’s considerable ability? After all, one reviewer has accused Iñárritu of essentially showing off, foregrounding technical wizardry at the expense of story. It is an interesting criticism, but is it a fair one? On the surface, at least, the plot of Birdman is not hard to comprehend. Riggan is an aging moving star, famed for his portrayal of the superhero “Birdman” but dismissed by critics as a hack. Now, with his career in decline, he has decided to return to his thespian roots, adapting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage. It is a bold but desperate move. Riggan’s personal life is in shambles, and his cast — led by the difficult “method actor,” Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, brilliant as usual) — is comically helter-skelter. Can Riggan overcome these obstacles? Can he, after years of CGI-enhanced popcorn flicks, deliver the performance of a lifetime and, in turn, silence his critics?

So far, so good. But Iñárritu is not content with such a straightforward narrative. Thus he imbues Riggan with real (or, at least, ostensibly real) superpowers: Riggan does not just play the Birdman but, in fact, seems to be the Birdman. We see him telekinetically smash objects, and he is capable of flight. This conceit could be a grand metaphor, or, as noted, it could be mere silliness on Iñárritu’s part. What is clear is that Iñárritu has no interest in sorting out this question for the viewer — an intention that becomes unmistakable in the film’s final scene.

What, then, are we left with? Part satire, part melodrama, part fantasy, Birdman never claims an identity. It’s a postmodern film for postmodern people, whose cynicism is too flinty for either comedy or tragedy. While another film might depict Riggan’s redemption or his comeuppance, Iñárritu is content to give us neither. But, perhaps, that is the message. In the real world, Iñárritu suggests, things are rarely as they seem: superheroes may be madmen and vice versa. Moreover, there are no objective grounds for deciding between the two. One sees suicide where another sees salvation.

In Iñárritu’s capable hands, Birdman offers a punto de vista worth pondering. Yet, with Christmas fast approaching, it’s also a reminder of an older story — alas, one bearing so much redemptive pathos that Dante, with an earnestness alien to the world of Birdman, called it a “divine comedy.”

Million Dollar Arm (dir. Craig Gillespie, 2014)

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm centers on sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) — a hard-drivin’, fast-livin’ founder of a small firm on the verge of bankruptcy. Desperate, Bernstein tries to think outside the box: if he can’t win American clients, why not pursue an untapped market, where the competition for top athletes is less fierce? With this in mind, he reasons that India, with its massive population and passion for cricket, might harbor untold baseball prospects. After securing funding from an investor, he stages a contest in India, dubbing it “Million Dollar Arm.” After a rocky start, replete with the stereotypical challenges of adapting to a foreign environment, Bernstein finally hits on a pair of bona fide prospects, left-handed pitcher Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and right-hander Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal). Yet, upon returning to Los Angeles, a number of problems surface. Singh and Patel are from the Indian countryside, and they, too, struggle to adapt to an alien environment. Meanwhile, Bernstein is faced with the unsavory responsibility of caring for these two young men. Will he leave them to sink or swim on their own? Or will he choose to nurture them, even if it means compromising his otherwise unencumbered pursuit of life, liberty, and  happiness?

A Disney production, which is not too proud to borrow from other like-minded films, Million Dollar Arm ends exactly as one might expect. Bernstein succumbs to the role of father-figure, and, despite trials and tribulations, he guides Singh and Patel to baseball success. He even finds time to settle down with a “nice” girl, Brenda (Lake Bell), who slowly but surely convinces his id to yield to his superego. It is, as far as it goes, a solid contribution to the sports-movie genre, though it does not approach the gravitas of 2008’s Sugar — an excellent baseball film, which views the sport’s international footprint in more nuanced fashion.

And yet, to be fair, moments of depth are not utterly lacking in Million Dollar Arm. The film is particularly critical of Bernstein’s lifestyle. Overworked and self-centered, he is a version of Hamm’s most famous role to date — that of Don Draper on AMC’s celebrated TV series, Mad Men. Thus the film’s “happy ending” is an inversion of what we come to expect: it’s not Bernstein who “saves” Singh and Patel but vice versa. They teach him, in short, to care for something beyond himself. And, in an especially surprising undercurrent, the film even suggests that Bernstein’s hardened secularism is at once metaphysically narrow and existentially unfulfilling. In one scene, Singh and Patel indicate that they have been praying for help as they transition to life in America. Bernstein snaps that he prefers work to prayer, and the young men are nonplussed — a pithy summary of the “American Dream” and how it often looks to outsiders. This motif is reprised later in the film, when Singh and Patel insist on praying before a meal. Now, however, Bernstein acquiesces to their request, and it is no accident that this scene is treated as a turning point. Bernstein finally realizes that it is better to give than to take, better to open up than to close off, better to sacrifice for a family than to labor for oneself.

Of course, of course, of course: Million Dollar Arm is neither invested enough nor sufficiently subtle to fully probe these points. Nothing is going to stop it from providing a satisfying payoff, and nothing is going to prevent it from repeating a number of shopworn formulas (the East is “spiritual,” the West “intellectual;” the East is “friendly,” the West “competitive;” and so on). But you could do a lot worse on a cold, rainy Saturday morning — which is when I watched it with my kids — and it may even give you something to think about in turn.

Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla (ゴジラ), appeared in the wake of the horrific nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — events in which over 100,000 persons were killed instantly, while tens of thousands more died later due to radiation poisoning and other bomb-related injuries. Against this backdrop, Honda’s film was issued as a kind of warning. Godzilla was a daikaiju (大怪獣), a “giant strange creature” released from the bowels of the sea by nuclear testing. Wreaking havoc on Tokyo and its environs, the monster is finally destroyed by scientists, who, at film’s end, come to confront the peril of modern technology. Its power, too, must be subdued, lest other daikaiju also appear.

The social and political concern of the original Godzilla stands in stark contrast to the latest incarnation of the franchiseHelmed by the English director, Gareth Edwards, the new Godzilla takes a more intimate approach. Its protagonist is Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a San Francisco-based explosives expert who longs for nothing more than a little R&R with his fetching wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and cute-as-a-button little boy, Sam (Carson Bolde). Yet, when his father, Joe (a manic Bryan Cranston), is arrested in Tokyo, Ford is forced to head overseas and, hopefully, to resolve the situation. Of course, it’s hardly that simple. A decade and a half earlier, a Japanese nuclear power plant exploded in a freak accident. Joe had been its supervisor, and he lost his wife (and Ford’s mother) in the disaster. Joe remains convinced that the tragedy’s cause did not lie with normal seismic activity but, rather, with some unknown phenomenon. Thus he continues to research the site of the accident and, in the process, to run afoul of the authorities.

Arriving in Tokyo, Ford sympathizes with his father, but wants him to be reasonable: why, after all these years, can’t the old man just let it go? But Joe is incorrigible, and soon father and son find themselves back in the quarantine zone. What they discover there is astonishing: the site is no longer radioactive, and scientists are monitoring the activity of an enormous creature, a so-called Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO). The MUTO, a gigantic, winged, spider-like monster, whose face vaguely recalls the Predator, soon escapes from confinement and heads out across the Pacific Ocean. Its task, as we eventually learn, is to mate with a companion MUTO, which has emerged from the Nevada desert. This puts it on a direct path for — you guessed it! — San Francisco.

Now, at this point, one might well be wondering: isn’t this movie about Godzilla? And the answer is: sort of. In truth, the narrative thrust of the film belongs to Ford, who, after Joe is killed by the MUTO, desperately tries to make it back to San Francisco, where he can protect his family and, with the help of his military confreres, save the city and the rest of humanity. Yet, as the plot unfolds, and as the MUTO’s rampaging continues, it becomes clear that human beings will not be able to resist the MUTO. As the chief scientist notes, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” Only another beast, then, can stop the MUTO, and that beast is — you guessed it again! — Godzilla.

Needless to say, when Godzilla finally shows up, fighting ensues, skyscrapers topple, and people run around screaming. Edwards manages the spectacle with considerable skill, but one can’t help but wonder: what’s the point? The MUTO and Godzilla are essentially blind forces; they hardly pay any mind to the human beings around them. Moreover, just why Godzilla wants to liquidate the MUTO is equally baffling. Apparently, it’s all part of nature’s “power to restore balance,” but aren’t Godzilla and MUTO unnatural monsters, created by the nuclear energy fabricated by humans? Whatever. It really doesn’t matter, as the real goal of the film is to show stuff blowing up and, at last, to give us a shot of Ford embracing his wife and son.

In the end, then, the interesting question is: why is this Godzilla so different than its celebrated forerunner? In other words, why is the politically-conscious message of the original Godzilla seemingly no longer of interest? A number of possibilities come to mind. The obvious answer is that, well over twenty years since the end of the Cold War, we no longer fear nuclear armageddon as we once did. Indeed, in the 2014 version of Godzilla, the dangers of atomic energy as such are largely ignored, apart from the fact that the MUTO likes to snack on nuclear warheads. Another possibility is that, in the era of smart phones and iPads, we are far more comfortable with technology than we used to be. The dire warnings of the first Godzilla seem strained, outdated.

At the same time, however, the absence of a socio-political critique should not imply that, in 2014, all is well. Although the film does not show much gore, people do die by the thousands. Moreover, these people are rarely active participants in the action. On the contrary, they are innocent bystanders, “collateral damage” in the fight between agencies that are both unknowing and unknowable. Is it possible, then, that Edwards’ Godzilla is more bleak than Honda’s? The latter suggests human responsibility for the world’s ills and the ethical imperative to change; the former maintains that, in the face of cosmic pandemonium, the best we can do is hope to avoid destruction at the hands of an indifferent material universe. Tend to your family, Edwards implies, for calamity may strike at any time, and it does not discriminate between victims.

Of course, there is some truth to this perspective. It serves to check human hubris and, perhaps, reminds us to appreciate the present moment — the smile of a loved one, the kindness of a stranger. But can it sustain the human spirit? Is the specter of a brutally disinterested cosmos enough to foster faith, hope, and love, not just in God, but in the very dignity of earthly life? Intriguingly, in one flitting scene, Edwards seems to suggest that the answer to these questions is no. As Ford and his fellow soldiers prepare to confront the MUTO, one of them opens a Bible and begins to pray. It is a prayer for God’s support in the field of battle, but it’s more than that: it’s a prayer that God might exist at all, that there might be some purpose in the purposeless surrounding them.