Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)

Batman v Superman is an intriguing premise in need of a better movie. For most of its 151 minute running time — a running time that, trimmed of excess explosions and frivolous plot excursions, should’ve been closer to 100 minutes — it produces more sardonic laughs than genuine thrills. My favorite: late in the film, Lex Luthor (a manic Jesse Eisenberg) unleashes a gigantic monster on the city of Metropolis. Known as Doomsday, it is a mutant fusion of the body of Superman’s former nemesis, General Zod, and Luthor’s own DNA. Needless to say, it ain’t pretty:

Apart from apparently hitting the weights — no CrossFit for this thing, just straight iron — Doomsday is also surprisingly nimble. It bounds up buildings in the manner of King Kong, and, to make matters worse, it absorbs whatever energy is fired at it, including nuclear warheads. One might quibble that the creature’s look is too derivative (it could be the love child of the Incredible Hulk and one of the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings), but this is not a monster you’d ever want to see in your city. Thus I audibly laughed when a stoic news anchor, covering Doomsday’s destruction of the Metropolitan skyline, comments that at least it didn’t happen during rush hour!

Such unintentional laughs are not uncommon in Batman v Superman, but they hardly exhaust the film’s problems. Again, the plot is horribly convoluted: in addition to genetically-engineered monsters, there are Russian arms dealers, African warlords, Senate hearings, the wreckage of alien spaceships, father-son issues, and even a love-scene in a bathtub. And yet, all of this is but window-dressing for the essential plot concern, which seems to make more sense in the abstract than in the film itself: Batman (Ben Affleck) has come to distrust Superman (Henry Cavill), because he recognizes that Superman bears power that, wielded improperly, could destroy humanity. Thus he aims to kill Superman by way of kryptonite-flecked weaponry — a plan that Luthor himself facilitates, believing that his path to world-domination would be cleared if Superman were out of the way. But Luthor’s scheme is ultimately exposed, and, in an epiphanic moment, Batman and Superman realize they must work together if Luthor (and his pet demon) are to be stopped. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Doomsday lives up to its name, even as director Zack Snyder ensures that a sequel remains in the offing.

To be sure, no one is going to confuse this narrative arc with, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But there is potential for depth here. Snyder has set up a classic allegory, which owes more than a little to the Christian tradition. Superman, of course, represents the divine, whose otherness is experienced by human beings as both a source of hope and fear. Batman seizes on this latter aspect, thereby intimating a distinction emphasized in medieval theology (William of Ockham, especially) and later in the thought of Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin — namely, that the divine will is not “limited” by the good but, rather, is radically contingent and self-determining. What God did yesterday, so to speak, has no bearing on what God may do today; God can do as he pleases. Such a perspective seems to safeguard divine freedom, but there is a cost: faith in God becomes a matter of blind trust and, consequently, rationally indefensible. True, some may cower before the divine will, but others will perceive it as a threat that demands neutralization. The latter is effectively Batman’s position, which he doesn’t renounce until he realizes that Superman’s will is, indeed, conditioned by the good — that is, by the fact that Superman’s love for his earthly parents reveals his essential humility and benevolence. In turn, Superman and Batman are not only mutually sympathetic but can now unite with one another in order to conquer evil and death. Thus the immanent virtues inculcated by Batman (justice, fortitude, devotion) are analogous to and perfected by the transcendent attributes of Superman, who, in the film’s denouement, demonstrates the very depths of love’s sacrificial character.

Such, at any rate, is how one might try to read Batman v Superman theologically, and, seen in these terms,  it suddenly looks like an attempt to cinematically manifest certain key elements of the Christian message. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to make this connection, and it’s worth adding that Batman v Superman‘s predecessor, Man of Steel (2013), was directly pitched to Christian audiences. Now, in and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and I appreciate Snyder’s desire to explore the ostensive conflict between immanence and transcendence and how it might be overcome through divine self-giving. There’s only one problem: Batman v Superman is just not a very good movie. Instead of letting the story speak for itself, Snyder overwhelms it in a barrage of explosions, CGI effects, and schmaltzy dramatics. Batman v Superman may be a film about faith, but, in the end, it is defined by a lack thereof.

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Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)

In his classic study, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell argues that the “hero myth” is a universal aspect of human culture — a myth that bears a fundamental tripartite structure. First, the hero departs the ordinary world in order to undertake a quest in a strange and dangerous realm. Next, the hero is initiated into a number of trials, which threaten her task. And, finally, the hero returns to the world from which he came, not only with greater self-knowledge, but also with a gift (or “boon”) for those left behind. Campbell is clear that these stages do not necessarily unfold in the same way; rather, it is the structure that is consistent, so much so that he refers to this heroic narrative as a “monomyth.” In other words, despite the differences separating various tales (say, about Beowulf, Odysseus, and Jesus), they are all united by an underlying framework.

Of course, Campbell’s theory has garnered critical scrutiny over the years, but it nevertheless sheds light on the reception of Steven Spielberg’s films. While often hailed as one of cinema’s great technical filmmakers, Spielberg has also been accused of peddling shopworn themes and techniques to audiences. On a superficial level, there are various Spielbergian “tics” such as track-in shots and his frequent collaboration with composer, John Williams. But there are also recurring motifs, from familial dysfunction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.) to threats against humanity from the wild forces of nature (Jaws, the Jurassic Park franchise, etc.). And yet, since the release of Schindler’s List in 1993, perhaps no theme has characterized Spielberg’s work as much as “the hero.” Indeed, while Spielberg has framed the quest of his heroes in a variety of contexts, he has also — in a way that would make Campbell smile — told essentially the same story: the hero (Oskar Schindler, Capt. John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, etc.) undertakes a mission that will challenge him both morally and emotionally, and yet, through courage and acumen, he is able to overcome the obstacles facing him, thereby providing a “boon” to those he loves.

Such, at any rate, is how it appears. And it must be said that Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, falls into a similar pattern. Based on real-life events, the film tells the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an American insurance lawyer asked to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, in an Oscar-winning performance), an accused Soviet spy. It is the height of the Cold War, an era that Spielberg recreates with customary brilliance, and Donovan is pressured to provide only nominal legal counsel. Although he refuses to go along with such coercion — mostly out of principle, but also out of a grudging appreciation for Abel’s dedication — Donovan loses the case and is left to plead for Abel’s life. He argues that, should an American spy be found in similar straits, Abel would serve as collateral. And, needless to say, that is precisely what happens. In a pair of unrelated incidents, two Americans are captured by Soviet authorities, and both are held in East Germany. Thus the CIA tasks Donovan with a secret mission: he is to travel to East Berlin, where he will seek the exchange of Abel for one or, if possible, both of these American detainees. This proves to be an altogether taxing process. Donovan has to weigh manifold political interests and machinations, whether on the American or on the Soviet side. Moreover, he has to fight through poor housing conditions and an increasingly nasty cold. Still, as if on cue, Spielberg goes on to show that Donovan’s “courage and acumen” ultimately secure a happy, if nevertheless exhausting, outcome.

It is tempting to conclude, then, that Spielberg keeps rehashing the “hero myth,” and yet his preferred hero muddles such an interpretation. Here I will focus on Donovan, but, suffice it to say, analogies could be readily applied to Schindler, Miller, et al. First of all, Donovan is not a man of obvious power or influence; he is not an Achilles or an Aeneas but an Everyman who just wants to do what is right. Second, Donovan’s primary talent is not charisma, still less is it physical strength; rather, he excels by way of humility and perseverance. It is Abel, in fact, who calls attention to this side of Donovan:

Third, and lastly, Donovan is political but not partisan. He realizes that a person of good will is called to act in the world, but his actions are guided by his conscience and an unswerving commitment to the dignity of all human beings, rather than to a party platform or to a particular ideology. This sort of moral character may seem humdrum or old-fashioned, but, in Spielberg’s hands, it is shown to be controversial. Donovan, for example, stirs up the ire of those around him, even that of his own family:

In short, Donovan by no means wants to be a hero; yet, in his intellectual commitment to the good, and in his willingness to act on this commitment, he allows himself to become one. This humble trust in and devotion to the good may not entirely place him and other Spielbergian heroes outside the purview of Campbell’s monomyth. But it does underline how such a concept lacks sufficient nuance. In other words, while Spielberg’s heroes bear the contours of Christ figures — in ethical rather than in ontological terms — such characteristics are hardly shared among many other heroes, who pursue a local good through power, fame, charm, or popular appeal. That is not to say, of course, that Spielberg is making films that intentionally draw on the person of Jesus Christ. It is just to say that, when Spielberg is accused of reworking “hero movies,” the sort of “hero” in question deserves consideration. For, on that score, it may be that Spielberg is more countercultural than often acknowledged.

Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

By now, Terrence Malick’s story has become the stuff of legend. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 and, subsequently, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, but his supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, did not find it “sufficiently philosophical.” Frustrated, Malick left academia — albeit not before publishing a translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1929) — and embarked on a career in filmmaking. His first feature, Badlands (1973), was hailed as a masterpiece, and his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), has been deemed one of the most beautiful works in the history of cinema. And then, shockingly, Malick did not make another film for two decades — a move that was as mysterious as it was controversial. But the layoff did not hurt him. In 1998, he returned with The Thin Red Line — one of the finest war films ever made — and then followed it with two other acclaimed pictures: The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). The latter, in particular, was considered a groundbreaking work, so much so that the late Roger Ebert situated it among the ten best films of all time. This was arguably the apex of Malick’s career. Feted as a master, a visionary, he had entered a fraternity along with figures such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg: he was one of America’s greatest living directors.

Then came Malick’s 2012 film, To the Wonder. It was hardly an abject failure — in the last review he wrote, Ebert said that it was not just a movie but a noble attempt “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” — but Malick’s critical and popular reputation undoubtedly took a hit. Though it was made in the same manner as The Tree of Life, featuring lyrical voiceovers (in multiple languages), minimal dialogue, and a loose plot structure centering on metaphysical questions, it failed to resonate as its predecessor did. Several thought Malick had become formulaic, verging on “self-parody.” Others were perplexed by his new filmmaking process, which, among other things, provided its cast with an abundance of scripted lines…only to leave them on the cutting-room floor. Still others speculated that Malick was no longer concerned as much with his audience as with reflecting on his own life, since both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder contain obvious autobiographical references. And, finally, there were some who thought To the Wonder was just plain bad, lacking a “coherent narrative” and resembling a “high-end perfume ad.” Suddenly Malick had become a cause célèbre — an auteur famous for avoiding fame, a “Hollywood Bigfoot,” whose mercurial films people seemingly loved to hate.

Whatever the case, the reception of To the Wonder has done nothing to deter the septuagenerian filmmaker, who is scheduled to release no less than three films in the next couple of years. The first is Knight of Cups, which premiered last February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will come out in the United States on March 4, 2016. Due to a project I’m currently wrapping up, I was fortunate enough to see Knight of Cups last month in New York, and, within five minutes of its start, one thing was clear: it is by no means a retraction of the direction Malick has taken as of late. On the contrary, it is more like an extension of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, so much so that the three films are demanding to be seen as a kind of trilogy — an intriguing idea, already adumbrated on the Web, which nevertheless exceeds the scope of this review.

Still, the similarities between Knight of Cups and Malick’s two prior efforts are instantly instructive, for they demonstrate that Malick is making films like this on purpose. In other words, his most recent style of filmmaking is an aesthetic choice, rather than a faltering accident. But this point raises a question: why is Malick making films in this way? What do his peculiar approaches to narrative, cinematography, and editing add to his cinematic vision and, perhaps, to the cinematic medium writ large?

Again, this is an impossibly large question, which cannot be fully answered in this context. But I’ll offer a suggestion. Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world. He is, in short, trying to film “affect” — a notoriously difficult term to define, but one that has been described as “the experience of feeling or mood, of acting or of being acted upon.” Of course, one can tell a story about such things, but Malick seems to want the viewer to feel along with the characters in the film. Hence, with The Tree of Life, the audience does not just watch a movie about growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; rather, Malick constructs the film in such a way that one shares in the experience. By limiting dialogue as well as featuring jump cuts and POV shots — and thereby resisting the tendency to turn the film into a static object observed by a passive subject — The Tree of Life “gets inside” its subject matter:

Likewise, To the Wonder is not a mere story about two lovers, who, after a blissful romance, slowly begin to drift apart; on the contrary, it tries to record what it feels like to fall in and out of erotic love — an almost universal experience, which explains why Malick’s characters increasingly resemble archetypes. Indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters but, rather, stand-ins for the viewers themselves. This is why the above term “record” is critical. It stems from the Latin recordari, which literally means “to restore to the heart.” Malick, it seems, wants to facilitate our exploration of the most primal and basic experiences of human life, whether the loss of a loved one, the thrill of new love, or the childlike intuition of God’s presence.

What experience, then, does Knight of Cups highlight? The film centers on Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who flits across the surface of life. To be sure, Rick’s existence is essentially seduction after seduction: Hollywood moguls wine-and-dine him, and he finds himself in the bed of a myriad of beautiful women. It would seem to be a perfect life, except that it isn’t. One of Rick’s brothers has died, another (Wes Bentley) is on the verge of a breakdown, and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) — a high-minded doctor, who tends to the lame and to the needy — laments their failed marriage. Hence, no matter how much “fun” Rick has, limitations and shortcomings surround him. Like the earthquakes that rattle southern California, Rick is unstable, dangerous. He is dangerous to those who love him, but, just as importantly, he is dangerous to himself. For insofar as he runs from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, he is in peril of losing any sense of who he really is and of what he really wants. Nothing summarizes Rick’s predicament better than the words of one of his smooth-talking Hollywood suitors: “Let me tell you about you.”

Some have complained that this hardly qualifies as a spiritual crisis, but it is worth pointing out that Søren Kierkegaard — a thinker whom Malick has studied and whom he has quoted in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder — argued otherwise. Famously, Kierkegaard divides human existence into three “stages”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And, doubtless, Knight of Cups is a “recording” of the aesthetic stage, where the self seeks a succession of ephemeral, sensual experiences at the expense of an earnest confrontation of life’s meaning and purpose. The dangers of such a lifestyle are manifold: the aesthete is anxious, solipsistic, and terrified of boredom; he will stop at nothing to keep his despair at bay — a desire for which other persons, especially the vulnerable, are often sacrificed. And yet, in the end, the joke is on the aesthete, since he fails to indviduate and, consequently, vanishes into the ether of his own nihilistic misery.

It is just this fate that Rick intuits and, however achingly, seeks to resist. Yet, once more, the point of Knight of Cups is not tied to a tidy overcoming of the protagonist’s dilemma. How can it be, when the protagonist is not so much Rick as the one who also grapples with the aesthetic — that is to say, everyone. Ultimately, then, Knight of Cups seeks to expose aestheticism (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as a trap from which an egress must be sought. But it does not say this; it impresses it. That many will resist such provocation is certain, and, admittedly, Knight of Cups is not always easy viewing. But Malick is pushing at the borders of what the cinematic medium can achieve, and he has deemed that, whatever problems his recent trilogy invites, the risk is worth taking.

Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley, 2015)

“Homesickness is like most sicknesses; it will pass.” So says the kindly Fr. Flood (Jim Broadbent), as he tries to console Eilis Lacey (the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan) — a young Irish girl who has emigrated to Brooklyn. Weeks earlier, Eilis left the small town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford with a combination of excitement and expectancy, but adjusting to America proved to be a challenge. She did not know anyone in Brooklyn, and the very rhythm of life there was different — faster, more anonymous, alienating. Making matters worse was her mother’s frail health, which her sister was now left to tend to on her own. Thus Eilis had confided in Fr. Flood, hoping that he would encourage her to return home to Ireland. But he does just the opposite, enrolling her in bookkeeping classes and requesting her involvement in the local parish. “We need Irish girls in Brooklyn,” he jokes.

The importance of “home” is, indeed, the key theme in Brooklyn. What makes a place “home”? Is it just somewhere you live? Or is it determined by something else — something indefinable, amaranthine, even mysterious? And, if so, need it be limited to one place? Can one have two homes? Eilis is faced with precisely this conundrum. At a parish dance in Brooklyn, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen, who imbues his role with winsome earnestness), an Italian-American plumber who soon comes to love Eilis even more than he loves the Dodgers. Slowly but surely Eilis gives in, not just to Tony, but also to Brooklyn. They look forward to a future together — perhaps a home on Long Island — and Eilis’ homesickness dissipates…just as Fr. Flood predicted.

But, then, bad news arrives from Enniscorthy, and Eilis is forced to return to her family. Commercial air travel is still not an option, and the visit promises to be lengthy. Hoping to seal their relationship, Tony presses for a private civil marriage, to which Eilis agrees. Yet, upon reaching Ireland, Eilis finds herself swept back up into the flow of her “other” home: once overlooked in Enniscorthy, she is now the center of attention — the girl from New York. She is offered a job, invited to parties, and eventually courted by a gracious and well-to-do bachelor, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). No one knows about Tony, and Eilis even begins to ignore his letters. Maybe Enniscorthy really is home?

Director John Crowley sets up this scenario with palpable, even old-fashioned romanticism, and it’s to his credit — along with the performances of Ronan, Cohen, and Gleeson — that Eilis’ dilemma is felt so deeply. But what of the dilemma itself? Brooklyn, of course, works on various levels. In one sense, it chronicles an experience that is so characteristic of the modern West — that of emigration, of leaving one’s home to start another elsewhere. Yet, beneath this socio-historical level, there is also the issue of home itself. Here Brooklyn is somewhat more ham-handed, chiefly because it does not properly account for Eilis’ final decision. This is a significant flaw in terms of the story’s plot, but it does little to change its theme. In the end, Eilis realizes that home is more than a dwelling, more than a place where one is raised. No, home is a goal, a destination, for home is where love is most profoundly realized.

Brooklyn, it is true, does not theologize this point, but it’s hard to miss its allegorical import. Christian mystics have long understood the spiritual life in terms of exitus and reditus — “exit” and “return.” Just as the individual, in being born, exits from her divine origin, so is the goal of her earthly life to return to the love from which she came. But this divine love is not just a starting point; it is also the “site” where she is truly known and made complete. That such an abstract, metaphysical scheme should overlap with a “love story” may seem surprising. And yet, Christians have long seen marriage as a sacrament of God’s love for humanity. Thus such stories — especially ones as sincere and moving as Brooklyn — are always already more than the sum of their parts. In highlighting the importance of one’s temporal home, they gesture toward the eternal one that grounds it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Much of the response to the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been a combination of relief and excitement — relief because the film avoids the gross miscalculations (the stilted dialogue and serpentine plot structure, not to mention the infamous Jar Jar Binks) of the franchise’s previous three installments, excitement because it seems primed to advance the story for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. After seeing the movie, I can understand both of these sentiments. The Force Awakens is a well-paced popcorn flick, which nicely blends a cast of both old and new faces. Moreover, it ends with a gripping scene, which promises more of the same in the not-too-distant future.

And yet, despite its relative success, The Force Awakens fails to address what I take to be a decisive problem: why was it made at all? Of course, in terms of box-office receipts, this is an easy question to answer. But it becomes more complicated if one attends to the narrative arc of the series itself. After all, Return of the Jedi ends with the redemption of Darth Vader, the destruction of the Death Star, and the overthrow of the Galactic Empire. It is a denouement that presupposes a linear history, from the rise of Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious) and his Sith henchmen (including Vader) to the rebellion led by Jedi such as Yoda and Vader’s son, Luke Skywalker, to the Untergang of the Emperor and his plan to rule the galaxy according to the Dark Side. Thus the celebration on Endor at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi does not mark the end of a battle but, rather, the end of a war, that is to say, the end of Star Wars. Good has triumphed over evil.

The very existence, then, of The Force Awakens means that this celebration was premature — a point that may explain why series founder, George Lucas, has stated that the new film is more of a vehicle for fan interest than a continuation of his own vision. It is tempting to reason that Lucas’ view here is simply a matter of sour grapes, but, I suspect, he is also concerned with the narrative and thematic unity of Star Wars. It has always been an overtly religious series, promoting what Lucas himself terms “spirituality” and inspiring at least one prominent figure in contemporary philosophy of religion. Thus the victory of the Jedi, who serve the Force through the knowledge and practice of the good, implies the primacy of light over darkness. Yet, of necessity, The Force Awakens calls this story into question, and its title — to the extent that it is coherent at all (could the Force, which “binds the galaxy together,” ever actually go to sleep?) — even suggests that the Force is metaphysically neutral. Rather than an ultimate source of good, the Force is simply a power that can be exploited however one wishes, without eschatological repercussions.

Intriguingly, this new way of conceptualizing the Force may shed light on one of the more common criticisms of The Force Awakens — namelythat it’s closer to a collage of the previous installments than a film in its own right. As Kyle Smith of the New York Post has put it:

[R]ight about the time I was thinking, “Surely they’d never trot out another Death Star,” they trotted out another Death Star. There’s also another dramatic confrontation on a catwalk, another wise old soul who urges the heroes to return to Jedi ways, a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” moment, another Empire (renamed the First Order), another Emperor (the Supreme Leader), another Darth Vader type (Ren, played by Adam Driver) and a starting point that kicks us back to the beginning of the original film: The Jedi are nearly extinct and the Empire (oops, First Order) is being completely unreasonable.

In short, the plot of The Force Awakens is redundant, even circular. But this circularity follows from its metaphysics, which, as noted, no longer understands the unfolding of the galaxy in linear terms. On the contrary, what we now have is something closer to paganism’s cyclical understanding of time, where divinity is found in an ongoing alternation of life and death, light and darkness. With this in mind, it only makes sense that the story would repeat itself, for that, in fact, is the story — the eternal repetition of the same.

Ironically, the possibility of this sort of interpretation rests on the shoulders of Lucas himself, who, over the years, has struggled to clarify the nature of the Force. Yet, if his ideas were muddled, his story was not. Now, that has been lost as well.

But look on the bright side: there are already three more Star Wars films in the works. While Hollywood and its business interests can’t do much with a benevolent, triumphant Force, they can certainly take advantage of a disinterested one. I’ll probably go along for the ride too, though, on these terms, Star Wars means something different than it once did. And that’s okay. At least the One Ring has been safely destroyed.

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The original film in the Rocky franchise — Rocky (1976), which went on to garner multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture — was an ode to rough-around-the-edges classics such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Yet, where its forbearers plunged into squalor and despair, Rocky made transcendence central to its message. For Rocky Balboa was not just a boxer but, rather, an archetype for everyone who seeks to overcome his or her limitations — a point summed up in Rocky’s iconic climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (pictured below).

In that sense, the latest installment of the Rocky series, Creed, does not stray too far from the original film. However, under the leadership of talented young director Ryan Coogler, it incorporates enough twists to revitalize what had become a stale franchise. Creed centers on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of former heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Though preternaturally talented, Adonis has every reason not to step into the ring: his looks and mind can only be marred by a career in boxing, and, ominously, his own father had died on the mat. But it is on just this point that the film turns, since Adonis is at once attracted to and repelled by the life of Apollo. He wants to be like his father, even as he longs to step out of his shadow. Thus he seeks out Apollo’s old friend, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who is quite good in a smaller role), hoping that the venerable yet weary champion can coach him to a greatness of his own.

Of course, framed in these terms, it is inevitable that Creed will culminate in a make-or-break fight. But this eventuality is, in truth, secondary to the film’s exploration of Adonis’ paradoxical psyche: he is a rich man working in a poor man’s sport; he is a rebel against that which he loves; he is a frontrunner destined to serve. A different, more jaundiced film might refuse to reconcile Adonis’ predicament, but, true to form, Creed seeks transcendence. It’s not that Adonis comes to imitate his father or, conversely, to repudiate him. On the contrary, he comes to realize that it is only in accepting his legacy that he will be able to overcome it. A Kierkegaardian reading of Creed might contend that, in the end, the film portrays the harmony of “necessity” (the life that Adonis has received) and “possibility” (the ideal life to which he is called). But, of course, this conclusion is not so different than that of the gospel, which insists that one is only able to redeem one’s life when one gives up the desire to control it.

Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015)

The question of “artificial intelligence” has been a recurring motif in cinema at least since Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In that film, five scientists are on board the Discovery One spacecraft, heading for an undisclosed mission on Jupiter. The ship is largely controlled by HAL 9000 — a computer that is said to be “foolproof and incapable of error.” Referred to as “Hal” by the ship’s crew, the computer is an ostensibly benign force, speaking in an unfailingly polite tone and even granting interviews to the BBC. However, when the astronauts confront Hal about a computing error, the machine begins to systematically liquidate the crew, preferring to kill human beings rather than to be deactivated — an almost silent rampage, which is only stopped when, in a chilling scene, the last remaining astronaut disconnects the computer.

Like its forerunner, Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina envisions a situation in which machines, endowed with self-consciousness by human beings, choose to turn against their creators. And yet, in a twist on Kubrick, Garland also suggests that — given the human propensity to seek power over others — it may be that the machines are justified in such a rebellion. Ex_Machina is set on the isolated estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, in an effectively creepy performance), the CEO of a major tech company along the lines of Google. Nathan is all but locked away in his home, alternately working, lifting weights, and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. His guests are few: a Japanese maid named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and, as the movie begins, a young computer programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson). Nathan has asked Caleb to spend a week with him in order to run a Turing test on his latest creation — a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Lithe, with a flat yet husky voice, Ava is immediately attractive to Caleb. However, as the two begin to connect, their relationship takes an ominous turn: Ava confides to Caleb that Nathan is a liar, and soon she is asking Caleb to help her escape. But this is no easy task, given that Nathan’s home is more like a prison than an abode, full of inaccessible rooms and disquieting security cameras. Hence, in order to liberate Ava, Caleb will have to neutralize Nathan. It sounds like a reasonable plan, until a further possibility arises: what if Ava is the one who cannot be trusted?

Garland relies on suspense, rather than action, to drive the film’s plot. The scenes with Ava are particularly taut, with Caleb’s uncertainty punctuated by the slow thump of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s techno-score. At the same time, however, the plot of Ex_Machina strains credulity more than once, and its basic premise — that Nathan is a manipulative and possibly dangerous mastermind — is plausible just to the extent that one has sympathy for his robotic creation. In an interview, Garland himself has conceded this point, explaining that “there is a message that [one should] be nice to something that is sentient.” But what, exactly, is the nature of Ava’s sentience? And how can we get past the fact that, on the inside, Ava is all metal and wire, rather than flesh and blood. The film refrains from delving deeply into these questions, and it hardly helps that (to me, anyway) Ava never really seems human. She is analytical to the point of exotic aloofness.

On the other hand, Ava’s inscrutability may very well be the rub, since, after all, Ex_Machina tries to work on a metaphorical level too. It is more than a little curious that, in Ava, Nathan has chosen to create a female robot. Moreover, he is clear that she is capable of sexual intercourse. Could he, then, create more such robots — indeed, a kind of harem? Even worse, is he trying to “pimp” Ava out to Caleb? And who is to say that Caleb himself doesn’t have designs on taking advantage of her? Though ostensibly decent, he himself admits that Ava fits his “porn profile.” With this in mind, the film’s denouement might be read not only as opposition to, but also as vengeance against, a misogynistic, patriarchal culture. At the very least, it is a step, however unsure, in that direction.

Still, perhaps even this sort of reading fails to do justice to Garland’s vision. At the beginning of the film, Caleb compares Nathan’s work to that of the “gods.” But what sort of gods? Nathan does not create in and for love — that would hew closely to Christian metaphysics — but to enjoy the power of total self-determination, which bears notable Nietzschean overtones. Nathan, in other words, is not beholden to anything…not to the wilderness that surrounds his haunt, not to Caleb, and certainly not to Ava. Intriguingly, those who enter Nathan’s orbit begin to take on this personality trait, seeking power and dominance rather than love and mercy. Alas, such is the world that comes strictly from human making: it is a web of bio-mechanical impulses devoid of a higher logos. Thus it is telling that, in the end, Ava is far more interested in freeing herself than in helping others. She is not a hapless victim but an exploitative force, and this makes her all too similar to those whom she would otherwise overcome.

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.

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.

Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

What is the goal of cinema? Should films strive to reproduce reality, or are they illusory manifestations of their auteurs‘ vision? This is, arguably, the classic debate in film theory, eliciting contributions from thinkers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, Sigfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and F.E. Sparshott. Of course, one reason why the discussion persists is that it defies easy answers. Recently, in my course on “Theology and Film,” I asked students to weigh in on this question, paying particular attention to a film we had studied during the semester. Many of them chose either Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and, despite the differences between these two films, they found support for either side of the debate. Sure, Malick’s attention to the natural world suggests a realistic, “open” style of filmmaking, but, then, his well-known use of voiceover is only possible through editing technique (though whether or not that makes it less real is another question). Likewise, Nolan’s employment of special effects, not to mention his embrace of the superhero genre, implies a cinematic experience abstracted from reality; and yet, for all of that, does not The Dark Knight confront a number of pressing “real-world” issues, from the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to the very possibility of absolute moral obligations?

Perhaps, then, this issue was just on my mind when I finally got around to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, but I couldn’t help but think of how this film gets to the heart of this theoretical conundrum. The story of the CIA’s attempt to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is, in a number of respects, an example of cinematic realism. For example, The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises Bigelow’s portrayal of moral ambiguity, noting that Zero Dark Thirty “pays close attention to the way life does work.” And, famously, the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (what many would simply call “torture”) has divided both critics and filmgoers. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claims that Zero Dark Thirty is an attempt to “normalize” torture and, in turn, to legitimate the methods of American military power. Yet Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Daily Beast, views it rather as an exposure of torture and of the tactics of “armchair warriors” such as former Vice President, Dick Cheney. What’s interesting, however, is that all of these perspectives agree on a decisive point — namely, that Bigelow does, in fact, make a film that hews closely to the real, that does, in fact, reproduce life as it actually is, for better or for worse.

But is this true? In other words, is is it not also (or even more) true to say that Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions of being realistic but, in truth, is closer to “movie magic,” a figment of Bigelow’s imagination, translated to the screen with admirable dexterity? Much could be said in favor of this perspective. After all, the film was not shot in Pakistan, where most of it is set, but in Manimajra, India. And, ironically, residents there were said to be excited about the film’s Oscar prospects — a reception quite different from that portrayed on film. But this is only a crude example of a deeper issue, which, I think, hits on the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty. As one critic has complained, the film’s protagonist, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), is depicted as relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of bin Laden. Indeed, we are given little information as to her motivation, other than an amorphous sense of anger and revenge. The same could be said of Bigelow’s development of other characters, whether Maya’s fellow CIA agents (including Jason Clarke, in a key role) or the Al-Qaeda operatives they are pursuing.

Surely, however, this is an illusion. History doesn’t just “happen” but, rather, is animated by various ideas and systems, be they economic, political, or theological. Yet, in sidelining such considerations, ostensibly in the name of “realism,” Bigelow fails to do justice to what is really real. Hence, paradoxically, Zero Dark Thirty is not quite as serious as it means to be. It might have explored the curious points of overlap, whether in the East or in the West, between fundamentalism(s) and power; it might have considered moderate political or theological voices; at the very least, it might have offered a clearer rationale for its main players, so that they become more than one-dimensional cutouts. But it doesn’t. Content to stick to the “facts,” Zero Dark Thirty lacks the philosophical substructure that might have made it truly important; it crumbles, finally, under its own weight.