Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Bryan Cranston

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.

Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-13)

My posting has dwindled over the last month or so, partly due to work-related reasons, but also due to an overdue commitment — finishing the captivating television series, Breaking Bad. For several months, I had avoided reading about the show, which was not always easy, given the plethora of opinions and reviews that followed its conclusion in September 2013. But now that I can enter into the cyberdebate, it’s hard not to throw out just a few thoughts on Breaking Bad, which was a series that I didn’t so much love to hate as hate to love.

According to Thomas Aquinas, judgment, in its eminent sense, cannot be rendered while something is still developing. Likewise, I’ve been reluctant to reach any conclusions about Breaking Bad before learning of the fate of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, who decides to “break bad” in order to leave his family with a financial nest egg. Putting his knowledge of chemistry to an all too practical use, he becomes the notorious “Heisenberg,” expert methamphetamine cook and kingpin of an international drug empire. The show’s premise is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but creator Vince Gilligan and his cast pull it off with such narrative dexterity and moral gravity that it’s hard to resist. That’s why some commentators have proclaimed it the greatest television show of all time.

But what, ultimately, is Breaking Bad about? With the end of Season Five, and with (spoiler alert!) Walt’s death, I think it’s now clear that the show is best understood against the backdrop of two well-known philosophical motifs: (i) Nietzsche’s “Overman” [Übermensch] and/or (ii) Plato’s conception of sin as ignorance. Consequently, it is primarily a vehicle for non-Christian ideas, though, at the same time, it raises wide-ranging cultural and religious issues that demand a Christian response.

Contrary to what is often heard, Nietzsche’s Übermensch is not meant to be an evil figure, who murders, rapes, and pillages at will. On the contrary, as Nietzsche understands him, the Übermensch exemplifies a kind of aristocratic nobility: no longer shackled by Judeo-Christian morality — which Nietzsche thought  life-denying — he creates his own values, beyond the old binaries of “good and evil,” “right and wrong.” The Übermensch, then, will show mercy on whom he shows mercy and vengeance on whom he shows vengeance. He does not fear God, for Gott ist tot. Rather, he himself is a kind of god, albeit one of this world. Thus he will die, but his life will be so rich that he would not hesitate to repeat it. He lives as he wants to live.

In Breaking Bad, this perspective becomes a distinct possibility in the show’s finale. Since the first episode, Walt had appealed to his family (and, perhaps indirectly, a Judeo-Christian ethic) as the reason for his actions. He repeatedly insisted that his wrongdoing was “for his family;” he was only doing what was required of a loving father. Yet, as he confronts his (now estranged) wife for the last time, he confesses what had long been apparent: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive.” Gone is any sense that he is “sorry” for things he has done. On the contrary, there is nothing to be sorry for, since “sorry” would imply a failure to meet a certain standard of morality. Walt, however, has become his own measure of good and evil — a person capable of noble acts of self-sacrifice (most notably, his liberation of former accomplice, Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul], who suffers perhaps more than anyone else throughout the show) and horrifying acts of cruelty (his willingness to watch Jesse’s girlfriend die of a drug overdose). On this view, Breaking Bad does not end with Walt’s redemption, because he came to realize that redemption, as such, is an illusion. The only thing to do is to do what you want to do — what makes you feel “alive.”

Another avenue of interpretation is provided by Plato. In dialogues such as Protagoras and Meno, Plato (via Socrates) argues that human beings do not sin because they want to sin. Rather, they always already desire the good but fail to attain it out of ignorance. This line of reasoning can be applied to Walt. The things that he wants are good — to provide for his family, to use his considerable knowledge of chemistry, even just to be alive. But he cannot see how to achieve these things without resorting to wrongdoing. On this reading, he is closer to a pitiable figure, as the lives of most human beings are, in a certain sense, pitiable. One can imagine Plato watching Breaking Bad (despite his reservations about drama!) and saying: if Walt had been a philosopher in addition to being a chemist, he might have perceived good from evil, true from false, eternal from temporal.

Of course, the latter perspective overlaps with that of Christianity in a number of ways. One only need to think of Jesus’ famous statement from the cross: “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). On the other hand, in a tradition popularized largely by St. Augustine, Christian thinkers have tended to view moral failings against the backdrop of “original sin” — the idea, broadly speaking, that the human race as such is liable to sin and death, given the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Eden (Genesis 3).

Yet, in Breaking Bad, Gilligan never hints at this topic. In fact, other than a handful of materialist suggestions, the show tends to avoid metaphysical considerations altogether. In my view, that is why it’s ultimately indebted to Nietzsche. For some commentators, this fact, coupled with Breaking Bad‘s extensive fan base, might be worrisome — a further sign, perhaps, of America’s deteriorating values. It reminds me, however, of something that one of my philosophy professors once said, namely, that no archetype better sums up Nietzsche’s thought than “the American cowboy.” Notably, this is a motif that Gilligan plays with, and the series has been referred to as a kind of postmodern Western. It’s set in New Mexico, and many of its most important scenes take place in the desert. Walt even discards his professorial look and takes on the guise of a cowboy:

Yet, if all of that is true, then the popularity of Breaking Bad can’t be hung on the Millennials or the end of family values or what have you. Rather, the show taps into the very core of the American mythos — the rugged individualism and unbridled capitalism that have defined so much of American history and culture. For those who root for Walter White, this may be an uncomfortable truth, as his nihilism hardly jives with pet causes or political correctness. But for those who despise or fear him, the truth may be even more difficult. To quote another Walt — Walt Kelly, the cartoonist and satirist — “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”