Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017)


At just 47 years of age, Christopher Nolan has become an anomaly in Hollywood — a critically-acclaimed filmmaker who also is bankable at the box office. Moreover, he has done so with a series of films that, on the surface, bear little resemblance to one another: Memento (2000) is basically low-budget noir; the Dark Knight (2008) belongs to the superhero genre; Inception (2010) plumbs the human unconscious; Interstellar (2014, which I reviewed) is sci-fi for armchair physicists. There is, then, a protean quality to Nolan’s output, which makes him an enigmatic figure among contemporary directors. Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, it is hard to say what a “Nolan film” is like. His works tend to experiment with Weltanschauungen as much as genre and style. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Nolan followed Interstellar, a space opera set in the future, with Dunkirk, a war film set in the past.

Dunkirk is based on the Dunkirk evacuation (codenamed Operation Dynamo) of 1940. Tomes have been written on this event, its impact on World War II, and its role in shaping Britain’s identity, but Nolan condenses this abundant material into a taut, 106-minute film. The decision to prioritize cinematic intensity over historical contextualization has been met with controversy, and it is fair to say that Dunkirk teaches us next to nothing about the persons behind the event. After all, Tom Hardy’s character is known as “Farrier” (though he is loosely based on the New Zealand pilot Alan Deere), while Cillian Murphy plays a man simply listed as “Shivering Soldier.” What Nolan’s film does capture (or, at least, strives to capture) is the evacuation’s sense of desperation and urgency. Ever fond of playing with chronology, Nolan divides the film into three plots, each beginning at a different temporal point in relation to the operation’s completion — namely, a week (“The Mole”), a day (“The Sea”), and an hour (“The Air”). The first of these timelines centers on a group of soldiers, stranded on Dunkirk beach, who are trying to board a ship back to England. They are all but defenseless against the bombardment of the Luftwaffe, and they scurry, almost silently, from vessel to vessel in hopes of deliverance.


The Mole

The second timeline features a civilian, his teenage son, and his son’s friend, who depart on a fishing boat from Weymouth and head toward Dunkirk, hoping to aid in the evacuation. As they cross the English Channel, they pick up a soldier stranded at sea, who is suffering from shell shock — a fateful decision, which puts their mission in jeopardy. The third timeline centers on a pair of British pilots, who are trying to provide much-needed cover for the evacuation. This is the most sublime sequence in the film. By using genuine Spitfires and mounting cameras to the planes’ wings, Nolan comes as close as possible to recreating an aerial dogfight.


The Air

Of course, as a representation of a historical event, the audience already knows how Dunkirk is going to end. But the denouement comes as a relief nonetheless. When, at last, Nolan permits us to hear Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address, we have a sense of how it must have been received by the soldiers who survived the evacuation — weary but hardened, traumatized yet grateful.

In many respects, it would seem that this accomplishment alone is significant, and that Dunkirk‘s critical acclaim (including eight Oscar nominations) is merited. I, for one, would agree. Dunkirk is a transfixing experience and, as a technical achievement, bests Nolan’s other tour de force, The Dark Knight (2008). But Dunkirk has its detractors too. As mentioned, much of the criticism has centered on the film’s minimal interest in historical context and character development — a problem that at least one commentator views as inherent in Nolan’s “postmodern narrativity”: “By focusing on the visual—elevating image over word—he wants us to feel rather than think, to re-experience rather than remember.” In giving priority to imagery, Nolan gives priority to “simulation,” that is, to overlaying the real event (the Dunkirk evacuation) with a series of sublime images that falsely pretend to repeat them (Dunkirk). That is why there is no God in Dunkirk either. Nolan has set himself up as the quasi-divine author of the world of Dunkirk (if not Dunkirk): “What Nolan does suggest…is that a virtual form of transcendence is available within the world, simply as a heightened experience of the world.”

This is an intriguing argument, which harks back to one of the classic debates in film theory: is the cinematic medium principally oriented toward recording and disclosing reality (per Siegfried Kracauer), or is cinema an illusion all the way down, giving the appearance of continuous movement when, in truth, it is a series of manipulated photographs projected at a certain speed (per Jean-Louis Baudry)? On the latter view, Nolan’s Dunkirk is surely a master class in illusory technique, cajoling the viewer (for the price of a ticket no less!) into believing that he or she is “right there” in battle, even though nothing could be farther from the truth. On the former view, Nolan’s techniques are persuasive precisely because they indicate and indeed mediate reality, and thus Dunkirk is a means of understanding our world, disclosing, among other things, the elemental human experiences of beauty, fear, love, and so on.

In the end, I tend toward cinematic realism, and so I am not terribly worried about Dunkirk‘s thin historicity. There is a sense in which Nolan’s approach here resembles that of Terrence Malick, contemporary cinema’s paragon of “realism.” As is well known, Malick was a Heidegger scholar and translator before becoming a filmmaker, and, accordingly, Malick treats art as a site where the “unconcealment” [alètheia] and “concealment” of entities is manifested and the presence of “divinities” [die Göttlichen] intimated. Might one say something similar about Nolan’s Dunkirk? Certainly it is a film attuned to things in themselves, to the interplay of earth and sky and mortals.


As a World War II film, moreover, Dunkirk views these elements over against the “enframing” of modern technology: entities are controlled and set aside for use. Air, land, and sea, even the human being as such, are revealed as instruments of a technological purpose. In this sense, the anonymity of the characters discloses their instrumental status.

And yet, there are points in Dunkirk where an excess breaks through — the sublimity of clouds and sun, the perilous beauty of the ocean, the human being’s primordial urge to live, to be home, all captured brilliantly by Hans Zimmer’s pealing score. In these moments, Dunkirk becomes a conduit for anthropological and theological reflection, perhaps even sacral experience. Here film does not just tell us about these themes; it makes us feel them.

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.

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?