Thursday, August 2, 2012

God at the Movies

I am a confirmed cinema addict. If I haven't walked into that darkened auditorium in more than a few weeks-- and is there any thrill to match that crossing of the threshold, except the moment when the title appears on screen?-- then I feel an ungovernable urge to go and see some film, any film.

I guess Batman was the natural choice. I had actually paid to see the first film, Batman Begins, five times during its theatrical run. (It’s not the only time I’ve seen a film in the cinema five times.) But my grĂ¡ for the Batman franchise, and my irritation at the hype surrounding it, was already fading by the time The Dark Knight came out. I did go to see it but left after about twenty minutes, deciding that it was—to be blunt—a sick film. But I was persuaded, by the gushing enthusiasm of acquaintances, to try it again when it came out on DVD. Again, I thought it was a sick film, and not even a particularly good one.

Long before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I had resolved not to patronise any more superhero films. What does it say about the infantilisation of our popular culture that, at the time of writing, there are three big superhero movies dominating the multiplexes-- Batman, Spiderman, and the Avengers?

I’ve heard all the apologetics for the genre; that superheroes are the mythology of our era, that infinite variations can be played upon the theme, that the latest caped or masked sensation is a superhero with a difference, or the Citizen Kane of superhero movies, or like no superhero we’ve ever seen.

I’m not buying it. When it comes down to it, they are all films about more or less tortured souls, torn between duty and love, cavorting around in brightly-coloured skin-tight costumes, and finding themselves pitted against villains who—surprise, surprise!—are also dressed flamboyantly and sport bizarre names. That these films take themselves more and more seriously all the time just makes the whole set-up more ridiculous.

So, shunning the caped crusader, I decided to pay in to see Prometheus a second time, even though I hadn’t thought it an especially good film the first time I saw it. But it certainly looks amazing, and that goes a long way.

Prometheus also takes itself very, very seriously. It asks Big Questions about the origin and purpose of life, and the characters even advert to the Bigness of the Questions they are asking. The film also explores (or tries to explore) religious themes. The fact that it does so at all deserves some credit. Unfortunately, they are handled pretty cack-handedly.

The plot is an old one. (Spoilers ahead!) A husband-and-wife team of archaeologists discover that cave paintings from many different cultures seem to be beckoning mankind to a distant planet. The de rigeur Sinister Corporation bankrolls a spaceship journey to the faraway star (this is in the later decades of this century). The expedition discovers, with a remarkable speed and ease, that humanity has in fact been genetically engineered by an alien species.

The female protagonist wears a cross and believes in God. She never really describes her beliefs and Christ is never mentioned (except in the obligatory swearing), but it seems likely she is a Christian of some sort.

Her husband-—a loving and devoted husband, we are given to understand-—comments, when they have made their great discovery, “guess you can take off your father’s cross now” and insists that, as they have now learned, “There’s nothing special about the creation of life. All you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain.”

His wife makes the obvious rejoinder—-where did this alien civilization themselves come from? But of course, even that explanation wouldn’t really explain anything, since we are still left with a universe that is primed to produce life, and—-even more fundamentally-—the bare fact of the universe itself. I have never understood why people like Richard Dawkins believe that Darwinism delivered a knock-out punch to “the God hypothesis”—and why so many Christians seem to go along with their strange logic, desperately trying to punch holes in the theory (holes which might be there for all I know).

But that wasn’t the only thing I found weird about the scene. Would a loving husband really behave so brutally if (as he believed) his wife’s deepest beliefs and hopes were shattered? The character is presented as being rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, even tactless. But he is also portrayed as an adoring husband.

This phenomenon seems to me all too typical of movies, TV shows and novels—-the notion that religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) is something that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter when it comes to marriage or mating. The fact that one of the lovers believes that she has an immortal soul and that life is intrinsically meaningful, while the other believes that every human being is a machine made of meat and that all the things human beings care most about are ultimately illusory, is seen to be irrelevant to True Love.

But Holloway, the husband character, is a rather implausible character anyway. We are given to understand that he is motivated by an insatiable desire to discover—-but this only takes the form (since he believes mankind were created by aliens) of seeking to learn more about our makers, principally the reason that they made us in the first place. Other than that, he is shown to be rather lacking in scientific, intellectual or philosophical curiosity.

On second thoughts, perhaps this combination-—obsessive interest in some empirical question, combined with a deeper intellectual apathy-—is quite realistic. I can think of many celebrated figures that evince it. But it is no less puzzling for that.

But the most questionable portrayal of religious belief comes at the very beginning of the film, when the central character (as a young girl) is seen asking her father what happens when we die. Her father (possibly a Unitarian) tells her that we go to a place for which everybody has different names, but which is undoubtedly beautiful. And when the girl asks (as children are wont to ask) how he knows this, the father’s only response is: “It’s what I choose to believe.”

Isn’t a film delving into deep questions obliged to go a little deeper than that? Yes, there are probably parents who would make such a terse reply if their children asked them for a justification of their religious beliefs, and there are (unfortunately) adults who would do the same in an adult discussion.

Of course there is an element of “choosing to believe” in religious faith. There is an element of choice in many of our beliefs, but especially when it comes to religious belief. God does not coerce the intellect, and the act of faith involves not only dispassionate calculation but also emotional responses and even (I would argue) virtues-—for instance, gratitude, wonder and trust.

But there is a lot more to faith than simply choosing to believe, and if the movie-makers aspired to a serious examination of religious faith, surely they would have given us a character that would at least make a serious case for it.

I did not think the movie was anti-religion. The cross-wearing believer is, after all, the heroine, and at the end of the movie her faith is seen to be intact and (arguably) vindicated. I am grateful to see religious faith even given the time of day in a major movie, but ultimately, Prometheus had nothing deep or significant to say about the big questions it raises. In that, it is all too typical of religion on the big screen.

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