Religion and Fundamentalism in the Sunshine


The other week I watched the 2006 science fiction film Sunshine, a box office flop that got moderately positive reviews from critics, with some considering it a masterpiece. It tells of a small crew on a desperate mission to reignite a dying sun and save humanity. There is much to admire about the film’s visual design, acting, and storytelling elements. Like many critics, I did grow increasingly unenthused with the horror-suspense sequence the story morphed into in the last act, but nevertheless my overall experience was positive.

The shift in tone at the climax is effected when an antagonist crashes into the scene, the disfigured and crazed Captain Pinbacker. After deliberately sabotaging his own mission, he was abandoned to himself on Mercury for years. Now he wanders around the protagonists’ ship, murdering its crew, and explains his motives along these lines: the sun, the source of all human existence, is dying. While alone in the cold insensibility of space, he had a religious experience and realized that human existence is so insubstantial, it ought not to interfere with what God wills–it must allow the sun, and humanity, to die, and so find Heaven. Conceptually interesting, the character is little more than a ranting monster on screen. That said, the character plays a role invested with deep thematic significance, for he is intended as a pointed allegory for religious fundamentalism.

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The Gospel of the Princess Kaguya

“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” one of Japan’s oldest folk stories, has long been a favorite of mine. Last night, I watched an adaptation by Studio Ghibli, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), which I heartily recommend. The animation was hand-drawn over eight years, and it may be the last film ever directed by now-octogenarian and acclaimed Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. In addition to the quality of the animation and storytelling, the myth itself is full of the “glorious sadness” of paganism, the mixture of beauty and fatalism that flavors all the best stories of the pre-Christian world.

Here is the story, in brief summary. A poor bamboo cutter finds a tiny, luminous baby girl in a bamboo grove. He raises her, and she grows supernaturally quickly into a young woman. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter receives gifts of gold in the bamboo he cuts and is soon very wealthy. He purchases a magnificent house, and his foster-daughter, Princess Kaguya, is renowned for her beauty and grace. She acquires many suitors, but sets them on impossible tasks. Even the Emperor takes an interest in her, and she rebuffs him. In time, she reveals that she comes from the moon, and she must return to her people imminently. Despite the efforts of her foster family and the Emperor himself, the semi-divine moon people come and carry her back off to heaven.

The original narrative has a further subplot involving the Emperor which does not make it into the movie (the reason for which will become clear later in this review). After Kaguya refuses to marry the Emperor, they become correspondents and friends. When the moon-people fetch her, they give her a drink from the Elixir of Life. She is not allowed to give this to her elderly father, but she can and does send a phial to the Emperor. The Emperor, in mourning at having lost her forever, burns the elixir on Mount Fuji.

As I have lately been studying principles of Christian response to nature-myth (e.g., here), I wish to discuss The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as a truth-telling story that points to fulfillment in Christ. By this I do not mean that there is a Christian message coded into the film, or that we can turn the story into a Christian morality tale; but I do mean that its truthfulness about reality necessarily results in a hidden meaning that may be illuminated by the work of Christ.

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Noah: A Film Review


(Minor spoilers.)

However Noah looked from the previews, I went into the theater determined to give the film a fair chance. The opening scenes took me aback as rather amateurish. When I left the theater, my feelings toward the film were ambivalent. When my friends and I ended up in a forty-minute conversation about its themes and message, I realized that the film operated on two levels, distinct yet so cluttered together that they are jarring as they play out on the screen. One level is that of a pseudo-Biblical “epic” offering us objects of contemplation as diverse and contrived as magic seeds from Eden that grow forests overnight and six-armed rock-Ents taking on armies. It is this level only that some will see and leave disappointed. The other, lower level is the true human epic, where questions of justice, mercy, righteousness, and free will converge on the broken, confused, devout figure of Noah.

I have now seen four of Aronofsky’s films. The disturbing and erratic Pi, the gut-wrenching Requiem for a Dream, and the delicate spires of The Fountain each testify to the fundamental eccentricity of Aronofsky’s direction, the heady blend of brilliance and borderline silliness that leaves the viewer a slightly different person when the credits roll. Noah, despite its potential appeal to a mainstream audience, fits readily within that canon. It is frustrating and beautiful. Iceland is on gorgeous display; the CGI is acceptable. The acting is flawless, while the dialogue ranges from subtle and gripping to embarrassing and comical. The more “traditional” Hollywood elements (i.e., action scenes and Biblical mayhem) were probably pumped up by Paramount, which was no doubt desirous of nurturing a blockbuster, anxious to please both the action movie fan and the wary evangelical. This often gaudy surface level at times obscures the nuance and complexity of the lower level, but not always, and we the viewers are offered enough glimpses into the rich inner drama to come away feeling that the movie was messy and flawed and a little wacky, but also, somehow, profound.

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Turtles Can Fly: A Review

Today I watched the 2004 Kurdish film Turtles Can Fly. This was the first film made in Iraq after the war, and is about life in Kurdistan at the end of Saddam’s reign. I found it an extremely touching film, as well as one of the most successfully-sad films I’ve ever seen.

The story focuses on a group of refugee children led by an intelligent, loud, bespectacled boy who has received the nickname “Satellite.” He controls the fierce loyalty of dozens of young orphan Kurds, and arranges work for them with local village elders–primarily digging out old mines and selling them to arms-dealers. Satellite loves American television, and has picked up a great number of words and phrases that he uses throughout his interactions with his dependents.

It is the eve of the American invasion, and everyone is hungry for news. Satellite helps purchase and set up radios and satellite dishes to assist the villages, and many also demand that he translate for them, making him (still in his early teens) indispensable, not only in watching out for the other boys, but also in giving the Kurds access to news of the war. His authority is unchallenged until three orphans enter the camp: Hengov, a boy whose arms were blown off,  Agrin, a preteen girl, and a blind infant boy. Hengov is quiet and non-assertive, but clairvoyant; he predicts the location of a rich minefield, is able to defuse mines with his teeth, and completely disregards Satellite’s attempts to manipulate him, threatening Satellite’s authority.

But Satellite develops a crush on Agrin, and he runs into a man who had come all the way from Iran searching for Hengov, who, though a wanderer, became legend for his abilities. Satellite chooses to act on one of Hengov’s predictions, and in so doing saves the lives of a number of his boys. Thereafter he clumsily tries to get to know Agrin, but she proves cold and unresponsive. Hengov also repeatedly refuses to make any predictions on request.

As it turns out, the toddler is not her brother, as is assumed by the boys, but her son by rape. For this she hates him with a passion, refuses to acknowledge him as her own, and constantly toys with the idea of killing herself. Hengov is concerned, and tries to protect the infant, but Agrin has become callous, and several times tries and fails to get rid of the boy by letting him wander away. Each attempt grows more and more desperate.

The film is beautifully shot and marvelously acted. The characters are incredibly real and incredibly unique. As can be seen from what I have said, this is a potentially very depressing film. Although relieved by moments of humor throughout, it has a sad ending that leaves one with a somewhat empty feeling. I have heard that it was criticized for being “pro-American” in regard to the war, but I frankly don’t see it. The Americans are viewed by Satellite and other Kurds as rescuers from the cruel regime, but we only see the soldiers briefly, and there’s no affirmation that they were truly saviors–if anything, it highlights the irony of their propaganda statement that they will make the land “a paradise.” Certainly, this is a film about the horror of war, and I think that despite the darkness it is a film worth seeing.

The Seventh Seal: A Review

Over the past two days I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This is the first of Bergman’s films I have ever seen; it was considerably shorter than Stalker, and somehow it provided relief after the long, continuous shots of Tarkovsky. I must admit slight disappointment. The Seventh Seal is a classic, and it is about the Middle Ages, and so I was hoping for something more. Make no mistake, it was well made, but there was just something lacking. I simply could not get a pulse; it had no heart.

I’ll come back to that. The story is about a Swedish knight and his nihilistic squire in the 14th century who anachronistically have just returned home after ten years on a crusade. The Black Death spreads death and ruin, wiping out sometimes whole villages at a time. The knight, who feels that God is silent, meets Death and challenges him to a chess game, the end of which will determine whether or not he lives or dies. Death notes that he always wins, but the knight declares that he wants some time to ponder the meaning of existence and do one meaningful thing in his life. Death agrees, and at intermittent times on the way back to the knight’s long-forsaken castle they stop and continue their game.

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Stalker: A Review

Only recently have I penetrated the world of the “art film,” which I came to through an interest in Russian films in general. As I understand it, in the USSR and other countries the arts were generally government-sponsored. This meant that there was an elite branch of films which were not made to attract viewers so much as they were made to be “great art.” Unlike the commercial films of America in particular, auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkvosky had special vision and a style that exemplified the principle that whether or not the general audience understands or likes it is virtually irrelevant to its quality. They made films to touch a deeper chord–often of the sort that the average American viewer would walk out, bored, after the first ten minutes. Of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) I have seen three films: Andrei Rublev, Solyaris, and Stalker. Andrei Rublev was beautiful and fascinating, Solyaris profoundly intellectual. Stalker may or may not be as great as either one, but it had both of these elements.

Note: this review will try to avoid spoilers, but we’ll see how effective that will be. Perhaps, for those unwilling to sit through a slow and ponderous 163 minutes, I’ll add some highlightable spoilers at the bottom.

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Inception: A Review

I saw Nolan’s Inception for the first time a week from last Monday, and at last I have mustered up the courage to attempt to review it. My first impression: a marvelous, finely-crafted film that extends the reaches of the mind to yet another dimension. It has the fine action of The Dark Knight, the stupefying creativeness of The Prestige, and the intelligence of both.

Now, Inception relies on a highly improbable plot. The science that the story depends on is barely rationalized. Somehow its protagonists survive (in dreams, of course) action scenes that would make five Jason Bournes shudder. And yet, for all that, it makes one so much want to believe that it is possible that none of this is distracting. The viewer is sucked in and ready to take almost anything. And Inception gives the viewer something to at once enjoy and think about.

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