"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

42 and the Sermon of a Lifetime

'You're the sermon, Jackie.'

This is the message of Dodgers owner Branch Dickey (Harrison Ford) to a young and fiery Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in 42. Examining the early career of Robinson as he broke the colour barrier in the era of 'white baseball' in the late 1940s, 42 demonstrates the character and courage of a man who simply wanted to play baseball on equal footing with everyone else.

As a film, 42 turns out to be an inspirational, engaging piece that establishes Jackie as a man who is "strong enough not to fight back" when the evils of cultural oppression attempt to crush his spirit.  Admittedly, it's not a perfect film as pacing can be an issue and character development can be lacking at times.  Still, 42 offers us a picture of a man who found himself in a position to change his culture and takes the opportunity.  In terms of tone, as I expected, this is one of those films that makes you want to stand up and cheer.  Nevertheless, there was an element to the film that surprised me.

It was the clarity of their faith.

Interestingly enough, I have also heard the comment that the film doesn't accurately portray the power of their faith.  Scenes where Robinson calls forth his faith as the strength against adversity are in short supply.  (To be honest, most of the Christian conversation comes from Dickey himself so I do understand this complaint.)  As a result, arguing that the film appears shy on 'explicitly Christian' material could be considered accurate on one level.

Personally, however, I feel that to make this is to not fully realize the impact of this storytelling.  For instance, this film was not produced by Provident Films -- and nary a Kendrick brother was to be found.  No, this film was financed and produced by Legendary Pictures, the same company that's producing The Hangover Part III and 300: Rise of an Empire.  Yes, this is a decidedly non-Christian company telling a story that includes the importance of the faith of two men as they battle social injustice.  To be honest, the fact that the faith of both Dickey and Robinson has such an onscreen presence is remarkable -- and a testament to the respect that they wield in a secular society.  These are Christian men who really did something to change modern society and the power of their faith is acknowledged by non-Christians.  (Heck, the film was both written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the same man who wrote the screenplays for Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Order, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.  Without any judgment against him personally -- and certainly no indication where he is spiritually -- I still find the authority that he gives to the power of Christ in one's life remarkable.)

How can we, as Christians, not celebrate that?

In the hands of a Christian production company (and writer?), the film would have indeed looked differently.  There would likely have been more openly spiritual discussion to be sure. However, assuming that Mr. Helgeland does not have such spiritual leanings--not to mention Legendary Pictures itself--42 demonstrates the power of one's faith in a way that is both humble and compelling.  Compared to a film like Walk the Line that muted the faith of Johnny Cash to almost an afterthought, 42 powerfully proclaims the truth that the Gospel transforms culture and brings healing.  Further, it reveals that, when Christians honour God in the world with courage and humility, they are noticed by others in a way that changes the landscape.

In essence, as Dickey points out, Robinson is the sermon.

Yes, it might have been nice to hear a Scripturally-grounded diatribe from Robinson speaking out against injustice. (Although Dickey's tirade against the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies moves distinctly in this direction.) However, 42 takes a decidedly different approach and, arguably, one that's symbolic of being far more effective.  The impact of both Robinson and Dickey's strong faith is demonstrated by the fact that even those that have limited spiritual interest had to ensure that it was woven into the fabric of the script.

And hey, it's a pretty good movie as well.

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford
Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland
*** 1/2 out of 5

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why SciFi Matters

(NOTE:  The following post has already appeared live at Hollywood Jesus.com.  However, in an effort to build content on my blog, I've decided to post some of my more general postings on Movio Dei.  I just thought it'd be a good way to continue the discussion.)

“…if all others accepted the lie that the Party imposed—all the records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future:  who controls the present, controls the past.’… ‘Reality control’, they called it...” (George Orwell, 1984, p87)

Taken from George Orwell’s most famous science fiction piece, 1984, this quote speaks directly against a world where the blurred lines between media and reality can wage war on the minds an the unsuspecting public. In it, Orwell argues that, by attempting to control the manner in which people understand the world through constant bombardment of imagery and propaganda, it is entirely plausible for the human race to lose their sense of self and have their needs and wants dictated by some other person or group. It’s a theme that resonates strongly in our constantly plugged-in and media saturated culture.

And it was written in 1949.

In truth, much of Orwell’s tale of rebellion stands to be believed in our current culture. Motifs such as the ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ speak to a world where the people constantly are being manipulated and can be viewed as metaphoric of a culture that prides itself on being fed constantly by media outlets. Every day, we allow our ‘likes’ to be monitored by faceless Facebook operatives, invite others to judge our activities on Twitter and YouTube, and watch CNN on our cell phones during the morning commute.  (Hey, we even have a popular reality show named after Big Brother…)

Now, this is not to point out anything particularly prophetic about Orwell’s work. (In fact, the book really makes the most sense once one considers that it was written immediately after Hitler’s use of propaganda to control the German public during World War II.) Although it is safe to say that there is truly something remarkable about science fiction itself. By using future landscapes, screenwriters and authors have often been able to tackle contemporary issues within their culture and speak about them in manner that seems more palatable in some way. Whether it’s the Cold-War paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the redefinition of humanity in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or the examination of genetic experimentation in Splice, science fiction films frequently explore the core questions that plague society but manage to keep their audience at a safe distance by placing them in an unrealistic setting.

In light of this, the depth of this style of filmmaking should be of extreme interest to us from a spiritual perspective as well.  As our culture wrestles with post-modern ideologies and political realities, one recognizes that these issues have profoundly spiritual implications as well. How does the church respond to the very real social injustices that are depicted in films like Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix? Or the theological concepts in films such as James Cameron’s Avatar?

Let’s take Blomkamp’s latest directorial effort, Elysium, for example.
Taking place in 2159, this highly anticipated film depicts a world where two classes of people exist: the ultra-wealthy, who live on a utopian space station called Elysium, and the rest who reside on the overpopulated and desolate Earth.  Although the majority of Earth’s population is desperate to escape the violence of their home planet, they are refused entry into Elysium due to their aggressive anti-immigration laws. In an effort to bring equality to this system, Max (Matt Damon)—an ordinary guy in desperate need of Elysium’s resources—reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission that could also bring freedom to millions of Earth residents as well.
Featuring a sense of restlessness and rebellion at its heart, the story of Elysium feels as though it has been stripped from the political headlines as issues such as the Occupy Movement and global financial crisis gain huge press. However, Blomkamp seems to believe that his film is not merely about one particular movement but rather a larger state of cultural unrest. In a recent interview, Blomkamp addressed this claim when he said, “I think if there are topics that are just on people’s minds, things manifest into reality, the sort of global consciousness being aware… So separate from the 99% and the Occupy movement I was thinking about this [already]…” As such, regardless of whether or not the film is directly influenced by Occupy, Blomkamp argues that Elysium is tied to an idea that is socially engrained in contemporary culture.  The questions he’s asking are already being asked privately by others and he’s speaking up. Often in the case with sci-fi, art imitates life but then calls us to reflect and be different. As Christians, it’s essential for us to be aware of the issues that these types of films address and actively contribute both Kingdom values and actions to the global conversation. 

With this in mind, one can see that this spiritual and cultural connection isn’t limited only to Elysium.  Science fiction films never exist in a vacuum but rather connect deeply into the heart of the culture and time from which it is produced.  As we journey towards the release of Blomkamp’s Elysium (August 9th), Hollywood Jesus also plans to explore some of science fiction’s great political films and their spiritual implications.

To paraphrase Morpheus, let’s see exactly “how deep the rabbit hole goes”…