"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)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Storming the Gates

“Would you like a pill?”

In a world broken by disease, hunger and lack of resources, it seems that attempted solutions are often token in nature. The above quote, taken from Neill Blomkamp’s highly anticipated sci-fi actioner, Elysium, is an illustration of a lack of consideration towards those who suffer. Spoken by a disinterested parole robot, the offer of a pill to sooth ex-con Max Da Costa’s (Matt Damon) nerves serves as a metaphor for a much deeper attitude that exists within the world.

Set in the 2154, Elysium reveals a world divided by financial barriers. While the wealthy enjoy life on Elysium, a space-station utopia orbiting the earth that offers unlimited resources, the remainder of the population are left to suffer amidst the planet’s rubble and disease. Living amongst the masses, Max is an ex-con who simply wants to make a fresh start with his life. However, after an industrial accident leaves Max with only a few days to live, he realizes that his only manner of survival is to get to Elysium so that he can make use of their health care technology.  As a result, Max is forced to revisit a life of crime so that he can earn his ‘ticket’. However, after the assigned ‘job’ goes awry, Max becomes a fugitive and must choose which path his life is going to take moving forward

Clearly influenced by the recent Occupy movement, Elysium begs the question of fairness when it comes to the distribution of resources. As the wealthy maintain their life of luxury orbiting the earth, the demand for proper health care continues to increase amongst the rest (and increasingly restless). Disease is rampant and hospitals are overrun. Violence and crime are everywhere. Still, Blomkamp wants his audience to sympathize with the people rather than sit in judgment of them.  Although Elysium’s earth has been ravaged by criminal activity, one recognizes that much of the behavior has been driven out of desperation rather than a desire to do evil. Here, the finger is pointed squarely at the ‘haves’, not the ‘have-nots’.

On the other hand, it’s also interesting to note that the majority of the ‘super-rich’ are not portrayed as particularly evil either. Instead, despite the fact that much of Elysium’s resources are produced on the backs of the rest of humanity, the wealthy merely seem to wish to turn a blind eye to what’s happening below. In other words, in a much more literal interpretation of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the wealthy appear more concerned about preserving their own way of life rather than intentionally exploit those less fortunate. As a result, the wealthy remain content yet distant from the rest of humanity, ignoring the devastation that lies below.

Without question, this conversation elicits thoughts of Christ’s conversations about care for the less fortunate. Scripture references such as Matthew 25 command to feed and clothe the less fortunate or even Jesus’ seemingly endless healings of the sick and blind point to a much deeper spiritual calling for humanity. From the moment Jesus established the foundation of his Kingdom, He has called for us to live in a manner that brings healing through love rather than further pain and suffering.

Still, the spiritual conversation within Elysium also travels much deeper than a broad plea for social justice and also offers a powerful example of what is meant to take place during a journey of discipleship. One of the best examples of this comes through Max’s story. A low-level employee of Armadyne Corporation, Max’s life seems no different than anyone elses. Simply trying to survive, his life has little purpose or direction. Nevertheless, after he receives his exo-skelton and attempts his first ‘job’, things change dramatically. [MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD] After understanding the importance of his newly stolen ‘cargo’, Max begins to understand the impact that his life could have on the rest of the world. [SPOILERS END] In fact, in a fascinating Scriptural connection, Max’s associate even tells Max that he holds “the keys to the Kingdom”. Using this analogy, this direct reference to Matthew 16:19 suggests that Max suddenly has the ability to ‘bind and loose on earth and heaven’, placing a great deal of power and social responsibility upon him. As a result of this realization, Max’s journey begins to be reshaped as he wrestles with the questions of calling and personal responsibility as he moves forward with his life. Moreover, in drawing this comparison, Blomkamp also reminds the viewer that much of the responsibility for change lies on the viewer himself. Are we willing to help create change? Do we recognize that our lives have meaning in the world? In the same manner that Jesus calls for justice in His Kingdom, he also commands us to be active participants in what He wants to happen.

In the end, Elysium certainly delivers in the area of sci-fi action. However, director Neill Blomkamp also offers an intense—but grounded—metaphor for the damage that is left by selfishness and greed. In moments such as these, Elysium connects very deeply with the heart of Jesus and his Kingdom. Whereas Elysium speaks of a world divided by suffering, we are reminded that Christ invites us to a world healed by wholeness. As such, Elysium challenges us to decide whether we will seek to be an advocate for change on His behalf or remain silent.

After all, through Christ, we have the power to “override their whole system”.

Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley                         
Directed by Neill Blomkamp                                                
Rating: **** (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Political SciFi: Suffering (and Healing) in District 9

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

If it’s true that history is told by the ‘winners’, what does it look like when we allow ourselves to hear the story of the ‘others’?

This question lies at the heart of District 9, a science fiction action film set against the backdrop of racially divided South Africa and the remarkable directorial debut from Neill Blomkamp (Elysium). Using pseudo-documentary style filmmaking, District 9 tells follows the relationship between the human race and group of aliens (derogatorily named ‘prawns’) who landed in Johannesburg in 1982.  After 28 years of confinement in District 9, a local government-enforced camp, the South African leadership decides that it’s time to relocate their ‘tenants’ to a new facility and hire Multinational United (MNU) to carry out the mission. 

Enter Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copely), an Afrikaner bureaucrat who is appointed to lead the camp relocation by serving the aliens with eviction notices.  Inexperienced but cocky, Wikus and the MNU forces raid the homes of their alien tenants with boyish glee, taking pleasure in their mistreatment. However, after being inadvertently sprayed by alien fluid, Wikus’ body slowly begins to change, taking on the form of a ‘prawn’ himself. As Wikus slowly mutates, he also starts to learn first-hand what life is like at the hands of the merciless MNU. With the transformation process accelerating and the MNU closing in, Wikus is forced to join forces with Christopher Johnson, a prawn who believes that there might be a cure for his situation.

Released in August 2009, District 9 entered into the hectic summer blockbuster market with very little fanfare or star-power.  (In fact, the only “name” in the promotional materials was the film’s producer Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films.) Written and directed by then-unknown filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, District 9 became an instant hit with critics and audiences, garnering 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Although the film takes the form of a sci-fi actioner, District 9 actually offers an unsettling (and honest?) look at Apartheid and it’s effect on South African culture.  (Incidentally, this theme should come as no surprise in that, having grown up in South Africa, this is likely something that would be close to Blomkamp’s heart.) What makes District 9 so unique however isn’t the subject matter but rather the manner with which it is handled. By focusing on Wikus’ journey, Blomkamp manages to actually reshape the perspective of his audience as well.  In other words, by opening the film with the story of Wikus and the MNU, Blomkamp invites sympathy for their reaction against a species that appears to be the aggressors. However, as Wikus becomes increasingly invested in the world of the ‘prawn’, Blomkamp is also able to challenge our assumptions, revealing an alternate story that exposes the nature of true evil.

What’s more, it’s also on this level that Wikus’ journey echoes the Christian narrative and, more specifically, the story of Jesus Himself. As Jesus willingly sacrificed his Divine nature to become human, he also entered into our story in a way that he hadn’t before. In doing so, he was able to understand the human experience in a different manner, even ‘empathizing in our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). As a result, Jesus’ experience enabled him to offer his own life on our own behalf as the penalty for our sin. Similar to the manner in which Wikus’ life exemplifies what could be considered a moment of renewal for human-prawn relations, so too does Christ’s incarnation demonstrate hope to us spiritually by offering us new life.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that Wikus is actually a Christ figure.  (His self-absorbed and racist heart eliminates any possible comparisons on that level.)  However, because of his transformation and gradual assimilation into the world of the ‘prawn’, what follows is an incredible example of incarnation.  Although the experience is far from his own choice, Wikus’ chance encounter with alien fluid slowly opens his eyes to an alternate version of the narrative that he thought he knew.  By suffering at the hands of his military counterparts, Wikus begins to enter into the story of the alien population himself.  As a result, this experience eventually begins to challenge his beliefs about their culture, reshaping his own behavior as well. In a powerful example for the church, Wikus suffers with the oppressed and, potentially, may serve as an advocate on their behalf in the future. As a result, Wikus’ ‘plight’ becomes his greatest blessing—and, potentially, an opportunity for hope for the prawn culture.

In the end, District 9 finds an effective balance between sci-fi action and social commentary by drawing the audience into the story of an unknown culture. This invitation to suffer with those who suffer echoes the heart of Christ as He calls us to seek His Kingdom here on earth. What’s more, in doing so, Blomkamp also invites his audience to re-examine their own hearts and, potentially, offer a voice to those who have none.

Elysium will be released on August 9th, 2013.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Breaking the Bad

“Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”
– Dr. Iris Hineman (Minority Report, 2002)

Why is it that, as a culture, we tend to expect in the inevitability of darkness?

It seems that, as our world dreams of its future, more often than not the picture is one of destruction and despair. For instance, in much of our science fiction storytelling, post-apocalyptic realities, common themes include worldwide corruption and oppressive regimes are common themes, especially in realm of film.  Through classic movies such as Blade Runner (often held as the standard for contemporary sci-fi), Serenity, The Matrix and many more, the future of our world is depicted as cold, disengaging and terrifying.  (Heck, even the Christian film industry has cashed in on this notion of apocalyptic reality through films like Left Behind and its subsequent sequels.)

Admittedly, there’s little argument that much of the intent behind science fiction is to offer a critique of our contemporary world and its issues.  For instance, there’s no question that Blomkamp’s District 9 and the highly anticipated Elysium serve as metaphors for larger, more immediate problems.  Still, it is interesting to note that the overarching theme of most science fiction films seems to be that the future is inevitably evil.  Sometimes that evil may be specified as the end result of greed (Elysium; In Time), over-reliance on technology (The Terminator, WALL-E) or war and oppression (The Hunger Games; Nineteen-Eighty Four).  Sometimes, as in the case with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, that evil simply remains an ominous and ever-present darkness.  Whatever the depiction, there is certainly a sense of hopelessness that permeates the atmosphere in contemporary visions of the future.

The real question is why?

Is it the assumption that things are so bad now that they can only get worse? Or is it some deeper belief that an oncoming darkness is simply part of who we are and, as a result, inescapable? Whatever the reason, every possible scenario points to the realization that the world is not the way that it’s supposed to be and that, left unchecked, it’s only going to get worse.  As a Christian, I recognize this stain upon humanity as the destructive presence of sin and its effect on our world.  Without question, the sinfulness of man has left damage in virtually every area of life, manifesting itself in ways that range from corporate greed to human trafficking.  As we gaze into our history and see the carnage in our wake, is it any wonder that our expectation of the future would be any different?

Fortunately, science fiction stories also offer another common element… the hero who fights the system.  From Elysium’s Max DaCosta (Matt Damon) to Snake (Kurt Russell) in Escape from L.A., every sci-fi features at least one character who attempts to defy the social conventions.  Some, like The Matrix’s Neo, manage to break the system, bringing freedom and hope.  Some, as in the case of Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Blade Runner, are less successful.  However, in every scenario, there is always one to recognize that this way of life cannot go on in the same way.  Although the results vary from film to film, each sci-fi venture places its protagonist on a quest for hope. 

In a larger sense, this quest for freedom and newness connects deeply as well within the Christian faith which points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the hope for humanity. (To be fair, that is not to say that every sci-fi hero is a Christ-figure.  Can you really accurately compare Jesus to Judge Dredd or even Iron Man’s Tony Stark?)  Through his humble sacrifice for humanity, Christ established his Kingdom in a way that offers hope in a world engulfed by darkness.  In other words, his life and ministry remind us that hope for the world is something tangible.  While many protagonists have been broken by the system in a way that causes them to rebel, Jesus himself is the very incarnation that things can—and were intended to be—different.  Because of who He is, we have hope.

With this in mind, it is important for us to recognize that sci-fi does offer us a window into the future, grim as that may appear to be.  As the ramifications of sin run rampant, science fiction films often remind us that our journey will drive us into further chaos if we continue along this path.  However, it is also crucial for us to realize that the God of the world is also building something new in its midst. Although it may appear that our culture lives in the heart of darkness, the light of His Kingdom is beginning to break through.

Even if Hollywood can’t always see it.

Elysium will be released on August 9th, 2013.