Monday, December 24, 2007

I Am Legend

There is no shortage of Christmas films. From "It's a Wonderful Life" to "Elf" there is a Christmas film that ought to suit everyone. But what if one is looking for an Advent film? I think I have found one in I Am Legend.

On the traditional church calendar, Advent is the season that leads up to Christmas. As the name suggests, Advent anticipates the arrival of Christ. It looks back to the birth of Christ and looks forward to the return of Christ. A reading of the texts for the Advent season makes it clear that Advent is less sentimental and more realistic than the traditional, commercialized American observance of Christmas. Advent is not about happy endings, but it is about hope. Advent is not shiny and bright. Rather, Advent admits that are shadows and darkness, but the light of God is breaking into the darkness.
For all of these reasons, I Am Legend is the perfect Advent film. In the following review I am going to spoil the plot. So stop reading now and go see the movie. . . .
Alright, now I am assuming that you've seen the movie. Let's continue. This movie is thick with themes. I am amazed at how all these various elements can be developed without stepping over each other. Perhaps that is possible in a story that focuses on a single, lonely individual. The best way for me to organize my comments is to draw out each theme.

Loneliness. Will Smith's portrayal of Lt. Col. Robert Neville is outstanding. As far as he knows, he is the last man on earth. Smith is able to balance Neville's discipline and focus on finding a cure for the Krippen Virus with his fragile state of mind. When Neville enters into conversation with Sam, his dog, and the mannequins at the video store it is humorous, but not ridiculous. In a later scene, Neville is begging a mannequin to talk back to him. It is reminiscent of Tom Hank's interaction with Wilson, the soccer ball in Castaway.

Neville is sending out a lonely invitation to any who can receive his radio broadcast. For three years he faithfully appears at a pier at high noon waiting for anyone who will accept his invitation of food, shelter, and protection.

Rescuer and Savior. Neville is not a post-apocalyptic survivalist along the lines of Mad Max or even Omega Man [The opening sequence of Neville and Sam hunting deer in Times Square from the red and white Mustang is an homage to Omega Man, an earlier version of the story. You probably knew that already, right?]. He has a duty and a mission. Neville is heroic because he is a guardian. He has resolved not to give up on finding a cure for the Krippen Virus. His station is Ground Zero and he will not leave it until is duty is accomplished. Even in his encounters with the mutated Dark Seekers, Neville is compassionate. His goal is not their destruction, but he ultimately seeks a way of saving them. However, Neville's efforts to save others are often frustrated. Neville struggles to save his family from the quarantine of Manhattan, he is successful but they are immediately killed in an accident resulting from the extreme, anxious measures of the military. Throughout the movie I wondered if and when Neville would break and lose hope.

The God Question. Smith has compared his role in the film to Job. That's a great comparison even though Job and Neville come out a different place on their argument with God. For Neville, God is simply not there. When another survivor, Ana, tries to convince Neville that God has a plan, he refuses to accept it. His rejection of God is not simply scientific, it is also the anger of a man who has seen the destruction that humanity can wreak. What seems to keep Neville going is his faith in humanity, at this point himself, to make right its wrong.

Anna is still convinced that God is working in everything for good. Neville can only accept it during the film's climax when all the right elements come together and the sign of the butterfly pulls it all together. [By the way, butterflies are all over the film]. Finally, Neville is willing to accept that a higher power is at work to save humanity. As he tells Anna, "I am trying to listen."

Light and Darkness. Even though Neville is reluctant to bring God into the story, he does see his struggle as a conflict between Light and Darkness. This is the overarching theme for the entire film. Neville attempts to live his life as normally as possible in the daylight. Nighttime, however, is fearful. During the night, the Dark Seekers roam about seeking human blood.

Neville shares his driving philosophy with Ana. He is inspired by a legend about Bob Marley. Marley vowed never to take a day off from injecting light into the world since those who would bring darkness never rest. Much of the subtext of the film is revealed in this conversation.

Left on its own, that sentiment could be basically humanitarian rather than particularly spiritual. Combined with Neville's epiphany and Anna's faith, the theme takes on another dimension. God is at work to bring light into darkness. Perhaps Neville is God's agent and his blessing and commission came from the prayer his wife blesses him with in the helicopter shortly before her departure. [This was one of the most realistic prayers depicted in a movie].

The film closes with Anna saying "Light up the darkness." That's a great message for Advent.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


More than one reviewer has portrayed Stardust as this generation's Princess Bride. It's an unfair comparison that is more likely the result of lazy reviewers paying more attention to promotional materials than the film. From what I know, the only connection between Stardust and the Princess Bride is that they could both fit into the genre of fairy tale. Beyond that, Stardust has no more similarity to Princess Bride than it does to Snow White.

A better comparison is Eragon. [But Stardust is a much better film]. Like Eragon, Stardust is a coming of age story. It's the ancient formula of "Jack" the young hero who sets out on a quest as a bumbling boy and returns as a man. But Stardust adds a twist of romance to the coming-of-age formula. In fact, Stardust is a combination of fairy tale types. The romance in Stardust is the formula of the the young man who falls in love with an enchanted creature who chooses humanity for the sake of love. In this case, its Yvaine, who is a fallen star. She can survive in the mystical land of Stronghold, but if she should cross the wall into our world she will disintegrate into stardust.

The story adds yet another fairy tale theme in the form of Yvaine's desire to live among the humans she has watched over the centuries. But wait, there's still another fairy tale theme woven into this story. Tristan, our "Jack" in this complex fairy tale, is the hidden king who is the rightful heir to the throne of Stronghold.

The story is a crazy quilt of fairy tale ideas woven together nicely and without confusion. The visual magic of the film is delightful as well. The philosophy is also rich. The opening line is worth pondering:

A philosopher once asked, "Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?" Pointless, really. Do the stars gaze back? -- Now that's a question.

The philosopher may have overlooked the possibility that the heavenly creatures are in awe of the lives of mere mortals. But the apostle seemed to understand it . . .

The prophets who told us this was coming asked a lot of questions about this gift of life God was preparing. The Messiah's Spirit let them in on some of it—that the Messiah would experience suffering, followed by glory. They clamored to know who and when. All they were told was that they were serving you, you who by orders from heaven have now heard for yourselves—through the Holy Spirit—the Message of those prophecies fulfilled. Do you realize how fortunate you are? Angels would have given anything to be in on this! - 1 Peter 1:10-12

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Government must have a conscience. When government loses its soul people become materials to be used. They can be "liquidated." People can be trained to kill without guilt thus becoming "assets." It is a tidy, antiseptic, orderly world. But if anyone develops a conscience, then it all falls apart. These themes play out very well in the final installment of the Bourne trilogy. Jason Bourne's quest to discover who he is rips the lid off of the darkest corners of the nation's psyche.

I admire the fact that the villains and heroes in the world of Bourne are complex. The villains are not megalomaniacs in leisure suits. No, they are people just like any of us. Most of them are civil servants who are simply doing their jobs. They believe in what they do without fanaticism, but many of them do not take the time to reflect on the implications of their work. Of course, some of the "villains" are the assassins, or more accurately assets. They are not complex. They are barely human. They are machine-men trained to perform task without question or reflection of any sort. They wait in secluded hotel rooms for their next assignment is transmitted to them via email from a "handler." The film portrays these assets as blank robots until one compelling scene toward the end of the film when Bourne, who was also an asset, chooses to make the other killer think rather than fight. It is a powerful exchange.

Likewise, the heroes of Bourne Ultimatum are people who are atoning for the sins of their own past. They are not angels. No, they are people just like any of us. They have simply reflected on the system in which they find themselves and dare to do what is right and moral even though it may be costly.

Since we all have the choice to act as hero or villain, we ought to reflect on our choices and then do all that we can to imbue government of the people, by the people, and for the people with a conscience and soul.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Transformers! Robots in disguise! Transformers! More than meets the eye! I am not surprised that the filmmakers chose not to use the goofy little theme song from the cartoon. They did use one of its lines more than once; that is, “more than meets the eye.” Indeed, Transformers is a movie that truly is more than meets the eye.

I was looking forward to the movie for the simplest of reasons: giant robots fighting. It is the same internal call that draws one to a Godzilla movie. Of course the Transformers are even more spectacular than people in rubber suits destroying model cities. In terms of special effects, the film delivers quite well.

I also looked forward to the film because there is something attractive about the simple dualism of the characters. The Decepticons are here to destroy; they are evil through and through. The Autobots on the other hand are here to protect us; they are the good guys. The Transformers are more than robots in disguise, they are high-tech angels and demons who battle each other with earth in the middle. I applaud the filmmakers for not blurring that dualism.

However, there is more to the movie than meets the eye and I encountered more than I expected – for better and for worse. Firstly, for the better, I was intrigued by the story element of the All-Spark. The All-Spark is a life-giving cube that represents the creative power of a deity. It is a power that can be used for good or evil and it has landed in Earth’s back yard. The back story to the film involving the discover of Megatron in the Hoover administration, Sam Witwicky’s grandfather, and the formation of Sector Seven was clever. The motto of Sam’s family, “No sacrifice! No victory!” is an inspiring statement. It might have made more of a theme for the film, but it gets buried in the overload of the film. (Which is typical of Michael Bay’s direction).

Any of the themes could have been explored a little further to develop the human and spiritual element of the film. Of course that would mean finding more time in the film, yes? I would offer that there were a few scenes that the film could have done without, which brings me to my second “more than meets the eye” observation. Transformers includes material that is inappropriate for a movie marketed to pre-teen children. This material is not crucial to the story. I am not interested in reviewing all the inappropriate material. (Parents and conscientious movie-goers should check out movie review sites). I was caught off-guard by a PG-13 rating which only seemed to be for sci-fi violence and brief sexual humor. The so-called sexual humor was neither brief or humorous – especially when your children are with you. These moments were unfortunate blemishes on an otherwise good film. It makes one think twice about buying the DVD for the kids.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I dig the Silver Surfer. Always have. Always will. He is an outsider. He is a stranger in a strange land. He is a philosopher and prophet. And how many super-heroes ride a surf board through space? That’s just ultra-cool.

I was concerned then when my all-time favorite comic-book hero was slated to appear in the next Fantastic Four movie. The first movie was lacking and Doctor Doom, one of the greatest comic book villains, was ruined. I feared for the cinematic treatment of Norrin Radd, the Silver Surfer. After seeing FF: Rise of the Silver Surfer I am not disappointed. The filmmakers understand the Surfer.

The Silver Surfer begins as an apocalyptic character. His arrival heralds judgment and doom. Ultimately, the Surfer is a messianic figure. He is a visitor from another world who would save us from ourselves with his unlimited power, but we of course treat him with contempt and fear.

The Silver Surfer saves earth from Galactus, the world devouring entity, by placing himself between earth and his master. This is comparable to certain atonement theories that involve appeasement of God. In these theories, Christ is the messiah who saves humanity by placing himself in front of the consuming wrath of God.

I do not think an appeasement or substitutionary theory of atonement is the only way of describing biblical atonement. It certainly is not a comprehensive theory. The comparison of Christ and God to the Silver Surfer and Galactus in this film only demonstrates the limitations of common appeasement theories of atonement. Is God a devouring force that seeks our destruction? Does Christ have to rebel against his heavenly father in order to save the world? Of course not. The biblical teaching about atonement is more about the reconciliation of a broken relationship between God and humanity than appeasement of an angry deity.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer may just be a gee-whiz comic-book flick, but here I am reflecting on atonement and the Messiah. This is why I dig the Silver Surfer. He makes us think. Preach it, Surfer.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 is a tangled web of revenge: Harry Osburn blames Peter Parker for the death of his father. Eddie Brock hates Peter Parker for causing him to lose his job. Flint Marko is to blame for the death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben . . . and when Peter finds out surely he too will want revenge.

The complicated and broken relationships of the characters attract the attention of the black, oozing symbiote from outer space. The symbiote thrives on hatred, revenge, and lust. It turns Spider-Man into “Dark Spider-Man.” Later it leeches onto Eddie Brock and becomes Venom. Interestingly the symbiote does not change the host, but only magnifies the worst characteristics of the host. It is a darkness that is nurtured by sinister and selfish desires.

Spider-Man 3 gives us a brilliant depiction of sin that is not unlike the anthropomorphic description of sin in Genesis 4. In that ancient account, God warns Cain that his hatred toward his brother Abel is attracting sin to his doorstep. Sin is crouching outside waiting for Cain to open the door and let it in. God urges Cain to get the upper hand on sin lest it consume him and have its way with him. The Genesis 4 story is mirrored in the movie in a scene in which Peter is drawn to the box in the closet in which he hides the symbiote. Peter is tempted to open the box and let the symbiote consume him. As with Cain, the consequences are terrible.

Spider-Man 3 trades on the clichéd movie theme that we all have a dark side. However, this movie departs from the cliché in the way that the dark side is overcome by the heroes – and even a few of the villains. Rather than admonish us to accept the dark side or exercise enough will power to resist it, our heroes choose to forgive. Harry forgives Peter. Mary Jane forgives Peter. Peter even forgives Flint Marko, the Sandman, who is partly responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. In doing so, Peter lets go of his own guilt for Uncle Ben’s death. The rich symbolism of the Sandman fading away on the winds and the dawn of a new day is not to be missed.

Spider-Man 3 is visually exciting and magical. The storytelling remains as fun and funny as the previous movies. Unlike the first and second movies, Spider-Man 3 is more than a good versus evil morality tale. Perhaps Stan Lee would agree with me that it is a mighty Marvel pulp-fiction parable of full-color forgiveness and super-heroic spirituality! Excelsior!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

I admit that I did not watch the first Pirates movie very closely. I cannot recall any of the second film. So, one-quarter of the way through the latest Pirates film, particularly in the scenes with Johnny Depp and the ship in the desert, I turned to my wife and friends and asked, “What am I missing? I don’t get this.” Sadly, they couldn’t help me and it wasn’t their fault.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a visually stunning film. I give it high marks for its artistic magnificence. Unfortunately, it lacks the storytelling to match its spectacle. It is a disjointed adventure tale that seems to jump from one bizarre predicament to the next without any consistent plot. I felt as though we were supposed to be entertained by the egoistic posing and preening of the characters and stars. Captain Jack Sparrow and his clones proved it for me. The filmmaker’s formula seems to be “Give ‘em all the Captain Jack they stand!”

Yet, what did any of us expect from a movie series that was based on an unimpressive ride at Disney’s famous amusement park? I recall our family trip to Disneyworld in 1998. Before the Pirate’s movie one could walk right up and board the Pirates of the Caribbean ride without a wait. (The only ride that had a shorter line was this circa-1979 “Vision of Tomorrow” diorama-conveyor belt show at EPCOT. It was boring, but it was air conditioned. We rode it five times in a row.)

I am trying to redeem my viewing of Pirates and derive some sort of philosophical, moral, or spiritual message from it. I could try and wax eloquent on its vision of the afterlife or its theme of self-sacrifice, but that would be disingenuous. The truth is I spent most of the movie wondering when Keith Richards would make his cameo.

If you loved the movie I can understand why. It's a lot of fun -even if it has no plot. If you are a Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom groupie, then you certainly must love this film. Personally, I liked the monkey better than any other character and watching him get shot out of the canon is worth the price of admission. Alas, I wish I had had a TiVo to rewind it and watch it again.
I am convinced that At World's End is the end of the Pirates series. Yet there's more "booty" to plunder from the fans and the set up for a fourth movie is all there. I do not plan to see it - unless of course they shoot that monkey from a canon again!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ghost Rider

This is just a movie about a dude with a burning skull dressed in black leather and riding a wicked chopper with the wheels on fire, right? Not quite. Underlying the comic-book veneer is a message about second chances, redemption, and grace.

The spiritual elements of this film are overt. Young Johnny Blaze is tricked into a pact with the devil to save his father's life. Deals with the devil always go bad and Blaze is cursed to run errands for Ol' Scratch as his personal bounty hunter. Of course Blaze is aware of the curse long before his first transformation into the Ghost Rider. He risks his life in death-defying stunts and strangely survives as if by a miracle. Is he lucky; did his talent save him; or did he sell his soul to the devil? These are the questions that haunt and condemn Blaze. His pact with devil gains him nothing and costs him dearly. So, the question is raised (Blaze actually verbalizes it at one point), "Does a person get a second chance or does he have to pay for a single mistake for the rest of his life?"

Johnny Blaze gets his second chance by owning his mistake and turning his curse into a weapon against evil. As his mentor, the caretaker, puts it, "You made your pact with devil for the sake of loved ones, not for greed. Maybe that puts God on your side." Here is the film's only significant acknowledgement of the other side of the metaphysical coin. Otherwise the film focuses on our human struggles against the powers that oppress us. As a believer in God I have to affirm that it is the Lord's work in Christ that ultimately undoes and redeems the corrupt powers of this age, nevertheless I appreciate the film's emphasis on the human experience - even if that experience is portrayed through the imaginary tale of the Ghost Rider.

It takes grace to overcome the evil one. His oily voice is always burning in the back of our skulls convicting us of our mistakes and condemning us to an endless cycle of failed attempts at proving ourselves. He wants us to pay for our mistakes over and over until the end of our days. Once we own our mistakes and acknowledge that we have been cursed does our redemption begin. The fact that we struggle doesn't mean we have been abandoned. There's no question about it: God is for us.

"And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love." - Romans 8:38