Review: Beyond the Mask

Note: A review copy of this movie was sent in exchange for a review. It releases today, and you can look for a local showing here

It isn’t often I’m sent a movie to review that I get excited about. Holy Rollers was an exception, as were the films by the same director. But those were documentaries. When it comes to fiction, I’ve found them lacking.

But watch the trailer for Beyond the Mask and tell me it doesn’t at least look like it deserves a shot. Continue reading Review: Beyond the Mask

Little Hope Was Arson – A Second Look (Film Review)

Note: a review copy of this film was provided in exchange for a review. Visit the film’s website here. See our earlier review from James here. Spoilers follow.

If you’ve ever been to Texas, you may have noticed the Jesus fish symbols on billboards used (presumably) to alert viewers that the company is Christian owned, or that it only takes a few minutes on the road to realize that there is almost literally a church on every corner. Continue reading Little Hope Was Arson – A Second Look (Film Review)

Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

Note: A review copy of this film was provided to me in exchange for a review. I thank especially the film’s executive producer, Bryan Storkel, for working to make sure I received this documentary, since I asked for it such a long time ago. In addition, you can check out the film’s website here.

There is no easy way to sum up the issues that naturally arise in a film about a pair of arsonists who target churches, starting with the church they grew up in.

We’ll start with the merits of the documentary. The easiest way to sum up the film’s credentials is to say this: you wouldn’t be wasting your time, by any means, if you decided to give this a watch. The narrative is well crafted without feeling contrived–no easy task in a documentary, confined on the sides by reality and compelling rhetorical tricks. The story is not so well known that you’ll feel like you know the ending (unless you’re from east Texas, I imagine), but also not so localized that it feels as though it is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Mild spoilers to follow. Continue reading Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

“Even tough guys need Jesus,” a review of “Fight Church”

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

The question was posed to a camera in the documentary Fight Church. The film takes a look at a recent surge of interest in fighting for sport within the church. There are an estimated 700 churches in the U.S. participating in various forms of martial arts, according to a statistic near the end of the film.

As a documentary, the film certainly succeeds. There are some strong opinions from various perspectives offered throughout, even if the majority of the speakers land in the firm “Yes, MMA fighting is good to participate in” camp.

Here are the two sides, so to speak:

The first views this entire thing as sport: much like you can participate in football, basketball, soccer, tennis, or any other sport as a Christian, surely you can participate in martial arts. And what would prevent a preacher from doing so, in particular, if it is not barred for your average, everyday Christian? For these fighters, this physical activity isn’t an act of violence, at least by their own telling: one pastor/fighter describes his training as a form of worship, and another describes it as an art form. One even goes so far as to write off the term “violent” as a descriptor: “violence” is to violate somebody’s rights, and a cage fight is two adults who have consented to participate in the ring in a contest of skill.

The other side comes from two primary perspectives. The first is from an Episcopal priest, who stands now and has always stood against the violence displayed in cage fighting. He argues that the Church is to respect the dignity of the human person, and that cage fighting is intrinsically at odds with that. He goes on to compare the violence of cage fighting to war, saying: “War hurts; war demeans. Violence makes us less than we should be.” The other perspective that still lands opposed comes from a former MMA trainer. As he continued in his study and devotion to Christianity, he became convinced that the two were not compatible. He ended up pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and spends his time producing apologetics training videos.

I’d like to get to those two sides a little bit more deeply, but first a quick comment on the quality of the film. Not only is the documentary well shot, it also manages to present each person’s position fairly. While many of us will cringe at some of the displays of violence, others may cringe at the closed-mindedness of the priest. But the film shies away from none of this, offering the conflicted perspectives of spouses, the bizarre mentality of children and early teenagers, and the quirky, quip-filled fighters who joke about having the gift of laying on hands. The fights are presented in their brutality, and the participants are presented in their moments of joyful loss and joyful wins, and the events are presented just as they are run. I couldn’t guess from the framing of the film where the filmmakers stand, since I can levy evidence both for and against each position. That’s a good thing.

So what do we make of this sort of church-sponsored event?I tend to land closer to the second camp than the first; that is, I tend to suspect that the sort of violence inherent in cage fighting is incompatible with Christian doctrine.It seems to me that the majority of the reasoning behind the participation of the sport equally applies to other sports. That much I find myself in agreement with the fighters, as far as it goes. But the analogy fails when we consider the sort of things being compared. The defense of sports rests on the intrinsically harmless nature of the purpose of sports; most sports involve injury, but tangentially. The injuries are accidents of the sport, not features. These accidents can be abused, of course: a football player with an insatiable thirst for blood is, of course, sinning in those desires.

One fighter, when speaking about his favorite MMA competitor, says “He’s the best. He’s malicious. I want to be just like him.” Any sport that prizes maliciousness is incompatible with Christian virtue. One man argues throughout the film that we need a ‘warrior ethos,’ something he claims we’ve lost in America. There’s a section of the documentary where this man is showing his children–who appear to be somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12–to use handguns. The children are very much frightened of the weapon (as is healthy), but this doesn’t deter the father from teaching them.Another clip in the film shows the training of kids and young teenagers. They are all drawn in by the cool factor–which is certainly forgivable, given their age. But one kid admits that he just likes fighting for the sake of fighting. When he mentions that the trainers “do this for Jesus,” he says so with a shrug of slightly-confused indifference. Another kid prepares for his first match, and says he’s going to “rip [the other kid’s] head off.” This is hardly the loving view that the sport allegedly fosters.

One of the MMA-fighting pastors finished up his remarks with the following challenge:

“I double-dog dare any Christian to go through the preparation to get into the cage. Not to actually get into the cage, but to go through the preparation. I guarantee you they will change their views.”

If “preparation” means spending months training one’s body to be in peak physical condition, then the only reason we ought to eschew that advice would be if it hindered our spiritual lives in some way. Physical fitness is important–something I myself slack in, much to my own detriment–but there is such a thing as taking too much time on, well, anything.”Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?” I struggle to answer this in the affirmative. Even in the context of sport, where some injury is bound to happen, acting to intentionally bring an opponent to submission, with an aim to incapacitate, strikes this viewer as against Christian ethics.

There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to. The harm on display is not limited to the physical–even if it were, we ought to pause and reconsider. Aside from the physical harm, though, is the intense emotional experience of fighting. The thrill of the testosterone, the instinct to fight, and the rush that comes from it seems to bring out the worst in a large number of the men displayed in the film.

Lionsgate is releasing the film on iTunes and most all other On Demand and Digital HD platforms starting today. You can also purchase the DVD from their website.

Note: I was sent a copy of this film in exchange for a review. Much thanks to Bryan Storkel for sending it along.

Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

“Her”, Physicality, and the Nature of Love

Her made me uncomfortable.

If you walk out of Her completely comfortable with the way relationships are presented, there may be something wrong with you (for my friends at The Critical Hit Podcast, discomfort comes primarily from unexpected outlets: the nature of purchasing an OS, the nature of consensual desire in phone sex, etc.). The big question of the film you can glean from the trailer: what does it mean to fall in love with a person who doesn’t have a body? More so, a person who was artificially created with the express purpose of serving you. It seems clear that Samantha isn’t human, at least to me: I’d say humanness is wrapped up in at least an initial connection to physicality (as a Christian, the Incarnation makes this a clear stance). But the bigger question is whether or not Samantha is a person. Much like India argued that dolphins are non-human persons, so do I suspect that Her is contending, tacitly if not explicitly, that Samantha is a non-human person, complete with rights and feelings and abilities that extend beyond the majority of animals.

Some people have already fallen in love with the machines, at least if we measure “love” in devotion, rather than sex. We spend hours and days interacting with our phones and computers, sometimes without using them as a medium for interacting with others or with ourselves. My phone can be a portal to interact with others via voice or Facebook, much like my computer allows me to communicate with readers. But these are means, not ends in themselves; technology should function for a purpose. Her flips this on its head: Samantha is literally a piece of technology, but she’s functioning as an end in Theodore’s life.

Samantha reacts emotionally to Theodore, he is consistently amazed at who she is, she has a sense of humor, Theodore gets jealous of other AI’s. The whole relationship mirrors what we would consider a normal romantic relationship between two humans: ups and downs, sexuality, anxiety, self-esteem issues, etc. all abound in both of them. The relationship even ends when Samantha falls in love with hundreds of other individuals, and then ends up leaving to join the other AI’s in some vague metaphysical reality.

We’ve already touched on Her here at Evangelical Outpost. Hannah had this to say at the conclusion of her article:

Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

I think this is what the film really wants to hammer home, even as it is intentionally ambiguous regarding the goodness of the relationship with Samantha. In a pivotal scene in the film, Theodore has lunch with his ex-wife to sign the divorce papers. When he tells her that he is in a relationship with an OS, she accuses him of being afraid of the reality of a physical relationship, of a “real person.”

And there’s something there. While his ex-wife is hardly the protagonist of the film, I think she provides a unique look at Theodore’s soul. While some of his friends are fully supportive (he goes on a double date, for instance, providing earpieces for the other couple), here’s a woman who knows first-hand the problems that Theodore will face in a deep relationship. Ex-wives are hardly the first place you ought to go for relationship advice, but she speaks for many of the audience members when she brings up her concerns (granted, she does so in a far more accusatory manner than I suspect most of us would).

Some of our relationships are done primarily through connections that could only exist with technology. I spend time weekly with people who don’t live in the same city I do, let alone the same country. There’s a goodness there, but there’s also the recognition that even those relationships have a physical component, or at least the potential for that. If I found myself in the same city, I’d opt to see them in person, rather than relying on Skype and e-mail. We shouldn’t avoid using technology to further our relationships. We most definitely should avoid replacing our relationships with technology, however.

Phone Sex: “Her”, OkCupid, and the Algorithms of Love

It’s been two weeks since I saw Spike Jonze’s new film Her.

But it is only now, on a quiet night, that I finally feel ready to write about it. Because I am sitting alone with my computer and a chocolate bar, and it just seems painfully appropriate.

My screening of “Her” coincided eerily with my decision to break down and make an online dating profile.

To be clear, I was first forced into it by a friend—one of those “just give me a couple of your hobbies and I’ll make it for you” type of things. But naturally, once I was out on the market, I immediately had to nit-pick it to death. “Do these photos accurately show my athleticism, wit, smarts and gorgeous eyes? Am I listing the correct spread of timeless movies in different genres to show my depth and well-roundedness?”

I even searched for girls my age in my area to scope out my competition. Only once, though. I promise.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many boring online dating profiles there are in this country. My eyes roll back every time I get to the fifth straight one of these:

“I live life to the fullest and like hanging out with friends. Looking for a girl who likes to have a good time.” 

Then I snarl sarcastically at the computer “Pick me! Pick me! I am that girl!”

But every once in a while, I would find a boy who was a bright spot in the monotony. Someone who was intriguing, who seemed to speak my language. And then the game would begin. Do I message him? Do I like his photo, or rate him? Or do I simply view his profile and hope to Cupid he sees my witty username and reciprocates?

In the midst of all of this analysis, I watched Mr. Jonze’s movie. A film whose trailer I had watched months ago, and then vehemently exclaimed “No! Ugh!” at the prospect. There is something about artificial intelligence in the emotional realm that just makes me so darn squirmy.

And it blew me away.

Her revolves around Theodore Twombly, a lonely man and textbook introvert. Joaquin Phoenix breathes quiet life into the character of Twombly, who is employed at a personalized letter company. He spends his days composing thank-yous, I-miss-you notes, and other correspondence, using his way with words and knowledge of his clients to convincingly write with their voices.

Theodore buys a new operating system, or “OS,” named Samantha. Samantha is a name that the OS gives herself, after instantaneously scanning all of the baby names she can find in her network. She organizes Twombley’s files, manages his calendar, and becomes his friend. With every response he gives her, she adapts more and more to his personality and needs. They joke, debate, and wander. They make up songs and words to songs. They comment on the people around them that she can see with her built-in camera. He starts to smile for the first time since before his divorce.

Is that bad?

I honestly expected Her to mirror Pixar’s Wall*E, with a “TECHNOLOGY WILL RUIN US” type of message. But just as in real life, the advancements in Her don’t come with an ethical instruction book. And quite often, the results of the experiments are inconclusive.

Can you have a relationship with a machine?

Dating websites generally give a huge number of categories and facets upon which to define yourself within that world. And yet, nine times out of ten, people don’t really know how to write about themselves, so they stick with “I like going to the gym” or “I’m a fun person.”

Is that where it gets dangerous? As we develop our machines to be more advanced and more complex, we’re reducing ourselves and each other to simple profiles?

Or are we simpler than we think?

On OkCupid, one of the more popular (and free) sites, members have almost a limitless supply of questions to answer about everything from ethics to lifestyle. Once you give your answer to the question, you have the ability to tell the site which answers to these questions would be acceptable to you from another person. You can make a deal-breaker out of anything from “must love dogs” to “must shower daily.” And like Samantha, the site adapts to you based on every response.

I worried before joining that I would go into some sort of “shopping mode” and refuse to entertain the idea of any guy without a super-attractive picture. But I picked up on most of the not-so-subtle cues almost immediately. Guys with shirtless pictures are looking to hook up. Guys who only list “partying” as their pastime, or can’t think of a favorite book, won’t work with me.

And I only really have to make these distinctions in the 85%-match-and-above zone, because those are frankly the only guys on a dating website who are even claiming to be pro-Jesus and anti-hookup. So for a girl like me, online dating isn’t actually particularly hard to navigate.

In some ways, online dating has actually made me a little less superficial than usual. I got an endearing message from one guy in particular, shortly before discovering that he was shorter than me. Had we interacted first in a social setting, I would honestly have subconsciously dismissed him. Probably. But in this context I was basically presented with his personality first. And I found myself reevaluating what I should consider a deal-breaker.

The greatest danger in a relationship often lies in thinking we know what we want.

For this is where the match percentage leads us astray. It’s when we step beyond the helpful weeding-out of incompatible ideologies and into the realm of laundry-list preferences.

This should all come with the enormous disclaimer that I have not yet gone on any dates with guys I met online. I will soon. Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

And that’s why a Samantha wouldn’t work.

Not because a relationship requires a physical aspect. Not because talking to a phone is weird (after all, iPhone users already do it). It’s because a genuine relationship requires mutual choice and inherent sacrifice. We have to know deep within us that we cannot expect people to have a machine-level of consistency any more than a machine will hold up to a person-level of connection.

My parents’ marriage of almost 30 years is beautiful not because they were just so very compatible, but so very determined.

A healthy relationship is defined by the lack of control. You are with someone who has not been made or paid or fooled into loving you. Someone who has not simply been programmed to make you happy. Only someone with the choice not to love you can truly enjoy loving you.

And it is God’s grace to us that we can love this way.

The Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug achieved a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, a full 9% higher than its predecessor. Many reviews cite the faster pacing of the film as the reason for it’s success, and it is definitely faster…but is that a good thing?

loved An Unexpected JourneyI loved everything about it. And while I loved almost everything about Desolation, there are a couple things that still rankle. However, please note that while these are certainly annoying, the movie as a whole is certainly worthy of your time.  [SPOILERS]

What  sets these movies apart, what makes them more than just an adaptation of the book, is all the extra stuff. They take a sentence from the book and turn it into a full-fledged action scene, like with the rock giants from Journey. Or they tweak a section from the book to make a little more sense, or to fit it into the movie better, like turning the “Black Arrow” into a special type of weapon fired from what looks like a super-awesome anti-dragon ballista.  They turn tiny skirmishes into full-fledged battles, and they’re also not above outright fabricating plot.

This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a lot of fun, and without it, the movies certainly wouldn’t be as good.  The open tombs of the Nine are fantastic, the attack on Dol Goldur is phenomenal, and Gandalf’s battle against Sauron is freaking awesome.

But it can also backfire, which it does in the worst possible way in their treatment of Beorn. They take what was an incredible allusion to the enormity and scope of Middle-Earth, with room enough for all sorts of beings with no relation to the smaller story at hand…and they turn him into just one more piece of the puzzle. What’s worse, they do so in the clumsiest manner possible: By having him vomit out his entire back-story in a 3-5 minute monologue before being banished off-screen for the rest of the movie. Back to the story, everybody, let’s move it along!

It’s easy to see what they intended to do here: They wanted to make the story of The Hobbit larger, to encompass the entire world.  But what they actually achieved was to make the world of Middle Earth smaller. There is no room for anything that is not intimately connected with the immediate story, and that saddens me.

And then there are also a couple moments that make you wonder whether you’ve seen them before…and then you think, “Oh, yeah, of course I’ve seen this before.” Kili’s whole “Morgul blade” ordeal is by far the worst offender here, but there are others. The assistant to the Master of Laketown is obviously Grima Wormtongue’s long-lost brother, and Thranduil reminds me of nothing so much as an elven Denethor, with the same disregard for the bigger picture, but with even less excuse (how can an elf who lives for thousands of years focus on anything but the big picture!?).

And then,  there’s Tauriel the female elf, caught in a weird love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Look: I know they’re trying to personalize Kili a bit more, but was “love triangle with Legolas and Tuariel” really the only thing came to mind?  Also, she’s obviously going to die in the third movie, in an necessarily heart-wrenching fashion.

BUT, aside from those problems, the film is still really good.

From the haze-inducing forests of Mirkwood to the awe-inspiring halls of Erebor, they don’t miss a single beat when it comes to setting the appropriate scene. Mirkwood perfectly captures the feeling of a great forest slowly succumbing to corruption. The dwarves stumble their way through a drug-like haze, struggling to stay on the path, until they are overtaken first by spiders, then by the elves of Mirkwood.

Laketown is clearly the home of people who have set up more-or-less permanent residence on the lake…but the fundamental instability and grime means that Laketown can never be more than what it is right now.  The Master of Laketown is a caricature, but he’s a caricature in the book as well, and the caricature is well done.

And Erebor is absurdly huge. I kept on expecting Scrooge McDuck to show up to dive into the sea of coins, but even Scrooge’s fortune is dwarfed (pun NOT intended) by what we see in Erebor. But of course, the most impressive part of Erebor is Smaug the Magnificent, the Calamity of Calamities. No matter what I say, you’re not going to actually get how enormous he is, so I’m not going to waste time trying. But more impressive than his size is his real-ness. He has weight, and heft. He literally fills the room, and the dwarves can’t sneak past him so much as under him. I can’t recall a single moment where I thought, “Wow, that was some terrible CG.” In fact, it wasn’t until after the movie that I pondered the CG at all. It was that good.

And along the way, we’re beginning to get a much better sense of each dwarf as an individual. The party splits repeatedly, giving us a look at how the dwarves interact with each other in smaller groups, and this goes a long way.  We get a much better sense of who some of the individual dwarves are (especially Fili and Kili for some reason…). Of course, sometimes they do this badly. Like, “unnecessary love triangle with a character who doesn’t even exist in the books” badly. But for the most part it’s very well done.

And then, of course, there’re the action scenes. Let me be frank: These are the best action scenes that have ever been produced in a LoTR film. They’re absurd and so far over-the-top that <CLEVER ELF JOKE???>, but then again, The Hobbit has always been a little ridiculous. Let me give you a couple examples.

In The Two Towers, Legolas rides a shield down a staircase once. In Desolation, the orcs don’t carry shields, so Legolas just shrugs and uses the body of an orc to skateboard down a staircase not once, but twice in one scene. He shoots several orcs while careening down the river and standing on the heads of two of the dwarves. But the highest kill count almost certainly belongs to Bombur, who now has to register any barrel in his possession as a deadly weapon.

In closing, I unfortunately can’t endorse this as unhesitatingly as I did An Unexpected Journey. There are just too many weird things going on, too many fumbled opportunities, for me to give it an unequivocal 5 stars. But it’s a solid four, maybe even a four and a half, and you should definitely see it.


The Christian Life in Disney

Anyone who boldly claims that they know some meaning within a work of art, must clarify whether they mean to tell us what the artist meant, or what they mean they find in the artist’s work. This theory is wholly my own. The Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King present, in their respective order, the story of a believer’s life from conversion, through lifelong repentance, and end with the return of the Lord to restore His people and His world.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel lives in an unsatisfactory world, longing to walk beneath the sun in that unreachable world above. This desire has precedence; in chapter seven of Moby Dick, Ishmael says, “Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thin water the thinnest of air.” He is echoing the Platonic idea that earth is not real in comparison to the next life, where we shall be more substantive and see clearly—a sentiment familiar to Christian theology. Ariel longs to walk in sunlight, much as mankind has been prevented from walking with God, since Eden. Likewise, her attempts to learn human language mirror the pagan’s grasping to understand the Word.

Ariel’s story is ultimately one of faith, love, and forgiveness. Among all of Disney’s princesses, she is the only one who by the movie’s end has not changed. She remains a rebellious teenager, not sorry for her disobedience (only the painful consequences to her and others), and yet she gets what she wants. Her father gives her the dream of being human. Triton recognizes that Ariel loves Erik, which he blesses because he loves her. His decision depends upon his reciprocal and unconditional love and forgiveness, moving him to undergo the sacrifice of his precious daughter leaving home for good. Ariel prefigured this happy ending by her own declaration that, though she knew not how, she believed that she would reach her dream. Herein is fallen humanity, while still in sin, having faith that God loves them enough to redeem them, a faith that comes because they choose to love Him.

The next step, repentance, is central to Beauty and the Beast. As set forth in the opening sequence, Beast must learn true kindness, after concerning himself with mere appearances and professing penitence only when facing the consequences for his folly. Ultimately, Belle moves him to begin this change, after having no such inclination the whole of his bestial life. His love for her causes him to realize what it means to care for another person, not just himself. He even learns to let go of Belle, to give up control in complete humility and self-denial, and satisfy her needs, even when his own are in dire jeopardy as a result. Beast is like the believer who walks with Christ, learning to purge the fleshly desires and become more human, more like the godly image from before the Fall and the true lover of God.

Beast makes the ultimate sacrifice, to conclude his journey, because this life of turning away from sin is a kind of death. Walking with the Lord, while secure in eternal blessings, is painful because it is not free from death. Beast has to die, to his bestial self and literally, before he can be transformed in Belle’s love and receive the consummation of his redemption. He has become human in spirit, but by death and resurrection (take the final scene of transformation how you will), he becomes human in body. Sappy as it sounds, this is a tale as old as time, of God bringing His people back to Him through the painful earthly life of obedience and into the glory of new, heavenly life.

Finally, the future restoration of God’s kingdom on earth, as He returns to raise the dead to eternal life and judge the wicked, undergirds the sweeping story of The Lion King. This grand savanna epic, arguably the artistic height of Disney animated film (due to no small similarity to Hamlet, except with a happier ending), is about a usurped kingdom, a prince who forgets himself, and a cycle of life to death and to life again. Mufasa is the best example of a loving father and of majestic kingship in the Disney canon, such that his death is the hardest scene to watch, young or old. While Morgan Freeman has played God, James Earl Jones touches closer, in my opinion, to representing God in this role. After he dies, is separated from his son and his people, Simba runs into unknown territory and blinds himself to his princely heritage, while the murderous uncle begins a ruinous tyranny. Echo the Fall, when death takes over and humanity loses its divine image.

Simba needs to reclaim his identity, and then he will bring righteous wrath against Scar and wage ware to reclaim the savanna. Visited by Mufasa, he remembers who he is, and from then on takes up the kingly mantle, a type for Christ and for the restored believer. The direct consequence of this new identity is challenging Scar. As God promised that He would save mankind from death, He has also promised to return someday and give Satan battle for His creation (except He will wipe out His foes without much effort). Heaven comes to the fight at Pride Rock, since the flames that consume the wicked Scar and his hyena minions, now turned against him, were started by a lightning strike.

The battle won, the ruined kingdom is made whole again. Once evil is vanquished, the rains purify the deadened plains as Simba, in the image of his father, walks up to proclaim himself the rightful lion king. In celebration, the faithful herbivore subjects return to a budding savanna, after the fiery perdition had purged its evil and sent the wicked to their rightful deaths. The circle of life turns again, but so far as the movie is concerned it isn’t a perpetual cycle as the animistic theology of Africa might maintain— it is an image of a dead world being resurrected. The King has returned; life springs forth again. When Christ comes, He promises to judge evil once and for all, and to recreate His world as it used to be, perfect and eternally alive.

Ariel represents the life of sin that gets forgiven, and the sinner, by faith, being promised security of heaven as fulfillment of lasting happiness. Beast signifies the believer habituating real change from wickedness while in this earthly life, ultimately embracing the death of Christ as their final dissolution of sin. And Simba embodies both the believer reclaiming their princely nature and God’s returning wrath and resurrection of this world, through Christ the one true king.

Ender’s Game Movie Review

Ender’s Game was good. That’s an extremely short version, but  the rest of this will mostly be caveats on that statement. So, don’t miss it: I really enjoyed Ender’s Game, the film.

The source material is among my favorite books. I own multiple copies, have read it five or six times in the last decade, and have spent a fair amount of time in its extended universe. I’ve used the ideas explored in Ender’s Game to illustrate philosophical points in papers. In short, I’m probably one of the biggest fans of the book. I’m also not the sort of fan who thinks that the film had to be one hundred percent exactly the same. For a story like this, that would be nearly impossible.

Spoilers from here on out.

So I won’t complain about those changes. I won’t complain that the film cuts down on Ender’s interactions with Peter and Valentine. I won’t complain that the entirety of the movie is condensed down into approximately a year, rather than the six that the book takes. I won’t complain that most of Ender’s frustrating zero-g battles are condensed into one battle, rather than a slower increase in difficulty.

I really want to complain about Bernard making it all the way to the end of the movie. But I won’t, because that’s really petty. It does bother me, though.

Here’s the biggest issue with the movie: pacing. While the movie manages to hit almost all of the major notes in the book (and this is actually quite impressive), in order to do so the film moves as quickly as possible through nearly everything. There’s some sense to this: we should probably feel the impending invasion the same way that the characters do. But it gets to the point where every line feels like it is rushed. You could pull almost any 30 second fragment from the film and make it into a trailer. Provided you avoid spoilers, that would actually work just fine.

I’d have rather the film been three movies, or at least two. Give the first film a bit more time on earth, then Battle School up until Ender is promised Dragon Army. Then, do a movie from his first battle up until he is transferred to Command (spending some time showing how much they are sacrificing as far as the school itself). Finally, do an entire film for Ender’s time on the asteroid (rather than the planet), fighting new types of battles, focusing on the background learning of the Formics.

I recognize that you couldn’t really talk a studio into doing that. Without proving you can sustain audiences (*ahem* The Hobbit), you won’t get funding to turn “one story” into three movies.

So that’s the biggest problem. My second issue is more localized. When Ender fights Bonzo in the book, the fight is visceral; Ender’s win is both decisive and intentional. Bonzo attacks, and even after Ender has incapacitated him, he continues to beat him. The fight is a clear mirror with Ender’s fight before he leaves Earth, which was depicted in the film. Ender is still a monster. A relatable protagonist, with clear motives, but one who clearly acts violently in ways that are morally evil. Even at the end of the text, when Ender has won the war, he feels guilty not just because of the actions he participated in, but because he was convinced that he would have acted the same way, had he known.

In the film, however, Ender progressively becomes less violent. Rather than continuing to possess the reasoning he has in the beginning, after Ender enters Battle School, he starts to think the way he grows to think in Speaker for the Dead. Eventually, Ender grows to hate himself in the book series, branding himself as the Xenocide and working hard to bring back the Formics he had previously destroyed. But while he is still a functioning and active part of the International Fleet, Ender pretty clearly maintains the willingness to destroy his enemy, if need be. He won’t like doing it, but he thinks that it is necessary. It isn’t until he’s completed the task he was asked to do (and had spent half of his life working towards) that he manages to snap himself out of this “fight to end all future fights” mentality. But when Ender fights Bonzo in the film, he doesn’t actually hurt Bonzo intentionally. Ender lands one solid kick, mostly to keep Bonzo away from himself, and Bonzo falls and hits his head on an edge. Ender calls for help, immediately, and even goes to watch surgery being performed on Bonzo’s now-shaven head. There’s compassion, sure, and Ender has always had that. But we still end up with a different Ender than the one in the books.

That said, the Ender in the film is probably the moral superior. Book-Ender is a killer all the way up until Speaker for the Dead, even as he is incredibly compassionate. But Film-Ender manages compassion from the moment he leaves Earth. He doesn’t even have to fight back against Bernard, who miraculously stays with him through the end (those who haven’t seen the film but have read the book: if you’ve forgotten who Bernard is, that’s understandable; he isn’t memorable by name, and shouldn’t have gotten that far in the film).

Oops. I said I wouldn’t complain about that.

The film looks fantastic, to give it the praise it is due. The acting is top notch, regardless of characterization decisions. Ender is incredibly emotional, and Asa Butterfield portrays that excellently. Harrison Ford pulls off Graff better than I had hoped. All around, the cast is tight, the effects are cool, and the experience as a whole just plain works. The moral conflict is preserved, and even the Giant’s Drink game manages to do well.

But really, Bernard?