Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- becoming your destiny

Director: Peter Jackson, 2003. (Extended edition)

By 2003, it was apparent that Jackson had created something magical and fantastic with his The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Though the Academy snubbed the earlier two films, with Oscars only for sound, vision and make-up (four for The Fellowship of the Ring and two for The Two Towers), they seemed to make up for this by awarding 11 Oscars to this final chapter. Matching Ben Hur and Titanic, this is the most Oscars won by any film. And this time, Jacson's film earned Best Picture and Best Director honors. Surprisingly, it garnered no acting wins.

Unlike The Two Towers Jackson provides a prolog, a flashback showing how Smeagel (Andy Serkis) won the Ring and was corrupted by its power, turning into the creature Gollum. Then back into the present, we see Gollum leading Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) into Shelob's lair. As a former Ringbearer he has a plan to regain "his precious." Trouble is brewing.

Trouble also faces the men of Gondor in the city of Minas Tirith. Kingless, they are led by Denethor (John Noble) the current steward. When Osgiliath falls to Sauron's orcs, he charges Faramir (Davud Wenham), his younger son to lead a suicide mission to retake the castle, since Boromir his favorite son died earlier. It is a poignant scene when these warriors leave knowing they will fail. Worse, though, are his words when Faramir says, "You wish now that our places had been exchanged . . . that I had died and Boromir had lived." Denethor despondently whispers, "Yes. I wish that."

Denethor gives us a picture of a poor father. He had favored Boromir (Sean Bean) as first-born, a stronger warrior than Faramir. He looked down upon his younger son, even telling Boromir, in The Two Towers, "Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses and they are few." What damage he did. And what damage we do when we play favorites with our children. Our disapproval can wound beyond healing. God has blessed us with children who are unique and not to be compared to one another. As a parent, our job is to "train up the child in the way he should go" (Prov. 22:6). And then release them to the unique paths prepared for them. If we are like Denethor, we may end up sending our unfavored children on psychologically suicidal missions of their own. What a sad price to pay!

The Two Towers ended with hope hanging by a thread, and this continues. Realizing where the hope of Middle Earth lay, Pippin asks Gandalf, "Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?" Gandalf retorts, "There never was much hope. Just a fool's hope." But they keep going for where there is even a ray of hope, men can draw strength.

Sometimes that hope must be manufactured. When Theoden (Bernard Hill) refuses to go to the aid of the men of Gondor unless requested, Gandalf and Pippin ride to Gondor to surreptitiously light the beacon. Aragorn sees the call: "The Beacons of Minas Tirith! The beacons are lit. Gondor calls for aid." It is a terrific moment when Theoden declares regally, "And Rohan will answer. Muster the Rohirrim. Assemble the army at Dunharrow. As many men as can be found. You have two days. On the third, we ride for Gondor . . . and war."

The Return of the King sets up the magnificent Battle of Gondor on the Pelennor Fields. It is spectacular, with men facing orcs, oliphants bearing mercenaries, and even the Witch King of Angmar, the Ringwraith riding on his flying beast. But victory in this battle can only be accomplished by the return of the king with his rightful sword. Aragorn had hidden as a ranger, calling himself Stryder for too long. He had refused to accept his position as son of Arathorn and hence heir of Isildur, the son of man who could raise the blade that once before defeated Sauron and separated him from his Ring.

Aragorn is called to his destiny when the night is darkest and hope is at its dimmest. He tells Elrond (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), "Sauron will not have forgotten the sword of Elendil. The blade that was broken shall return to Minas Tirith." Elrond challenges him, "The man who can wield the power of this sword can summon to him an army more deadly than any that walks this earth. Put aside the ranger. Become who you were to born to be."

Aragorn must rise to his destiny. He is the returning King. He points us to Christ who will return one day as the ruling King, bringing an army to conquer all the forces of evil (Rev. 19:11-21). At his first coming, Jesus was King but he did not act like a king. He had no army. He came in meekness and humility rather than in pomp and splendor. He was crucified as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26) but the Jews denied his kingship and decried him as their Messiah. His destiny had not arrived.

What is our destiny? Who does Elrond challenge us to be? We were born sons of Adam, with a sin-tainted nature. But Jesus' death and subsequent resurrection calls out to us: we are born to be children of the King (Jn. 1:12). In Jesus, through faith in his finished work on the cross, we can become an heir of his, a son or daughter of God. "Isildur's heir," the Son of Man, has made it possible for us to be co-rulers with him upon his regal return (Rev. 20:6).

If The Return of the King centers on the story of Aragorn, it does not forget the story of Frodo. As the film winds through Mordor towards its climax, the power of the Ring begins to corrupt even this little hobbit. But Frodo is a Christ-figure, saves the day and the whole of Middle Earth.
As Aragorn was a version of Christ, so too is Frodo. His path was the humble one, as was Jesus at his first coming. He set his face like flint to accomplish the mission without turning back. So did Jesus (Isa. 50:7). Just like Frodo, Jesus felt the onerous weight of his mission just before he arrived at the end. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus cried out that God might take the cup of wrath away (Matt. 26:39). If there was any other way that would enable him to avoid the cross, he prayed for it. But that was not the will of the Father. No, evil had to be cast into the fires. Sacrifice was necessary (Heb. 9:22). As the tag-line says, "there can be no triumph without loss; no victory without suffering; no freedom without sacrifice." This could be just as easily referring to the first coming and final return of the true King Jesus.

When the battles are all done, when the war is won, and we expect the movie to close out in Hollywood fashion with a quick conclusion, Jackson has a surprise for us. There is still almost an hour left in the extended version. Craig Detweiler, in his book "Into the Dark", asks "why did he have to take us back to the Shire after such a stirring wedding and coronation?" He answers his own question and highlights the way we can connect with this conclusion and with the themes of the three films:
But perhaps I misunderstood Tolkien's intent. The fellowship did not take on the task for profit or glory. The battles were fought to return to life as they knew it -- a modest existence in a remote village. In Tolkien's novels, the Company of Nine do not take up arms with shouts of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.' Their battle cry is decidely local: 'The Shire!' . . . . This connects the dots between God's questions [from Gen. 1-4]. How do we remember who we are? By joining with our brothers and sisters, forming communities in action. We discover where we are as we answer, 'Who is my brother or sister?' These are the bonds of fellowship that triumph and endure, resisting temptation, overcoming evil.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers -- hope and encouragement

Director: Peter Jackson, 2002. (Extended edition)

A year after The Fellowship of the Ring came out, Jackson continued the saga. Whereas the first episode had a long prolog to set the scene, this one gets right into the story. There is no need for introductions or reprises. We are immediately back in the thick of things. And this film has more action, less scenery. Although this is the middle part of a trilogy, it still carries a terrific story and is a fun ride, moving us along on Frodo's journey.

The Fellowship is broken. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are on their own on the edge of Mordor, with the fires of Mount Doom beckoning, even as the all-seeing eye is searching for them. Meanwhile, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are captured by the Uruk-hai and orcs, and are being brought to the Dark Lord. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) are hot in pursuit to rescue them.

When the three rescuers come upon the Riders of Rohan led by Eomer (Karl Urban, Bones in the new Star Trek) who have found and killed all these orcs, they are told, "Look for your friends, but do not trust in hope. It has forsaken these lands." With Saruman's Uruk-hai army on one side and Sauron's orcs on the other, the two towers of Isengard and Barad-dur are dominating the horizon and sucking hope from all in their dark shadow.

The theme of hope, or its absence, dominates this middle film. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) "sees" the two hobbits in Mordor, being led by Gollum their captive, and with elvish magic says, "The strength of the Ringbearer is failing. In his heart, Frodo begins to understand. The quest will claim his life." He faces both the hope of mission completed and the hopelessness of death whether successful or not.

When Theoden (Bernard Hill), King of Rohan is freed of the evil trickery of Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) that kept him spell-bound and under the control of Samuran (Christopher Lee), he too sees a hopeless situation and orders an evacuation of the land. All his people would pull back to Helm's Deep. There they will take their final stand, joined by Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. One of the highlights of this film is the Battle of Helm's Deep, where a few hundred farmers and boys take on thousands of orcs. Hopelessly outnumbered, they are prepared to fight to the death following the leadership of their king and of Aragorn, a born leader.

Even Elrond, the elf prince (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) fears for Aragorn, telling his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler), "He is not coming back. Why do you linger here when there is no hope?" But Lady Arwen, who has given her heart to Aragorn in the romantic scenes in Fellowship, thereby turning her back on immortality, sees through the gloom: "There is still hope."

Loss of hope is a dreadful thing. In the worst case it can lead to loss of interest in life, and from there to apathy or suicide, as Denethor (John Noble) will show in The Return of the King. In the best case it can lead to the decision to go out with a bang, as Aragorn and Theoden illustrate. Life deserves, even requires, hope. In this life we have the hope of Jesus living in and through us to fall back on (Col. 1:27). And we have the hope of being with him after death (Phil. 1:23), or being changed to be like him if he returns before we pass (1 Thes. 4:17, 1 Cor. 15:51-52).

There is hope in Middle Earth. The return of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as the new White Wizard brings hope, as does the decision by the Ents of Fangorn Forest, the shepherds of the trees introduced in this film, to join the fray to save their brother trees.

When hope starts to leak and falter, encouragement is neeed. While the remaining members of the fellowship are in different battles, Frodo and Sam are being led, tired and hungry, across the uninviting landscape of Mordor. Getting closer to Sauron, Frodo's hope begins to fail, "I can't do this, Sam." Their battle is internal, more insidious. But Sam was commissioned by Gandalf in Fellowship and there he made a promise, " 'Don't you leave him Samwise Gamgee' And I don't mean to." Recalling this no doubt, Sam uses the only weapon he has left -- his tongue:
I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.
Words of encouragement provided the power for Frodo to pick up the Ring and keep on going. Sam reminds us of Barnabas, the friend of the Apostle Paul. When Saul/Paul needed encouragement, Barnabas was there (Ac. 9:27). He was alongside him ministering at his side (Ac. 11:26). He even went on mission with him (Ac. 12:25). Even his name meant Son of Encouragement (Ac. 4:36). We all need a Sam or a Barnabas beside us when times get tough. But we also need to be a Sam or a Barnabas to our friends or our relatives when darkness falls on them. Truly, encouragement is the harbinger of hope.

Indeed, in The Return of the King when words prove ineffective, and Frodo is failing, Sam puts his encouragement into action. Knowing he cannot take the Ring, since he is not the chosen Ringbearer, he says, "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you," and then does exactly that.

But the War of the Ring has begun, the Battle for Middle Earth. In The Two Towers, one of the towers is defeated but the other one looms darkly powerful. If hope has come with one victory, this hope seems fragile as the forces of good survey what they must contend against. Jackson leaves us on a knife edge of hope.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- power of friendship, darkness of heart

Director: Peter Jackson, 2001. (Extended Edition)

Peter Jackson and his cast and crew embarked on an epic task at the turn of the century: to film all three books of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "The Lord of the Rings" simultaneously. Before The Fellowship of the Ring many fans of this best-loved book trilogy, including me, wondered if he could pull it off and bring the magic of the fantasy to life. It seemed impossible. But Jackson did it and created a movie masterpiece.

"It began with the forging of the Great Rings." Before introducing the key characters, Jackson gives us an extended prolog that sets the context of the coming three hours. Narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the elf Queen who will show up later in this episode, she tells the story of the rings of old while a fierce battle plays out on screen:
But they were all deceived, for a new ring was made. In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged in secret a master ring to control all others . . . The Ring passed to Isildur, who had this one chance to destroy evil forever, but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own. It betrayed Isildur, to his death. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.
With this opening we learn of the evil Sauron. Though apparently killed, Gandalf later tells Frodo, "The spirit of Sauron endured. His life force is bound to the Ring and the Ring survived. Suaron has returned."

The real beginning takes place in Hobbiton. Jackson has created a believable world of Middle Earth, in the times when men shared this world with elves, hobbits, and dwarves. Filmed in New Zealand, this is a world full of beauty and wonder. Hobbiton is a village of little folks with no more on their minds than their gardens, their women and their ales. Rural, time has left them alone. That is, until Bilbo Baggins' (Ian Holm) eleventy-first birthday. When he puts on the ring he found in The Hobbit, the prequel to this adventure, he disappears . . . and alerts the Dark Lord to the presence of the Ring he has been searching for. This propels Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the Grey Wizard, to entrust the Ring to Frodo Baggins (Elijah Woods), who finds himself accompanied by three fellow hobbits: Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) the gardener, Peregrine "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd), and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan).

The Fellowship of the Ring is well-paced and filled with memorable scenes. Jackson takes the time to show us this new world while bringing the characters to center stage. Early on, we see the Ring-Wraiths, dreaded dark riders, former kings whose rings led them to become trapped spirits under the control of Sauron. They send a shiver down the spine. Then there is the battle of spells between two wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) who has thrown his powerful magic in with Sauron, and has created a race of Uruk-hai, by crossing orcs with goblins. Jackson takes us up the snowy white heights of the mountains that cannot be passed and down into the dark dank Mines of Moria filled with dreaded creatures.

It is in the elfish land of Rivendell that the four hobbits and Strider (Viggo Mortensen), the night rider who has befriended them, are reacquainted with Gandalf. And it is here that the Fellowship is formed. A council of all peoples has been called and representatives listen to Elrond (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), the elf prince. The Ring must be destroyed before Sauron finds it and destroys all of Middle Earth. To do this someone must carry it deep into the heart of Sauron's land and throw it into the fires of Mount Doom from whence it was formed. A suicide mission, no one wants to take on that mantle. When squabbling breaks out and tempers rise, it is small Frodo, the Ring-bearer, who quietly says he will take it. But a fellowship is formed to accompany him: there are the three other hobbits. Boromir (Sean Bean), from Gondor, and Stryder, who is actually Aragorn son of Arathorn, will represent men. The dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pledge their axe and bow. With Gandalf the fellowship of nine is forged. There will be cooperation across cultures.

The first film focuses on the fellowship. They must put aside differences and unite in the common cause if they are to gain victory. Through forests and mines, they face trouble from orcs and trolls. But the power of friendship holds the upper hand.

Tolkien and Jackson remind us that friendship is a force to be reckoned with and a joy to be experienced. A man with friends is rich indeed. Proverbs says, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). Even "wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses" (Prov. 27:6). The picture of Gimli and Legolas, enemies before the council, forming a friendship so strong that later when facing the final battle in The Return of the King Gimli says, "Never thought I'd die fighting side by side with a Elf," Legolas corrects him, "What about side by side with a friend?" Life is full when friends are alongside.

The Fellowship is tested by the trials it faces. Along the way, some are tempted, some are lost. One thing is clear: the Ring is cursed. If it calls to its Master and Maker, it also affects the hearts of those around it. We see a glimpse of the creature Gollum, whose sad life has been poisoned by the power of the Ring. We feel it separating Frodo from his fellows. He is even told by Galadrial, "You are a Ring-Bearer, Frodo. To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." We see it darken even this bright elf queen herself, and Gandalf understands the subtlety of its temptation. Most of all we see Boromir, the strong warrior craving its power for his people.

The Ring taps into the darkness in the heart. This resonates with the biblical truth, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) We have a bent towards evil from birth, due to the presence of original sin (Gen. 3:1-6). Satan introduced evil into our world. Tolkien has said, "But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us."

Yet Tolkien is not a pessimist, seeing evil victorious. He has also said, "And because evil is a perversion and distortion of the good -- never having any positive existence of its own -- no creature in The Lord of the Rings lies beyond redemption. Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning." The hope of salvation lies in the frail and tiny hands of Frodo.

At one point in Fellowship, Frodo sits down with Gandalf and says, "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." We can all empathize with Frodo. How often have we wished our troubles away. Couldn't they have gone to someone else? Why were we picked for this burden? But Gandalf sagely counsels the young hobbit: "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

This key point is apropos for our times. We all must choose how to use our time. Circumstances call us to rise and respond. Whether this is in a ministry, a vocation, a career, or a war. How will we respond? Pastor John Piper expands on this in his short book, "Don't Waste Your Life." Will we complain of what is laid on our plate? Or will we rise to the occasion, like Frodo? And who knows, perhaps God has put us in this very place for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sherlock Holmes -- sorcery and resurrection

Director: Guy Ritchie, 2009.

Not being an afficionado, when I picture Sherlock Holmes I see a thin middle-aged man with a deerstalker hat and a meerschaum pipe saying, "Elementary my dear Watson" to his graying sidekick. This probably comes from early films starring Basil Rathbone. Robert Downey Jr.'s version of the great detective blows my image to smithereens in a fun explosion of semi-comedic action that employs none of these stock preconceptions. But, from what I have read from more knowledgeable reviewers, this Sherlock Holmes is quite true to Conan Doyle's original creation.

The end of the naughts decade was an era of reboots. J.J. Abram's Star Trek was a reboot of the classic TV series of the 60s, reimagining and reinventing the characters with a new storyline. Here Ritchie restarts the Sherlock Holmes character, perhaps truer to the original than ever. Indeed, Downey Jr's career itself has been rebooted, first as Tony Stark in Iron Man and now here as Holmes. From drugs to jail and back to stardom, he won the 2010 Golden Globe award for best actor in a comedy for this role. These are two franchises that rely on the charm and charisma of the actor. Apart from him, both would be less enjoyable.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is as strong physically as he is mentally. This comes across clearly in a bare-knuckle fight scene. In the ring with a brute of a boxer, surrounded by gambling Cockneys, Holmes is simply playing with the man until his patience wears thin. Then Ritchie shows Holmes thinking through his planned moves and counter-moves like a chess grand-master, elaborating the extent of the upcoming injuries, all in a stop-action visual approach. Once satisfied with his attack, Holmes executes it swiftly. What a kick, literally! This is Holmes the brawler. That is part of the fun, as Ritchie lets us see from Holmes perspective, giving insight into the man and his phenomenal thinking.

His renowned powers of deduction aer underscored in a terrific restaurant scene. While waiting to be joined by his friend and sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law, Sleuth) and Watson's fiancee Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), Holmes observes the room with all his senses. The camera moves around slowly and in close-up. We see, we hear, we almost smell, all that Holmes is sensing. (In many ways, Holmes is like Mr. Monk, my favorite TV character and private detective, only Monk is OCD and Holmes is a slob.) When Watson and Morstan join him, she requests that he tell her all that he can deduce about her from observation. Not a good idea, as Watson points out. But she insists. When Holmes delivers his detective observations, it is more than she bargained for. He cannot control observing and deducing. This is both a gift and a curse.

This brings us to one of the highlights of the film: the chemistry between Holmes and Watson. Downey Jr and Law hit it off as a pair who have moved beyond superficial friendship. They are like the odd couple, knowing each other better than a married pair. When Holmes gripes, "You've never complained about my methods before," Watson retorts: "I've never complained! When have I ever complained about you practicing the violin at three in the morning, or your mess, your general lack of hygiene, your experiments on my dog, or the fact that you steal my clothes?" Dripping sarcasm, they are comfortable with each other, vices and all. Although Watson brings more of the comedic relief, the film is stronger when he is with Holmes on screen.

Sherlock Holmes opens with the capture of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). A confessed serial killer and sorceror, he is convicted and sentenced to execution. At his hanging, Watson is the attending physician certifying his death. When Blackwood mysteriously returns from the dead, as alive as ever, fear descends on London, along with more killings. The mysterious magician brings his occult powers and dastardly plans into very the heart of government. Holmes and Watson have their work cut out to solve the puzzle and avoid a disaster.

Magic, sorcery and occult form the backdrop for Blackwood's plans. Generally, magic is not real; it is usually sleight-of-hand trickery relying on distraction or mechanical preparations. Most magicians today are simply capable tricksters. Sorcery, or black magic, on the other hand is the use of supernatural powers through the aid of evil spirits. Broader still, the occult is the supernatural and its affairs considered as a whole.

Biblically, magic is considered in a similar way. The magicians of Egypt could emulate some of Moses' miracles through their secret arts (Exod. 8:7) but it is sorcery that carries strong warning: "Do not practice divination or sorcery" (Lev. 19:26). Involvement with sorcery opens the door to the forces of evil (Eph. 6:12). The biblical writers are in full agreement that there are spiritual beings who are evil. Led by the one called Satan (1 Chron. 21:1), these creatures often called demons have powers beyond ours (Mk. 5:4). But not beyond God's (1 Jn. 4:4). Though sometimes people tap into these powers via sorcery, it is a dangerous thing as they are aligning themselves with the devil and against God. Satan's ultimate destiny is the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10), and his servants and allies will suffer a similar fate (Rev. 20:14).

As the film progresses and moves to its conclusion Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, The Notebook) comes on the scene. One complaint is that she is never really introduced. We don't learn her back-story, and her relationship with Holmes is unexplained. She was not pervasive in the books, although she did appear in a few. It is unclear if she will be back in future installments. This one leaves her and Blackwood hanging in the wind.

A final biblical parallel comes from Blackwood himself. He rose from the dead. There is allusion to resurrection. The biblical accounts identify a number of people who were raised from the dead. The prophet Elisha raised the dead widow's son (2 Ki. 4:32-35). The apostles Peter and Paul did similar miracles: Peter raised Tabitha (Ac. 9:40), while Paul brought Eutychus back to life (Ac. 20:8-10). Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb after he had been three days rotting there (Jn. 11:38-43). The pinnacle of resurrection examples, of course, is Jesus himself. After being beaten, flogged and crucified (Matt. 27:26-44), he was laid to rest in a fresh tomb (Matt. 27:60). But three days later he appeared, alive again, to the women (Matt. 28:9), then the disciples (Matt. 28:17). He had predicted his resurrection from the dead (Jn. 2:19; Lk. 24:7), and he fulfilled it. And unlike the resurrection of Lazarus or Tabitha (or all of the others for that matter), Jesus did not die again. His new life was permanent and eternal.

More than this resurrection, though, Jesus stated categorically, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (Jn. 11:25-26) He offers resurrection life to all who would believe in him. His question stands before each of us, "Do you believe this?" Would we be like Lord Blackwood or Lord Jesus?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Defiance -- combat or community

Director: Edward Zwick, 2008.

Edward Zwick has directed a number of movies about war. But most of them look at war from a minority perspective, or at different forms of war. One of his earliest films, Glory, centered on the first all-black volunteers during the American Civil War. In the 90s, the Gulf War took center stage in Courage Under Fire. In 2003 he focused on the Japan imperialst wars in The Last Samurai. Here, he turns his attention on World War 2, but through the eyes of Polish Jews and partisans.

Defiance is the true story of the three Bielski brothers: Tuvia (Daniel Craig, the newest James Bond: Casino Royale), Zus (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), and Asael (Jamie Bell). Smugglers before the war, they are schooled in survival, knowing the woods of their native Poland and Belorussia. They are impervious to the war until the war touches them . . . in a personal way.

The movie opens with actual newsreel footage. The Germans are committing atrocities against the Polish Jews from the rural villages. As we see children separated from parents, old men being callously shot by Nazis, the black and white morphs into color and we are into the film. A striking introduction, it propels us emotionally into the story.

This introduction finds the Bielski family touched by tragedy. When Zus returns home from the forest with another brother, he finds the village empty, massacred. Their father and uncles lie dead, ruthlessly killed. Asael survived by hiding, but now the three brothers take to the forest, where they are joined by Tuvia. Their plan is to survive alone, a small band of brothers, living for themselves. That plan comes into question when they find other Jews, old and weak, frail and female, unfamiliar with surviving in the forests. Tuvia, the oldest brother and clear leader, accepts them into his group, even though he has little food or medicine.

As the group grows, Tuvia and Zus have different ideas on how to defy the Germans and gain freedom. Zus wants to join the Russian partisan soldiers, also hiding in the forest, and fight the invaders. But Tuvia wants to continue to foster an open and welcoming community. These two leaders come head to head to literally fight over the leadership and future of this motley crew. Which is better? Defiance by fighting for freedom? Or defiance by living in freedom? These two provide the extremes of the options explored in Defiance.

One problem highlighted in Defiance is that of savage retaliation. This is graphically depicted in two troubling scenes. The first appears early in the film when Tuvia takes justice into his own hands, and goes on a mission to execute the man who led the Germans to his village. Ruthlessly in cold-blood he kills the man in his home during dinner with his family. We can understand his motivation, but is it morally justified? Not only is he taking the law into his own hands, not leaving vengeance and justice to the one who stands above all, the Lord God of Israel (Deut. 32:35), but he is also putting his own little community at risk of Nazi retaliation or worse, his own death. Is it ever right to let emotions over-run self-control and vent our "righteous anger" on our enemies? Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sophie Scholl, perhaps we are called to passive opposition or civil disobedience.

The second scene is even more brutal. Tuvia has made it clear: "We are not thieves. Or murderers. We may be hunted like animals but we will not become animals." He is firm on his commitment to avoid becoming like the very people who are hunting him: savage brutes. Yet, when his community capture a German soldier on the eve of a German attack, he is unsure what to do with him. Lacking a decision, the rabble of angry refugees resorts to mob rule. They surround the poor man and savagely beat him to death. They have become like those they are running from, even if for a brief moment.

Tuvia understands clearly the need to retain our humanity, even in the face of depravity and desperation. Taking revenge, wreaking brutal punishment on another person who may not have personally harmed you, is morally and ethically wrong. Yet, to the mob, it felt so good. It gave them an opportunity to experience blood-lust, to pour out the pent-up frustration of never being able to give back. Always running, they were able to stand and fight. But what kind of fight is killing a defenceless man! It is an unfair and immoral fight. As Tuvia turns away, seeking to retain his humanity, the crowd of followers become a pack of baying hounds with blood in their nostrils.

If Tuvia is having his problems keeping his community under control, Zus has his own problems. When he leaves with some of the fighting men to join the Russians, he finds a form of anti-semitism amongst his new "allies." The Soviets are willing to accept them as cannon fodder but still treat them as inferior due to their religious views.

So, is it better to "fight" for freedom by living, and perhaps dying in actual freedom, enjoying what community there is among like-minded people, or to literally fight with those who look down on you? The other alternative is to give in and "live" with badges on the lapels behind the gates of the ghetto, never knowing when the enemy will ship you out to the labor/death camps. Zwick makes the answer clear when Zus rejoins Tuvia.

The key is to retain humanity and dignity, even faith. When things look dire, food is forgotten, snow is all-around, the faith of the community flickers and is all but extinguished. One prayer sums it up:
Merciful God, we commit our friends - Ben Zion and Krensky - to You. We have no more prayers, no more tears; we have run out of blood. Choose another people. We have paid for each of Your commandments; we have covered every stone and field with ashes. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Teach them the deeds
and the prophesies. Grant us but one more blessing: take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.
It is easy to understand how their faith is eroded little by little until none is left except that crumb asking for freedom from God. But that is no freedom. The freedom that begins with an act of defiance against the Germans is a freedom that holds firm to faith. Even the flicker is enough. Faith is what is needed when all else is dark. Together with his brother, Tuvia provides faith enough for the community. His faith enables the others to begin to believe again in the God of Abraham. He delivered his people from the Egyptians. He will deliver the Polish Jews from the Germans. Not all made it, but through the efforts of the Bielski brothers, more than 1200 Jews survived for almost three years in the forests and ultimately lived to see V-day.

Although faith is a personal matter, as evangelicals like to affirm, there is a place for community faith. The faith that Jesus calls us to is a faith that places us in community, the congregation of the saints that gather together regularly (Heb. 10:25). We encourage and enable those around us in our community with our faith. When we struggle, we can look to them and take courage and heart from their faith. Tuvia is an example of how the faith of one man can ignite the faith of the community. Whether we are the one or the one in the crowd, we can be encouraged that faith is not just a separated and separating issue. No, faith is to be lived out in community where we can help one another to get through the hard times.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 18, 2010

In the Bedroom -- relationships and tragedies

Director: Todd Field, 2001.

In the Bedroom is a story of a normal family in a small town in Maine. But Todd Field pulls back the bedroom curtains so we can see how normal this family is, and how they deal with misfortune and unfairness. It is a film about relationships and tragedies.

Field takes his time establishing context and character. The film seems small and quiet, much like the fishing town itself. With minimal music, it forces the viewer to watch and engage with his or her own emotions, not those manufactured by the vibrant violin strings of melodrama.

Matt (Tom Wilkinson, Duplicity) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) are the married couple at the heart fo the film. The Fowlers have one son, Frank (Nick Stahl), a student applying to grad school whose architectural ambitions are the dreams that keep the Fowlers humdrum lives centered.

Home from college for the summer, Frank is in love with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler), an older woman and young mother who is soon-to-be-divorced from her abusive husband Richard (William Mapother). This relationship between Frank and Natalie is bittersweet. Frank sees it as true love. He is willing to defer his college plans for her, and as noble and chivalric as this seems, Natalie recognizes the fantasy that it is. Richard, though, cannot bear to see his wife with another man, even if he is not acting as her husband.

The title refers to the rear compartment of a lobster trap known as the "bedroom," which can only hold up to two lobsters before they begin to turn on each other. Three spells trouble. In a lobster fishing village this was well known. But it portends the storm that brews in the relationships involving three people. And then for Matt and Ruth, it perhaps touches on the fragility of their relationship: their only meaningful communications seem to take place in the bedroom.

One of the beauties of the film is in its contrast of Frank's parents. Matt is the town doctor. Low key and quiet, he stoically deals with life, plodding on, seemingly unphased. His tears are private tears, alone and apart. Ruth, on the other hand, is a teacher and the school's choir leader. She is vocal in her feelings, always ready to opine and judge. Perhaps it is the opposites of their character that drew them together.

Their relationship with Frank is key. Matt reaches out to his only son. He fishes with him on his crabbing runs when he can. He walks casually to the dock at lunch-times to see his son in fatherly visits, quietly spending time with him. Ruth unwittingly pushes Frank away with her constant badgering and belittling. She thinks that as a mother she knows what is best for him, and she is always seeking to let him know this.

How do we relate to our children? Though neither is perfect, Matt is clearly tighter with Frank. Do we reach out, seeking to be with our kids when they are doing what they enjoy? Are we willing to let them make their own decisions, reaping the benefits or experiencing the consequences of their choices, even if we think we know better? At some point, our children will be like Frank, old enough to decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives. At that point, we have to hope that our parenting was the best it could be. Having trained them in the way they should go, we can only pray that they will not depart from the right path (Prov. 22:6).

Frank's relationship with Natalie also proves to be a point of contention between his parents, the sword that divides them from one another after years of marriage. In an uncharacteristic outburst, Matt yells at Ruth: "He went there because of you. Because you are so controlling, so overbearing, so angry . . . You are so unforgiving." He blames his wife's unforgiving spirit and bitterness for driving Frank away from them.

Anger, unforgiveness and guilt. These are emotions that we store up, telling ourselves we have every right to feel this way. What we don't see is the effect they are having on ourselves and on those around us. They warp our perspective and shrivel our souls. We become like Ruth, twisted and bitter. The only antidote or answer is to forgive. This is not easy or cheap. It costs us the price of vengeance as we release them and allow justice and vengeance to be placed in the hands of God: " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). But only by letting go can we experience the freedom to grow in the relationship. The apostle Paul command us who have experienced the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13).

However, emotions rise and tragedy strikes. When this happens, justice and fairness are called into question. Ruth's anger turns to bitterness and becomes a beast that drives and consumes her. In the middle of the small-town normality the Fowler's monster becomes untamable.

When we see wrong going unpunished, when we feel justice trampled underfoot with no recourse, what do we do? Do we accept our "fate"? Or do we seek to take matters into our own hands? There is a monster that lurks near each of us, even inside us. We are all capable of things unthinkable. At the very beginning, God said to Cain, "sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). Are we ready?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 15, 2010

Star Wars Episode 3: The Revenge of the Sith -- anger and birth of evil

Director: George Lucas, 2005.

With The Revenge of the Sith Lucas brings the entire Star Wars epic to a close. Despite knowing the inevitable outcome, even from the end of Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back), this satisfyingly depicts the transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) into Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones). The story is superior to those of its two predecessors in this trilogy and is certainly on a par with episodes 5 and 6 from the original trilogy, due mostly to the overarching presence of Darth Vader, a most engaging villain.

Set 3 years after the battle of Geonosis and the Clone Wars, General Grievous has kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). When Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker spring to the rescue it falls on Anakin to stop Dooku. As Grievous escapes leaving Obi-Wan fallen and dazed, Anakin raises two light sabers over Dooku, the Sith Lord Tyranus. With Palpatine looking on, Anakin decapitates Dooku in cold-blood. This is not the red-hot angry massacre of the Tusken Warriors on Tattooine. Anger could be blamed then, not now.

Back on Coruscent, capital of the Republic, the Jedi begin to suspect the Supreme Chancellor, and ask Anakin to spy on him. But in doing so, Palpatine manipulates him, drawing Anakin ever closer to the Dark Side of the Force. When Anakin discovers the true identity of Palpatine as Darth Sidious, Palpatine asks him, "Are you going to kill me?" Anakin, struggling with his mixed emotions: "I would really like to!" And then the Supreme Chancellor says, "I know you would. I can feel your anger. It gives you focus . . . makes you stronger."

Anger is a key theme running throughout this dark chapter of the series. Palpatine is right: sometimes anger gives focus. There is a place for focused righteous anger. Jesus showed this when he cast the money-changers out of the Temple courts (Jn. 2:14-15), since they were sinning. But more often anger brings tunnel vision and loss of perspective. Too frequently it leads us to actions that we later regret. It is why Paul said, " 'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Eph. 4:26). And Anakin's anger will become the death of him.

Later, reunited with Padme, his secret bride, she tells Anakin that she is pregnant. This news brings joy but also trouble, as Anakin has visions of Padme dying in childbirth. Like the troubling dreams he had of his mother in Episode 2, he wants to take action. Angrily he tells her he wants the power of life and death, to be immortal and to offer immortality. In short, he wants to be like God. If Attack of the Clones gives us a picture of Anakin as Satan, here we see an image of Anakin as Adam.

In the Garden of Eden Satan tempted the first human couple. Though Adam and Eve were commanded by God not to eat from one tree, Satan told Eve, "You will surely not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5). Adam and Eve did not triumph over this temptation to be like God, but they found, to their dismay, that they did not become immortal, god-like beings (Gen. 3:22). Instead, they were transformed into sinners, dying within and without.

After a saber duel between Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Palpatine, Anakin faces the choice that would seal his destiny: follow the Jedis and save Windu, while arresting Palpatine, or follow Palpatine and become a Sith. His decision, inevitable from the outset, was driven by his emotions and his desire to save Padme. The attachment he was warned about in Episode 2 has now caught him in its net. With a final display of power, Palpatine kills Windu but is physically disfigured into the Darth Sidious we know from the first trilogy.

The Supreme Chancellor immediately sets his clone army against the Jedis throughout the galaxy. Killing these forces of goodness, he seeks to solidify his position and become Emperor.

The film has several classic light saber duels. In Coruscent, Master Yoda faces off with Darth Sidious, and loses. On Utapau, Obi-Wan battles Grievous, who wields four sabers. And then in the thrilling finale, Anaken squares off against his mentor, Obi-Wan. Set against the molten lava cascading from the volcanoes of Mustafar, Obi-Wan defeats Anakin leaving him alone, without legs and arms, burning and dying. This fight presages the later fight in Star Wars when Obi-Wan will shut his sword down and die at the hands of Darth Vader.

The end of the film is the most powerful. With editing superior to anything in the previous 5 movies, Lucas juxtaposes the births of Luke and Leia, twins born to Padme, with the birth of Darth Vader, as Anakin is reconstructed into a bionic man.

Formerly Anakin had been considered the chosen one who would bring balance to the Force (The Phantom Menace), now he has become Darth Vader, who would bring terror to the galaxy. The virgin birth of the earlier episode is here mirrored by the birth of the anti-Christ. It is not Anakin who would be the Christ. No, he is the anti-Christ who must be defeated by the Christ-figure represented by his son Luke.

The first trilogy belongs to Anakin and Darth Vader, with the rise of the dark side. But the second trilogy belongs to the son, Luke, and the victory of good over evil. Just like in real life. The first half belongs to the sons of Adam and Satan, with the rise of sin and evil. But the closing of history belongs to the Son, Jesus, and his victory over Satan. We are living in the expectancy of this victory. May the force (of the Spirit) be with you!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones -- forbidden love, sinful desire

Director: George Lucas, 2002.

Lucas' second film in this prequel trilogy, it is set ten years later than Phantom Menace. He has clearly learned from that fiasco because he spends some time focusing on the now adult Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) showing his gradual character degradation. But the weakness of this film is Christensen. His acting is dreadful and his chemistry with Natalie Portman is horrible. Unclear it is what Lucas saw in him. But he somehow won the role.

Padme (Natalie Portman) is now Naboo's senator on Coruscent. When her ship arrives, it is immediately attacked. To protect her, two Jedi knights are assigned: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin. The last time she saw him he was a kid; now he is a man. When a mysterious assassin lets two poisonous worms into her bedroom, these two set off on the aerial car chase that is the highlight of this film. When the bounty hunter is killed just before she can say anything, Anakin is commanded to accompany Padme back to Naboo while Obi-Wan must find out what is going on.

It is on Naboo that Anakin falls in love with Padme. As his feelings for her grow stronger she comments, "It must be difficult having sworn your life to the Jedi . . . not being able to visit the places you like . . . or do the things you like." (These would include Tatooine, where his mother still lives.) He responds, "Or be with the people I love." But Padme asks him the key question, "Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi." With twisted reasoning, Anakin answers, "Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi's life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love."

Anakin's thinking is blurred by his personal feelings. Certainly compassion is related to love. But it is not love. Rather, it is "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." This is not love in the sense that Anakin is alluding to. No, the love he feels is one that leads to attachment and marriage; it leads to passion and procreation. Neither compassion nor love is wrong. Both are biblical and qualities of God. He has compassion on the weak and suffering (Exod. 34:6; Deut. 32:36). He is characterized as love (1 Jn. 4:8). They are only wrong in the context of Anakin's situation.

Anakin is forced to choose between his Jedi duty and his love for Padme. Sometimes we, too, are forced to make a choice. We may want to have both options, in a sense "having our cake and eating it too," but frequently it is not possible. The right thing to do is to make a choice and live with that choice. The wrong thing is to rationalize our way into having both, as Anakin does. When we try this, we may seem to get our way initially, but it usually catches up with us. When it does, the consequences are worse than if we had accepted a single selection. Certainly that is so with Anakin, who marries Padme in a secret ceremony on Naboo.

As his love grows, so do the troubling dreams of his mother Shmi (Pernilla August). Sensing she is in danger, Anakin and Padme fly to Tatooine. When he learns from his mother's new husband that she is no longer a slave but now a captive of the Tusken Raiders, the savage dessert people of the region, he goes on a suicidal rescue mission. His feelings are taking control.

Feelings prove to be the start of Anakin's undoing. Padme tells him, "To be angry is to be human," but he thinks otherwise: "I am a Jedi. I can be better than this." When she tells him, "You're not all-powerful, Ani," his dark delusion comes to the fore: "Well, I should be."

Anakin wants to be like God, all powerful. He thinks this is his right, as a Jedi. But even Jedi knights are not gods. They harness the power of the force, they are not the creators of the force. Anakin reminds us of Satan. He wanted to be like God. He sees himself in the place of the Almighty (Isa. 14:14). He felt he could aspire to the throne of heaven and take control of all things. But he is not God. He can never be God. He might have more power than humans, immensely so, but his power pales in comparison with that of the mighty one.

As the film flies to its close, Obi-Wan discovers an army cloned from the bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) on Kamino. There also emerges a plot by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a renegade Jedi, who is in cohorts with a separatist faction and the mechanical General Grievous. In a final controntation with Dooku, Anakin rushes into the fight, led by his emotions, and loses an arm, like his son does in The Empire Strikes Back.

With turmoil in the Republic, Chancellor Palpatine secretly enlists the clone army. Needing more power, he encourages Jar Jar Binks, now a Gungan Senator, to make a motion for the Senate to give the Chancellor sweeping emergency powers to go to war agains the separatist forces. Interestingly this is exactly the same ploy used by Adolf Hitler to gain dictatorial power in Germany in the mid-1930s prior to World War 2. Like Hitler, Palpatine is one step (and one film) away from tyranny.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace -- the chosen one?

Director: George Lucas, 1999.

16 years after the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy and 22 years after Lucas first directed the Episode 4 masterpiece he returns to helm his second installment. Sadly, this is not in the same league. Certainly it has better special effects; that is to be expected after two decades and the emergence of computer generated imagery. But it is the fundamentals that let it down: little story and what there is seems unengaging; two-dimensional unappealing characters; and too much telling with not enough showing.

This is clearly an introduction to a new series. Using the same opening title card crawl to the familiar John Williams music, we read:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict.
This is Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp), not Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is the behind-the-scenes phantom menace of the title, maneuvering himself into position for power. From the earlier trilogy we know that he will become Supreme Chancellor and is in fact Darth Sidious, the insidious evil Sith Lord who uses the Dark Side of the Force for personal position.

When the two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, Taken) and his apprentice the young padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting), come aboard a Federation ship their negotiations prove very short. Before they can enter discussions they are facing a new kind of cool attack droids.

But escape they do, and they meet Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best), the animated Gungan. The Gungans live underwater on Naboo and are at odds with Queen Amidala's people. Jar Jar is one of the least liked of all the Star Wars creatures, and it understandable. He is a clumsy comic character who is simply not very funny. The Gungans, and Jar Jar in particular, are a race we could do without cinematically.

Eventually, after an exciting submarine chase through the core of Naboo, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan rescue Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage and escape to Tatooine, where it all began so long ago . . . in the future. It is here that they meet the young slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and his master Watto, the flying Toydarian junk dealer. When his mother Schmi (Pernilia August) relates his birth story, Qui-Gon knows Anakin is someone special: "There was no father. I carried him. I gave birth, I raised him. I can't explain what happened."

As the Force is a pointer to new age religion, this is a clear pointer to the virgin birth of Christ. Isaiah prophesied, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14). Centuries later, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to foretell this birth, she said: " 'How will this be since I am a virgin?' The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Lk. 1:34-35). Just as the Force conceived Anakin, so the Spirit of God conceived Jesus.

Anakin's ability to handle a pod-racer, a super-fast hovercraft, further solidifies Qui-Gon's suspicions. He turns to Master Jedi Yoda (voice of Frank Oz) and Jedi Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) telling them about this "vergence in the force" located around Anakin. "His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians." To this Mace Windu responds, "You refer to the prophecy of The One who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it's this boy?" Qui-Gon does indeed. Later, just before he dies Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan, "He is the chosen one. He will bring balance. Train him."

This prophecy of Anakin's future makes him appear to be a Christ-figure, though we know this is not so. But it points back to biblical prophecies of the true Christ. Micah had foretold of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem: "for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (Mic. 5:2, Matt. 2:6). Isaiah had said, ""Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations" (Isa. 42:1, Matt. 12:18). He is the chosen one. And then when the baby Jesus was presented in the temple, the old man Simeon prophesied over him, "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 'My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.' " (Lk. 2:30-32) Jesus would bring balance to this sin-infected world by providing the means for redemption (Rom. 3:24).

The two highlights of The Phantom Menace are the pod-race and the light saber duel between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. Even though the savage pod-race is a modern version of the Ben Hur chariot race, it is nevertheless thrilling, pitting Anakin against Sebulba in a race for Anakin's freedom. Then the saber fight sets Qui-Gon's traditional saber against Darth Maul's dual-ended sword. Unfortunately, we see too little of Maul and learn next to nothing about him. He is no Vader.

As The Phantom Menace draws to a close, Senator Palpatine gets elected as Chancellor and Anakin has his freedom. This sets us up for the next installment, that will bring an adult Anakin into the forefront.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 8, 2010

Avatar -- entitlement and exploitation

Director: James Cameron, 2009.

It's been 12 years since Cameron last directed a movie. That one was Titanic, the box-office hit that has grossed over $1.8B and raked in 11 Oscars. But it was worth the wait. Avatar is stunningly breath-taking, particularly in 3-D. Cameron apparently conceived of the story even before Titanic, back in 1995, but needed to wait over a decade for the technology to catch up to his dream.

Avatar is a mixture of live action and animation. Though we've seen this in other films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, here the animated world is amazingly believable. We forget that the world of Pandora and its gorgeous creatures are not real.

Costing about $240M to make (just a little over the budget for Titanic), Avatar has already returned over 4 times that amount. It is clear that Cameron spent much of this on creating the effects; the story itself is cheap and derivative. It has been done before. It is Dances with Wolves crossed with The Mission . . . perhaps Aliens (which Cameron himself directed). Yet that is to miss the point, namely the actual cinematic experience. This is a blast to watch, seeing imagined alien insects flying around your head or fabulous flowers open and close with a touch. And it even carries a worthwhile message subsumed under the threads of escape, entitlement, and environmental care.

As the film opens ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) wakes up on the space liner that transported him and other mercenaries across the galaxy. As soon as they have landed, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tells these new recruits, "You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen." A glance beyond the walls of their compound makes this clear. And the outside world is both beautiful and dangerous in its natural, virgin state. Quaritch and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the outpost leader are determined to change this.

Sully, a wheel-chair-bound paraplegic, is taking the place of his dead twin brother. Since the company has spent millions on growing his brother's avatar, this will go to waste unless Sully, who shares his DNA takes his place. And he does, so he can earn the money for a spinal surgery to regain his own legs. The avatars are crafted from a genetic splicing of DNA from human and Na'vi, the large blue indigenous population, creating a being that can be mind-controlled by the human during a carefully controlled state of unconsciousness.

The set-up is cliche-ridden. Head Scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, star of the Alien movies) has nothing but disdain for this uneducated grunt. She is at loggerheads with Selfridge, whose purpose is simply to rape the land mining the unobtainium that is found only there. He reminds her, "This is why we're here, because this little rock sells for twenty million a kilo." For him, there is nothing more, nothing less. Her research and cultural anthropology studies are secondary and of no interest to him. Industrial expansion trumps scientific exploration.

When Sully first connects with his avatar and feels his feet again, we can sense his feeling of loss. He cavorts and runs, digging his toes into the alien soil in a way he can no longer do as a human. We begin to understand his motivation for this mission: he wants to walk again.

His first mission out of the compound as an avatar goes wrong and he finds himself alone in alien territory. He is like a child at the mercy of unknown creatures. Not expected to survive the night, he is befriended by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Uhura in the new Star Trek) who was ready to leave him until a sign from Ewya, the divine goddess of Pandora, makes it clear he is "chosen."

As the film progresses, his time spent with the Na'vi people, learning their culture seems a god-given opportunity to discover their weaknesses. When Quaritch promises him his legs back after his tour of duty ends if he'll serve as his spy, Sully jumps at the chance. This is escape from his paraplegic prison. He will do anything to escape. What will we do to escape from our confinement? Can we picture ourselves compromising our convictions if the incentive is strong enough? Is there any desire deep enough that we would do literally anything to achieve it? That is a dangerous thing, more dangerous than Pandora's threats.

Of course Avatar is a social commentary as much as a sci fi flick. Cameron has commented on his creation: "It's a way of connecting a thread through history. I take that thread further back to the 16th and 17th centuries and to how the Europeans pretty took over South and Central America and displaced and marginalized the indigenous peoples there." The attitude of the humans in the movie are the problem. He goes on, "There's a sense of entitlement -- we're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, we've got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every damn thing on this planet."

Entitlement has been at the root of all the imperial conquests from the start of time. The Romans, the Spaniards, the English, even the Yankees felt they could take anything they wanted from the ignorant natives because they could kill with their weapons. The truth is we are not entitled to this. The natives may be weaker in certain ways but they have rights. When we ignore them we are dehumanizing them and ourselves in the process. The New Testament message of Jesus is to love our neighbor (Matt. 19:19). Love requires us to relinquish our rights. Jesus came to the marginalized and lived with them in the margins, as homeless as they (Lk. 9:58). He did not exercise his rightful position, he did not claim his entitlement as King and Creator (Jn. 1:3; 18:36). No, he modeled the way of humility and sacrifice (Phil. 2:5-8), not rape and pillage.

Too often we think that our newest technology means we are superior to those without it. Cameron clearly contrasts the cultures of the humans and the Na'vi. The portion of the planet inhabited by the invading humans is painted in blacks, grays and drab olive greens. Colorless but cash-centric, they are mercenaries driven by the mechanization of the huge machines they drive. The Na'vi, on the other hand, live in a world filled with wondrous color. No technology, they are in touch with and attuned to nature. They ride flying creatures or horse-like animals, connecting their minds together.

Cameron goes over the top with his pantheistic view of Ewya, Pandora's equivalent to Mother Earth. Seeing the interconnection of nature is one thing. That is biblical. We were given the mandate to care for the earth from the beginning (Gen. 1:28-30). But we are not all part of god in the sense of Pandora's Ewya, uploading our memories into the great spirit databank tree. Created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), humans are nevertheless distinct from God.

The environmental message runs throughout. The human exploitation of Pandora leaves their world strip mined and barren. The cost of man's thirst for Pandora's rock is the Na'vi's loss. Selfridge does not care. After all, he does not actually live there. He will go where the money is. But the Na'vi will be displaced, their planet ravaged. Is this what we have done to our world?

When all seems lost, and extermination or extinction appears likely, Jake must choose which side he will fight on. The final battle, pitting creation against machines, is thrilling but predictable. The mano-a-mano duel between Sully's avatar and Quaritch is a throw-back to the climax of Alien. Suspenseful? No. Spectacular? Certainly. A fun ecological ride all-round.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs