Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Iron Giant -- choices and souls

Director: Brad Bird, 1999. (PG)

Before Brad Bird won his two Oscars for directing Pixar's Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004), he cut his directorial teeth on this shorter animated movie. A decade old it still seems fresh, and at only 90 minutes it feels a perfect length. Aimed at families, it has enough to keep both kids and adults engaged and satisfied. In fact, it has fewer juvenile jokes and seems more adult than most animated movies these days.

This is 1957 and the Russians have just sent Sputnik into orbit, beating the Americans in the space race. An early scene shows kids being taught in school how to prepare to survive an atomic blast, as if that were possible. This is the era of cold war and paranoia.

The film opens with an object descending from outer space through the stratosphere into the sea off the coast of Maine. It is a robot. For some reason this iron giant has lost its purpose and communication abilities. All it knows is to eat metal.

When news leaks out two things happen. First nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) meets and befriends the Iron Giant. Second the US Government sends agent Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) out to look into this potential weapon, fearing it is from one of America's many enemies. Of course, Mansley becomes the antagonist to Hogarth's protagonist.

Hogarth's initial response to the Iron Giant is the same as that of the town: fear. But when he saves its life, it recognizes he is a friend. The innocence of the alien robot and its friendship with Hogarth is juxtaposed by the alienation of Hogarth from other kids his age. He has retreated into imagination, and the Giant seems to be an answer to his prayers.

Hogarth's fear-turned-frienship is a marvellous picture of acceptance. When we put our fear and discomfort behind us and reach out to those who are different from us, we can discover that we are more alike than we thought. Jesus broke all social boundaries and conventions when he walked the dusty streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Reaching out to beggars (Lk. 18:35), touching lepers (Mk. 1:41), he also became friends with the hated tax-collectors (Matt. 9:9). When he called Levi, also known as Matthew, some thought him mad. Matthew may have been fearful of this radical and different person with a following, yet his friendship developed and was captured in the gospel account that still bears his name.

This kind of friendship changes us. As Hogarth begins teaching the Iron Giant (voice of Vin Diesel) words and simple speech, the Giant asks questions that provoke serious thought. When hunters kill a bambi-like deer, the subject of death emerges. The Giant asks, "You die?" and Hogath responds in innocence, "Well, yes, someday." The Giant thinks about this and asks another question, "I die?" That is more difficult: "I don't know. You're made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. And souls don't die." Is this robot alive? According to Hogarth he is, and he possesses a soul.

For a family film this early focus on death and its implications is surprising but not disturbing. Its theology is amiss, but then it is not a Christian film. Though the Bible does not define life, it certainly points out that humans possess a soul (Mk. 8:36), but seems to make that a distinction limited to mankind. The soul is part of the immaterial aspect of humanity. Some verses speak of the soul as distinct from spirit (1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12), while others seem to make them synonymous (Mk. 12:30). Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at USC, describes the soul as that factor that integrates all of our thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, spirit and heart into a unity that forms one life.

What is theologically true, regardless of understanding of soul, is that souls never die. Hogarth is right about this. We all will die. Our bodies will be laid in the grave and worms will feast on them. But death will separate our spirits and souls from our bodies causing them to move to their future destinies: some to be with the Lord, later to be re-embodied in an eternal body in a heavenly existence, some to be apart from the Lord, also re-embodied but in a hellish existence.

Hogarth and the Iron Giant are befriended by another outsider, Dean (voice of Harry Connick Jr.). Dean is beatnik junkyard owner but only to collect metal for his artistic creations. An artist, he fashions works of beauty from thrown out pieces of junk. In a sense he represents God the creator, who recreates works of art out of the cast-offs of society, even us!

Toward the end, one of the themse of The Iron Giant becomes clear: "You are who you choose to be." When Hogarth tells him to pretend to be the evil robot from his comic books, the Giant, holding a large letter "S" to his chest, says who he wants to be: "Superman." The Giant has made his choice. How about us? Who do we choose to be? Do we choose to be good, even a hero? It is not as easy as Hogarth makes it out to be. Simply choosing does not cause change. But it starts with a choice. And to be a real hero, to be intrinsically good requires that choice to start with Christ. When we follow Jesus he infills us with a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) and indwells us with his Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17, 10:44).

Mansley rents the bedroom in the Hughes house from Hogarth's mom, Annie (voice of Jennifer Aniston). This gives him opportunity to threaten the boy and discover the Giant's location, setting up the climax. And it is in this moment, when the town is truly under attack, that the Iron Giant's Christ-figure motif becomes readily apparent. And in contrast, the "good" American agent is seen to be a selfish and paranoid coward.

The Iron Giant leaves us reflecting on sacrificial courage and selfish cowardice. We are constantly making choices in life. Will we have the courage to make the big choices, those that cause us to live an epic story?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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