Monday, July 20, 2009

For God So Loved the Human Race That He Brought Keanu Reeves Out of Mothballs...

Benjamin A. Plotinsky thinks he's picked up on some recent tendencies in science fiction. "
There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside in glory over a world redeemed. Tell this story to one of the world’s 2 billion Christians, and he’ll recognize it instantly. Tell it to a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and he’ll ask why you’re making minor alterations to the plot of The Matrix or Superman Returns."

The evidence is pretty much right there on the surface, and not just in such moments as the one early in The Matrix where someone tells a not-yet enlightened Keanu Reeves, “You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ,” or the later one where Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus tells Reeve's Neo, “Like everyone else, you were born into bondage.” Morpheus also tells Neo, “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth. . . . After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return—that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people.” As Plotinsky notes, "We don’t know [whether Neo is the One] until near the movie’s end, when a comrade-in-arms betrays Neo and Morpheus. Neo chooses to save Morpheus’s life by surrendering his own. The machines kill him—but then he mysteriously returns to life and obliterates his enemies, to the grand accompaniment of trumpets and a choir...It takes no great perception to recognize how closely this plot tracks the basic Christian narrative, though it conflates the Passion with the End Days, adding the betrayal of a Judas to a messianic Second Coming."

As for "Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns (2006) sought to answer an age-old question: Does humanity need gods? Lex Luthor, Superman’s eternal nemesis, answers early on. After Luthor compares himself to Prometheus, an accomplice retorts: 'Sounds great, Lex, but you’re not a god.' 'Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind,' Luthor snarls. He’s in agreement with Lois Lane, who has won a Pulitzer for an op-ed titled 'Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.'" When Superman returns, he proves both his archenemy and his old flame (and mother of his son) wrong: he selflessly saves the world, after which he "remains in a coma until his son...restores him to life. He leaves his hospital room empty until a nurse discovers it, just as Mary and Mary Magdalene find Jesus’s empty tomb."

It may be possible to nod appreciatively at all this and still have doubts about whether sci-fi stories are automatically enriched if they mirror religious mythologies. The Christ story parallels underlying the Matrix trilogy definitely got heavier and more explicit as the movies crashed into their second and third installments, and whether this is coincidental or not, there are plenty of people who think that the movies themselves also got progressively worse. There may be even more people who would argue that any position that depends on including the terms "underrated" and "Superman Returns" in the same sentence has to be a non-starter. To his credit, Plotinsky readily acknowledges that when, "As the world knows to its sorrow, [George] Lucas revived the Star Wars franchise in 1999 with The Phantom Menace," any inclination to downplay the religious-mystical aspects of the earlier films, or treat them playfully, were long gone, and the movies suffered because of it: "...where the original movie never deified Luke, The Phantom Menace describes Anakin—the future Darth Vader, Luke’s father—in terms so messianic as to make Neo blush, repeatedly calling him 'the Chosen One.' The source of the term is in Luke—the Evangelist, that is—where Jewish leaders say of the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus: 'Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!' The movie is fuzzy about who exactly has done the choosing, however—a failure doubtless rooted in Lucas’s carelessness with plots."

Plotinsky makes a case that religious themes, which he also detects in The Terminator, E.T., and I Am Legend, jumped to the front of sci-fi creators' minds as the Cold War receded and geopolitics, which had once fueled the Star Trek series, became too confusing and gray for easy metaphorical consumption. Certainly it was a bleak day for the Star Trek franchise when Earthlings and Klingons learned to just get along. Incidentally, if there's anything to all this, might it not be true that The Terminator, with its save-the-unborn-savior plot and its very-'80s nuclear-terror tremors, is a key transitional work, about a messiah coming to save us from the bomb? (I just thought I'd drop that in here; I'm sure not trying to suggest that Plotinsky's article needed to be any longer.) In any case, we may have already seen things start to shift back: the recently completed Battlestar Galactica series invoked God and gods and religious prophecy left and right, but in the context of an allegory about 9/11 and the development of post-9/11 morality. Will the new Star Trek movie mark a full return to the thrilling days of intergalactic secular warfare involving aliens with growly accents and exotic facial hair? As the old Vulcan proverb says...

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