Tag Archives: Religion

More Human Than Human — “Chappie”

Chappie and dog South Africa

by Gabriel Valdez

Chappie is absolutely everything I want to see in a science-fiction movie. It’s thick with ideas, its twists and turns fast and furious by the end of its two hours.

Let me preface this: I am not a fan of either of director Neil Blomkamp’s previous films. District 9 was interesting, but still had too many holes to sort out by the time its credits rolled. Elysium was promising but crashed and burned in its second half. Both films were chock full of great ideas ruined by uneven execution.

Blomkamp knew this, too, even going so far as to apologize to fans for Elysium. So he went back to the drawing board and stuck closer to home with Chappie.

To recount its plot too deeply would be to reveal any number of twists on its Dickensian orphan formula. Essentially, police in South Africa have begun to use man-sized robots to quell crime. They fight, they shoot, they act as mobile shields. One such robot takes a few extra risks protecting those around him, becomes too badly damaged, and ends up in the trash heap. Its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), begs his boss to study it, but the company doesn’t want to risk artificial consciousness.

Meanwhile, a group of down-on-their-luck gangsters plan to pull off a major heist. They just need to kidnap Deon to get him to turn the police robots off. Deon kidnaps the robot he wants to study, the gangsters kidnap Deon, and one of cinema’s most intriguing alternative families is born.

Chappie gangster

The robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is like a child. The gangsters consist of a father, a mother, their compatriot Amerika, and have a difficult relationship with Deon – the Maker. Each pulls Chappie in different directions – his mother teaches him compassion and self-confidence, his father sabotages that confidence to toughen Chappie up and make him useful, his maker teaches him right from wrong. Chappie can’t make sense of it all, and eventually feels betrayed by and lost from each of these lights in his life.

If it’s starting to sound like something of a faith-based movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. If Chappie were a little boy questioning God instead of a robot questioning his designer, this would be drawing faith-based crowds in droves. The allegory at play is much the same, which brings us to the film’s Satan – a competing robot designer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to sabotage Deon’s success and destroy Chappie. Jackman is utterly brilliant in the role, using that burning intensity we cheer on in his other performances to create someone who’s inconsolably angry at not measuring up.

This is a film about being tugged into all sorts of moral confusions and compromises upon being gifted into the world. Chappie makes mistakes, some of them horrible. We root for him, but we’re also rooting for his understanding of the world and his uniquely personal sense of faith. We want Chappie to live, but more than that – we want him to get the chance to live on his own terms. That’s the crux of the film’s drama. We’re worried for Chappie, sure, but we’re much more worried for who he’ll turn out to be. Every lesson imparted, every moral compromised, every death inflicted – even a touching encounter with a dead pit bull – it all takes a toll on his soul.

Mommy Daddy Chappie

Chappie is a crazy movie – the gangsters are played by South African rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (often wearing their band Die Antwoord’s t-shirts), its blistering action is a major step up from what Blomkamp’s delivered before, and its audacious last 10 minutes is the stuff of sci-fi legend. (If you think you have any idea where this film’s going, believe me – you don’t.)

It’s all anchored by how we feel about Chappie, how much we need to see Chappie succeed because, to be honest, he isn’t just a robot. He’s each of our failures, our confusions, our indecisions and insecurities up on that screen. By teaching a robot how to be human and what to value, we get a stark look at our own lives and values.

More than anything else, Chappie offers us the chance to look at where we are as humans – and it’s not always a pretty picture we see staring back at us. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future wasteland – 2016 looking just like 2015 – and suggests that our worst sci-fi visions of societal failure already exist for many in the world.

Keep in mind, Chappie is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. It’s cute throughout because of the childlike nature of Chappie, but it marries this to stark and sudden moments of violence – it doesn’t play around with the effect of guns. Some call this uneven, but it’s very intentional. When we’re prepared for it, we view violence through a different lens as an audience. Because Chappie disarms us and opens up our empathy, the brutality here can feel like salt in a wound. Like Chappie, we’re not prepared for it. That’s no mistake; that’s the point.

(For more on what robots mean to us in movies today, read Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Chappie have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Yo-Landi Visser plays Yolandi and Sigourney Weaver plays Michelle Bradley, a robotics company CEO.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No, but I’ll grant some leeway on how you read Chappie. Is Chappie a he, a she, or an it? He’s played by a male actor (Sharlto Copley) in a rough variation on motion capture and other characters refer to him as a “he.” I read him as male while watching, but that may have as much to do with my own bias.

3. About something other than a woman?

Since I’m treating the last question as a no, this doesn’t apply, but the women in this film rarely talk about men.

As always, the Bechdel Test is a tool. The portrayals of women here are fairly positive. Weaver’s Bradley is a CEO who puts the company first, but who doesn’t seem unfair while doing so. She runs a business that makes weapons and makes no bones about it. That’s her job and she does it well. Her character poses an obstacle to Deon and the constructive things he wants to accomplish, but she also poses an obstacle to Vincent and the destructive goals he wants to meet.

Visser’s Yolandi is posed as the mother figure to Chappie, but it doesn’t feel like a diminutive role. She runs heists, is introduced in a three-sided gunfight, backs down her partner Ninja regularly, is definitely Amerika’s superior, and seems to have veto power over the gang’s biggest decisions. If she wants to sit down and read Chappie a bedtime story, I’m sure as hell not getting in her way.

(There’s been a lot of fuss over Die Antwoord’s involvement in the film, but they’re very good in their roles.)

It’s a small cast – outside Chappie, there are six core roles. Two of these are women, four men. It’s not perfect, but it portrays women who are powerful and don’t fit into stereotypes, and it does so in a positive way.

More to the point, Chappie has a strong throughline of criticizing patriarchy. Chappie himself is torn between his mother and his maker – who teach him to value himself – and his father, who tears down Chappie’s self-worth and replaces it with the need to be tough and act violent. There’s no simpler metaphor for how patriarchy feeds into misogyny and racism.

When you have self-worth, you don’t need to push others down in order to feel valued. When someone tears your self-worth down and tells you you’re not good enough, that you need to act tougher and dominate others – that’s when you raise your own self-worth by devaluing the worth of others. That’s what Ninja teaches Chappie – how to dress, how to act, how to intimidate like a man. None of it is for Chappie’s benefit; it’s all to make Chappie more useful to Ninja as a gangster. It sells Chappie on the idea that he needs to be a certain way to earn his father’s approval, to lead a worthwhile life, and to be valued by others. Yet the whole time we’re watching, we know it’s all a lie.

This carries special meaning in a country like South Africa, where a patriarchal system maintained apartheid until 1994, and where powerful vestiges of the attitude that created it still keep black Africans ghettoized and leading lives of lower quality than their white counterparts.

There’s a lot going on in Chappie. It is not perfect in all regards, but it has no sense for biting off more than it can chew, and it chews through it all – faith, patriarchy, the afterlife, wealth distribution, domestic violence, ghettoization, corporate shock doctrine, ethics of drone warfare. I’m getting off-topic – it could have more women in it, and it would be better if it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s on the wrong side of the conversation. It’s very much asking the right questions in ways that few films dare.

Science, Religion, and Horror — “The Lazarus Effect”

Lazarus Effect 1

by Gabriel Valdez

Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.

The Lazarus Effect is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing god by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in Hell. Also, Hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.

There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. Lazarus relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.

This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. Lazarus has no anticipation.

Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. Lazarus can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.

Lazarus Effect 2

Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board – she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of House, but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.

Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially Safety Not Guaranteed, but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast – including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover – is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.

Lazarus is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but Lazarus uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence – the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that Lazarus relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.

Lazarus Effect glide

This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.

It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.

Lazarus is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. We invented an award here recently called Most Thankless Role – it’s for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.

The Lazarus Effect might only be a pond in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. It didn’t scare me as much as I would have liked, but its story felt rewarding.

If you’re looking for a better version of Lazarus, consider Flatliners, an often forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Lazarus Effect have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Olivia Wilde plays the lead researcher Zoe and Sarah Bolger plays videographer Eva. There’s also a university president played by Amy Aquino and a little girl played by Emily Kelavos.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a woman?

Yes. Horror is one of the only genres to regularly pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Zoe and Eva talk to each other as often as any of the men do, and it’s always about science, religion, or the crazy horror shenanigans going on around them. They’re also the two most proactive characters in the whole movie.

There’s actually not a whole lot to say about it beyond this. Lazarus is cut to the bone as a movie – it’s only 83 minutes long – so there’s not a whole lot to analyze here. In terms of capability and agency, it presents a positive portrayal of women.

Taking Contests of Faith Out of the Playground — “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven Kinnear Reilly

I remember when I was a kid. At recess, the boys would chase the girls around the playground, and then the girls would chase the boys around, and then we’d start all over again. Anyone who was visibly different – by race or religion or handicap – would get a hard time from the bullies, and the rest of us would often fall in line because, after all, the title ‘bully’ isn’t given without reason.

Heaven is for Real is the story of Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), who nearly loses his son Colton (Connor Corum) from a burst appendix. When Colton recovers, he tells his father about having an out-of-body experience in which he visits Heaven.

Before this, we get a glimpse of Todd’s family life – he’s a small-town pastor who’s successfully drawn in new congregants. Nonetheless, his family is facing financial disaster. He works an extra job as a repairman, but times are tough.

The crux of the movie is Colton’s vision of Heaven. Despite being a pastor, Todd has a difficult time accepting it as real. His wife’s doubts are even greater, but Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is the rock of the family and has to act the part. Director Randall Wallace, most famous for writing the screenplay for Braveheart, does show us bits and pieces of Colton’s vision. This might seem unwise, but the specificity of Colton’s vision is what becomes so controversial. Congregants challenge the details – Colton’s heart never stopped, so how can he have a near-death experience – as if there’s a rulebook on this sort of thing.

Kelly Reilly

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone keeps telling Todd their personal interpretation of religion should be his, too. It gives him no time to heal, only to react. Heaven is for Real rarely preaches – it’s far more interested in telling a story. That’s what makes it a successful movie. Todd and Sonja’s journey of faith demands others be less self-centered about their own.

Heaven is for Real is a gorgeously shot film. Its outdoor locations highlight the vast, still beauty of the Midwest. Kinnear and Reilly are what make it all work. There’s a decent amount of overacting in this, especially at the hospital – all of Wallace’s films suffer from a lack of dramatic restraint – but Kinnear and Reilly are able to constantly re-invest the viewer in their struggles.

The movie only veers into proselytizing once – when Todd visits a psychiatrist who is non-religious. She acts like no board-certified psychiatrist ever would, shooting down his faith the minute he walks in the door rather than listening to him and asking questions. It’s a clunky, inaccurate moment in a film that otherwise takes a higher road than picking fights with non-believers.

Lately, some faith-based movies and certain science shows have picked those fights – them versus us. Science or religion. We’ve even held celebrity debates that are watched by millions of online viewers, as if the contest is some sort of sport. We’re inches away from season ticket sales and peanut vendors.

Greg K 2

You know, the Star Trek series of TV shows is often credited for getting more young men and women interested in scientific careers than any other piece of creative art. Like Heaven is for Real, it is incredibly earnest and occasionally cheesy. There’s an episode in which Captain Kirk, cheesiest of them all, describes a novelist whose works change humanity’s future. He says our three most important words become “Let me help,” held in even higher esteem than “I love you.” Wanting to help is the reason many go into the sciences. In his last sermon in Heaven is for Real, Todd boils down the essence of belief to a simple concept. It “lets you know you’re not alone.”

“Let me help. You’re not alone.” I think those two sentiments go together pretty well. I remember when I was a kid, after all. Anyone who was visibly different would get a hard time from the bullies. I wish I’d stood up to them more often. Science or religion? Both sides have their bullies, leading chases around the playground after the other one.

Heaven is for Real reminds us that faith isn’t owned by anyone – it’s personal for each of us, and that’s OK. Disagreement shouldn’t lead to fights that do nothing but distract us. It’s not kindergarten. We’re not in recess anymore.

Greg Kinnear

Heaven is for Real is rated PG for medical situations.

To the Reader: My Religion and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Migrant Worker by Dorothea Lange

Randeep would always ask me, “What’s the religion of the week?” It was the staple question starting my sophomore year in high school. My father was Mexican Catholic. My mother was Atheist. My sister was Wiccan. I was much like a free agent, researching a new team every week and visiting their facilities on the weekend – I sat quietly in Catholic pews and raised my arms shouting for the Pentecostals. I wrote feverishly in the margins of Job to keep up at Temple and I read Greek tragedy to understand the madness of the gods. I did my best at being everything and nothing. I stared curiously as Buddhists explained themselves and – to a teenager – it made no sense not to feel as hard as I could about everything. I realized I had dated a Satanist and that she hadn’t told me. She was really very meek and quiet and relentlessly kind.

I worshiped hardest at the altars of poets – Eliot before shelves of books in the library and Cummings at the old desk on the second floor so sturdy it might have once been the ark, Frost at the blazing fireplace outside admissions during winter, and Dickinson in the gardens when flowers finally opened by the lake.

I met Socrates in a two-week crash course, read Heinlein in an independent study, and took Barker on long trips. Socrates had a cave, in which we interacted with shadows and called this reality. When people died in Heinlein, they went to the afterlife they expected. Barker offered Quiddity, a dream sea in which we achieve what we expect. Deep down, we know what we deserve. We move ourselves to Heaven, we banish ourselves to Hell.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died yesterday. I wasn’t named after the angel Gabriel. I was named after the author, down to the feel of the syllables. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gabriel Diego Valdez. Much like Sesame Street taught me letters and numbers, and my parents taught me to figure out not just what the words said but what they meant, Marquez taught me empathy. He taught me pride. He taught me the greatest tragedy humanity had to offer, that of misunderstanding.

I cannot communicate how utterly racked I am by his passing. Putting word to page and realizing I could choose what happened made me want to be a writer. Being bullied in school and all the reading I did because books contained worlds of hope and understanding gave me something worth putting to page. Marquez gave me a standard and an expectation.

On Facebook, it says my religion is Pantheistic Solipsism. This means that I think everything ever written, every thought, is true. Every religion, every story, every fairy tale and TV show and video game – every character and each of their beliefs is true. This is an utterly silly notion. It’s ridiculous on its face. This is not the way I think the universe really works, it’s not how I think anything was made or came to be. But it is what I choose to have faith in – creation. Each of our abilities to create, to make entire worlds and shape new beliefs and refine old ones.

Banksy

Chronicles of a Death Foretold is the Marquez novel many read first. It begins with its ending – the death of a young man, the result of a misunderstanding. Its tension isn’t about whether the man will live. We are told from the beginning he won’t. Its mystery is about how this misunderstanding came to be. It is a novel about social pressures, motives that go unrecognized, and meaningless omens obsessed over. It is a novel about lies and distractions, and finding the good moments between them to enjoy life.

The truth is that my religion is free agency. My religion is those Catholic pews and raucous Pentecostal shouts. It’s the Bhagavad Gita and Dine Bahane’. It’s scribbled in the margins of Job in black and blue ink and once those ran out red, and it’s crammed into countless post-it notes in Chronicles, and it’s in books on dinosaurs that fell apart at their bindings, and in “The Road Not Taken” and in hair that’s “bold, like the chestnut burr” and in “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground.” But most of all my religion is in what you haven’t written yet, the story that’s not told yet, the understanding I have yet to be introduced to, let alone grasp.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold begins with its ending – the death of a young man, the result of a misunderstanding. We know through the entire book that he will die. In this, Marquez captures our understanding of ourselves, of the world. The same is true of him, of me, of all of us. We live in an overpopulated world, rife with hunger, war, oppression, racism, misogyny, despotism, rape, slavery, corporate feudalism, pollution, extinction, genocide, you name it. If we were a book, we’d already know the ending. If we were a book, we’d know it’s the result of misunderstanding after misunderstanding after misunderstanding. Some are based on lies, others are honest mistakes.

Winslow Homer

Composer Stephen Sondheim once said, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos,” but a creative act won’t solve any problems. A piece of art can’t heal the world. At best, it can engender understanding and create connection between a handful of people. But two pieces of art can create more connections, encourage more understanding. And a thousand pieces of art can create a thousand times the understanding, and a million pieces brings a hell of a lot of order out of chaos. We never know what that crucial piece is going to be. We never know if it will change one person’s life or be that piece on top of thousands of others, all together tipping the scales. That’s why we need to keep on trying. That’s why you can’t let one failure stop you, because one piece of art won’t solve anything. But you, as an artist, trying day after day and failing and crying and feeling lost and trying again and losing faith and trying again and trying again and trying again – that’s what I believe. That’s why I believe in every religion, every story, every painting and photograph and poem. Scratch what I said earlier – that’s exactly how the universe really does work.

My parents taught me to figure out not just what words said, but what they meant. If you asked me to name the best thing my parents ever did for me, I couldn’t. There are too many good things. They’ve lived lives of working hard and learning to be kinder and more understanding every year. They see a country that’s turned its back on many of the values they fought for, whose politics and treatment of the middle- and lower-classes is shameful. There are too many good things I won’t ever realize they’ve done for me because they never did them for the recognition. But I do know where it started. I know when all those good things began. I can trace them back to a single moment, when they named me after Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Because that gave me a standard. That gave me an expectation. And Socrates raised the bar. And Heinlein raised the bar. And Dickinson raised the bar. And one day, you’re going to raise the bar, too. And the rest of us will keep on rushing to meet it. That’s what I believe in.

Christinas World by Andrew Wyeth