MOVIE REVIEWS

Trancendence, Rated PG-13 (violent scenes), B-

Jonny Depp as Dr. Will Castor ("casting his will"?) preaches the prospective power of "transendence" to a captivated audience of scientists and academics.

It is surely more than a coincidence that the movie Transcendence was set for release on Easter weekend. What better time to open a film whose protagonist is a prophet with a radical message who faces violent public criticism, human deterioration, physical death and, ultimately, resurrection, right?

But the theme of this film has nothing to do with Christianity, at least not overtly. Although the movie quickly turned out to be a box office flop, due mostly to poor plot pacing, shallow character development, and a mediocre marketing campaign, its subject matter is lifted virtually (pun intended) verbatim from the books, articles, and websites of today’s most outspoken proponents of transhumanism: a movement based on the adaptation of emerging technologies to dramatically refashion humanity into an entirely new, enhanced, machine-based form.

In the film, Dr. Will Castor, portrayed ably if flatly by Johnny Depp, is a leading researcher in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) who envisions a bold future where humanity’s existence will be enhanced through a new technology that merges the collective intelligence of everything known in a new sentient being replete with human emotion. Brilliant beyond human measure, such a creation, according to Castor, will overcome the limitations of biology itself, including disease and organic death.

Castor’s wife and fellow IT geek Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) also sees life-changing, planet-saving applications in her husband’s work, and is his biggest publicity agent. But not everybody is on board with the couples’ plans. During a TED-styled presentation of their ideas, an audience member challenges Castor’s hubris, reproachfully asserting that “You want to create a god – your own god,” wherein the doctor replies “Hasn’t that what man has always done?”

There are those who want to stop Castor’s research at any cost, especially a militant anti-tech group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT), whose tattooed “unplug” emblem is a sign of their determination to thwart the fulfillment of Castor’s vision. They think they accomplish their mission after an attack on the doctor, only to set off a series of events that pushes his dream into full-blown reality.

While the film certainly falls within the genre of science fiction, it is worth noting that there are those today who promote a path of human development not far removed from that of the fictional Dr. Castor. Affiliated with major universities and tech companies, such advocates believe we are living on the cusp of a new era in human and technological development called the Singularity (what Castor calls “Transcendence”), a point in the future when the superiority of artificial intelligence will compel humans to keep up with their creation through physiological enhancements. This will first occur in a cyborg-like way via brain implants to receive complex data, followed by a more complete merging of man and machine, eventually uploading our neural network and finally discarding our fragile bodies for a longer lasting, “immortal” structure (e.g. a strong, self-repairing android body), putting new spin on the Cartesian notion of a “ghost in a machine.”

In the film, Castor’s body is ultimately seen for what it is: a weak, deteriorating organic shell, discarded for a collection of densely woven neural networks representing the true essence of his (and our) conscious being – a presumed but ontologically controversial source of our consciousness and soul. Forget the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision of flesh reassembling to dry bones and Christ’s fulfillment of that prophecy in his bodily resurrected appearance to his apostles. Our hope is “resurrection” achieved through digital neural copies and nanobot-reinforced artificial bodies.

Don’t chuckle. Dramatic developments in information technology, robotics, biotech, and nanotechnology are synergistically working, at least some hope, towards this end. Indeed, inventor, futurist, and Google chief engineer Ray Kurzweil believes we have the potential to reach the point of an artificially superior intelligence by 2045. In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he makes a case that humans will need to adapt their mammalian biology in order to keep to keep up with their super-intelligent creation. Those who don’t will be “unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do.”

In his follow-up work, The Singularity is Near (2006), Kurzweil more specifically plots prospective trajectories toward fulfillment of his prophecy. Indeed, it would be naïve not to believe that this book was used as a primary source for the script of Transcendence. Kurzweil even anticipates threats to the rise of AI by “fundamentalist humanism” movements such as RIFT, as well as those who argue such machine-based creations are founded on a materialistic determinism (i.e. “data-in, data-out”) devoid of human emotion, to which he counters with assertions that computers also incorporate randomness in their calculations and, with an exponentially expanding complexity and the promise of quantum computing, may one day be capable of understanding on an emotional level. So will this alone make a computer mind a fit judge of such nuanced matters as what constitutes good character?

Kurzweil is far from alone in his vision. A growing cadre of scientists and futurists has rallied behind the Singularity movement, going so far as to found an educational institute in Silicon Valley called Singularity University. Even popular physicist Michio Kaku wrote in his 2011 book Physics of the Future, that with the help of these converging technologies we will be able to live like the gods of classical antiquity. Welcome back, Mr. Nietzsche.

When watching the first half of Transcendence, the viewer might see it as a paean to the Singularity movement. But after the new technology takes on growing and god-like qualities - healing the sick, lame, and blind through nanobiology, and creating a brain-chipped, “wired-in” following of physically “enhanced” people – those who were once friends and advocates for Castor, such as long-time scientist colleagues Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman, in an almost throwaway role) are not so sure anymore. It’s no coincidence that the name “Jesus Christ” pops up at a very apropos moment.

What Transcendence ought to remind the informed Christian is that the quest for “godlikeness”, a pursuit understood as “theosis” for Eastern Orthodox and “divinization” for Roman Catholics, has as its cornerstone the incarnate Christ: the God-man whose earthly ministry, passion, and resurrection free us from sin and death. This is what the great fourth century theologian Athanasius meant when he wrote in his treatise On the Incarnation that “He [God] became man so that we might become God.” For Christians, “becoming God” is something we know we can never fully achieve due to a nature wounded by the sin of Adam and leaving us, with the help of God’s ever present grace, to constantly grapple with the baser aspects of our being. It is as sinners we remain, and our full God-likeness will not be made manifest until our union with the Redeemer at the eschaton. Thus as Christians our very lives, both now and forever, depend upon our acknowledgement of sin and our dependence upon God.

But the fictional Castors and real-life Kurzweils have stood Athanasius on his head. Knowingly or not, they take a cue put forth by the mid-nineteenth century German materialist philosopher Friedrich Feuerbach, who in the Essence of Christianity claimed that God was created by us in our own image; a mere illusory construct meant to project our own idealized, seemingly unattainable qualities. Indeed, most modern advocates of boundless human enhancement and machine-based immortality would likely agree with Feuerbach, having no use for such primitive “fantasies” of bodily resurrection now that a “real” version (or as close as one can get in an artificial body) is not far off. This is the new Great Hope of a materialist eschaton. Indeed, in Transcendence many voluntarily give themselves, body and mind, over to the prospect. Kurzweil himself has stated that any opposition to such transformative technologies will quickly fade, as “the demand for therapies that can overcome suffering, disease, and short lifespans inherent in our version 1.0 bodies will ultimately prove irresistible.”

But what will happen to that vile, abhorrent side of our nature that has lead humans to execute great atrocities at the costs of hundreds of millions of lives in one century, that collection of “socially unacceptable behaviors” we once called sin, if we accept that the entire measure of our moral discretion resides solely in our own self-created, all-knowing, demigod-like being? Who will be the ethical arbiters in an age of such enhanced superbeings, whose capacity for evil remains unchanged while their ability to inflict it has been amplified? And, by the way, what happens to our free will when coalescence with a superior, collective mind demands it?

God help us.

Man of Steel, Rated PG-13 (violent scenes), B

Henry Cavill as the latest version of the "Man of Steel"

I finally got out to see Man of Steel this past week, the latest film venture in the DC Comics/Warner Brothers Superman franchise.

 

The Superman mythos now spans 75 years of comic books, newspaper strips, radio and television shows, movies, and even theatrical productions. The iconic character was created by two Jewish-American high school boys, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, as a Depression-era hero fighting for the downtrodden.

 

He wasn’t such a “mild mannered” guy at first, doing things like beating up bad guys and threatening to tear off their noses to get them to talk, but he soon developed a softer tone.

 

His future manifestations included a patriotic fighter of the Axis Powers during World War II. From the 1950s through the 1970s his stories matured with the Baby Boom generation, going from kid-friendly narratives featuring clownish characters like “Mr. Mxyzptlk” and “Bizzaro” Superman, to more sophisticated, socially relevant stories that nevertheless remained free of racy or overly-violent scenes. As has often been said of the comic book medium, its narratives frequently reflect the feelings, mores, and issues of the day.

 

Throughout the decades one thing remained largely consistent about Superman: he was a hero with developed sense of what is true, moral, and just, and that made him the comics’ most irreproachably “clean” superhero.

 

However, in the wake of more edgy and morally ambivalent comic characters beginning in the late sixties, Superman’s persona began to look a bit too staid for some, or just plain old-fashioned. Besides, who could buy the notion that an astute woman like Lois Lane failed to recognize the hero behind the black-rimmed glasses of her co-worker? Thankfully, the new movie dispenses with this improbable fiction.

 

But the Superman in Man of Steel is presented as far more than an honest, humble, helpful boy scout. He is portrayed unabashedly as a messiah figure, to the point where comparatives between the movie’s lead and Jesus Christ are both unmistakable and intentional.

 

This was also true to a great extent in the 2006 Superman Returns – who could forget the Passion-of-the-Christ-like scourging our hero received at the hands of arch-enemy Lex Luthor? Still, the latest rendition takes the imagery to new heights.

 

Where does one begin? Is it his unique birth on Krypton at the outset of the film, where his father (read: God the Father) Jor-El has higher plans for his son, sending him to Earth where he will look like humans yet have a special gift of superhuman powers that can help frail humanity (read: the Incarnation)?

 

Or is it his adoptive parents, the Kents, especially his father (read: Joseph), who understands the boy is destined to do great things for the world, but must wait until the right time. Until then, he can help on the farm and pick up odd jobs, including a gig on a fishing boat. At this point even the screenwriters must have realized that making Clark a carpenter’s apprentice would be too obvious.

 

The most striking of these Christological references, however, comes mid-way into the movie. Just as Clark must now finally accept the destiny his father Jor-El had envisioned, he must confront his own doubts, and walks into a church in his hometown of Smallville, Kansas.

 

There he sits in a pew, confiding to the minister/pastor/priest his conflicted view of his destiny. Juxtaposed on the screen are his face and a stained glass rendition of Jesus’ prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, where God’s Son also came to understand that it is “not my will, but yours, be done”. (Luke 22:42)

 

It may be for believing Christians that witnessing such scenes on the big screen is comforting. After all, in an increasingly secular and pluralistic culture where the message of Christianity has become lost in the noise of daily life and routinely characterized as a private matter with no place in larger social discourse, it’s a welcome relief to take Christian metaphors where we find them, grafted onto a pop culture icon.

 

After all, hasn’t this been the case across the centuries, as literary and artistic creators have fashioned Christ-like characters for illustrative purposes, from Dostoevsky’s Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, to the lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, or Neo in the Matrix films?

 

Yet if pop culture forms, including comic characters, can be seen as manifestations of broader social trends, what does this say about a Superman-messiah? Does it reveal a larger societal yearning to find hope and inspiration, even if it’s objectified as a guy in a dark blue skin tights and a red cape?

 

Or is it just another way to market a film so that more people will talk about it and drop $12 at the cineplex? So far the film has not done as well at the box office as was expected. Is it due to poor marketing or is there something about the story and character that people are not as sold on?

 

In my opinion this is an example, although perhaps a benign one, of the risks posed when Christianity becomes too culturally co-opted. Perhaps we would be better off just letting Superman be Superman and leaving the role of the redemptive Son of God to Jesus Christ.

The Woman in Black, Rated PG-13 (frightening scenes), B+

Daniel Radcliffe searches for the supernatural in The Woman in Black.

Nothing says "early February" like a good ghost flick.

 

Having grown up as the symbol of the Harry Potter franchise, Daniel Radcliff stars in his first post-kid scorcerer adventure, this time encountering the supernatural sans a powerful wand.

 

The movie is brought to us by Hammer Films, the legendary UK-based "Hammer House of Horror". For you youngins that don't recall, Hammer spawned a series of horror and suspense films in the late 1950s and 1960s that included the revival of mainstays such as the Frankenstien monster, Dracula, the mummy, and a cursed werewolf, among an assortment of other creepy characters. In some ways it became the successor to the Universal Studiios horror line that petered out after the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" in the mid-1950s.

 

Hammer films were characterized by dark themes, haunting, gothic venues, and a frame-to-frame sense of impending terror. In this sense, "The Lady in Black" does justice to the studio's tradition. Radcliff's performance is solid as Aurthur Kipps, a lawyer and lonely widower in Edwardian England left to care for his young son while struggling to make ends meet. His hardship recieves no sympathy from his law firm, which sets him out on a task to either settle a widow's estate in a small country village or be fired.

 

Kipps' arrival at the village, however, is met with suspicion and shunning by local townsfolk who discover that he is there to visit the diseased widow's estate. Only one of the locals, a wealthy burgher named Daily portrayed by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, welcomes the inquiring visitor and begins to caution him about the "superstitious" townspeople and the unusual string of deaths of village children, including his own son, that had been going on over many years.

 

Depite warning, Kipps is determined to finish his work, and along the way encounters supernatural surprises that terrify him yet drive him to find out more. His discoveries plod along like careful detective work, puctuated by the high pitched screams of mysterious woman to whom the film's title refers and tense moments of fright. None of them, by the way, are gratuitously gory - just pointedly chilling, especially scenes filmed looking over his shoulder.

 

The Woman in Black is set against the spiritualism (contacting desceased love ones, etc.) that was popular in turn-of-the century England, being something of a "New Age" phenomenon of the time. Yet it is against such a backdrop that good fictional ghost stories are often told. As long as you accept it as fiction-based and not faith-based, The Woman in Black will be an enteraining thriller filled with bursts of suspense.

 

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