Apocalyptic Themes in Cinema

Click here  to view the presentation I gave last night at St. Monica’s Parish in Santa Monica, CA. The film clips are missing but the list of the films I referenced are in the last slide. (Thanks to Mary Sperry; she’ll know!)

Fantastic Mr Fox, Brothers, The Road, 2010 reviews

The Fantastic Mr. Fox – Based on a story by Roald Dahl (1916-1990), director Wes Anderson (The Darjeerling Limited) tells a wonderful and quirky stop-action animated tale about a wily fox (voiced by George Clooney who could get an Oscar nod just for this; Meryl Streep voices Mrs. Fox) who takes on three mean farmers by stealing cider, turkeys, chickens, and ducks from them. Well, he tries to outwit them as foxes are by nature wont to do.  All the farmers get for their trouble is Mr. Fox’s tail and a lot of work and damage and then we are back where we started with the tale. There is no swearing in the film; any possible expletive is smoothly replaced with “cuss”. Very funny.  I chuckled all the way through and I am still not sure what it was about, exactly. Family, maybe. Letting nature be natural. A little existentialism perhaps. Or maybe nothing. Perhaps just a little cuss fun.

Brothers – Oscar-nominated director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father; In America) seems to anchor his films in the idea of family. Here he shows us two sets of brothers, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) a ne’er- do-well and the other, Sam (Tobey Maguire) a military officer about to leave for Afghanistan again. Sam has his military brothers, as well.  He and his unit are shot down and the military thinks all are dead, but Sam and another soldier are captured. Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Portman, New York, I Love You), her two young daughters and Tommy become close. Something terrible happens in Afghanistan to Sam and then he is rescued. He returns home, a shadow of his former self, tormented, suspicious, tightly-wound, and violent. Although his brother, wife, children and parents try to embrace him, he cracks. At first, before he leaves for that deployment, Sam seems robotic and tightly-wound yet loving in a stiff sort of way. Even toward his wayward brother when he picks him up when he is released from prison. Sam kindly asks Tommy if he is going to ask forgiveness of the woman he robbed, the act that sent him to prison.  Sam implies that there are consequences that require reconciliation and even restitution. Perhaps, we think, this is who Sam is. Yet, he is already a product of his military training rather than an extension of his athletic high school football successes, the jock who dated the cheerleader – and married her. Did he go from being one cliché to another? Though Sam seems a one-dimensional repressed character, Sheridan shows his directorial acumen by letting the audience finish creating this character.  “Brothers” is a heart-breaking anti-war film, a heartfelt look at the effects of war on soldiers now and those still suffering from Vietnam: the collateral damage, the consequences. The film seems to ask: who, exactly, is this war protecting?  Who will reconcile and make restitution? Excellent acting all around showcasing the heroism of gentleness and love in the face of the unspeakable – that must be spoken.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel interpreted bleakly, but artfully, for the screen. A priest friend close to the film industry wondered why anyone would release such a miserable film before Christmas. Other than the obvious need to release the film in New York and Los Angeles before the end of the year to make the cut for Oscar nominations, the film is actually more about Christmas than one would think during the first horrific ninety minutes or so. A starving man (Viggo Moretnsen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel a world blighted by nuclear winter, trying to reach the ocean. There are flashbacks to when the boy was born, when the man and his wife (Charlize Theron) realize they have brought life into a world of death. She walks into the night and is gone. The man and the boy find people who have committed suicide and others who cannibalize anyone they can capture.  The boy learns distinctions between bad people (cannibals) and good people (anyone who will not hurt them) and suffers when his father doesn’t trust the good people, when he won’t share the food they discover. Then the man begins to talk about the “fire” and it takes on a mystical meaning about humanity and hope. Only one character has a name in this film, Eli (Robert Duval). He is like a prophet, a link to something beyond. Intentional or not, the boy seems a “Christ-figure”, the one who is the light in the valley of the shadow of death and darkness. But, oh, it is a tough film to watch. The theater usher told me the film follows the book, which I had not read, almost to the word. “The Road” employs excellent parallel structure both visually and through sound; it is very literary but not wordy. It ought to get Oscar nods for best adapted screenplay and cinematography.  The film deserves a theological analysis, much like the 2006 film “The Children of Men.”

2012 – Roland Emmerich, the director who gives us really big apocalyptic-themed films such as “Independence Day” (1996) and “The Day after Tomorrow” (2004), does it again in “2012”. Supposedly based on a prediction of the Mayan calendar, 2012 is to usher in the end of the world (again.) The film gives short-shift to the prophecy in its over-blown special f/x fest, but nevertheless it asks an important question: in bad times is it possible for people to lay down their lives for others? The film switches to Biblical allusions, most notably Noah’s Ark and John the Baptist. The filmed seemed to suggest a natural explanation for the flood that set Noah afloat and that if it happens again it may also have a natural explanation rather than a devastating “Left Behind” interpretation. Yet, only 400,000 can be saved on the arks the world’s governments build in China to save themselves.  So “2012” is a rather extravagant mess of a film but if disaster movies are your cup of tea, go for it. (When the air craft carrier John F. Kennedy crushes the White House, and salvation comes from China, was that a political statement?) Hmm. By the way, Mimi Leder’s 1989 “Deep Impact” did this theme better.