Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Children of Legend

Cultural Nightmares.

Last Friday night, sitting in the theater, watching I Am Legend, an idea struck me about three-quarters of the way into the film. I suddenly felt this incredible urge to draw some thematic comparisons between the film I was then watching, and another film, Children of Men. That urge gave birth to this blog. I should point out that I don’t think cinematically and artistically I Am Legend is of the same quality as Children of Men. Alfonso Cuaron’s directing and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work in Children are worthy of a whole entry of their own, which I’m sure I will get around to at some point. Back to the matters at hand: I had low expectations for I Am Legend, and as such was more or less pleasantly surprised with the film.

What strikes me is the number of films in recent years that deal with the end of humanity. These are not apocalyptic films in the traditional sense: Aliens aren’t invading the planet; God isn’t bringing about the end of all things. In some sense, the recent crop of films might be more akin to a longstanding trend in Japan, something that has been labeled “post-apocalyptic” storytelling. In every culture, there are moments that shape a entire society. Some are beautiful, others dark. Some are darker than we care to imagine. For Japan, two whole cities were incinerated in seconds as the United States dropped atomic bombs on them—the worst military action this country has ever taken.(1) Ever since, there has been a need in Japanese culture to cope, to deal with such massive destruction, such powerful evil (I realize that many are taught in America to view these bombings as good things since they secured the surrender of Japan,--and please do look at my end notes--but any such destruction of human life is nothing but evil in my mind since in no way can I argue that God wishes this upon his creation, for which he sacrificed his Son to save). This need to deal with the destruction witnessed by Japan has resulted in a large amount of end-of-the-world stories in various mediums in Japanese culture. Godzilla is nothing more than a fantastic version of an atomic bomb leveling a city. Much of Japanese Anime deals directly with this post-apocalyptic perspective.(2) According to art critic and pop culture historian Carlo McCormick, “Anime rouse directly out of the post-war situation in Japan, after World War II....”(3)

I believe we are now experiencing a similar trend in American cinema. In light of the events of September 11, 2001, we, as a society, have a need to deal with evil as we’ve never seen it before (at least not in this generation). Given the current fears and tensions over terrorist threats to our nation, we find it necessary to deal with our fears in the realm of fantasy (a perfectly healthy thing to do, might I point out). Thus, the zombie movie genre seems more relevant today than ever to Americans.(4) Not that we truly equate terrorist with zombies, but given the breed of blind violence that a suicide bomber brings about, in terms of fantasy, a zombie is pretty good approximation of the sort of faceless evil that lurks in the shadows waiting to strike. With worries about another strike like 9-11, we need an outlet for all this nervous energy.

We also need to be reminded that there is hope. That’s where films like I Am Legend and Children of Men really bring about an important contribution to the social consciousness of our society. In both films, an important conversation is taking place. Both films address the imminent end of the human race. With Children of Men, not a single child has been birthed in 18 years. Humanity has no future beyond the current generations. Once they’re all gone, there will be no one left but plants, animals, and empty cities. Sounds dark, doesn’t it? With I Am Legend, we are confronted with the end of the human race through an infection, a virus originally created to attack and kill cancer, now mutated. The infected become a breed of vampire-like zombies. One uninfected man remains alive in New York City. Interestingly enough, New York is referred to as "ground zero" for the infection. The weight of those words aren't lost on me as I write this.

Where Children of Men and I Am Legend differ significantly is that in the first no one knows for sure what caused the human race stop being able to procreate, in the second, humanity has inadvertently created its own demise. Interestingly enough, both films are based on books, which have been around for a while, well before 9-11. In fact, Children of Men takes place in England.(5) However, the fact that these movie adaptations of both have hit theaters a year apart from each other should not be ignored. If cinema is a reflection of our culture, what’s been on our minds this past couple of years? Keep in mind that this point is made without bringing into this conversation films as Goodnight and Good Luck, Syriana, Rendition, A Mighty Heart, or The Kingdom, just to name a few such recent films that deal directly with fear-driven politics and foreign relations. Sure, we’re not thinking every day that the world is about to end. Yet, I believe that there is a sense of urgency growing in our society. We feel the need to do something about strained international relations, a war we allowed ourselves to get into only to discover our own government didn’t really have the proper information in the first place, genocide in Sudan and Uganda, and climate change, just to name a few things. Put all of that together, and you can see why we might be having nightmares about the end of the world. And as Colin McGinn dedicates an entire book to pointing out, cinema and our dreams are undeniably connected.(6)

A Theological Conversation.

From the perspective of a Christian, I find it fascinating that both Children of Men and I Am Legend engage the audience in a theological conversation. With Children, it shouldn’t be ignored that the main character (played by Clive Owen) is named Theo. Despite his name, Theo lacks faith. To him, there is no God who might care about the plight of the human race. The film does not directly utilize Christian traditions to address faith, but rather approaches the issue of faith from a broader perspective (such as the new-age praying midwife). The film also addresses faith by belief in that which as of yet remains unseen. Theo puts his life on the line to help a young woman—the first pregnant woman in 18 years—reach something called “The Human Project.” Keep in mind that no one in the film has any empirical evidence that such a thing actually exists or might even help this poor girl in any way. But hope is not so easily dissuaded. I don’t want to give anything away to those of you who haven't seen this film yet (and might I urge you to drop everything--even this blog--and go rent the movie right now!), but I feel it is important to point out the theme of self-sacrifice for the good of an entire race. The journey is difficult. Much is asked of each character. There is little peace and serenity in the film. It is an arduous plight, but one that must be undertaken (a serious thematic similarity to many classic stories, such as The Lord of the Rings).

I Am Legend features a lone man (Will Smith) whose only friend in the world is his dog. While the infection has taken over the world, he continues his research, attempting to find a means to reverse the infection. He is immune, a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. Legend takes on a more directly Christian approach and discusses God openly at points in the film. Smith’s character even says, “God didn’t do this, we did.” When confronted with possible hope (that God might be making a way for the human race to be saved from the infection), how does he respond (I don’t want to give anything away)? Self-sacrifice for the greater good is again a key concept in this film, just as it is in Children. In the case of Legend, every night brings with it the possibility of death at the hands of the infected. Couple that with our fear of isolation, and you can see this is a fairly tense movie.


In both films there is an important theme of doing what is right for the future of the human race. The road isn’t easy, but hope must prevail. And such hope cannot be connected to things we can see here and now right before us, but things we have to accept by faith. I find it fascinating that in such a supposedly empirical and logical-obsessed age (and believe me, I'm more obsessed than most with logical coherence) so much storytelling points us back to things that are beyond our capabilities to prove right now. I see this as a wonderful shift, a part of the post-modern mindset that really opens up the possibilities for discussing matters of faith that previously remained lost behind a facade of modernist empiricism which disqualified anything that couldn’t be measured, tested, and categorized. In so many ways, this modernist obsession with empirical data as a prerequisite to belief has robbed many of that first and most important aspect of intellectual and spiritual development: wonder. This shift is a breath of fresh air. It is indicative of a culture that wants to talk about hope, about saving this world. I believe we live in world that longs for some good news.

End Notes:

(1) “A still clearer example of the wrongness of crusade warfare is the case of the atomic bombing of Japan, which had sued for peace before the bombs were used. The bombs were in no sense necessary to win the war but only to make the surrender unconditional, and represented a serious moral defeat to the Western world.” – John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 1964) pg 49.

(2) In the process of writing this entry, I watched yet another great example of Japanese Anime dealing with the post-appocaliptic. The films is called Paprika. I'll eventually write about it, since it presents such a great example of the themes Colin McGinn writes about in his book, The Power of Movies.

(3) Quote taken from special features on The Animatrix DVD (Warner Brothers Pictures, 2003).

(4) Note the number of Resident Evil movies that have come out as well as Dawn of the Dead, and others in the genre.

(5) I think this trend of films dealing with fears of terrorism is applicable to Great Britain as well, which has endured its own share of terrorist attacks in recent years. Look at the British film 28 Days Later, and now it's American sequel for an example of the zombie genre.

(6) The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact (Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2005). You’re going to see me referring to this book often on this blog. It is simply the best book I read this year (and I feel like I read some good ones).

1 comment:

Sarah Bussard and Grace Hetrick said...

It took forever for me to get both of these movies watched and ruminated enough in my head to be able to comment on your post. Children of Men was not something I would have immediately jumped to watch, but I Am Legend was one I had been wanting to see (mostly because I trust in Will Smith's choice in roles).
You certainly have a totally different perspective as you can make observations about the directors and their previous work, I am writing only as the consumer of the media - the viewer, and extrapolating on what feelings or thoughts are elicited in response.

There certainly are a good number of end of the world films, not only lately. Children of Men reminded me a great deal of Gattaca (1997) in that it discussed the tampering with genes had gone to an extreme. In Gattaca of course they develop a super-controlled society where anyone with a genetic abnormality is classified into a lower class system and their profession is limited. In Children, the gene tampering (I assumed) or something in the environment caused modern society to degenerate into what was at most times a semi-functioning military state reminiscent of V for Vendetta.

While the two movies were totally different in the feeling of suspense, I found most interesting I Am Legend and the way they turned the scientist into an image of Christ- as one dying for the salvation of the world, since his blood contained the cure.
The feeling in Children of Men was totally different, the instability of the surroundings, never knowing who to trust, it left you with a feeling of uncertainty that made me uneasy even at the end. However, the message of one sacrificing for all is the same.

What I realized (much to my surprise) is that after watching both - I preferred Children of Men, it seemed much more realistic to me that humanity would give way to its fears and paranoia and become a scarred war zone reluctant to trust people who were different. This is the maturation of the discrimination, prejudice and hatred evident in the world today.

As a side note: The suicide kits were especially interesting and made me think of the suicide booths in animation like Futurama (and according to wiki a Japanese manga called Battle Angel Alita).