Now You See Me: Don’t See It

So, here is another one of those movies with terrible morals that Hollywood filmmakers think must be okay cause all the stars are cocky and cool. Harrelson, his lovable selfish self; Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo are all clearly defined characters with strong presence and clever scenes. But it’s really all about inciting hatred and violence against corporations because of so-called “grievances.” It flirts — no, makes out — with Occupy morality, that peculiar violent Marxist ethic that thinks stealing and vandalizing corporations is morally justifiable because they are “greedy.” This is the Ends Justifying the Means and it is immoral and unsatisfying in a story like this.

I would like to note that the filmmakers are themselves one-percenters, so they fancy themselves on moral high horses because they promote hatred of corporations like banks and insurance companies, while hypocritically excusing their own Hollywood corporations.

In this movie, criminals are good guys, and the good guys are the ultimate bad guys. In the end, all the people you think are good guys justify the crime and don’t care about justice. Oh wait, there is ONE partial good guy, played by Morgan Freeman, who ends up in jail for life, and apart from his own money self interest, is the only good guy who wants to expose the lies of the Occupy Magic stars.

So the morality here is all upside down, which means the storytellers are trying to misdirect us like a magic trick to accept their terrible immoral ethics inside a glitzy thriller movie package.

Don’t let them do it to you! Don’t watch this poor magic trick.

Buried

This thriller is based on a high concept that actually works surprisingly well. It’s the story of a US government contracted trucker in Iraq who wakes up after an attack, only to discover that he has been buried alive in a wooden coffin somewhere in the desert. His kidnappers leave him a cell phone to try to get a million dollars ransom or they’ll let him die. And the entire film takes place in the coffin with Paul, played by Ryan Reynolds. You would think no way could a feature film 1 hour and 40 minutes long be visually interesting enough to hold attention. But it does because it is dramatically entrapping.

As Paul seeks to call his loved ones and those who might help rescue him, we learn he is working for a government contracted company to drive supplies in Iraq for the US government. The film incarnates anti-war politics into the thriller plot. It’s message is that of guilt by complicity. The point is made several times that Paul sees himself as an innocent citizen just making a living doing his job, and he is therefore not responsible for the war. While the kidnappers are supposedly not terrorists, just Iraqis who are reacting out of desperation because their country is being decimated by the war brought on by the United States. As Paul says he’s not a soldier, just a guy with a family, we hear the kidnapper say that he is just an Iraqi citizen and his family is being destroyed by the US.

So the filmmaker makes the same moral equivalency argument that terrorists make, namely that innocent civilians are just as guilty as soldiers and deserve to die because they go along with the military. Knowing this is the moral, makes you immediately know how it has to end: with Paul’s death. He cannot ultimately be rescued because then his guilt would not be punished according the values that the filmmakers are espousing in this moral sermon.

An anti-corporate message is also communicated as we see the cold heartless bureaucrat from the corporation who hired him using a contractual technicality to fire him on the phone while he is in the coffin, thus freeing the corporation from responsibility and insurance accountability to his family.

Devil

Christian morality tale. This movie starts with a creative interesting open of establishing shots of the city – all of them upside down. No fancy effects, but it really sets the feel for what you are about to see – this is going to turn your worldview upside down.

It’s basically the story of five people trapped in an elevator in a business building and someone or something is killing them one by one. The protagonist is actually a cop on the outside trying to figure it all out as everyone is doing everything they can to free the people. The cop has his own “inner demons” as he works through his inability to forgive a kid who accidentally killed his family in a car accident. Thriller elements: the sound in the elevator is broken so the security can only talk to the people in the elevator, but cannot hear them, no pens to write on paper for the cameras and the cameras are too low resolution to see driver’s licenses. And of course cell phones won’t work here either. So the cop seeks to find out who each person is and to determine which one is killing each of them as the lights go out.

The cop soon discovers each of the trapped persons have records of crime, theft, lying, swindling or stealing. Not big crimes, but this movie reminds me of Phone Booth, in that it makes the point that there are no “little white sins.” We are responsible for every wrong we commit against others. The reason why each character is being taken by the devil is because they do not admit their evil. They do not accept the responsibility for the consequences of their life choices. This movie incarnates the very Bible verse put on the first screen of the movie:

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1Peter 5:8)

Devil is an incarnate parable of this Bible verse. It begins with Catholic folk religion through a religious Mexican character telling the story. He tells of how his grandma would tell a story of the devil becoming flesh to make people face the consequences of their choices in life. And of course, that is what is happening in this story. At one point the religious character tells the unbelieving cop, “Everyone believes in the devil a little. Even those who say they don’t.” At the end of the movie, the last thing the storyteller says is that his grandma would tell him, “Don’t worry (about all the scary stuff of the devil), it only proves that if there is a devil, there has to be a God.” By the time it all starts making sense to the cop, he asks the religious character, “hypothetically speaking, if your story is true, how does one get out of it?” In other words, how do we find redemption? And then we see the last character facing the devil and confessing his sin and guilt toward others whose lives he destroyed. We hear an amazingly non-humanist biblical line that “no one is good,” none of us. The devil then tells him that’s not enough to save him, it won’t make up for all the evil he did in life. To which he replies, “I know.” He accepts damnation as justice for the wrongs he has done in life, and that such moral crimes MUST be paid for with blood. This is no easy humanist “forgiveness” without consequence. In Christianity, this is called “repentance”. It’s a change of mind that acknowledges one’s own guilt and our inability to pay for that guilt apart from our own damnation.

But then something amazing happens. With the last person dying in his arms, this “self-admitted” guilty character tells the Devil three times (making thematic emphasis) to “take me instead” of her, “because I deserve it.” This is of course substitutionary atonement, a distinctly Christian concept.

Substitutionary atonement is the doctrine that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners in order to pay the penalty for their sins so they would not go to hell. Kinda like dying in the electric chair in the place of a capital criminal. The guy is not trying to be his own Christ, I think the filmmaker is making a veiled reference to Christ’s dying in our place because he knows that the Hollywood censors would not allow clear Christian faith in movies. (the other possibility is that the filmmaker is a religious humanist who wants to have Christian ideas without Christ, but this seems less likely since there are veiled references to Christianity all throughout. Although one piece of evidence that the filmmaker is not deeply familiar with the Christian faith is that he quotes the Bible verse at the beginning about the devil like a roaring lion, but gets the citation wrong. He puts it as “Peter 5:8, instead of 1 Peter 5:8.). At one point, the religious character starts praying a Spanish prayer into the intercom that I would like to know what he is actually saying. That might enlighten the meaning or theme.

The themes in this movie reflect a Christian worldview: The reality of the devil and damnation, forgiveness, confession, repentance, and accepting of one’s guilt for the choices we make, and redemption through confession and repentance and forgiveness, along with substitutionary atonement. I would make one caveat: Shyamalan worked on the story, but another person wrote it and another person directed it, so I am not sure how much Shyamalan’s own worldview comes into play here. But one possible interpretation may be that Shyamalan has a Hindu universalist type religious heritage, so he may be trying to subvert American faith by using our western cultural symbols like the Devil and other Christian notions to communicate his own idea of Karma. Though there are no references to past lives in the story there is a reference to the idea that we are responsible for everything that comes our way in life as consequences for our choices. But even here, reaping what we sow is also a Biblical idea.

Shutter Island

Okay, this one has a real big spoiler that will ruin the movie if you read this before seeing it. So beware. This is a detective thriller about a pair of federal marshals who come to an island used to imprison the criminally insane. Their goal is to find an escaped inmate who may be dangerous. The lead marshal is Teddy (DiCaprio), who has a past. In fact, this movie ends up as A Beautiful Mind, only ugly. As Teddy uncovers a conspiracy of covering up by the establishment, he is led to the belief that they are experimenting on people. It all turns out to be an elaborate act put on by the staff to try to help Teddy overcome his own self delusion protecting himself from facing the evil of his wife killing their children and then he killing her. It’s all very bleak and pomo nihilistic. Teddy snaps out of it for only a moment, but then drifts back into his delusion and ends up having to have a lobotomy to stop it. Of course, we all know now that lobotomies are barbaric. But when Teddy muses at the end, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or die as a good man?” One moment in the film, an orderly has a debate with Teddy claiming that survival of the fittest and power of the weak over the strong is the only thing that is real, morality is just a social construct. I am not really sure what to make of this. It seems very hopeless and without redemption. Perhaps Scorsese thinks the unwillingness to face one’s moral accountability is destructive delusion. Or maybe he thinks monsters survive because they are not hampered by the self destructive notions of the conscience in the good man, which kills him. I don’t know. It’s all too confusing and unclear.

The Lovely Bones

A murder thriller about the search for a killer in the 1970s, as told through the perspective of his 14 year old murder victim. After Susie Salmon is killed, and time fades with the killer uncaught, Susie’s sister and father hang on to their hope and eventually discover the killer was right on their block. But by the time they realize who he is, the killer escapes and finds a new place to live. The film seeks to bring some kind of justice by having the killer, though uncaught, become the victim of an accident that finds him falling from a great height and being smashed by rocks on the way down – the standard satisfaction for killing villains in movies. Ultimate justice in an impersonal universe.

The story wrestles with the devastating effect on a family that such unresolved pain can create. Marriages often break up over these kind of things, and Susie’s parents almost do. The obsession for justice and solution causes the dad to go somewhat crazy in his search for the killer.

Through much of the movie, Susie is portrayed as being in “the in-between” a world of changing dream-like environments of nature, from flowing wheat fields to mountains and lakes. This is a classic ghost story in that Susie cannot go to “her peace” until her murder is solved or until she and her family “let her go.” It faces the reality that “everybody dies,” but posits a universe without personal deity that seems to operate like an impersonal fate, making the best out of bad experiences. Another moment of impersonal fate bringing some justice is when Susie, who was killed before she could ever fulfill her desire to be kissed a first time by true love, finally gets her chance to do so. She finds a “psychically sensitive” girl who is dating the boy that had a crush on Susie and Susie enters that girl’s body. The boy then sees Susie’s face in the inhabited girl and kisses her with a deep love and tenderness. Susie finds that moment of grace that was stolen from her before she could ever do so. But again, this is the wish fulfillment thinking of a godless universe of impersonal fate that somehow operates in a personal way.

Not once in the entire story about death and the afterlife is a personal God even brought up as a question, let alone an answer. He is completely ignored as if no one even believes in Him, even in the 70s. Because of this, I think this movie will not connect with most people.

All the other victims of the killer, (about 7 other women and girls) meet in the in-between and laugh and dance in their unity of victimhood. And ultimately they all go to some kind of “heaven” of bliss at the end. So according to this film, we live in a godless universe where all people go to an eternal “heaven” (not sure about serial killers though), but there is no apparent hell or eternal punishment for the evil.

The Box

Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are a married couple with child in the 1970s during the transmission of the Mars probe. They have a troubled life losing her job and his promotion and receive a strange gift from a man (Frank Langella), Arlington Steward, who looks like a scary shadow of death with his deformed face (soon to be revealed as from a lightning accident.). The gift is a little box with a button in it. If they press the button within 24 hours, two things will happen. First, someone they do not know will die, and two, they will receive one million dollars. So this is a movie that sets up a moral dilemma to stretch our minds about conscience, values, and human freedom.

Of course, they are pressured to push the button and their lives start to unravel because of it, until the end when THEY become the victim of another person’s choice (who does not know them) to push the button. What they don’t realize is that the second moral choice for those who push the button is this: Either suffer their child to be blind and deaf for the rest of their life, or kill their spouse. The movie ends up with a lot of weird Twilight Zone type scenarios of strange cult like behavior from people who are all in on it, and some strange connection to the Mars landing. But what looks like an occultic movie is actually naturalism and everything has a natural explanation, including Arlington Steward with the strange face and box. He’s actually inhabited by a Mars intelligence through being struck by lightning — oh, it’s all too confusing. But they make the point a couple times in the movie with a famous Isaac Asimov quote: “Any advanced technology is sufficiently indistinguishable from magic.” And they show this quote up against a picture of Jesus from the New Testament times. So the suggestion is clear: Naturalism. Religion is simply an attempt to explain technology that is sufficiently beyond our grasp (such as Mars alien life forms and their technology to control us).

Another thematic element in this complex film is Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism. The filmmakers go out of their way to emphasize a reference to Sartre’s famous play, “No Exit” about a group of people who are in a hotel who are dead, and discover that hell is not eternal damnation by God, but rather, self deception, “bad faith” in letting others define us rather than we defining ourselves through our own choices. Sartre believed, and promoted in No Exit, that “existence precedes essence.” That is, we are not created by a God which would make essence precede existence. Rather, we first exist in a meaningless universe that we must not seek to find meaning outside ourselves. In this sense, we are “condemned to be free” that is, we are absolutely free, and without external definition by other values or choices or standards. In short, there is no God, we create ourselves through our choices. So to Sartre, if we seek our meaning (essence) outside of ourselves, we are letting others define us and therefore are exerting “bad faith.” In his scheme, we must embrace our meaninglessness and accept our own responsibility for creating ourselves, our reality. This worldview is essentially one of idolatry and self-deification clothed as an assertion of freedom and responsibility. In the movie The Box, Norma is a teacher teaching the play “No Exit” to students who quote the infamous line, “hell is other people.” This would mean that if we let others choose for us, we are placing ourselves in a hell of our own making, letting others define us, etc. The school is putting on a play of “No Exit,” and in one scene, “No Exit” is written on the windshield of a car. Another statement is made, “Unfulfilled wishes is hell.”

So in this context, when Arlington Steward in the story says to Norma, regarding whether she should press the button or not, “listen to your conscience,” it probably doesn’t mean quite the same thing as a Judeo-Christian appeal to conscience. This appeal is to listen to yourself, not others. At one peculiar moment, Arthur is absconded by the cultic members helping the Martian and is given an option to choose between three water portals (strange doorways of water created by “magical” technology). “Three paths. One is salvation. The other two, eternal damnation.” He picks number two and is brought back to his beloved wife safely. But then later, when Arthur and Norma are given another choice of letting their son be deaf and blind for the rest of his life or shooting Norma dead, Norma sacrifices herself and has Arthur shoot her to save their son. Interestingly, Arthur was shown the afterlife when he has his journey through the water portals (a symbol of baptism?), which is what gives him the courage to shoot his wife because he believes they will be together again. There is a lot of religious imagery here, but I think it is subverted by the notion of secular existential freedom. When Norma asks Arlington, “Can I be forgiven?” He responds, “There are two ways to enter the final chamber, free or not free. The choice is yours.” So, the only forgiveness is in being free, NOT in following an external code or “other’s choices.” It’s almost as if the “vision of the afterlife” is a deception (technologically created) that breeds bad choices in this life of the willingness to kill another because of deferred hope.

It turns out the whole thing is a Martian experiment at a distance through Arlington who was somehow possessed through the lightning strike. Arlington says the one factor not accounted for is “The Altruism quotient. If you humans cannot subordinate your desires to more important values, I will be compelled by my employers (Martians) to exterminate you.” Hmmm. This would be quite frankly a complete contradiction of the existentialist claim of self definition, since subordinating one’s choices to “more important values” is in fact, allowing external others to define us. So I am not sure if the filmmakers are aware of this blatant unlivable suggestion of existentialist freedom. It wouldn’t surprise me, since it is a common hypocrisy of this worldview to demand complete freedom from all moral accountability for one’s self, and then to seek to impose their own morality on others. This was embodied in Sartre’s joining the anti-nuke movement because nuclear arms were somehow “immoral” to him. So he demanded no moral standards for himself, while imposing his own moral standards on everyone else. A common behavior of those who fancy themselves gods.

Law Abiding Citizen

This is a gritty violent story of prosecuting DA attorney, Nick Rice, played by Jamie Foxx, who only takes cases he knows he can win, and plea bargains the weak cases so he can play the legal system in order to maintain a high record of wins to better his career. In other words, he doesn’t really care about justice, and be bargains with murderers, and then he justifies his actions by an appeal to pragmatism, you get the best deal you can with an imperfect system. Along comes an inventor Clyde, played by Gerard Butler, whose family is killed by scum, and who experiences the injustice of our legal system as one of them gets away for plea bargaining, led by Nick, and against Clyde’s wishes. Well, I don’t know if this is possible, but the point of the movie is to show that our legal system is corrupted by this kind of bargaining with murderers and results in injustice through compromise with evil.

Clyde’s response is to snap and plan retribution for 10 years through his inventive mind. He hacks into the system and makes the one killer’s lethal injection execution a torturous event, and captures the other killer and brutally tortures him before killing him. Then Clyde hands himself in and in a poignant moment at his own defense for bail, he quotes legal precedent to convince the judge to let him go without bail. Then when she is persuaded, Clyde chastises her that this is what’s wrong with the system. He clearly should not be allowed to be let free, yet, he just used the rules to manipulate her and she bought it. He heaps insults upon her for her moral idiocy and deliberately loses the appeal and lands in jail. Then, while in jail, has worked out a way to start killing everyone connected to his case, from the judge to each of the lawyers, while he is in prison. Meanwhile, each time, he makes ridiculous demands, such as receiving a steak dinner and an ipod in prison, or he will kill the next person.

When Nick accuses Clyde of sick vengeance, Clyde tells him if he wanted vengeance, he could have killed everyone years ago. No, he is making a point, he is going to bring down the whole justice system to make that point. But what is the point? Well, we learn at the end, when Nick figures out how Clyde is able to do these killings and he turns Clyde’s inventions against him. Nick finally says, he won’t make any more deals with murderers like Clyde, and Clyde says now you finally get it. In other words, the whole moral of the movie is that justice doesn’t make deals with murderers, you’ll just get more mayhem because evil people will only use deals as weakness to exploit and will continue to do evil until they are forcibly stopped. Law Abiding Citizen is not merely a vengeance movie about vigilante violence, it is a moral fable that condemns our legal system. It makes the argument that making deals with murderers only results in more murder, that plea bargaining results in high recidivism rates of criminals being released into society only to rape and kill again and again.

In light of the current geopolitical events in Iran, I suspect the filmmakers may also be making an analogy to making deals with terrorists and fanatical dictators, which only result in perceived weakness by said terrorists as an opportunity to exploit for more power and violence.

Surrogates

This is a story of cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) in a world where people live their lives through robotic surrogates that they control remotely through virtual computers. The moral of the story is spoken right up front in the narration by the human activist that “We weren’t made to live life through machines, “ and that “what it means to be human is to sacrifice yourself for a higher cause and purpose.” There are people living in surrogate free zones because they want to be more human. It turns out there is a weapon that will kill people through killing their surrogates, never possible before. But the big crime turns out to be the repentant creator of the surrogates attempting to download a virus that will breakdown every surrogate in the world so that people will be forced to life real life again. The movie is really just an amplification of the avatar “social networking” that already goes on online. People live through false identities, they choose to all be younger and prettier avatars than to accept themselves as they really are. They become shadows of themselves, projections of their fantasies rather than reality. They don’t want to face reality. They seek to experience the pleasures of life without having the consequences. But as a main character says, “we must sacrifice certain pleasures to be truly connected.” So the cop and his wife suffer from the loss of their son, and she seeks to stay in the false world, while the cop seeks to redeem their marriage and make the human connection in their real bodies and souls. By the end, when the virus works and all surrogates drop, we see a lot of fat people walking around outside in their pajamas dazed as what they have been missing in the real world, but certainly better for it – because “We were not meant to live life through machines.”

The Wicker Man

Horror. A police officer investigates a missing child on an obscure island of Puget Sound, only to discover the island is controlled by a mysterious pagan cult. This is a story that shows Feminism/neo-paganism/Gaia Earth worship as evil. Hollywood always shows patriarchy as the oppressive subjugation of women by abusive men. But this movie is rather unique in that it communicates the opposite: that matriarchy is the oppressive subjugation of men by abusive women. In this story, little school girls are taught to recite that the purist form of the male is the phallic symbol. Men’s tongues appear to be cut out and they are reduced to breeders and physical laborers who are forcefully uneducated. These men-haters of this isolated isle disparage patriarchy and then attempt to replace one form of perceived oppression of women with their own oppression of men. The writer/director, Neil LaBute uses this commune to make his point that the “earth” religion that Wiccans, witches and radical feminists all point to as the glorious original pristine Garden of Eden is actually a Garden of Snakes that is rooted in the same human sacrifice that all paganism is ultimately rooted in. A sacrifice that is a twisted parody of the need for atonement that the living God has embedded into the universe. This is a unique and original voice. Put into Pomo lingo: This story is a subversive narrative that delegitmizes radical feminism and its neopagan counterpart as gynophilic male-hating imperialism.

The Illusionist

Romantic Mystery. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his skills to win the heart of a woman above his class status. Paul Giametti plays the police captain who tells the story and is torn between his loyalty to a corrupt prince and justice. I found this story engrossing. Although one could tell that all the illusions were simply camera tricks, not true magical skill, which sort of made it harder to believe. On the other hand, it was still a great story of love and the pressure of social standing.