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.