Great Questions Raised By Movies Too Dumb To Answer Them
I love movies. I don't just love art-house movies or movies where someone learns to combine the discipline of ballet with the creativity of the streets; I also love action movies. I love action movies like I got bit by a radioactive guy who loves action movies. That's why it drives me insane when movies mention a major philosophical discussion and then never actually address it. Watching these movies is like talking to a freshman political science major. They'll tell you that your views on identity politics are problematic, then rip a bong and fall asleep before you can ask them what they meant. Here are three movies and a TV show that go to a lot of trouble to raise deep issues ... and then just leave them there.
Batman V Superman
The first 30 minutes of Batman V Superman beautifully sets up an important theme: the danger of too much power in the hands of just one man. We see Batman, unchecked by laws or procedure, starting to turn dark and branding his captured enemies with a bat-symbol-shaped cattle iron. We see Lex Luthor, a businessman who bribes politicians. We see a public wary of Superman, the new terrifyingly powerful alien in town. We even see a vision of what would happen if he becomes corrupt: a dystopia full of sand, meatheads who think they're crusading for good, and weird-looking creatures with wings.
So, basically like Burning Man.
Given all these examples of power corrupting people, the existence of an unkillable, super strong man that can shoot lasers out his eyes puts all of humanity in a tough dilemma. They can either 1) leave him alone and dream that he has a super moral compass, crossing our fingers in the hope that no one ever convinces him that the world would be better off without Nebraska, or 2) try to neutralize him by whatever means necessary. Both are pretty bad options. Option 2 puts you in Lex Luthor's camp, which seems neither particularly appealing nor particularly effective. But Option 1 makes you only barely more cavalier about the fate of the human race than people who think, "Let's hope this climate change thing just sorts itself out." Superman knocks a building over every time he glares in its direction. The dude might be trouble at this stage in his career.
What do the writers hold up as an example to be followed? Option 1, supporting the idea that harming an innocent is never OK under any circumstances, or Option 2, saying that sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the super? We'll never know, because they go with Option 3: FORGET WE EVER BROUGHT IT UP. LOOK AT THE BIG NEW BATMOBILE. PLEASE, LOOK AT IT.
"AND PLEASE BUY THE TOY ... This movie cost us, like, so much money, you guys."
Instead of using the theme to motivate a showdown between Batman and Superman, we get a series of misunderstandings and coincidences completely unmotivated by anything. Literally their entire fight could be avoided by Superman saying, "Hey, Lex is playing us against one another!" To be clear, I'm not saying that I want BVS to be Hamlet. I don't. (Hamlet's CGI blows, and there isn't even a chase sequence.) But when the raison d'etre of the whole movie comes untethered from the rest of the film, you have a problem.
There are plenty of great movies out there that don't take sides on deep issues like how we must handle the consolidation of power given its corrosive nature. One such movie is Rocky. Another is The Little Mermaid. While those movies have some differences, they do have one big thing in common: They don't spend their first 30 minutes underlining, bolding, and italicizing the question "Can you be moral and all-powerful?" only to end with, "Well, we sure killed that monster that came from out of nowhere. Please enjoy all eight of our spinoffs/sequels."
The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix is a great movie. First, we're introduced to Neo, a programmer who realizes he's not just sleeping through his life, being sucked dry by his corporate job. He's literally asleep at all times, being sucked dry by a network of machines. That's a harsh truth, but time and time again we see Neo choose the harsh truth over a more comfortable deception. And along the way we see the unexpected benefits of knowing the truth (while other characters show us the perils of choosing comforting falsehoods). On the road to Neo becoming all-powerful, we get guns, kung fu, and Intro to Epistemology rolled into one.
I'm a fan.
This movie is a shining example of how to say something about an interesting theme within a kick-ass, entertaining blockbuster. That's what makes it all the more disappointing when its sequels do nothing of the kind. At the end of The Matrix, we leave Neo as an all-powerful entity, bending the rules of reality to his will, even cheating death itself. The very last sequence of the first movie is a phone call from Neo to the machines. He tells them he's going to wake up the world to what's actually going on. Cue the Rage Against The Machine (pun very much intended) and Neo flying (great imagery in a movie that focuses so much on important leaps). Kickass!
"We forgive you for Dracula!"
... and then we get Reloaded. There are so many interesting questions left at the end of The Matrix that we couldn't wait to see the answers to: Does Neo bring the whole system down, plunging humanity into anarchy because it's what's true? Does he create a new Matrix, where he appoints himself architect, deciding what's best for everyone? Does that turn him into a Stalin-esque dictator? What happens when a regular person has to choose between comfort and true freedom? In fact, what is freedom? I don't know! But I would have loved to find out. Instead, Reloaded thought we'd be content watching two white guys with dreadlocks not get shot. I can see that every day at hacky-sack club, thank you very much.
What could be a deeper question than "What does it mean to be human?" The 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica found a compelling way to make this abstract, academic question more concrete: have fake humans that are really evil robots in disguise. When in doubt about your metaphors, screenwriters, robots tend to be a fix-all solution. The humanoid Cylons aren't Terminator-style robots with fleshy veneers. They are biological organisms physiologically identical to humans down to the cellular level. They just happen to be made by Cylons. What's more, they're programmed to not even be aware that they're any different from the rest of us.
"Goddammit, not this again."
If they're physically exactly like humans and they believe they're humans, in what way are they not humans? And by defining that, what have we said about what it means to be human? Imagine a series of very small steps leading from in-vitro fertilization, to full-on creation of a human in an artificial womb, to those human-seeming Cylons. We might not be able to draw a sharp line separating assisted human reproduction from robot reproduction. This is a new angle on a philosophical question that's been with us since Plato.
Before we get stories that grapple with this, it's dropped: We learn that Cylons are actually distinguishable from humans at the molecular level, just not the cellular level. Along with losing the opportunity for a great continuing theme, making them distinguishable sucks up most of the series' tension and just jettisons it into space. For the rest of the show, everyone is crystal clear on what it means to be a Cylon and what it means to be a human (even if there are practical problems in deciding who is in one camp or the other). It's understandable because there are a lot of laser battles to fight and space sex to have and yelling to do about all the lasers and sex. When you have to fit "Waging galactic war" in at 5 p.m. when you've already scheduled "Boning a space lady" at 4:45, you might have to push "Answering an infinite enigma" to next Tuesday.
"Uh ... how about next season instead?"
But to me, "Am I fucking/shooting/yelling at a robot?" is a less interesting question than "What is the core distinction between us and them?" I bet it would make all the laser sex that much more exciting.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This movie centers on the question of "Order at what price?" In the wake of the PRISM scandal, that is a pretty interesting and important theme to explore. The U.S. government has a new weapon called Project Insight that lets them spy on and eliminate threats anywhere in the world. Should the government, as Captain America puts it, be "holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection"?
Nick Fury loves it because his job is to protect people. If there is something that can make his job easier, he's going to at least give it a thought. Captain America hates it because he loves freedom. He's a throwback from World War II, and he'll be damned before he trusts somethin' that was created by a godless 'puter. Also, Captain America works for Nick Fury, in S.H.I.E.L.D., which is basically supposed to be the biggest force of good in the world. If S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't doing what's right, then where does Cap belong? Is he just not adjusting to the modern world correctly, or is he missing something integral about it that would allow him to assimilate more fully into it?
"I should have bought these in bulk."
Just when the conflict between these two stances starts to heat up, however, the movie completely skirts the issue by giving Project Insight to the bad guys: It turns out that Hydra was the group rooting for the project all along! As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve- Oh no! Super-Nazis!" By giving Project Insight to Hydra (an evil cabal bent on world domination) the movie answers the very pertinent question of "Should the government be allowed to have this kind of power?" with the bold stance "Nazis are bad." They may as well have had an ominous "Dun dun DUUUUNNNNNNN!" play whenever someone called Project Insight by name.
"Does that giant eagle look kind of Nazi-ish to you?"
"Nein really ..."
Through all of this, I don't mean to say that movies and shows should be drained of all their fun just to serve an abstract theme. (That's my signature writing style, dammit.) I do think that movies, even action movies, are more interesting when they take some kind of non-trivial stance. Fight Club is by no means a perfect movie or an incredibly deep philosophical critique, but it certainly isn't a worse action movie for trying its hand at some larger issues.
I'd rather see a movie that says something weird or crazy than one that's too scared or confused to say anything at all. At the very least, though, if you're going to go through the trouble of starting a conversation, don't just leave your listener hanging midsen-
Aaron Kheifets is an occasionally mustachioed comedian, writer, and director. You are allowed to follow him on Twitter, watch his videos, and look at his website.
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