23.5.13

Hollywood's Messiah Complex

This is how to do religious metaphors on film.
I should start with a spoiler warning. If you're not up to date on Star Trek or Game of Thrones, you might want to save this for later. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness and mostly enjoyed it in a mindless, well-executed explosions and imaginative visual style sort of way. There were some clever touches for old school Star Trek fans as well, but one of these set off the inner critic in my head who had been sleeping comfortably until that point. By the time the credits rolled, I wanted to scream, "Enough with the Messiah metaphors already."


If you saw the movie, you know what I'm talking about. Captain Kirk interrupts his uninteresting cowboy role in playing by his own rules but still getting things done to actually sacrifice his life for his crew. This isn't the part that bugged me. It was actually a clever re-working of Spock's story arc in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and, as this Wired article suggests, it's kind of perfect.

Then there's the damn Tribble. I knew that would play into the movie, but part of me was enjoying the fact that, for a brief moment, this movie meant something pushed it to the back of my mind. But Khan's blood can resurrect the dead, Spock needs his blood to save Kirk, blah blah blah. And lucky us, we end the movie with Kirk alive and Khan stowed away for a sequel. If you spotted the plot hole there, that was one of many I was willing to forgive. But the problem with this kind of Messiah metaphor, the kind that involves bringing the movie messiah back, is death no longer means anything. There are no stakes, unless the business bottling and selling Khan's miracle blood runs into too much overhead or something. Except there's no money in the Star Trek universe, so that doesn't work either.

I had the same issue with the otherwise compelling Game of Thrones. A character dies in a duel, so he's gone, right? I mean, there was some magic that conveniently solved plot points last season, but at least you can't magically bring people back from the dead, right?

Wrong. A priest [Ed. note: Thoros of Myr, a red priest of R'hllor] says a prayer, and his buddy's back to the living. We've now entered The Princess Bride territory.

Granted, I make an unfair comparison here. Death in Game of Thrones is more nihilistic than sacrificial, and the "resurrection", while convenient, only works for one character (as far as I know) and is far from pleasant for him. Still, ever since the third X-Men movie, I'm done with people dying and then not in fiction. It's one of the reasons the Left Behind books didn't work. The authors built up dramatic moving deaths for the Christian characters and I was thinking "I'll see them at the end anyway." It's like living in a world with no consequences; nothing has meaning anymore.

I get the appeal for these stories, I do. Some of my favorite movie scenes involve brilliant use of these metaphors, like the one from Cool Hand Luke I posted a picture from above. But whether it happens to a wizard, vulcan or human, I buy it a lot more if there's a sense of stakes, and I think somewhere in our obsession with happy endings we've lost the plot. So Hollywood, please. Scrap the movie messiahs for now. Watch Cool Hand Luke for starters, and take notes. Or if you just can't wait, at least take a hint from the original Wrath of Khan and keep the hero dead for a while

4 comments:

  1. I hear that.

    MY beef with the Star Trek movie [SPOILER ALERT] is that the movie ends with both Khan and Kirk having "magic blood." Abraham accidentally conquered death which becomes a problem for all future installments. No one will ever really be at risk again. Unless everyone simply forgets and moves on. That, or J.J. pulls a time travel/alt. universe trick to fix it.

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  2. I appreciate the point about conquering death and the lack of narrative tension (characters are no longer in any real danger if they can be resurrected willy nilly), and I think you're quite right to suggest that it cheapened the ending of Star Trek, to say nothing of the problems it creates for future movies.

    That said, this seems to me an incredibly flimsy definition of "Christ-like figure." Do you really think Khan is the Christ-figure of Star Trek? Is Beric (the fellow Thoros resurrects like seven times) really the messiah of Game of Thrones? And if there's nothing in a character's past that remotely suggests messiah, nothing after their resurrection that suggests it, and nothing in their resurrection that's similar to Christ (unless Thoros is God the Father in this Thrones metaphor) then it's a bit unfair to accuse the entertainment industry of being obsessed with messiahs. Maybe that's just you.

    Which is not to deny, of course, that there aren't genuine Christ-figures in plenty of movies and television shows. The concept of a hero going through hell, being "resurrected," and then saving his people/some people/a person is a fairly traditional archetype, and often a clear Christ-like figure. But that's not what happens for either Khan or Beric, and it doesn't seem to me that the bare fact of a resurrection (in a completely different way, for completely different purposes) is enough to cry "Messiah!"

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  3. Good points. I would contend Kirk was a Christ figure because he gave his life sacrificially and so on. The same would go for Spock in the original Wrath of Khan. I admitted I was stretching it with Beric from Game of Thrones, but it seemed worth mentioning since here's a story literally using religion to resurrect a character, and that tied in nicely to my issue with Left Behind.

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    1. Ha! Why did I say Khan? Even I don't know. You're right that Kirk is much closer to a Christ-like figure, I had a terrible misreading of your fourth paragraph.

      Beric is indeed a different story, but I like the challenge of trying to make it work. Thoros is God the Father, the Lord of Light could be the Holy Spirit. Arya could be Peter? I think I'm out of ideas.

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