Skywalker Arises

Maybe, if you’re like me, you find the Star Wars franchise a little hard to keep straight.  Ever since the end of Episode VI the number of characters with strange and oddly short names jumped.  The rate of light saber duals skyrocketed, and the story grew more complex (and not always with any payoff).  I suspect that like many I kept watching the second trilogy of episodes I through III out of a sense of duty, longing for that pathos that stayed with me after leaving the theater (remember theaters?) following episodes IV through VI.  Hope awakened along with the Force in Episode VII under the able hand of J. J. Abrams.  Then the stinker of Episode VIII, which my wife and I watched in a cold theater in Bernardsville, New Jersey, dropped us back into the realm of I through III.  I didn’t even notice when Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker came out last year.  DisneyPlus, to which many people subscribed just to watch Hamilton, made it possible for us to round out the trilogy of trilogies on the small screen.

While better than The Last Jedi, the story ran into the standard sequel problems of probing relationships between characters that a crisp story tends to leave ambiguous.  But there were, to my religious eye, many themes that seemed quite Christian.  There was buzz when Kylo Ren’s cruciform light saber appeared in The Force Awakens, but the Christian tropes were more obvious as the series wound down.  Rey, for example, finds out about the wayfinder from the first physical book of the series.  It’s old and leather-bound and iconic.  This is a kind of Bible.  Jedis are shown to be increasingly messianic, and I thought having a female messiah was a nice touch.  I was going to write “as the series closed,” but with the money made there’s little doubt that more will come from a galaxy far, far away.

Rey’s impressive Jedi feats look like miracles and her ability to raise the dead (or dying) and to heal in a time of an evil empire (for ancient Christians, Rome) rings familiar to those with Bible radar.  The name Skywalker should’ve been a clue from the beginning (as it was for those of us who crowded the theaters in 1977), and the final shot of Rey on Tatooine where the setting of the binary stars make a halo around her head should eliminate any doubt.  There are many throwbacks to the original trilogy in this final installment, and although the plot was more complex than necessary, it leaves the armchair theologian in a nice place.  But some of us will always think of the holy grail as that found back when the evil in our own empire seemed, if briefly, to be waning.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Soul Library

LibrarySoulsThere’s a kind of trinitarian logic to the trilogy format. Long before Hegel’s model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, people have grouped things into threes. And there is a hook that film-makers have used to ensure that viewers will come back for the third installment: the cliffhanger. The second episode leaves everything unresolved and you’ll be sure to see the third. Think of the original Star Wars trilogy, or Back to the Future, or even Pirates of the Caribbean. In each case the first film could stand alone, but the second insisted on a third. This is a little trickier with books since, as we all know, publishing is a slow business and writing takes time. I saw Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, in 2011. I knew I would read it since the cover alone was so intriguing. Young adult literature, it turns out, has come a long way since I was able to classify myself that way. Then Hollow City came out. It ended as a cliff hanger (remember the formula), back in 2014. Just over a year and a half later, The Library of Souls was released.

Having just finished the trilogy, reading each as it came out, I would say that, like most trilogies, the first installment was the best. Freshest, a new idea, where characters exist with whom the reader participates by in filling in the blanks, a series grows more complex as it expands. Some elements that weren’t there at the beginning have to be read back into the previous installments. In my case, I’ve read so many books in the interim that some of the details have grown hazy due to the simple passage of time. Still, Riggs is to be highly commended for bringing souls back into discourse among the young. Too long we’ve been sold the story that we have no souls.

I’m not going to go into any great detail here since those who want to learn how Riggs handles the tale will read his books, but I will say that a stubborn materialism has settled over intellectual culture. Some neuroscientists have naively said, “we’ve looked for it and can’t find it, therefore it must not exist.” And since most of us don’t have access to their kinds of equipment or training, we’re told to acquiesce. Give up your souls—buy into materialism. Buy stuff. That’s what we’re all about. It is a relief, in the midst of all of this, to have a popular writer suggesting, through fiction, that it is souls that make us who we are. The books aren’t preachy. Indeed, it would be difficult to say they are religious in any conventional sense. They are, however, soulful. And for that I am very glad to have read them, even as a middle-aged adult.

A Mighty Fortress

I have to admit to having not seen the Lego Movie. As a kid, I grew up without Legos. We were a family of modest means, so Lincoln Logs were more our style. When I first came to see Legos, they appeared restrictive to me with their pixel-like determination. Of course, Legos have come a long way since then. My wife sent me the story in Newsweek about the Martin Luther figure (not, I hear, featured in the movie) that surprised Playmobil, the parent company, by becoming their fastest selling figure ever. I suspect that the company put the figure out just a year before the five-century mark of the 95 theses that essentially created Protestantism, to catch a little of the interest that anniversaries always bring. Although I have no data to back me up, my guess is that the majority of sales have been to adults. Little Luther with his quill and German Bible, it seems, tickles adult minds more than pre-adolescent ones.

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This startling statistic ought to give pause to those who claim religion is irrelevant. Remember, Star Wars and Batman figures have also been available and collectable in Lego format. Even so, a German monk has outsold them all. This, it seems to me, indicates both an appreciation of irony and a very deep-seated need for finding meaning in life. After all, Star Wars is more than escapism. Lutherans are, by no measure, the largest Christian denomination. There is something, however, about Luther. Sure, those in the early modern period who had problems with the church were legion. Martin Luther did something about it. He took his life in his hands to address the wrongs he saw. Like most religious founders, he wasn’t advocating for a new religion, but a reformed one. The rest, as they say, is history.

The media tells us again and again that we are a secular people and that the church no longer moves us. Stagnating attendance figures and more vocal unbelief have become so common that many people feel a little embarrassed to admit that they believe something, anything. But do actions not speak more loudly than words? 34,000 Martin Luthers sold in 72 hours. Perhaps not Rock Star numbers, but very respectable for a bit of plastic. I wonder if this might not be a sign. Perhaps, with Luther, we ought to take the time to sit down and write out what we believe. Maybe our Wittenberg door should be that of Congress rather than a castle church. Or maybe it can be the door of our own minds. Luther, dead nearly half a millennium now, has shown us what a leader with vision can accomplish despite the centuries. And with a bit of plastic.

Head of STEAM

The market producing doctorates in the humanities is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is we’re all human, and many of us aren’t very technically inclined, unless we have to be. There are fewer and fewer jobs for these bright students who graduate with doctorates in the humanities, but the plight of the “privileged” is no concern to wider society. Let the eggheads figure it out. At the same time, wisdom in the job market is that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM subjects) are growing and showing the most promise for future careers. The pace of technological change is so rapid that yes, obsolescence for new devices is six months or less. My iPhone 4 is a dinosaur, although when I first held it some three years ago it was so advanced that I was afraid of it. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the most advanced technology is already in use in the military since staying ahead of the enemy is always the bottom line.

This situation has led to some concern, and not just among those of us in the humanities. Some in the world of STEM are saying that quality of life suffers. To indulge a stereotype, try to imagine geeks without Star Trek. We know that Star Trek was as much fantasy as science fiction. My iPhone makes a communicator look just plain silly. Star Trek is, however, creative indulgence. While many would hesitate to raise it to the status of “art” it is part of the Arts: fine arts, literature, film, music, and some television. The stories it tells are the stories of human beings (and one alien) struggling against often more advanced civilizations. In the end, humanity always wins. If we exit the stereotype, scientists are often musicians and writers as well. Some become novelists or consultants on box-office busters. We are more than meat machines.

Recently voices have been heard suggesting that STEM should be STEAM. The Arts have an integral role to play in the scientific and technological fields. Even some numbers are imaginary. The basis for developing imagination is the Arts. Although we could have made it to this point in our development without Star Trek, the fact is that many of us growing up with it, as well as the more silly, but also influential Lost in Space, and what we now know is a most assured cash cow, Star Wars, know that these shows helped shaped the present we inhabit. Arts give us visions. There continue to be those who castigate the Arts as “soft” and “weak” and tangential to the cold hard facts. But they are wrong. Humans can’t survive without a source of warmth and energy. And the first great engines of advancing civilization still have much to teach us, for those engines ran on steam.

Awakening Forces

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.

Star Lords

Things are done differently in the UK. I suppose that’s obvious, but I have always noticed on my trips between our respective countries that some things that go without saying here or there receive the opposite treatment overseas. We are, however, united by a common religious heritage that sometimes goes unrecognized. A recent opinion piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian discusses the banning of a commercial featuring the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas. The first difference that came to mind is that advertisements for something like the Lord’s Prayer seem unlikely in the United States. We are a biblically-based, biblically illiterate society, and if someone is willing to put up the money, advertisements are a no-brainer. A second difference is, as Fraser points out, there is fear that the Lord’s Prayer might offend people. Surely there are those who will take offense, but Fraser points out that there is nothing offensive in this prayer. It isn’t an attempt to convert. It is reflective, irenic, peaceful.

The point of this opinion piece, apt when Christmas wars are in the air, is that freedom of religion requires a dose of common sense. Yes, many atheists are offended by religious practices, but the question is whether we can ever completely avoid offending one another over belief. Beliefs differ. Not even everyone agrees with “live and let live.” The problem is that some offensive ideas lead to violence. We’ve forgotten how to talk with one another. In this world of uber-security, we find difference terrifying. Religious difference especially. So the angry atheists suggest religion should be driven indoors and rendered mute. Which violates what some religions are all about.

The British ad was to take place before the airing of the new Star Wars movie. One need not be a detective to discern the deep and inherent religious message in the original series of the franchise. Indeed, people were disappointed with the prequels because they had lost that sense of mythic grandeur that Joseph Campbell had been so helpful in instilling in the original trilogy. The films were made with religion in mind. Hidden behind a mask, perhaps, but clearly there. If Yoda had uttered something like the Lord’s Prayer, it would have been accepted as merely part of a movie. And as the reboot trilogy shows without doubt, movies have the power to offend.

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Final Final Frontier?

Over the past several months my wife and I have been making our way through the Stars. Not really Trekkies or Jediists, we both came of age during the early days of Star Trek and the dawning of the original Star Wars. Both franchises have continued to grow and have become cultural markers in their own rights. We have survived all the episodes of Star Wars I through III, and have made it, so far through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. As we switched off the DVD player, we mused that we hadn’t seen this particular installment (with good reason) since we had originally watched it together shortly after it came out. It has its moments, but it just doesn’t measure up to what Kirk and Spock can usually muster. Watching it as a somewhat jaded critic of space movies, however, its religious elements simply couldn’t be ignored. After all, this is the episode where they find God, then shoot him in the face.

Opening with Sybok, the emotional Vulcan messiah, with a tacked-on identity as Spock’s brother, healing his first convert, the movie follows a typical kind of progression of a boy and his god. The town on Nimbus III (every Trinity watcher surely caught that reference) is named Paradise. Some wag painted the Miltonesque “Lost” after the town name on the gate through which Sybok rides like Jesus entering Jerusalem. Hijacking the Enterprise turns out to be remarkably easy, even with Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, and Kirk in the shuttlecraft. And soon we’re off to the Great Barrier, which, as it turns out, is just a bunch of colored lights.

When God appears, he takes the shape of a typical Terran, white beard and everything. When Sybok questions him he briefly turns Vulcan, but we get the sense that God is whoever you want him to be. He is definitely masculine, and he has anger issues. His Eden is a barren rock, and he feels trapped and requires a starship to get about. We are forced to conclude that this is no deity after all and life is but a dream.

Despite its many disappointments, Star Trek V is a theologically aware movie. Its conclusion of science trumping the need for the divine leaves us with three old men around a campfire waiting to die. A trinity in its own right, but one where the only hymn to be mustered is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” And God lies dead at the center of the galaxy.

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Ultimate Superlative

“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff.  Push great men too far and they soar.”  The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce.  Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career.  Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight.  He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice.  He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place.  It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.

Marvin on a superlative walk

Marvin on a superlative walk

I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives.  The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced).  I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son.  His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.”  I recall when awesome really meant full of awe.  And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.

Jedi Night

Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterIt all began with that trailer. You know, the teaser for the new Star Wars movie. I was among those many small-town boys crowding into theaters in 1977 to have their small-town minds blown with a Luke Skywalker, somehow just like us, getting to go on a galactic adventure and conquering evil. It was a transformative experience. Later I was to learn that noted Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell had advised on the story, helping to produce image after archetypal image that spoke to deep levels of viewers’ psyches. Hungrily we watched, as even through some missteps, the franchise grew to trilogy proportions, creating its own cultural memes (has “I am your father” ever been the same since?). Then somehow I missed The Phantom Menace, or episode one. It could be that work at the time (Nashotah House) was an epic struggle in its own right. With a small child and not sure about baby-sitting options, taking a night out to watch the prequel to a story that had already nicely resolved itself felt kind of pointless. We already knew how it ended. But that trailer. Now it seems, the story will continue.

So it was that my wife and I decided to catch up. Over the weekend we watched The Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d seen clips before. I’d also read the reviews that were less than complementary (Joseph Campbell had died in the meantime and George Lucas couldn’t seem to come up with archetypes on his own). I was curious, but not curious enough to rent the video (as people did in those days). So The Phantom Menace, cast from the same die as episode 4, also has a strong religious resonance. The Jedi (and already the religion of Jediism has begun to appear) filled the backstory with near invincibility, and all the aliens seemed somehow comic, yet we are told remarkably little about the Force. Perhaps episode 4 had said enough. When Darth Vader is introduced as a prescient boy, the audience (at least this audience) finds it hard to believe he is the result of a virgin birth. Indeed, Lucas throws us the midi-chlorians as a sop, but we know that when a woman gives birth with no male intervention we’re in messianic territory. And of course, non-Muppet Yoda tells us straight up that he may be the chosen one.

Introducing the Sith, who are the embodiment of the dark side of the force, we are treated to a devil in only a thin disguise. The red and black greasepaint warn us that when he removes his hood he will have horns. Although we’re not shown, I suspect he has cloven feet as well. So through the movie with its gratuitous cameos of creatures we already know from episode 4, we come to an end that is strangely familiar. We’re back where we started. The Jedi favor earth tones over white, however, and the Sith is neither all red nor all black. The evil of the galactic empire seems to be no more than the very real overtaxation of the poor. And yet for all my disappointment, there’s that trailer we all saw in December, and using my own version of the Force, I foresee an attack of clones in my future.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.

Earthbound

Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.

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In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Star Tracks

Star_Trek_The_Motion_Picture_posterLong ago in a galaxy far away—1979 in rural western Pennsylvania, to be precise—the local inhabitants were surprised to learn that James T. Kirk was now an admiral. Two years earlier Star Wars had thrilled us with special effects first mastered in 2001: A Space Odyssey but a more accessible plot. Robert Wise, who had not only given the world The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, took the helm for the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek geeks, of which crowd I do not count myself, hadn’t really taken their cliched role in the emerging high tech society, and CGI was still a few years off. Nevertheless, rumors in school had it that the movie featured a bald woman and had boldly gone where no man had gone before. The original crew was all there. So on a Friday night I dutifully made my way to the Drake Theater to watch and left saying, “is that all?” Star Wars was action-packed and fun, filled with archetypes and wise-cracking robots. Star Trek had Voyager 6, like E.T., trying to phone home. In a word, the movie was forgettable.

On a tour of the original Star Trek world, I finally sat down to watch The Motion Picture, with its grandly archaic-sounding name, last night. I shuddered to think I’d last seen it 35 years ago—that makes me as old as the crew was starting to look—but this time I was able to see things I hadn’t before. Spoiler alert! Voyager 6 is looking for God. The original Voyager 1 reached the end of our solar system a couple years back, but in 1979 there was no reason to suppose that we wouldn’t try again and again to reach out to parts unknown. We were rapidly become materialistic, and the universe could be a known quantity. Three centuries in the future, Voyager 6 is headed home, having been rebuilt into an unstoppable living machine. When the creator—humanity—doesn’t pick up the phone V’ger poises to wipe out the carbon-based infestation until it learns how to physically, biologically merge with a human being (cue the bald lady and otherwise superfluous Captain Decker). Lots of colorful lights and we can all go home.

Even now I can’t muster the courage to say the movie is profound, but it does touch on an issue that has only grown over time—we have voluntarily left our deities behind. In our rush to reduce the world to the least common denominator, we have pulled the plug on the cosmic phone. The Voyager program ran out of steam as the Cold War was heating up down here on earth and we were being told we were all just a bunch of atoms fooling around anyway. The machines, in the meantime, had come to believe. I probably won’t survive another 35 years to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, but I do hope that in that time we may become more aware of our humanity. And I do hope that if someone divine does happen to call, that we’ll at least pick up the phone.

Voting Vicissitudes

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the Gunpowder Treason, should ever be forgot.” Election day fell on November fifth, and as I watched V for Vendetta again, I was reminded how true it rings. Religious leadership takes over government, the common person becomes an enemy of the state, and criticism is treason. Tea, anyone? I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, but the world of V is entirely too plausible at times. I have watched rational people transformed by fear and the certainty of religious dogma into those who will do what they are told without question. The movie always gives me a profound hope that the human spirit is larger than the powers that be. V can also stand for Vote.

I cast my ballot knowing that a vote against a governor who enjoys the bully image was indeed close to a lost cause. People are enamored of power. In my deepest Jedi dreams, however, I know that the most powerful moment in Star Wars is when Obi Wan turns off his light saber to allow himself to be struck down. There is a power, one upon which entire religions are premised, in the self-sacrificial act. It’s not that I have anything against Parliament; I saw it just this past year and enjoyed the experience in a way that Guy Fawkes could perhaps not have appreciated. As Evey says, “this country needs more than a building right now. It needs hope.” I guess we can hold on another four years. V can also stand for five.

“He’s a deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He has completely single-minded convictions and has no regard for the political process. Eventually, his party launches a special project in the name of ‘national security’.” So V tells Finch concerning a dictator who could be wearing any number of political masks in our world. We hand power over to those who encourage our fears rather than those who inspire our imagination. Camelot died in 1963. It is not so difficult to imagine a world so much better than the one we’ve constructed, but plutocracy does prevail when people do not take the implications of their religion seriously. When we only glance at the surface, the deeper message gets lost in the mythology of it all. November fifth is a myth that still has the potential to change the world. If we would allow it.

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