Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.


Robopocalypse


Yesterday the long anticipated novel Robopocalypse was released. Although I seldom indulge in hardcover fiction, I headed to my local Borders to purchase a copy. Sadly, it seems, my local is cutting back on first-day releases because I walked out of the store empty handed but with a robotic Armageddon in my head. Last summer I became acquainted with Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, but word on the street is that this novel is serious. Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights even before the book was released. And the concept owes its existence to religion.

If it were not for human religious sensibilities, would the concept of an apocalyptic end have ever arisen? Probing into the ancient psychology that lead Zoroastrians to suppose an ultimate conflict was just down the theological road, it is clear that even a strong moral sense alone does not dictate ultimate dissolution. By personifying evil in the form of Angra Mainyu, Zarathustra gave a (divine) human face to wickedness, and thus opened the possibility of battling against it. Evil as an abstract, non-personified force might simply be accepted as part of the universe we inherited. By providing it with will and intention, however, Zoroastrians allowed for a natural human response. Fight or flight is hardwired into our brains, but would we have dared fight a foe that is immaterial, amorphous, and completely abstract?

The nature of the enemy has transformed itself many times over the ages. Wilson, a scientist working with robotics during his education, has taken a religious theme and placed it in the context of a godless world of cybernetics. I must use caution here, since I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book, but it remains clear that it is the humanization of non-human entities that gives force and pathos to a final conflict. Jesus charging his white horse into a foul-smelling cloud lacks the same impact. Thus mythologies are born. Mythologies that people live by and for which they frequently die. I do hope it all holds off until I can get a copy of Robopocalypse to read. Better yet, the end won’t come until after the movie is released.