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March 23, 2009

They were expendable

Knowing The following contains extensive spoilers about the recent films Watchmen and Knowing, so I'm going to put almost the entire post under the jump. Proceed at your own risk!

On Friday I went with a friend to see the new sci-fi film Knowing. Despite a promising premise and some interesting biblical references, I'm not recommending it. It spends half the time being violent and/or creepy, the other half being silly, and then the world blows up. It's not what you'd call a pick-me-upper.

What really got to me is that Nicolas Cage's character spends nearly all of the film trying to decipher the mysterious alien messages (you knew there had to be mysterious alien messages), warn people, save lives, and protect his son. He risks everything to get to the location that the aliens have suggested would be a good spot to be in when the end comes. Lo and behold, a ship appears in the heavens! Rescue is in sight! And then, basically, the aliens tell him, "All we really wanted was to save your kid. You can go die a fiery death now with the rest of humanity. So long, sucker."

And these are the GOOD aliens.

And apparently, it's also supposed to be good that Cage's son and the little girl who is rescued with him begin to adopt the aliens' "ho hum, another one bites the dust" point of view. Cage's son has a tearful goodbye with his father, but the next time we see him, he appears to be completely over the fact that daddy's been wiped out in the apocalypse. Even freakier is the little girl, who earlier had watched her mother get creamed by a tractor trailer, and reacted with the emotionless comment, "Where did she go?" (provoking unintended laughter from the audience. As I said, a lot of the film came across as just plain silly.)

The sad thing is, when you think about it, all this isn't even that surprising. It seems to me that science fiction in recent years has taken an astoundingly cavalier view toward human life. Was it always like this? I'm not sure, but there are myriad examples of it these days. I've quit watching at least one sci-fi series in a fit of rage when they treated their most loving and selfless character like so much disposable waste, supposedly for some vague greater good. Joss Whedon, beloved creator of cult sci-fi favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and the current Dollhouse, is known for giving characters particularly brutal and senseless ends, in one case writing a horrific death where a character's soul was annihilated along with her life. And of course, a significant amount of the Star Wars series was built on the premise that feeling emotions about another human being is a bad and dangerous thing. All these works seem to be influenced to some extent by their creators' nihilistic discounting of the worth and value of a single human life.

And now Mark Rodgers has a thought-provoking piece at NRO about the worldview of Watchmen, in which he observes,

In the film’s climax, Dr. Manhattan confronts the “villain,” Ozymandias, who masterminded the killing of millions of people to save the rest of humanity from nuclear annihilation. Despite being set up as the fall guy, Dr. Manhattan simply tells him, “I understand without condoning or condemning.” In this postmodern worldview, the killing of millions transcends right and wrong.

As Rodgers makes clear, it's not the killing of characters that's the problem. If you're trying to represent life on the screen, death is necessarily going to come into it at some point. The problem is the implication that, within the context of the story, the killing ultimately doesn't matter -- that certain self-appointed arbiters have the godlike authority to decide whose life is important and whose can be thrown out, and concepts like justice, morality, and the sanctity of human life just don't come into it.

Where does this indifference toward life come from? In the case of Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, Rodgers suggests it comes from dabbling in the occult. A plausible theory, but surely not all sci-fi writers are into the works of Alistair Crowley. 

C. S. Lewis may have been onto something (he usually was) years ago, when he made the villain of Out of the Silent Planet a cold-hearted scientist who cared nothing about individual human lives as long as he could make sure humanity kept going. If the scientists of his time were already adopting that view, it's no surprise that eventually it would leak into our science fiction.

I'll tell you this much -- looking at it from that point of view makes the final image of Knowing, where the rescued children explore their beautiful new planet with apparently no further qualms about the fate of their parents, look far more chilling than hopeful.

(Image © Summit Entertainment)
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"And of course, a significant amount of the Star Wars series was built on the premise that feeling emotions about another human being is a bad and dangerous thing. All these works seem to be influenced to some extent by their creators' nihilistic discounting of the worth and value of a single human life."

I would argue that Star Wars, taken as a whole, clearly portrays the destructiveness of this attitude and holds up the valuing of human life and moral values to be the better course of actions. We see that the idea that the idealized "detatchment from others" of the Jedi order leads to its own demise when natural human affection becomes warped in Anakin Skywalker because he is not shown the value of life and relationships and is left to try and figure it out himself and fails. We also see through the Clone Wars movie and TV series the idea that though "clones" aren't supposed to be "people", their individual characteristics make them people, leading to interesting (but difficult) questions about the value of the individual, the meaning of self, and free will.

It is Luke's ability to see good in others that saves the rebellion and life as we know it in the galaxy far, far away. Not to mention Han Solo's redemption of character in A New Hope when he turns from being a cavalier me-first person to risking his life and his ship for something beyond himself, choosing to be in a community instead of alone.

I always thought Star Wars, as a whole, had a positive message about what it means to be human and the value of human life.

Gina Dalfonzo

You have a point there, Kari. I always thought it was just Lucas being inconsistent -- trying to push detachment as an ideal but not being able to follow through with it. But perhaps you're right; perhaps it's a little more complex than that.

Jason Taylor

On the other side of the coin, as much of modern evil comes from refusal to discipline ones emotions as from unnatural suppression of them.
Or could it be that these are two sides of the same coin? If ones natural affections are not rightly ordered they become unnatural.


Older science fiction assumed that most people - particularly most scientists - were intrinsically good. Dramatic effect came from the occasional person, especially a scientist, who had become corrupted (from their naturally good starting point) by love of money, love of power, etc.

But, Jason, the question is not really good versus evil, but intrinsic worth. Relevant to the ministry of PFM, the question is whether or not there is value in a person whether or not they have done evil. I.e., is the imago Dei relevant? If not, then alien is to human as human is to plague-infested rat. And that's what these newer science fiction tales seem to be saying; apparently the authors have listened to Peter Sanger.

Rolley Haggard


Peter Singer + Margaret Sanger = Peter Sanger? That works. That definitely works.

(Unless you really meant this poor guy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Sanger )

Steve (SBK)

You mean Singer, LeeQuod.
But I think you're right about the alien-human ratio, at least in a 'utilitarian' world, which is what this would boil down to in modern, secular, minds. Which agrees with Jason's first things first analysis. If we don't see people as valuable, we don't see a problem with killing millions for the sake of 'species survival', or killing millions for the sake of not having to deal with an inconvenience.
Lewis's "Abolition of Man" also applies Gina, and how the many will be slaves to the few with the power, who are guiding things how they think they should be, and not how they *should* be. (With the great irony being, as Lewis pointed out, that in a materialistic world, man's final conquest of nature (by manipulating and controlling man's nature), is nature's conquest of man (humanity), because the 'uber-men' were simply following their internal (nature-given) promptings/instincts).


Rolley and SBK, thanks for the zinger;
Of course I meant to say Peter Singer.
I was bewitched by the Margaret Sanger
Euthanistic doppelganger.

Gina Dalfonzo

Nice one, LeeQuod. :-) I rather liked "Peter Sanger." As Rolley said, it worked.

phillip w parmelee

At the the urging of my 20 year old we went to see the 'Watchmen' together. Prior to viewing I had no expectations or anticipation seeing how I was clueless on the primise, it's characters, or origins. So I am asking if anyone else felt they recognized the progressive unfolding of dominant worldviews as expressed in the evolution of the various super heroes. Maybe Mr.Colson himself would like to offer a critique, based on his books I have read I think he would agree with me.

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