After years of avoiding the Good Book like the plague, Hollywood has done an about-face on faith.
As people are faced every day with threats of terrorism, environmental decay and economic uncertainty, a number of recent films, such as “The Blind Side,” “The Book of Eli” and “Legion,” have embraced religion. “The Road” tackled morality and its place in the world. Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” questioned the meaning of eternal life. Even the box office smash “Avatar” raised questions about belief in higher powers and man’s ultimate purpose.
Why the sudden interest in getting in touch with our Higher Power?
Depends on who you ask. Some may say it’s tied to Mel Gibson’s 2004 smash hit “The Passion of the Christ.” But that doesn’t add up, given the lengthy time since that film’s release – and the fact subsequent movies like “Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Nativity Story” flopped.
Regardless, there’s no question spirituality plays a prominent role in today’s pop culture, says Baylor University English Professor Greg Garrett.
“Whether they know it consciously or not, in times of trouble people look for two things from the culture they consume -- entertainment and understanding,” according to Garrett, the author of the book “'Holy Superheroes!' “Well-told stories also may help us to make some sort of meaning out of the chaos of our lives, and that exploration can happen whether or not we intend it.”
Perhaps no genre is as effective an outlet for stories with religious themes than science fiction. The battle of good vs. evil and the question of what’s right or wrong are two topics often at the heart of the best sci-fi, because the visual components of the genre allow for heightened translation and interpretation.
Filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have infused spirituality into classic movies such as “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Terminator.” On television, faith and its power to inspire and corrupt was the dominant story thread through the entire series run of the re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica.”
The rise of religious allegory is no coincidence, according to religious scholar George Aichele.
“We live in a time and culture where belief in traditional gods is increasingly difficult,” says Aichele, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Adrian College. “Extraterrestrial aliens represent an ‘other’ that once was the gods. [Science fiction] taps into the old religious urges with ‘answers’ that fit better into our world.”
“We all want to know who we are, why we're here, where we're going; in a good science fiction story, we see these issues worked out,” Garrett says. “What makes “Avatar” or “The Matrix” or “Battlestar Galactica” resonate are those dramatic depictions of answers to hard questions.
Often, the answer lies with the hero of the tale, the Christ-like savior who will lead his people to the Promised Land. He could be a Jedi Knight, a virtual computer hacker, a future freedom fighter, or a super-powered alien from a doomed planet. What he is doesn’t matter. It’s what he does that counts.
Classic science fiction filmmaking has often relied on the Messianic figure, going all the way back to Klaatu in 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Subtlety usually doesn’t come into play with these archetypal roles.
If the fact that Superman was considered a Godlike figure hadn’t sunk in yet, Bryan Singer made sure to get his point across in the last act of “Superman Returns.” It’s why Neo is referred to as ‘The One’ in “The Matrix.” It’s why we’re reminded all the time in the ‘Terminator’ films that John Connor is prophesized as the leader of the resistance (and why Cameron also gave him the same initials as – well, you know.).
More often than not, when Hollywood wants to turn the spotlight on the Bible, it likes to jump right to the end -- The End of Days.
“Legion,” which opens Friday, stars Paul Bettany as the archangel Michael, who’s come to Earth to save humanity from an Armageddon ordered by God (it’s complicated). He teams up with a group of humans holed up at a remote diner to fight off the hordes of armed Angels who have come to send mankind to join the dinosaurs in extinction.
It will compete for audience share with “The Book of Eli,” which debuted to an impressive $32 million last weekend. Denzel Washington is the archetypal savior who roams the post-apocalyptic American wasteland, 30 years after a devastating war, carrying perhaps the last Bible on Earth.
“Our fondness for apocalyptic stories is often going to come with a savior figure, since we want the End of the World to be mediated in some way,” according to Garrett. “Apocalyptic literature is about hope, strangely enough, and the Messianic figure in these stories gives us hope that humankind may survive, or at least that our heroes may.”
The post-apocalypse movie category has had more than a half-dozen entries the past year. They include the popcorn spectacle “2012,” the bleak drama “The Road,” the Vampire thriller “Daybreakers” and even a comedy, “Zombieland.”
According to Christopher Link, Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, Doomsday films serve the purpose of driving home the fragile nature of life, and the importance of not taking it for granted.
“Apocalyptic texts and narratives often have less to do with the future than with the recent past,” says Link, who holds a Doctorate in Religious Studies. “We learn a little about recent history, and about the hopes and fears it has tended to generate.”
In other words, life is short.
Considering all the terrible news happening in the real world, why do audiences continue to want to pay to be exposed to even worse events unfolding on a giant movie screen?
“The world is a very scary, confusing place these days,” says Aichele. “Apocalyptic [cinema] always does well under those conditions.”
It would seem misery truly does love company.