Dear Faithful Readers,
*This is Part 2 of 3 of the Essay "Finding God in the Films of 2012". *
** For Part 1, where we explain the inspiration our research, and discuss Les Miserbles and The Master, click here. **
The Science of Believing and Prometheus
Director Ridley Scott's science fiction epic isn't afraid to ask big questions about the meaning of life, but it sure has a hard time answering them.
By making Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) both an archeologist and spiritualist, the film sets up some elementary discussions about whether or not one needs to choose between formulas and faith to understand our existence. Despite her infertility, she's gets pregnant but quickly discounts the miracle to explore the empirical side of the mystery. Her alien-baby implantation is proven to be a gambit by the mission's sponsor (Guy Pierce) as he seeks to unnaturally prolong his own life. Matters get even messier when they discover The Engineer, an advanced alien who supposedly created life on Earth and now inexplicably wants to destroy it.
Is there a message in all black gooey mess that pulses so hard for profundity?
In a time when real-life scientists are trying to unlock the "God particle", promote the values of stem cell research, and argue the ethics of cloning, there's certainly no shortage of contemporary allegorical readings into the film. But, like worshiping a Jesus-shaped grease stain, it requires a pretty big leap of faith to turn this spectacle into a profound experience. Perhaps we really were made in the image of a vengeful creator who now inexplicably wants to destroy us. Maybe, as the ending suggests, science really will kill God and replace it with something even more terrifying.
Or maybe mankind doesn't deserve to survive in the first place, if our planet's ambassadors are so damn inept.
The Importance of Doubt and The Grey
If you thought that a film featuring fistfights between Liam Neeson and a pack of wolves wouldn't offer anything more than mindless entertainment, you'd be wrong.
But you're forgiven. In The Grey, Joe Carnahan has crafted an existential exploration on the will to live and, more importantly, find salvation. What was marketed as a simple tale about a group of oil workers who survive a plane crash in the wilds of Alaska might equally be understood with Lost-levels of metaphysical entanglement.
The opening voiceover by Ottway (Liam Neeson) establishes his place in this frozen-over hell: "I don't know why I've done half the things I've done, but I know this is where I belong. Surrounded by my own; ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind." He then immediately - and unambiguously - walks past a fluorescent crucifix and into a mess hall. The story quickly lends itself to interpretations of a man in purgatory, caught between heaven and hell, light and dark; essentially, the grey. Ottway has lost his desire for redemption after the death of his wife, until a moment of reckoning (the plane crash) forces a final judgment on his soul. His wife is imagined in beautifully overexposed whites, giving her an angelic presence and leaving little doubt as to where she ended up after death. Ottway is convinced he's not worthy of seeing her again, and only in proving his ability to overcome his personal demons (embodied by hyper-real, glowing-eyed wolves) will he find salvation.
If I sound snowblinded by what should be a straight-forward action adventure film, consider how the film's most important moments resolve themselves. When Ottway first wraps his lips around the barrel of his high-powered rifle, he is interrupted by howling wolves. It's only upon hearing these demons that he reflects on the consequences of his actions (suicide is an "unforgivable sin", according to some churches). When the plane crashes, he has a final vision of his wife being ripped away, and emerges from the snow, born again. The crash is his baptism. His first action as group leader is to offer last rites to a dying man, as all the others confirm "feeling" something (a spiritual transition) the moment the victim passes on.
At this point, he essentially becomes Ottway the Exorcist, trying to save the souls of the other men "unfit for mankind." He's ultimately unsuccessful (after all, it's up to each man to save himself) and even the success of his own salvation is open to interpretation. This suggests, I suppose, it takes more than broken glass taped to your knuckles to face your fears and find God.