Here, grouped together, are some words on the representation of religion and science in film – of faith and doubt.
I suppose I should state up front that I believe that film has stemmed from a religious model of storytelling – theological tales and fables and the like – and that even today cinema, especially Hollywood, reinstates religious values just through adherence to the typical story structure, whether it is intended or not, whether it is coded or overt.
As such a lot of my writing tends to focus on how science is vilified as the purveyor of doubt, in conflict with traditional religious, primarily Christian, values.
The problem when making central characters scientists, or at least defining them by their rationality, is that in order to abide by the format of Hollywood cinema, they’ll have to step down as hero or cave to the pressure of the spiritual or supernatural. Director Chris Nolan goes one better in Interstellar, attempting to explain away the mysticism of the narrative through science.
The conflict is introduced early on when ex-NASA pilot and apparent rationalist Cooper (McConaughey) dismisses his daughters claim that there is a ghost in her room – knocking books off the shelf, and parting dust into piles on the ground. This poltergeist isn’t like most others, acting arbitrarily and making shit move to be spooky; this one has a message.
Granted this message changes from the word ‘STAY’ to the missing quantum data of the gravitation problem, communicated in binary on the second hand of a watch. Pretty much the opposite of stay. And a tad more complex. But our hero of the third act is the little girl grown up, daughter Murphy Cooper: scientist and ghost-whisperer. She embodies both the religious and the rational, reconciling the faith-driven attitude of Hollywood with the scientific method by eventually providing proof of her own spiritual experiences.
While most reviews of Ex Machina (2015) reference Frankenstein, none that I read unpacked the idea fully. Here I want to focus on the character of Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac, and how he compares to the archetype of the mad scientist.
Just as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Nathan isolates himself from society and hides away in his research facility. He has a sole companion and servant – though trade hunchback gravedigger Fritz for android concubine Kyoko. And he dedicates himself fully to his work, the work of gods: creating life.
Victor Frankenstein’s first words upon reanimating his monster: ‘Oh God! Now I know what it feels like to be God.’ It makes sense then that his creation is constantly compared to Adam, the first man. Nathan takes the baton from his predecessor and endows his own artificial intelligence with sexuality, creating Ava (an Anglicised version of Eve) – the first woman.
Nathan playfully alludes to his godlike status when misquoting a remark made by Caleb, employee and human component of the Turing test, “I’ll never forget it, you turned to me and said ‘You’re not a man you’re a god.'” (more…)
Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, was a science-fiction blockbuster released last year that was condemned as a critical failure. Many reviews criticised the film for its inability to contain the expansive concept and the scale of the story. An undiscussed element of the film which may have also impacted its reception is the structure of the narrative and the unusual ideals that it presents when compared to typical Hollywood fare. The following analysis will look at how Transcendence subverts the standard model of story-telling by reversing religious and scientific values – and by making Johnny Depp Jesus.0.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looked at the archetypal hero that traversed the mythologies of ancient cultures, theorising that there was really only one overarching story structure, which he termed the ‘monomyth’. This universal metanarrative applies not only to theology but contemporary narrative forms such as cinema – Hollywood especially – appearing to reinstate the same values now as they did centuries ago. Reduced to the extreme the monomyth can be seen as the journey of a hero who has his faith tested through trials of doubt before he can achieve success on his quest. Inherent in this story structure is the conflict between faith and doubt, attributes that I would argue (and have argued again and again) are aligned with religion and science respectively: with faith treated as heroic or noble, and doubt a sign of weakness or ill-intention.
The hero is typically the protagonist of the story whom the audience will follow and support. Transcendence is unusual in that it has no clear protagonist; or rather it has one then kills him in the first ten minutes of the film. With no guide through the narrative, the audience are presented two opposing perspectives that represent faith and doubt, and so experience the trials of the hero first hand. Crucially though, the positions of religion and science, essentially good and evil, are reversed so that the audience truly doesn’t know whether they should be believing or not; whether to have faith or doubt. (more…)
After binge-watching Breaking Bad in its entirety, I felt I had witnessed Walter White’s Heisenbergian decline in such a short space of time that I had picked up on something. A theory: thatBreaking Bad shows that there is no moral foundation for those without religious belief – especially not Walter White because science.
Breaking Bad is a show that follows its protagonist Walter White from hero to antagonist, unusually aligning the audience with a character who gradually becomes more immoral and unlikeable. Walt’s descent is sparked by a lack of faith that leaves him with an amorality based in science. Essentially the first episode begins by establishing a loveable family man who suffers the toils of incredibly bad luck. This is in fact a retelling of the Story of Job which aims to explain why bad things happen to good people; a religious fable that reinstates the importance of faith.(more…)
The icon of the scientist brings to mind an image that has been built and maintained by all types of media. We’re used to seeing a stern-faced, spectacled man in a white coat carrying a clipboard and looking important, but this doesn’t really tell us much about what they do.
Science breaks down into many disciplines, each of which has their own focus and specialities – so it is no wonder that the image many of us are used to seeing on screen may not accurately capture what a scientist’s job really entails. Here is a list of some of the more fantastical myths about what the scientist does and how they compare to reality. (more…)
Science and scientific values have long been denounced in cinema, shown to be a product of an egocentric personality that is somehow less human than others. In the last decade there has been an ongoing trend that is fighting against this representation – beginning to subvert stereotyped characters and narratives that promote the alienation of science. Although this light-spirited backlash has experienced an increasing popularity, there still remains in Hollywood the stereotyping and vilification of the scientific mind. A Dangerous Method and Hysteria, both released this year, appear to demonstrate a subtle undermining of scientific values that harks back to the classical opposition in Hollywood.