The virtues of blunt social commentary

Sunday I watched Elysium, a movie I had wanted to watch when it came out but never got around to. While it’s not as clever and engaging as Neill Blomkamp’s first feature District 9, it had its moments. Even if the pacing and structure of the story had issues, the pathos was spot on. Just like District 9, you felt genuine empathy for the oppressed side of the conflict, beyond what the film compels you to.

Elysium, the ark of the wealthy and powerful

One thing Blomkamp is becoming known for is a special type of blunt social commentary. Generally we applaud works of fiction that put social commentary around the edges, and weave it in under the surface of the narrative. Subtlety is the hallmark of both satire and earnest appeals to action.

Yet it seems that more in-your-face types of commentary have an important place to. Elysium is principally an allegory for immigration. Wealthy citizens live in a protected space station- a walled community on a massive scale. Running the blockade, coming from a crapsack Earth, is an ‘illegal entry’. There is an obvious racial split between the rich and poor.

One shouldn’t be surprised. District 9 was Blomkamp’s take on apartheid, a work more personal to his origins. It was similarly blunt, to the point where the black Africans were replaced with repulsive aliens to drive home the point.

Quite simply, big issues deserve bold commentary from time to time. If inequality and racial discrimination are huge, endemic problems, perhaps it’s refreshing to read a book or watch a movie that shoves it before you. As anyone who gets Amnesty International mail may recall  they often put the phrase “Massive injustice demands a massive response” on the envelope’s outside.

Of course, there are few things more disliked than a preachy work of fiction, one that principally is there to entertain. Aggressive messaging still has a vital place. It can catalyze our minds into new thoughts in a way a slow burn of satire cannot. It creates variety in our cultural intake.

Noah: filling Biblical plot holes

This contains spoilers for Noah. Yes, it’s not just the Bible tale verbatim.


Today I saw Noah. Overall I found the film engaging and well-constructed. It definitely is a Biblical film for the 21st century- drawing deep into the Apocrypha and willing to make the lead protagonist something more than a paragon of virtue in a wicked world. It wrestles with the whole Flood in human terms- what would it be like to be doomed as the flood began? And what would it be like to be one of the few who survived, but had to listen to the cries of the dying?

The Old Testament has known consistency issues. If one thinks of scripture as something more than a set of books, it would be trite to call them “plot holes”. Revelation is not plot. But there are lots of outstanding questions in Genesis, and the Noah story is no exception.

Director/writer Darren Aronofsky digs deep into both the Apocrypha and modern fantasy literature to create an alien antediluvian world- a time where fallen angels walked the earth, and artifacts from the Garden of Eden were still carried by Adam and Eve’s descendents.

Aronofsky solves a couple logistical questions people have about Noah. How did a single man and his small family create a giant wood boat the size of a cruiser? The fallen angels, turned into horrible rock monsters, help Noah (who clearly has the favor of God) to seek redemption. How did they get so many animals together? God sent divine rivers out across the world and called the animals to the Ark? How did they feed all of them? Noah and his family concoct a sleeping smoke that puts them all into hibernation.

The approach to the nuts-and-bolts issues in Old Testament scripture is interesting, and it is nice to see a Biblical film try to flesh out the realities of life in the time of Genesis. By far the largest, and most important effort in Noah is to clarify why Noah’s clan were selected by God (though in the film, “the Creator” is exclusively used), and why everyone else was so terrible that they needed to be purged from the Earth.

Genesis itself is incredibly unhelpful. Here is the entire explanation of the moral landscape, in Genesis 5:11-13:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

Clearly things had degenerated to an awful point- using “corrupt” three times in two verses gives that impression. But besides being corrupt and violent, there is not much to go on. Noah is described as righteous and godly, but not much past that.

Noah centers its entire story and conflict around the differences between the two groups. It casts most of the world as descended from Cain- they are violent, wasteful, and have an insatiable lust for land, resources, and the flesh of any animal they can get their hands on. Noah, his wife, and their three sons are descended from Seth. They appear to not be not only vegetarian but do not rely on animals in any capacity. Noah preaches conservation- use only what is needed, and look after the Earth that God gave man.

The landscape of the film is desolate- whole forests cut down, mountains turned into vast now-abandoned mines. Animal and plan life is scarce because the people of Cain have used it up to create their technologically-advanced civilization- at least Iron Age. One could see God’s flood as an environmental necessity- Nature must defend itself from complete destruction. In this light, the central idea of the Flood becomes more acceptable. Noah understands responsibility and stewardship. He will be able to create a better world. That is why he is chosen.

Overall this helps one wrestle with the theology of the Noah story. While I am not a Christian, my beliefs and current participation in the Unitarian Universalist church make me sympathetic to the idea of a universally-loving god As written, the Noah story seems like God killing a vast number of people due to general grievances. Used to a modern system where guilty parties need to be tried in an evidence-based system, it feels odd to think of such a vague scenario as holding a critical moral and religious lesson. The argument in Noah is consistent and frequent- there is great danger in people who think of humanity as supreme, and all of Nature subservient and there to please and fulfill. Characters deal with the flood in a realistic way- drawn between their duty and their common ground with those said to be wicked. It is more satisfying, and the detail that Noah injects gives the whole tale depth and dilemma.

The film is not perfect, but I appreciated a narrative that attempted to supplement scriptural stories and provide a new idea of what the land that Noah and his kin saw was like. The myth is fully realized- it feels distant, yet the underlying themes draw in the modern audience.


The privilege of a sponge

Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?
Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!
Henry Drummond: But do you think a sponge thinks?
Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!
Henry Drummond: Do you think a man should have the same privilege as a sponge?
Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!
Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!

The movie Inherit the Wind (about the Scopes evolution trial of 1925), with Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, was a film I first saw during a summer constitutional law program. Our professor thought great legal films had something important to teach. Thus we saw The Paper Chase, Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict, and 12 Angry Men. The best movies about the law are also about human ideals- for at its best the law is human dreams and ambition written in ink.

Inherit the Wind, which was released in 1960, has several legendary courtroom scenes. In the actual Scopes trial, defense attorney Clarence Darrow (who Drummond is in all but name) took the unusual step of calling the prosecuting attorney to the stand- famous orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; his scientific witnesses were barred from testifying and he had little to work with in forming a defense. The movie thus has an interesting dynamic of a scene that seems made up for film, but is in fact a take on the real exchange, which was fierce and divisive.

Ultimately, Drummond steers the religious fervor of the trial (and the community) into his realm, which values reason, free inquiry, and ideas as the most important aspects of the human species. Dig enough into the quote, you see an interesting idea of where humans are in the larger web of being.

If humans are special, and crafted to be unique, what use is the distinction between humans and monkeys if these intellectual gifts are not used? Humans are slow, small, weak, and few in comparison to the larger living community. What makes us different is that we can weigh ideas, form substantial opinions, turn the abstract into the concrete. To entertain and live off of fundamentalism, in which one view, one source is above all else, is to lose part of our humanity.