2015: A Selected Film Review
There are moments in beholding the world around us that overawe and sometimes overwhelm and diminish us. When confronting the American landscape, Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “This continent possesses something like a spirit which malevolently undoes any attempts to subdue it,” and, “my humanistic zeal has been weakened by the mountains and the ocean, by those many moments when I have gazed upon boundless immensities with a feeling akin to nausea, the wind ravaging my little homestead and intentions.”
As I reflect upon the films of 2015, I think of the boundless immensities all around us. Glory and terror echo through the natural world and the worlds of human creation. Our films reflect the thoughts and nightmares that occupy our minds. Each of these movies captures a sense of being overwhelmed, some in sacred awe and others in anxious trembling.
As I watched this film, I kept thinking of Jack London’s beautiful, terrible short story, “To Build a Fire,” which tells of a man who freezes to death while traversing the Yukon Trail. In The Revenant, Hugh Glass literally climbs out of the grave to cross an untamed landscape that could swallow him alive at any moment. This is virgin America, and it’s treacherous. The snow, the trees, the terrain, and the wild animals are both wonderful and threatening. The trappers, Indians, and soldiers seem underwhelming beside the mighty river, the buffalo herd, and the snowy avalanche.
In the middle of this wilderness, a human drama plays out in love between father and son, as well as human cruelty, greed, and deceit. Yet, these dramas contract in the vastness of untamed frontier. As I watched Hugh Glass struggle to survive, I was caught up in both the beauty and peril in this world, and in some sense the shadow of the Creator just beyond the screen.
While The Revenant looks at the west, The Martian gazes out beyond the horizon to the glory of space travel. The wonder of this film lies not in the spaceships or technological innovations but in the magnificent galaxy and the dramatic landscape of Mars. Abandoned astronaut Mark Watney is caught in middle of this vast expanse, working tirelessly to survive.
The odds of returning to earth are literally astronomical. The film tells a common story: in the face of devastating loss, humans find the means to work together. Collaborating in countless small ways makes a big impact that opens the possibility for hope and survival.
Unlike the original stark revenge film that introduced Mel Gibson to America, Mad Max: Fury Road delivers a visually lavish story. Most of the film paints a canvas of striking visual energy, exploding onto the screen in a blur of color and motion. The images are so stunning I could watch the film again and again in silent mode. In an odd way, Mad Max retells the ancient story of Pharaoh. An enslaving leader provides limited water supply to the hordes of thirsty people while controlling every aspect of their lives. One woman revolts, rescuing a group of concubines. Mad Max joins forces with her and a tribe of women to defeat the cruel leader.
After the divine defeat of Pharaoh and his hordes, Moses was given the Torah, which laid the foundation for building a group of former slaves into the community of God. Mad Max left me wondering what would be the restraining force against enslavement and tyranny in the aftermath of ruler’s death.
Man created the machine in his own image and behold, it was terrifying. Retelling the horror film version of Frankenstein, Ex Machina reveals the power of human creation tapped into the collective power of shared human intelligence. The robot exposes its creator’s idolatry. Since the machine cannot go beyond the morality of its maker, it reveals the maker’s moral brokenness in its fullest expression.
In some ways, Ex Machina illustrates Alisdair MacIntyre’s dire prediction that “the new dark ages are already upon us.” For MacIntyre, our survival may be rooted in “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained …” This takes shape as I gather formally and informally with fellow believers. In these gatherings, I am confronted afresh with my own idolatry and my own need for repentance in word and deed.
For most of us, the great overwhelming force that immobilizes us is not outer space, living robots, half-crazed rulers, or the terror of wild places in our world. We smother in the stuff of daily existence: the drudgery of day-in, day-out routines at home and in the workplace. Dreams easily slip into the never-ending march of time that moves through our hearts and minds and families.
In Joy, Jennifer Lawrence shows us the messiness of being a mom, a daughter, an ex-wife, and a struggling inventor. Most of the film feels like the whole world is spinning in chaos. In spite of the pandemonium, Joy finds a place of calm, of focus, and ultimately of faithful love for the broken people who surround her.
These films explore people living at the very edge of existence in the midst of cataclysmic forces. As they struggle to survive, they are caught up in the pressure of resistance, reflecting the pace of our own lives and the layers of unanswered and unanswerable problems that face us. And yet there are glimmers, flickers of God’s glory that shine in and through those around us. The overwhelming terror might press up against us and open our eyes to holy awe. In the mystery of God’s grace, we stand in silent wonder.
 Czeslaw Milosz. Visions from San Francisco Bay. Farrar Straus Giroux, Inc. (1975), pp. 9-11.
 Alisdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition. University of Notre Dame Press; 3rd edition (March 1, 2007), pp. 244-245.