Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's..." Mark 12:17

From the time that the last frame of Charlton Heston's Planet of the Apes (1968) came into focus, audiences have wondered: how did we get there? how can it be that, two thousand years into our future, apes have become the dominant species on earth? what could have happened that caused this fictional landscape?

Now, over 40 years later, filmmakers have given us some possible answers. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is a re-imagining of the modern day origins of this reversal of fortune.

It seems that it all began with Caesar (digitally acted by Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee born of a genetically-tested primate who went on a fatal rampage in order to protect her child. After the ape-testing program was discontinued as a result of this, Will Rodman (James Franco), a dedicated young scientist at the lab, saved Caesar in a Moses-like fashion by hiding him in his home for next several years.

Without genetic tampering, Caesar still inherited and built upon the intelligence of his mother. Raised in Will's human household, Caesar learned not just skills like writing, using utensils, and sign language, but also the values of compassion, justice, and mercy.

But when Will's Alzheimer's inflicted father Charles (John Lithgow) accidentally gets into trouble with the neighbors, Caesar jumps in to protect him; unfortunately, though, the chimpanzee's strength and power proves dangerous with unprepared humans. Again like Moses, he is exiled - and caged with other primates in a prison-like facility.

Ultimately, and in yet another nod to the Moses story, Caesar finds a new home with his own kind and leads them out of slavery towards a promised land among the California Redwoods.

It's not the Moses connection that haunted me about this film, though. Instead, it was the social issues that this movie raised that stuck with me long after the movie's eye-opening (and creatively telling) closing credits were over.

The social concerns that Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced included:

* Disruption of nature, especially in the poaching of primates in their natural habitat

* Genetic testing, especially severe tests done on animals without care for their health (and not realizing that animal and human reactions to tests aren't necessarily the same)

* Misguided corporate business ethics: not really caring about the humanity behind their tactics - instead all-consumed with financial gain and profiteering

* Violence and the mistreatment of others/animals by violent-minded people (exemplified here by the guards at the primate facility, especially one played by Tom Felton)

* Care and treatment of those suffering from diseases like Alzheimer's

And while not specifically portraying this, the imprisonment and treatment of the apes mirrors issues such as human trafficking, dismissal and poor conditions of the homeless and those with mental illness, and cultural genocide and oppression by the rich and powerful.

The filmmakers pile on the social issues as if to say this is how society crumbles and could potentially lead to the fall of the human race (and thus the rise of the apes). This is also a lesson the Church has promoted through its social teachings over the centuries. A nation is defined by how it treats its poor and most vulnerable citizens - and by that standard, those definitions are not necessarily stellar.

Some think faith and culture/society should be separate. They say that churches should spend their time praying and worshipping instead of getting involved in political and social matters (like those mentioned above). But faith isn't just about conversing with the Almighty - it's also about transforming the world.

One of the most intriguing passages from Scripture involves Jesus proclamation to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (Mk. 12:17) On one hand it seems to support those who say that religion and the social world shouldn't mix - each one should stay in their own corner. Yet this is not what Jesus was going for. He was saying: be people of the world AND be people of faith. Concern yourself with transforming your faith AND the world around you.

This movie does not pretend to have all the answers for the questions it raises. But it does open our eyes to the world we currently live in.

It is no fiction that corporations are profiteering off the backs of the economically stricken. Nor is it fiction that our genetic and scientific tests are pushing the boundaries of ethics. And it is not fiction that violence, oppression, trafficking, and environmental abuse is taking place as we watch this movie - perhaps even in our own backyard.

And perhaps this is where we return to the Moses connection. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses wasn't just the man who split the Red Sea or went up Mt. Sinai. Moses was a leader who, against all odds, stood up for those who were oppressed, beaten down, and forsaken. He stood in opposition to the violence of the Egyptians, to ethnic cleansing of the Israelites, and to those who would abandon the Law for their own selfish gain.

If we are to prevent the fictional unraveling of society as portrayed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we need people of faith to stand up as leaders for the social issues of our day. We need to channel our innermost Moses like Caesar the chimpanzee - and bring the gospel into the world.

Where do we start? Like the movie, there are so many concerns - and it can seem overwhelming. The best advice is to look to one or two (perhaps ones that we have a personal connection with or ones that we have the most resources at our disposal to combat) - and with those, seek out ways to integrate the church's teachings into that issue... and get to work at it.

Let us all pray that we have the courage to transform our world.

AN ADDITIONAL NOTE: It is also fascinating that, in the film, Caesar never resorted to murder to make his point. His first foray into human speech came when he shouted "No!" to the killing of the guard who abused him.

The environment of love and compassion that he was raised in (through Will's home and family) must have triggered in him a gospel-like aversion to murder. And when he took on the mantle of leadership of the other primates, he encouraged them as well to avoid the taking of human life. His example, though not perfect, is put in contrast to the belligerence and trigger-happy reaction of the humans who had no problem with killing and violence.

Perhaps this is yet another lesson we can take away from all this. No matter how much we are mistreated and abused (a social issue in and of itself), murder and war are never the answer. Rather, our God calls us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies - and in so doing, we transform not only ourselves but the world around us.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

"Go first and be reconciled with your brother and then come back together..." Matt. 5:24

Cowboys & Aliens juxtaposes two longtime movie favorites (rugged men of the Old West and extraterrestrial visitors) - and throws them together for a fun story that most fanboys will love. But there is certainly more to this flick than two hours of popcorn and air conditioning.

From the title to the minor plot details, this film enjoys the collision of opposites. The two main stars of the show, Jake Lonergran (Daniel Craig) and Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), are pitted against each other - one an outlaw, the other a businessman - yet find that they have more in common than they'd like to realize. Lonergran and Dolarhyde are both shrewd and intelligent; they both have hard exteriors but hidden soft spots for love and family; and both are played by Hollywood action heroes with their own major movie franchises (Bond and Indy).

In addition to the two leads, the film treats us to more dichotomy:

a confident and gun slinging preacher (Clancy Brown) partnering with a uncertain and gun-shy agnostic (Sam Rockwell); the town's mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who knows more than she lets on and the town's sheriff (Keith Carradine) who knows less about all the happenings than he wants to admit; the brash band of cowboys and townsfolk who go in with guns a-blazin' and the Apache Indian tribe who patiently wait and watch; and of course the aliens with their superior technology set in contrast to the people of the late 1800s prior to their own industrial revolution.

With all these opposite forces colliding, it is no wonder then that the town at the center of the movie is called Absolution. This word calls to mind the final stage in the sacrament of reconciliation when God offers forgiveness for the strife one has caused in their life.

But Jesus reminds us that it's not easy to get to that point. In the Scriptures, he tells his disciples, "If you come to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, go first and be reconciled with your brother and then come back together to the altar." (Mt. 5:23-24). Before absolution comes reconciliation.

Reconciling with those who offended us and hurt us can be difficult. Reconciling with our own failures and shortcomings can be even harder. Yet God is much like the Cowboys & Aliens' filmmakers: He loves to bring the opposites together.

It is tempting to stay locked in combat like outlaws and Native Americans, but this conflict gets us no where. It's tempting to stay there because being against something or someone helps to define us ("at least I'm not like them..."); we fear that reconciling and coming together might compromise our identity or expose us to our own insecurities and doubts.

In the first decades of the 21st century, this polarization has crippled the United States. On a variety of topics, nearly everyone thinks of themselves as a heroic cowboy in juxtaposition to some mistrusted alien. Politics, religion, and culture itself seems divided to the breaking point.

Yet still God calls out to us, locked in such dirty combat: "Go first and be reconciled..."

If we ever hope to truly live in the town of Absolution (which Jesus proclaimed as the "Kingdom of Heaven"), we have to wander in the wilderness and make amends, confess our sins, and extend love, service, and compassion to those we would otherwise spend a lifetime hating.

Who in our lives do we dislike, despise, or feel that we're on opposite sides of whatever spectrum we're going through? Who do we pit ourselves against saying, "at least I'm not like them"? Who has caused us pain and hurt - and who have we yet to forgive? If we ask what the first step in the road to Absolution might be, the answers to these questions might give us a clue.

Even before we run to prayer, Jesus challenges us to first seek reconciliation with the cowboys, aliens, and polar opposites in our lives.

Perhaps this is why the movie title did not say "Cowboys vs. Aliens" but left it intentionally vague with the "&" between the two. In our own lives, God, too, desires that between all His people, the "vs." be replaced by "&"... and it all starts with us. Blessings on that journey ahead.