Insurgent (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 59  min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 May he (the king) defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Psalm 72:4

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

CaptvNCandor

Arrested in Candor, Tris & Four face Kang, head of that faction.     (c) 2015 Summit Entertainment

In case you have forgotten, the Divergent Series, based on the YA books by Veronica Roth, is set in a future Chicago that barely survived a terrible war. Most of its towering buildings are in ruins, Lake Michigan on its east almost dried up, and surrounding the rest of the city is a huge wall for protection against unknown dangers. Society has been divided into five Factions based on virtues thought to achieve stability and safety: Abnegation (the altruistic), Amity (the loving and peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the shrewd and intelligent). There are also the Factionless who constitute the homeless, barely existing among the ruins beyond the bounds of society. Young people at the age of 16 are tested to see what faction they are best suited for, and then at a Choosing Ceremony they choose the one they will enter for life.

By the end of the first film Beatrice, dubbing herself Tris (Shailene Woodley), and a slightly older boy named Four (Theo James), had become members of Dauntless; discovered that they possessed multiple virtues and thus were regarded as dangerous Divergents; prevented Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite who definitely does not live up to the spirit of Psalm 72, from wiping out the Abnegation faction in her bid to control the entire city; and escaped to the wild area beyond the walls.

With Robert Schwentke replacing Neil Burger as director, the sequel finds Tris, Four, Caleb, Peter, Christina and Marcus traveling to the rural Amity settlement, where several surviving Abnegation members have been granted asylum. Johanna (Octavia Spencer), the head of Amity, states that all factions may seek refuge there as long as they reside in peace. Her statement is a warning to Four because he has become embroiled in a fight in the cafeteria. Soon, however, heavily armed Erudites, sent out by Jeanine to hunt the fugitives down, arrive in armored cars, and Tris and her friends are on the run again. Our heroine will face many kinds of dangers, as well as wrestle with her feelings of guilt over her failure to protect the lives of her mother and father earlier. She will learn more about Four (real name Tobias) and his hostility toward Natalie Prior (Ashley Judd), the mother whom he thought dead after abandoning him. She wants them to join her and her band of Factionless in a war that brings the other Factions together in fighting Jeanine and her Erudites. Four refuses because he believes she will be no better than Jeanine as a ruler. During the bloody struggle against the Erudites Tris will turn herself in to prevent Jeanine from killing more captives until she surrenders.

Although I found the goings on at times confusing, several incidents stood out for me. When Four and Tris are arrested in Candor they persuade Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Cando, to give them a trial in which they testify after being injected with truth serum. As each enters into the trial Kang says, “May the truth set you free.” Where have you read or heard something very similar?

Tris is tormented by drug induced simulations, one of them being an attempt to rescue her mother from a burning building that is flying over Chicago. Because she has to concentrate on saving herself as the building literally tumbles through the sky, the flames spread too far for her to save her.

In another psychologically/drug induced simulation she fights against the dark side of herself. This scene, recognizing that we are neither all good nor all evil, called to mind the one in The Empire Strikes Back wherein Luke Skywalker, struggling with Darth Vader, rips away the respirator mask and stares at—his own face. I also thought of the apostle Paul explaining in the 7th chapter of his Letter to the Romans the war within himself: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is an exciting science fiction adventure with great special effects. There are so many characters that at times it is confusing as to what is happening to whom. As a parable of courage and refusal to knuckle under to conformity, the film offers plenty of food for thought and discussion. People of faith might want to talk about leadership, or rather, two kinds of leadership, one of service to others, and one base on gathering and using power as an end in itself. Also, leadership needs knowledge, hence Jeanine assumes that her faction the Erudites ought to take over rather than rule by consensus with the other factions. Those who set up the society were wise in seeing the virtues needed for creating a stable and fair society, but they apparently did not take into account the inner warfare described by the apostle Paul, one that rages in everyone, including those in the most intelligent of the Factions, the Erudite.

This second of the Divergent Series serves well as the middle film of the trilogy by advancing the action to the point of the heroine Tris and her fellow Insurgents triumphing in their struggle, but in a cliff hanging scene the film leaves us with the question raised by Four earlier with his mother–will the new regime headed by someone else be any better than the old one?

The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.

Divergent (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 18 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 2.5

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

Romans 12:2 J.B. Phillips Version)

DIVERGENT

Tris will soon find that the trainer named Four will play an even greater role in her life.
(c) 2014 Summit Entertainment

Another sci-fi dystopian society tale, this is the first of three films to be based on Veronica Roth’s popular trilogy, the second already being in production. The story is set in a post apocalyptic Chicago, where16 year -old Beatrice Prior (Woodley) and her twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), are at the milestone at which they must undergo a series of tests and decide which of the five divisions (called “factions”) of society they are to join based on their personality traits most appropriate to a faction–Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless. Currently their parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) are leaders in the first faction. The choice cannot be revoked, so the pressure on teens must be far greater than experienced by today’s youth facing their S.A.T.s.

Members of Dauntless are trained as soldiers to protect the republic; Abnegation members tend to charities, such as feeding the poor; Erudites advance technology and science; Amity folk are farmers who toil in the fields just outside the huge fence surrounding the land side of the city; and the systems’ judges come from Candor.

When Beatrice undergoes her tests, involving drug-induced hallucinations, her upset tester Tori (Maggie Q) whispers to her that she fits into several categories rather than just one, that she is a rare but dreaded “Divergent,” and if discovered, would be banished to the “factionless” crowd forced to eke out a living on the dangerous streets of the city. “You’re different. You don’t fit into a category. They can’t control you. They call it Divergent. You can’t let them find out about you.”

Shaken, Beatrice does not tell anything to her curious brother, and at the public ceremony of choosing, she decides upon Dauntless, to the consternation of her parents and brother. This means she must cut off virtually all contact with them, the system’s motto being, “Faction before family!” There follows a long sequence situated in a subterranean “Pit” where two Dauntless leaders—the ruthless Eric (Jai Courtney) and mysterious Four (Theo James)—are her trainers. Being smaller, Tris (her chosen new name) does not do as well at first, her name for a long time being listed in red on the wall chart. All those who fail to raise their score will be ejected, destined to live as exiles among the factionless. How she struggles, especially during the second phase of the regimine, which is centered more on her mental capabilities, takes up considerable screen time—too much according to the complaints of those faulting the film.

The last action-packed portion finds Tris and Four, not only romantically entangled, but also involved in a rebellion against the tyrannical system. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, a manipulative leader of the Erudite Faction who plans to take over the government from the selfless Abnegations. She encounters Tris several times, telling her when she learns that the young woman is a Divergent,The system removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will. Divergents threaten that system. It won’t be safe until they’re removed.”

Although similar in some ways to The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the envisioned society is more complex, and not quite as believable as in the case of the other two films. Still, I found it more enjoyable than the low ratings given it by many would lead one to expect. Tris is more believable that the society of the film. As an ordinary girl she does not score well in the physical training, but through determination, practice, and brainpower, she triumphs. She is the kind of heroine we can root for, and which I would think many adolescent girls can identify with. As in virtually all sci-fi stories, there seems to be no trace left of the church or religious faith. Che Chicago where I spent my seminary years was full of churches of all stripes, as well as synagogues, mosques, and temples. So where did they all go? Swept away by the super rationalists who created the world of the Factions?

Robocop (2014)

PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8:4

Cop&Scient

Alex and Dr. Norton in OmniCorp’s lab.
(c) 2014 MGM & Columbia Pictures

Director Jose Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer’s rebooting of the 1980s Robocop series expands the scope from just crime-ridden Detroit to the world—from a violent street in Tehran to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. This exciting remake raises contemporary issues, and not just that of corporate malfeasance as in the 1987 film. There is also more heart to the new version in that Alex Murphy’s (Joel Kinnaman) relationship to his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son David (John Paul Ruttan) is much more central to the story.

The film begins with a prologue in which we see Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, host of the TV show “The Novak Element,” talking via a satellite link to a female war correspondent accompanying a soldier and a team of robot soldiers moving down a crowded street in the Iranian capital. They are taking part in “Operation Freedom Tehran.” We learn that without risking our men Iran is about to be purged of its anti-American government, thanks to the invasion force consisting mostly of robot soldiers. The reporter enthuses that “in sunny Tehran, the locals have embraced security as a top priority!”

The Year is 2028, and our military has been using drone soldiers all around the world for “peacemaking” operations, thanks to the technology of Detroit-based OmniCorp, but not in the USA. Novak, asking why we cannot use such technology in America, rails against a bill authored by Senator Hubert Dreyfuss that has outlawed the use of such unmanned drones in the USA. Novak is certain that the machines ought to be used in what has been a losing battle against crime. He brings together in hologram form the CEO of OmniCorp Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and Senator Dreyfuss, supposedly for a debate, but after he and Sellars state their side, he cuts off the Senator before he can rebut them. Hmm, I wonder what cable news service is being lampooned here?

The front credits then roll, and we are introduced to good cop and loving family man Alex Murphy. He is in trouble with Chief of Police Karen (Mariennae Jean-Baptiste) over his attempt to bring down a major crime lord. Because he is such a big threat, a bomb is planted beneath his car parked in his drive way. In the resulting blast Alex is virtually killed, burnt over 80% of his body and suffering the loss of most of his limbs, plus a splinter going through his brain. What remains of his comatose body is kept alive on life support.

His misfortune becomes the good fortune for OmniCorp’s CEO Sellars, who sees huge profits in being allowed to sell his cyborgs to police forces in the States. He has come up with an idea that can circumvent the Dreyfuss Bill’s prohibition of the use of drones to police our streets. “We’ve gotta give Americans a product they can love, a product with a conscience, something that knows what it’s like to be human,” Sellers says. “We’re going to put a man inside a machine.” If they can embed the shattered remains of a victim of some horrendous disaster in a robot, then this new form of a drone would not be illegal. They go over the files of various victims, but OmniCorp’s chief scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) raises objections as to why each is not a good candidate. Then they learn of the massively mutilated Alex, who is already a trained cop. After meeting with and explaining to Clara the options for her comatose husband—letting him die or signing off on the experimental joining what remains of him to a robotic body—she hesitantly gives her permission to go ahead with the latter.

The rest of the film chronicles Alex’s feelings about being totally dependant upon mechanics and circuitry to stay alive—and also Clara and their young son’s feelings when OmniCorp sees the family as a hindrance to the mission of Alex. Alex, downloaded with all the criminal files of the Police Department and a host of other information, plus instant access to them via his wi-fi, proves an instant success. At his unveiling to the public by the Mayor, Alex scans the faces of the audience before him and spots a man wanted for murder. When the man tries to run away, he shoots him, to the acclaim of everyone.

Complications, of course, come up, which I will leave it to you to discover, other than to say that the struggle between human will and the power of outside controlling forces is involved. There is even a touch of the Frankenstein story when Dr. Norton begins questioning the decisions of how his boss is using his work. Clara and David also question OmniCorp’s handling of Alex, the company not permitting her much contact with him. Like those who are related to returned Iraqi veterans damaged by the war, both  want their husband/father back in the family circle.

Many have reported that the remake is not as humorous as the 1987 version, and yet Padilha’s film is the one that includes the song from The Wizard of Oz “If I Only Had a Heart,” sung in that film by the Tin Man. This is not only amusing as we watch the building of Alex’s metallic cyborg-like lower body, but also the words in the first stanza provide commentary on Sellars’ attempt to subordinate Robocop’s human aspect to that of a machine u nder his control:

“And yet I’m torn apart
Just because I’m presumin’
That I could be a human
If I only had a heart.”

Alex’s helmet visor is open much more in this film, so we can see by his emotional expressions that he does have a heart, until OmniCorps tinkers with his brain and circuitry to improve his efficiency, and then…

Both films present violence as acceptable, the body count sky rocketing when Robocop goes after the bad guys. My impression is that there is not as much blood splattered around in the remake, but this is only an impression, my having seen the original so long ago. The bad guys shot by Model 2014 of Robocop merely fall to the ground, as if they were in a video game. We see no spurts or pools of blood. From a moral standpoint one would wish that those with such great technology as to be able to create a robocop might be able to come up with guns or other weapons that disable opponents rather than ones firing bigger and faster bullets into human bodies. What would a Robocop created by scientists with Gandhian ethics do and look like, I wonder? But then that would require the filmmakers, and the scientists they create, to think outside the box of the usual action thriller.

The film is timely, with the debate raging now over our use of drones to kill those whom our CIA deems the “bad guys,” including a few who are US citizens, plus the unease many have over how far the NIF should monitor our emails and telephone calls. It is actually an old debate over security versus freedom, safety verses privacy. Novak and Sellars believe that if people can be filled with fear, they will opt for security. There also is the CEO’s lust for profits fueling his desperate struggle to control Robocop and break his tie with his family. Thus by moving the action and its consequences beyond just the city of Detroit, the makers of the new Robocop raise issues of even more consequence than the original did.  This is one of those rare times when the remake is as good as, and maybe better, than the original.

her (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.

Our Star ratings (1-5): 5

Note, because in the next-to-the-last paragraph I refer to the final shot of the film, this might be a spoiler for some, though I intend it to be an alert or “Heads up,” hence there is no description of what is in the shot.

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4

HER

Theodore finds a very unorthodox lover named Samantha in this sci-fi romantic comedy.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

Spike Jonze’s fascinating romantic comedy updates the genre (the film is also sci-fi) to suggest where our technology-obsessed society might be headed in the 21st century. Set in the near future when virtually everybody is walking around listening to or speaking into their portable devices (almost half of the customers I encounter at our local Kroger’s grocery usually are similarly occupied!), the story’s Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is similar to the little boy in the director’s Where the Wild Things Are. You might recall that that film, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, is about a stubborn boy named Max who seeks to escape from his family by running away into a fantasy world.

Theodore’s world is just as unpleasant as little Max’s. He is dragging his feet on signing the final divorce papers from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), feeling as lonely as the author of Psalm 142 during this period. But unlike the psalmist, he has no relationship with the God who might fill his void. During the day Theodore is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac, working at a futuristic agency called BeautifulWrittenLetters.com where he writes beautifully sensitive letters for any occasion for anyone who pays the fee. His boss Paul (Chris Pratt) shows by his admiring comments what a valuable employee Theodore is. At home Theodore whiles away his time by playing a video game with a foul-mouthed avatar. His only human connection beyond Paul is his Platonic relationship with fellow building tenant Amy (Amy Adams), who has issues with her husband—and who plays a mommy video game.

One day Theodore sees an ad about a new home OS (operating system) claiming to be, “The first artificially intelligent operating system … a consciousness that knows you.” So, like those who rushed out to buy the latest iPhone, Theodore installs his new OS. After answering just a few questions, the Sirius-like Samantha is talking with him (the “with” rather than “to” is important here). Voiced by the smooth voiced Scarlett Johansson, we can well understand how his relationship with her grows into a romance. “She” declares, “I have intuition, the ability to grow and evolve through my experiences, just like you.” Does she ever! She organizes his email, almost instantly scanning his stacked-up messages, informing him that only 86 are worth saving. To her “Should I delete the rest,” he replies in the affirmative.  She not only laughs at his jokes, but also responds with some of her own. She is always “there” when he comes home, tired from his daily chore of expressing the thoughts of strangers who want to write to others but cannot find their own words to do so. (I was reminded during this “getting to know you” sequence of the old song popularized by the Mills Brothers back in the 50s, “Paper Doll,” a smooth song about an anti-social guy who dreams of having a Paper Doll who will be superior to the real life “flirty, flirty girls,” because she is always waiting there when he comes home at night.)

Samantha advises him to seek human companionship. Since Amy is just a friend, he should try dating, she suggests, and there follows that blind date which proves so embarrassing. The more he and Samantha chat, the closer he feels to her, so much so that he carries his smart phone in a pocket so that she can see his world through its camera. As in a conventional comedy wherein a friend of the opposite sex offers advice to a troubled character, drawing ever closer until he or she realizes that this is one’s true love, Theodore arrives at that moment with Samantha. They engage in a passionate night of sex that is similar to the phone sex he had engaged in earlier in the film, but now is as personalized as the other had been impersonal, even though earlier there had been a human being at the other end of the phone line.

The absurdity of this relationship is made acceptable by the skills of both Phoenix and Johansson, as well as the believable social milieu that Jonze has set up. (The special effects showing new rising towers in Los Angeles and its citizens at last accepting mass transit are also effective.) Paul and his girlfriend, far from laughing at Theodore, accept and laud him for his newfound love. Samantha and Theodore experience that interlude so well celebrated by such oldies as “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” or “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But Samantha reminds her lover that she can learn at an exponential rate. There comes the day when she does not respond instantly at his command. To his astonishment she reveals that she has other relationships, one of them with an OS based on the philosopher Alan Watts. As an OS she can intimately relate with dozens, even hundreds, of others, but can he? And can he accept his limitation and her ability to carry on numerous affairs?

Often funny, sometimes movingly tender, the film pushes the possibility of how A.I. (another good film worth exploring) might expand beyond what we imagine, and beyond our own limitations in regard to a relationship. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other intimately, but is this really what “knowing” means humanly speaking? People of faith are well aware that the Biblical word for a man and a woman “knowing” one another involves the physical act of two bodies coming together, producing what Jesus called “one flesh.” Samantha can never experience this (nor produce a baby with Theodore for that matter). In a Greek sense, based on the philosophical subordination and even denial of the reality of the body, Theodore and Samantha can have a love affair, but never in a Judeo-Christian sense. Jonze at one point inserts a flashback of intimacies that Theodore remembers from his life with his Catherine, experiences forever alien to a disembodied OS program.

In the film’s last beautiful shot up on the roof of the apartment building, what do you think that director/writer Jonze is saying? If he has been raising the question about the ability of bodiless sex to overcome human loneliness, what does he suggest by this wordless scene? Is he leaving it up to us to see the value, indeed the necessity, for human touch in order to arrive at the deepest level of human relationships?

The R rated elements of the film make it questionable, or at best risky, to show in a church when it is released on DVD. Careful preparations, including full disclosure of the sex scenes, would be necessary. But what a wonderful opportunity Jonze offers for young adults to explore human love and intimacy and the affect of technology upon them—as well as what insight faith in God and Christ can offer as we ponder the technology of our time, so fascinating that it might seduce into substituting virtual reality for the real thing.

This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film is included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.