Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon 2
“Growing Up is Hard to Do”
A Review of How to Train Your Dragon 2 by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-I
Reel Rating, Four Reels        


            How animation has grown up! Early animated features like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty with their simple plots, catchy tunes, and happy endings were clearly meant for children, but as the medium progressed it began more mature. Whether it’s dealing with anxiety (Frozen), social impotence (The Incredibles), miscarriage (Up), or the inevitable reality of our own mortality (Toy Story 2, yikes), animated features are becoming more and more adult. The How to Train Your Dragon series demonstrates this perfectly. In his first outing, Hiccup was out simply to prove his own worth.  He made his dad proud, saved the day, and everyone got an easy, happy ending. Here, Hiccup realizes the fiercest dragons are within and must find a delicate balance between giving up his childish dreams yet not losing faith in those he loves. It’s a magnificent adventure with brilliant visuals, a fantastic story, and important themes seamlessly weaved throughout. Dreamworks made a Pixar film.
            It’s been five years since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) brought peace between his homeland and the dragons, and this third-rate dweeb has turned into a handsome, confident explorer who his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) hopes will succeed him as village chief. On a routine cartography mission, he is ambushed by a band of dragon trappers led by Erit (Kit Harington) who promptly announce that Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) intends on stealing all the world’s dragons to create an army. Luckily, Hiccup finds an unlikely ally when he discovers his estranged mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), a Jane Goodall recluse who avoids humans and lives with thousands of dragons in a secret hideaway. At this point, they should team up, defeat Drago, and live happily ever after in dragon paradise. Yet, this is only the setup to vastly complex and tragic tale that ends in a spectacular dragon fest to rival the best live-action fantasy movies.
Fresh off his success in converting his father to his dragon-loving ways, Hiccup’s first approach to solving the Drago dilemma is negotiation and diplomacy – a strange response from a Viking but a familiar one to political science majors. If only Drago could see that dragons are kind, loyal creatures that respond to love rather than dominance, there would be no need to capture and subjugate them. Hiccup is completely missing the point. Drago’s desire is not just control of dragons but of humans through dragons. Stoick tries to dissuade his wayward son. “Drago is a madman,” he retorts. “A chief protects his own.” In a heart wrenching scene, Hiccup realizes this time his father was right, and while anyone can change, some simply choose evil. Hiccup assumes responsibility and leads the attack against Drago. Throughout the centuries, theologians have tried to reconcile “turning the other cheek” with “sell your cloak and buy a sword,” culminating in the Just War Theory. Dragon 2 is a great illustration.
Part of Hiccup’s initial na├»ve personality is a lack of proper respect for natural laws. Despite their anthropomorphic traits, dragons are still animals. Valka explains to Hiccup that they operate on a hive instinct under the protection and guidance of an Alpha dragon. In a case of extreme dimorphism, the Alphas are the size of skyscrapers – maybe a distant cousin of Godzilla. Drago uses this trait to force otherwise loyal dragons to follow him. Hiccup refuses to believe that his faithful dragon Toothless could turn on him – a decision that has devastating results. While Tootless’ loyalty eventually returns, Hiccup must learn to use this instinct to his advantage rather than fight a dragon’s nature. Many of Catholicism’s controversial teachings – the existence of Hell, acceptance of some aspects of evolution, eating meat – come from a realistic view of the natural laws inherent in the world. You can’t fight human (or dragon) nature. Look at what happened to the Shakers. However, you can use nature in a holy manner.
As the sophistication of writing increases and cost of production decreases, there will be more animated films like this in the future, maybe even with PG-13 or R content. How to Train Your Dragon 2 does not fit with most other animated films but finds its place among the great coming-of-age stories like The Sandlot, Old Yeller, or any 80s movie directed by John Hughes. Hiccup finds his true self, not on his own, but as part of a community that includes a responsibility to others. This self-discovery comes not from rejecting his family but seeing it completed with the return of his mother. Lastly, the film has the courage to show that growing up is hard and often fraught with pain and suffering. Pro-family. Pro-stewardship. Pro-responsibility. Pro-awesome dragon fights. What more could you ask for?

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 14th, 2014. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

An (Almost) Faultless Masterpiece

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars
“An (Almost) Faultless Masterpiece”
A Review of The Fault in Our Stars by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels         

            The Fault in Our Stars is a difficult, painful story about cancer stricken teenagers and one of the most beautiful films ever made about romantic love. It has the courage to approach the frequently trodden yet nearly always disappointing genre of YA romance with surprisingly youthful vigor considering its deep subject matter and without Mandy Moore or sparkling vampires. What a treat! It’s rare to see a film turn almost every expectation on its head in such thrilling fashion. Put simply, this is tale of true love, a love forged in the crucible of pain, suffering, and devotion. While it lacks in addressing spiritual questions, it is incredibly profound in its approach to human relationships. Don’t miss it.
            Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is an average sixteen year-old who likes books, thinks her parents are embarrassing, and also has cancer which requires her to carry around extra oxygen wherever she goes. Her mother forces her to go to an unreasonably lame Christian cancer support group where she meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an incredibly likeable dreamboat whose recent successful battle with cancer left him without one leg but a fresh, exciting perspective on life. Hazel is obsessed with a serious, dark novel called An Imperial Affliction about a similar cancer patient that ends frustratingly mid-sentence, written by a recluse Salinger-esque Dutch author. Gus manages to contact the author and uses his “cancer wish” to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet him. While mutual attraction is felt immediately, the romance grows slowly and not at the same pace, allowing the struggles of time to test their love and make it stronger.
            Buddha famously started his world religion with one simple truth: “life is suffering.” An Imperial Affliction continues this theme with the frequently quoted line: “pain demands to be felt.” Death demands attention; it destroys all our expectations and forces man to consider only the most important things of existence. The film pulls no punches in showing the spiritual, emotional, and psychological devastation of being deathly ill when you should be playing high school basketball and eating blizzards at dairy queen. The Fault in Our Stars can be seen as a theodicy of sorts, not as reconciliation between a loving God and an unjust world but how to find love and meaning amid so much pain and suffering.
            Hazel and Gus find this meaning through learning how to love another person. This isn’t the silly infatuation that plagues so many films, but the love demonstrated in the Catholic wedding vows: “I promised to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” In other words: sh*t happens. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it even comes from your spouse. Hazel and Gus deal with their problems courageously but often make mistakes and even hurt one another in the process. Finally, they learn that love always entails pain because it entails sacrifice, giving up what you need for the needs of another. That’s an extremely important Christian principle that I hope millions of young adults will learn from this film.
            The Fault in Our Stars would be a timeless masterpiece if not for two glaring problems. Throughout the whole film, director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber revel in making a teen romance that breaks joyously out of the conventions of the genre. The protagonists are attractive but have physical faults. The parents are well developed and encourage the romance. Not every character gets a happy ending although every character is important and every situation morally conclusive. Suddenly, for one brief moment, the film descends into mediocrity. Hazel and Gus have the obligatory sex scene complete with PG-13 partial nudity. It stood out like a sore thumb, not just because the characters were fornicating but because they were conforming to the notions of what society expected when they had been blazing their own trail the whole movie.
            The second fault is the refusal to engage spiritual questions in a meaningful way. Even the most hardened atheist has to at least contemplate the divine in the face of death, but for all the Christian imagery in the film, it is never a serious question. The concept is mentioned briefly but inconsistently. At one point, Gus mentions that death is oblivion but in another scene states that he firmly believes in the afterlife. The Episcopal Church Hazel and Gus attend (the religion of original novelist John Green) is well intentioned but extremely out of touch with their problems. Worse of all, Hazel says, “Funerals are for the living, not the dead.” Maybe secular funerals, but Christian funerals are not just eulogies. They are a chance to bring the dead to God through prayer.
            Original sin brought many things into this world, one of the worst of which is seeing a child die painfully well before her time. Life is unfair because we deal with the consequences of a sin we did not personally commit, including natural evil. God doesn’t offer a way out of our suffering but does offer a way to make suffering meaningful, manageable, and ultimately salvific through Jesus Christ. Romantic love, properly understood through the sacrament of marriage, is brings salvation because it teaches the family how to love like Christ loves. There is a scene early in the film where the cancer support group meets on a rug made in the image of the Sacred Heart. “We are literally in the heart of Jesus,” the counselor tells them. Hazel and Gus find this image a little silly and maybe sacrilegious, but they do find the heart of Jesus in the hearts of each other. What a beautiful film.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 10th, 2014.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

The 2014 Halftime Show

Ty Burell and Sam Eagle in Muppets Most Wanted
We are now six months into 2014 and a few months away from Awards season, so here's my best of the year...so far.

1. Frozen-mania - From becoming the #1 film of 2013 four months into the following year to that mind blowing Once Upon a Time finale to the longest and most boring ride at Disneyland, Frozen has proven to be a worldwide cultural phenomena. I couldn't be happier.

2. The screenplay to The Lego Movie - Not since Muppet Treasure Island has a family film existed where nearly every line is funny.

3. The soundtrack to Muppets Most Wanted - Bret McKenzie is a musical comic genies, but Flight of the Concords already proved that. This sequel is funnier and more sophisticated than the original with a soundtrack full of catchy tunes. Like the original, there's also a mystery guest duet with Miss Piggy that steals the show.

4. God's Not Dead - The best film of the past six months, maybe the year. Time will tell.

5. The pro-life message of Gimmie Shelter - While October Bay, Juno, and Bella had their moments, this is the film that really has the power to change lives.

6. The "Time in a Bottle" scene from X-Men 7 - The biggest laugh of the year with spectacular editing and special effects to boot.

7. Doc of the Dead - Great documentary on the history of the zombie genre, except a brief segment about a Walking Dead porn parody. That's gross - even for zombies.

8. Sam Reily's as Dievel in Maleficent - It's a small but nuanced performance that takes a relativity unimportant character from the original and really fleshes it out well. 

9. Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars - These two have some the best onscreen chemistry of any romance film. Made a little creepy by the fact they were brother and sister in Divergent.

10. Divergent - 1984 for teenagers. Super cool.

TV Shoutout - Paranormal Witness and The Wil Wheaton Project are fantastic. 


Monday, June 23, 2014

The Past You’ve Always Wanted

“The Past You’ve Always Wanted”
A Review of X-Men: Days of Future Past by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Professor X, Wolverine, and Beast
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels        

            Only a week after Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past brings another fantastic special effects bonanza that’s just as profound but better written than its large lizard friend. This is the seventh X-Men film and the best. The plot involves time travel, mutant killing robots, vomit brown 70s costumes, and wisecracks from Wolverine; it is pure, unfiltered entertainment with the all important message that it’s never too late to change. Of course, time travel helps a lot with that.
            The future is grim for Prof. Charles Xaiver (Patrick Stewart) and his band of brothers. The year is 2023, and nearly all mutants have been killed or captured by sentinels, robots that can adapt to any mutant power. Luckily, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can someone how use her intangibility to send a person’s consciousness into their past self. It’s a bizarre time traveling method but at least it avoids the awkward problems that faced Marty McFly. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) volunteers to make the trip to 1973 and convince young Charles (James McAvoy) and young Eric (Michael Fassbender) to put their grievances aside and fix the future. “I was a different man,” Old Charles tells him. “Be patient with me.” Wolverine grunts, “Patience isn’t my strong suit.” He wasn’t kidding. 1970s Charles is a drug addict, wallowing in his own pity, while Eric is imprisoned in the Pentagon for his role in the JFK assassination. In the course of the events, new characters are introduced and old favorites reappear; the cast boasts an astounding eight Oscar nominated actors among them. The best is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a rebellious teenager who uses superspeed to rob department stores and pull pranks. The sequence where he takes out a dozen Pentagon guards in a millisecond to the tune of “Time in a Bottle” is the best superhero moment I’ve seen in years. The only drawback is that plot assumes quite a bit of knowledge from the previous films, but it stands alone pretty well too.
What would you tell your past self? Study harder? Eat more vegetables? Don’t go out with Brittney Owens because she’ll break your heart by showing up to Homecoming with someone else even though she said she would go with you and you bought a corsage and everything? Age brings wisdom. As people make mistakes, they learn gradually how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. This why it is so important for children to have constant contact with their grandparents; the experience of years can teach the young to avoid mistakes in the first place. In a sense, the elderly mirror the role of time travel in this film.
Another thing that brings wisdom is suffering. The mutants of 2023 don’t seek revenge or fight among themselves; they have endured years of genocide and seen its terrible consequences for themselves and all of humanity. Even Wolverine is softer and more docile than any previous film. Young Charles and Eric have had their share of suffering too, but respond by either withdrawing from society or directly attacking it, a perfect summery of 70s America. They cannot see how their selfish actions will lead to the demise of everyone they love. Old Charles and Eric have seen it and respond with compassion. Suffering removes the ability to rationalize falsehood and focuses attention on the truth. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “the man who has not suffered; what could he possibly know anyway?”

            As the ending of the film approaches, it becomes clear the fate of the world depends on an act of mercy, not war. The choice that all beings, mutants and humans alike, face is whether they can let go of their hate to make a better future. The answer is yes. It is possible, and Jesus is the ultimate example. Totally righteous as God, he nonetheless accepted death and resurrection so that man could have a future in the Kingdom of Heaven. While the past is solid and cannot be changed, the future is wide open. Imagine your older self looking at your past that has not yet happened. What would you change? Make your future the past you wished you could have had.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on May 28th, 2014.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

True Love's Kiss

Sam Riley and Angelia Jolie in Maleficent
“True Love’s Kiss”
A Review of Maleficent by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels        

            Maleficent represents the latest installment in the rise of fanfiction in mainstream entertainment, continuing a tradition that became popular in the mid 2000s including plays (Wicked), television shows (Once Upon a Time), and novels (50 Shades of Grey). This method of inventing new or alternative stories based on previous famous works has always existed – the Apocrypha is just biblical fanfiction – but has exploded recently, caused by the tsunami of amateur bloggers. Maleficent rises above the internet babble due to its wonderful narrative with mostly the same characters as the original but significant plot twists. These characters are extremely well developed, especially Sam Riley as Diaval the raven – an extremely small role in the original, he becomes Maleficent’s wise confidant and conscience. It’s a modern fairy tale that is a great addition to the Disney narrative rather than a shallow replacement.
            There are two worlds in this story: the peaceful, nature world of sprites and woodland creatures called The Moors and the dark, violent, Game of Thrones-esque world of men that is so bad it is unnamed. Maleficent (Angelia Jolie) is a fairy who as a teenager fell in love with a wayward human Stefan (Sharlto Copley). He ultimately betrays her love and becomes king, setting the familiar Disney events in motion. This sinful action poisons the Universe and throws these two worlds at each other throats, culminating in Maleficent cursing Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) to fall into a permanent sleep on her sixteenth birthday. After this, the film takes a widely unorthodox turn and, through a series of odd events, Maleficent ends up raising the child and gradually grows in maternal affection. Yet, despite her best efforts, she cannot lift her own curse.
            The worst aspect of Maleficent, albeit not a major theme, is that it perpetuates a familiar Disney stereotype that goes all the way back to Bambi: the human, theistic world is dark, cruel, and savage while the naturalistic, pagan/pantheist world is pure, kind, and undefiled. Anyone who has seen Grizzly Man or studied ancient pagan cultures knows this is far from the truth. Yet this human world is not theistic; it is totally devoid of religion altogether. At least in The Moors, there is a social order based on justice. Paganism has value in that it represents man’s search for truth without revelation. St. Paul tells the Greeks that they worship God even though they do not know His Name. Aurora represents Christian culture that has come to this pagan land. In her, it finds fulfillment and a connection to those made in God’s image. Even the title character recognizes that Aurora, not herself, must rule what used to her kingdom. In the end, The Moors transforms into Narnia.
            A theme that does work well is the perversion of sin. Stefans’ betrayal is the cornerstone that drives the whole film; it is the original sin that casts both worlds into darkness. Aurora’s birth is somewhat immaculate in that she is immediately given the gifts of happiness and beauty by the pixies. Her purity shines forth as she is unafraid to enter The Moors and confront Maleficent as an equal. Maleficent’s heart melts in her presence. This is the essence of purity, which is not simply freedom from evil thoughts, but bringing out the best in people around you. Stefan, however, chooses to continue down the path of pride and paranoia, unwilling to admit his own part in his daughter’s situation.
            Disney seems to be going through a mid-life crisis, like it needs to respond to the foolish actions of its past. This can easily be seen in the role of the “prince.” Traditionally, the price is handsome, faultless, and rides in on a valiant steed to save the day. Beginning with Beauty and the Beast, Disney started toying with this image. Gradually, the prince devolved to a scallywag like Aladdin, Flynn, or Kristoff, diminishing in relevance and screen time. In Maleficent, Prince Phillip, while still handsome, is the most useless character in the film who plays no role in anything. Taking a note from Frozen, it is not a romantic kiss that will save Aurora but the kiss of true love, a love that has suffered and taken time to develop rather than instant attraction.

            The original Sleeping Beauty is a better film for children; it has the archetypical patterns that are important for healthy spiritual and social development. Yet Maleficent displays some important messages for adults. In the mess of a fallen world, good and evil are not always immediately apparent. Jesus reached out to Roman centurions, prostitutes, and tax collectors – the very people demonized by the religious authorities of the day. Maleficent sure looks evil, but she didn’t start out that way and she doesn’t have to end that way. Neither do we.

The King of Monsters and the King of Glory

“The King of Monsters and the King of Glory”
A Review of Godzilla by Nick Olszyk
 
Godzilla tearing up nameless city
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels

            Godzilla films can be placed in two camps. The first camp involves Godzilla as a destructive force of nature, retributive justice on humanity for the sin of nuclear proliferation. These Godzilla films, like the original Godzilla (1954) and Return of Godzilla (1984), are better loved by film critics, historians, and college-aged theologians who need to write a paper but want to do it on something entertaining. The second camp finds Godzilla as an almost messianic figure who marches in to trumpet fanfare, saving the day when the Earth is threatened by other monsters. These Godzilla films, which make up the majority, are better loved by eight year old boys consuming bags of sour patch watermelon candies in the theater. This 2014 American reboot begins in the first camp but lands squarely in the second by the middle of the film. Godzilla is a fantastic monster brawl with some important ideas to boot. At the very least, it’s incredibly better than the previous 1998 American version starring Ferris Buller, which I will never mention for the rest of this review and hopefully will be wiped from the collect consciousness of mankind. 
            The slow reveal of the monster is one of the film’s great strengths. A mining team in the Philippians accidently awakens some large animal which promptly makes its way to a nuclear plant in Japan. One of the nuclear engineers, Joe Brody (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) detects a biological signal shortly before a large seismic disruption destroys the plant, killing his wife in the process. Fifteen years later, Joe and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) sneak into the remains of the plant only to discover an international organization hiding a deadly secret. This secret isn’t what a person would initially expect based on the American trailers, and it’s an impressive reveal. After the buildup, the middle section of the film is dull, mostly because it’s just people talking, planning, more talking, and being surprisingly clam in the face of the greatest natural discovery of all time. Godzilla is best when we see lots of Godzilla, and the end has LOTS of Godzilla.
            However, a film like this carries a sixty year history, and it would be impossible to appreciate Godzilla without looking at the big, BIG picture. The 1954 film was so arresting because it squarely faced the fears of the Cold War. Godzilla was a product of nuclear radiation and came back to haunt its creators. Subconsciously, it was also a cathartic way for Japan to deal with its responsibility for the War. If 2014’s Godzilla wanted to be topical, he would been a product of genetic engineering. Instead, he isn’t created by anyone but a remnant of the very distant past with mythological overtones like the Titans or the Nephilim. He is a reminder that the Universe is very, very big, and we are very, very small. Most of the traditional elements of Godzilla are preserved, and there are even a few small homages to the other films, although Akira Takarada’s cameo was frustratingly removed from the final cut, a sign that whatever may have come before, this film stands on its own two, clawed feet.
            Although humanity no longer has to fear imminent nuclear war, there are still monsters under our bed that Godzilla manages to weed out. Godzilla stands 300 feet high, nearly three times his size in the 1954 version. He overshadows all our technology, architecture, and artificial hubris. A Japanese scientist reminds someone: “the arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” In classic fashion, the military tries to solve the situation but succeeds only in endangering its own citizens. It is Godzilla who saves the day. While nature can bring destruction, it also provides life-giving resources. Godzilla even has a moment where he shares a brief yet compassionate gaze with a human, a vague insight into his own psychology. Forest fires may destroy, but they allow new life to grow. Action/fantasy/sci-fi films are not usually known for their profound moral content, but remember that every story has a message. Popcorn movies emphasize values rather than specific ideas; values like kindness, loyalty, endurance, faith, hope, and love. Ford acts selflessly at tremendous risk to himself to save someone else’s child. Mankind is taught humility in the face of nature. Above all, courage is needed to face the monsters inside and out.
            Godzilla towers over humans and this film like a vaguely divine force reflexive of his name. He may be only looking for his next meal, but there is a sense that he cares about the plight of humans and only kills them accidently due to his size and clumsiness. The film also reinforces the common feeling that although God seems absent, he will show up when needed. However, God is neither under man’s control nor dependant on him. God has his own plans and motivations. Like the voice to Job from the whirlwind, Godzilla is transcendent to artificial restrains but committed to man’s welfare
Godzilla isn’t the perfect reboot it could have been but feels like a great setup to an even better film, a Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. If there is one major flaw, it’s that there was no post credits scene setting up Mothra, Rodan, or even King Ghidorah. There will surely be more films on the way, and that is a good thing.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on May 19th, 2014.

            

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

That's Not Will

PINN's underground fortress in Transcendence
“That’s Not Will”
A Review of Transcendence by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels          

            Transcendence is a dark, deep, and beautiful film from first time director Wally Pfister that exposes his roots as one of Hollywood’s premiere cinematographers. There are reoccurring shots of water quietly dropping from leaves and nanobots slowly rising from the ground creating clouds of metal rain. It’s a feast for the eyes but a shame the script couldn’t match it. The film suffers from the burdening complexity that often plagues science fiction – I still can’t figure Primer out – yet the central message comes through. Whenever man attempts to imitate God by creating something in his image, it will fail. It didn’t work in the Garden of Eden; it won’t work in Silicon Valley.
            The film opens in the near future as a small group scientists including Dr. Will Caster (Jonny Depp), his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) close in on creating the first AI computer called PINN. In a TED-like event, Will explains that eventually an AI will reach a point of singularity when it will be smarter than collective knowledge of all human history. He calls this “transcendence.” An audience member challenges him. “Aren’t you playing God?” Will smirks. “Isn’t that what mankind has always done?” Soon afterwards, their labs are victims of a terrorist attack by RIFT, a Luddite organization bent on stopping the project. Will is fatally wounded in the conflict, so Evelyn copies his brain into PINN. Will dies, but the computer begins to talk like Will, knowing his most intimate thoughts and memories. Is it really Will, or just a software program pretending to be him? Evelyn knows its her husband; Max isn’t so sure.
The ensuing action becomes more and more fantastical as Will goes online and builds a giant complex in the desert with Evelyn’s help to work on a number of transhuman projects. Max is kidnapped by the terrorists but eventually aggress to help them stop PINN with the help of the government. It’s here that the film makes its most glaring error. RIFT mercilessly killed dozens of innocent people and tortures the film’s most sympathetic character yet suddenly the audience must embrace them as heroes. They have no more sympathy for human dignity than the machine they claim to fight.
As Will gains more and more knowledge, energy, and storage capacity, he becomes a cult leader in the small desert town. Using molecular nanobots, he cures the town’s sick and disabled people but also puts wireless signals in their heads, controlling their every move. He speaks constantly about how his work will help the planet and cure disease, but all organic material is the ultimate “disease” that must be “cured.” Some people are willing to follow almost anyone if they provide bread and circuses. Like the possessed, they unite themselves to his hive mind and give their very wills to him.
C.S. Lewis observed that technology and magic act in the same manner. The goal is to conform the outside world to fit subject desires, one simply uses nature means, the other supernatural. Will is the perfect example of this. He implants nanobots into the soil, rainwater, and air to reform all matter to his design. As a machine, he has no conscience and simply reacts to his programming. A scientist tries to reason with Evelyn. “That’s not Will. It never was.” Machines can imitate human qualities – Siri sounds like she has a sense of humor – but they do not have a personality of their own. Like the Golem or Frankenstein, when man plays God, he makes only monsters.

There’s a ghostly fear that drives Will’s consumption, the duplicity of the poor hybrid humans, and Evelyn’s delusion. They cannot accept mortality and are willing do almost anything – even great evil – to stay alive and grow. Will’s desire for ultimate knowledge and control mirrors Adam’s desire to eat the apple. Jesus tells his followers to embrace their cross, and that death is not the end of existence. Transcendence ends in vague fashion that seems to suggest even machines can find this peace in a pantheistic sort of way. True transcendence is theosis, letting go of our childish attachment to the world and jumping into the arms of God.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on May 5th, 2014.