Tag Archives: Film

Lord Save us From Your Followers

“The Church is a whore, and she is my mother.”

No one ever faulted Tony Campolo for mincing words.  The above quote actually comes from St. Augustine, but was repeated by Campolo in the documentary film Lord, Save us From Your Followers.

A few nights ago, I watched Lord Save us from Your Followers with a group from my church.  In the movie, Dan Merchant, the movie’s creator and narrator, travels across the country gathering people’s opinions about Christians and church.  He talks to people on the street, pastors, as well as pundits from both the left and the right.  At times funny and entertaining, it nevertheless is a serious  attempt to get Christians to engage with the world in a more loving and compassionate way.  It’s basically a film version of They Like Jesus but not the Church, or UnChristian.

There were some critiques Dan leveled that I agree with.  First, in one part he pitted  “young conservatives” vs a group of “liberal media elite” in a Family Feud-like game.  The game was an attempt to see which group knew the beliefs and worldview of the other best.  The liberals won easily.  He then pitted a group of college age agnostics vs a group of college age Christians in the same game.  This time, the Christians didn’t even score a single point.

The outcome was not surprising to me.  In the small group discussion afterwards, a few commented on that part of the movie, saying that we Christians typically know what we believe but aren’t able to get outside our bubbles to engage with the beliefs of outside groups.  I think that commentary was far too kind…most aren’t able to articulate the basics of the gospel without resorting to sloganeering!  This is especially pronounced in youth, where fun, “just hanging out,” and entertainment dominate youth groups.

Second, I can sympathize with his critique of the polarization of political discourse in America.  Lots of heat, very little light.  In an age where ratings drive everything and short attention spans dominate the landscape, the mud slinging is standard fare.  More of a circus act than an informative conversation characterized by mutual respect.
When Dan was focusing on this issue, I thought of a conservative radio show I used to podcast.  The host is a very smart man with a law degree, and he is a big player when it comes to influencing public policy in our country.  I respect the guy greatly, but I confess his radio show always left me disappointed.  For starters, every podcast–and I mean EVERY podcast–featured a controversy that was sure to drastically alter the West for ages to come.  It was as if every little Supreme Court hullabaloo was the beginning of the second coming.  In addition, I was looking to actually be informed, but all the host did–for ONE FULL HOUR–was give “rah-rah” speeches intended to rally the troops.  Very little actual analyzation of the controversy and examination of the detailed arguments of both sides.  If I took the knowledge that I gained from that podcast and used it in a conversation with someone from an opposing view, I’d be out of luck within about 30 seconds.

All that to say: I sympathize with Dan when it comes to being dissatisfied with the nature of political discourse in the U.S.

I also am somewhat sympathetic in his critique of the Church.  We’ve failed to love others as Jesus loves them.  I’ve failed to love others as Jesus loves them.  So tell me something new.

It is at this point, though, where my sympathies end.  I can’t help but think that he has gone too far in his critique.  There *is* a place for legitimate critique and exhortation of the Church, Christians in general, and me as an individual; otherwise, this blog in general and this post in particular would be out of bounds.  We can always do better. 

However, this movie is a small part of a very large trend; it is quite common fare to criticize the church and Christians for being unloving, narrow-minded, and intolerant, etc, etc.  I hear apologies on behalf of Christians from the pulpit quite often.  My pastor is very fond of doing that.  On Facebook and in face to face conversations, my Christian friends will bag on Christians and the Church for being rigid and such.  Books that critique the church–such as the ones mentioned above–are best sellers and the talk of  the town.  We’re frequently wringing our hands about the offense we’ve caused non-believers.

It seems like we just have this urge to self-flagellate and beat ourselves up.  I have to wonder if it is healthy.  Yes, we all need a good butt kickin from time to time, but need we dwell on our *image* so much?

Incidentally, that little word–image–is one reason why I think this trend is potentially unhealthy and askew.  The majority of the focus centers on what others think of us.  A good part of the movie, for instance, was showing the average person’s reaction to the question “what do you think about Christians?”  All the answers were something like “narrow-minded, intolerant, stuffy, judgemental, condemning” etc.  Then the narrator asked them, “what do you think about Jesus?” and the answers were, “loving, forgiving, caring,” etc.  The conclusion we were supposed to reach was obvious.

An aside: to me, those interviews were meaningless.  What if the narrator were to take out the Bible and read from Luke 9: 23-27, Luke 13: 22-30,  or Revelation 19?  Would they have such rosy words for THAT Jesus?  The Jesus they showered such praise on was a Jesus made in their own image, not the Jesus of history and Scripture.

Its as if whenever someone says that about Christians–in other words, whenever someone is *offended* at what we say and do–we’re automatically in the wrong.  Yes, sometimes we are in the wrong, but this seems more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything else to me.  As one author has said, “the gospel is offensive.  Don’t add any offense to it, but don’t remove any offense that is already there.”

There is one scene in the movie where the narrator takes a cue from Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and sets up a “confession booth” at a gay pride event.  The catch is that those at the event aren’t the ones confessing: Dan himself confesses and apologizes for the wrongs Christians have done to gays and lesbians.  He also apologizes for things he’s done, such as making gay jokes.

It was a novel idea, and it seemed like it got a positive response.  Those watching the movie lauded the act as something incredibly courageous.  I recognize that for some, apologizing comes hard.  Not for everyone, though.  After the event, my wife commented that for her, apologizing would be much, much easier than saying tough, yet loving words that someone might not want to hear.  Why?  The former would most likely gain her the good thoughts of others, whereas the latter might get her rejected. 

I am not saying that it would have been appropriate for Dan to instead get up on a soapbox and read Romans 1.  In that atmosphere, best to leave that one be.  It’s just that I don’t know why everyone acts like moral disapproval, tough words about sin, etc are easy!  Relatively few are going to reject you for doing things like giving out cups of water, saying “Jesus loves you,” and apologizing for past hurts…and those things are all the rage these days.  Not that we shouldn’t do all that, but people like that stuff…they don’t like to hear that the path they have autonomously chosen is the path of destruction and rebellion.  For Christians who want to be well liked (read: most of us), that makes it very tempting to cheer the nice stuff but shun the tough stuff.

I take it that we’re supposed to think that judging and condemning are bad things, and Christians should avoid them.  At one point, Dan chides the church for turning the “gospel of love” into the “gospel of being right.”  Love through your actions and use less words was the not-so-subtle message.  “We’re all out of words,” as one commentator put it.  The ‘ol phrase from St. Francis “preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary,” was bandied about (incidentally, St. Francis probably never said this.  The guy was an evangelizing, fire-and-brimstone machine.  The American church simply would not tolerate him today.  It is more likely that the quote is a product of a sentimentalized, neutered, postmodern version of St. Francis. ).

The only way this image will improve significantly is if we focus on only grace, at the expense of truth.  As long as Christians stay faithful to the biblical witness and the gospel, the world will continue to think we’re judgmental and all that stuff.  Even if we are completely humble and loving, we can’t stay faithful to Christ and shed that image.  As much as we’d like to forget it, talk of sin, God’s judgment, and condemnation of false beliefs are all over the Bible.  Jesus thought He was right…that kinda comes along with the territory of claiming to be God, and for Christians who faithfully follow Christ, pointing to the “narrow road” also comes with the territory.  Very hard to “Jeffersonize” those things out.  In fact, the gospel doesn’t make sense apart from all that; why would Jesus die a horrendous death on a Roman torture device just to tell us that He loves us and that God has a wonderful plan for our lives?  If there are more ways to God than through Jesus, why did Jesus have to die?  The cross is more than just an example of God’s love; it is an objective cure to an actual spiritual/moral disease called sin.  Take that out and the Christian faith is plain silliness.

Yes.  We can love better (love sometimes requires tough words to be spoken–ever thought of that?  Anyway); but we should just get used to our image being less than what we desire.  A PR campaign will be the cure that kills the patient.

And on that phrase above: “we’re all out of words.”  Really?  Not even close.  Read the book of Acts.  Actions of service are a large part of that book, but do you know what is an even larger part?  Good ‘ol straightforward proclamation.  I sometimes get tired of saying this: it is not an either/or thing, but a both/and.  The Church has excelled in the past on acts of service and proclamation, and we should continue to excel in both.  The siren call of a better image should not sway us. 

It is natural to want to be well-liked.  But lets not let the tail wag the dog here.

And even though I share Dan’s concern with the polarized nature of political discourse, the one thing that is *not* a solution to that is for Christians to back out of the debates.  Though he never said it verbatim, I get the feeling that he’d be ok with us just packing our bags, getting out of politics, and just doing simple service.  Even if I misread him and he would not advocate that sort of response, I know plenty of Christians who would like nothing more than for us to get out of politics completely. 

At the very least, politics and the discourse that comes along with it is seen as a less spiritual enterprise.

I am all for a more civil debate, but silence is not an option, whether it be abortion, embryonic stem cell research, same sex marriage, big government vs. small government, etc, for that would leave others vulnerable to false and harmful ideas.  Those who have opposing ideas will keep on plugging their ideas and policies, and unopposed, those ideas will wreak incredible havoc.

Think of it this way: the last few years have seen the rise of strong and loving Christians entering the legal and political battles in foreign countries on efforts such as sex trafficking and child abuse.    Many have fought tirelessly in courts and legislatures to ensure vulnerable women and children are protected by law.  These legal and political battles can sometimes be nasty and intense.  Would we even think about advising these folks to back away from political discourse and simply “love others with actions?”  The thought is crazy, for we recognize the stakes. 

It is no different here.

I frequently bring up these themes on this blog.  I really don’t want to be that guy.  It’s just that this “either/or” message gets preached a lot, and people simply eat it up.  Every time I hear the so-called St. Francis quote said in church, it is followed by so many “mmmms,” and “amens.”  We don’t really have to put one or the other (words/actions without words) on the backburner…nor should we, biblically. I’m attempting to bring some balance to the discussion.  I heartily applaud Merchant’s exhortation to talk with non-believers, not at them, but we should be careful that we don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and let the pendulum swing to the opposite end.  There is room for both grace and truth, and love sometimes means risking rejection by saying tough….words.


Check it out: Brian Godawa reviews Avatar.

Some good stuff in thar…

Book of Eli

I just watched Book of Eli.

Violent?  Very.

Slight pluralistic message at the end.
Kinda funky definition of faith (then again, his faith drove him to action, he was certain of the hope he had, and he’s clear of what God has called him to do even though he doesn’t have it all figured out…so I guess there’s something to it).

Yet thought provoking all the same.  I guess you can’t win ’em all.  Given that Book of Eli came from Hollywood, I’ll give it an “A” for effort.

The man who read the Bible was the righteous one, the one who had never read it was power-hungry, violent, and wanted to abuse the Bible.

I even liked it when Eli said, “some people thought that this book [the Bible] caused the war.”  He put a tiny emphasis on “some” and “thought,” enough of an emphasis to make a difference.

There were very interesting and genioius symbols strewn throughout the movie.  For example, when Carnegie’s main henchman, Redridge, dies, he dies on his knees, head bowed (prayer, anyone?).  Immediately before his death he has a repentance of sorts–he could kill Solara, but he simply steps out of the vehicle and dies peacefully.  Another example is the destination toward which Eli is headed to take the Bible: Alcatraz prison.  That made me recall the fact that Jesus came to save the sinners, the outcasts, and those with no hope.  Jesus takes the untouchables and uses them to spread the Kingdom.

Some would balk at what Carnegie says about the Bible: that it is an instrument of power, and those that wield it can control people like “sheep” by giving them a false hope.  That message makes me cringe too, but consider the source.  In the end, the movie itself was not endorsing that message.  If Eli had championed it, that would be different, but he stood for a completely different take on the Bible, and it is clear it’s his voice we’re supposed to pay heed to.

I don’t think any of those involved would profess Book of Eli to be a Christian movie, and it’s certainly not for everyone.  It does have many, many deep and thought provoking themes though.

Any of those who have seen it care to comment on it?

2012 Comment

The other day I wrote a short review of the movie 2012.  I mentioned that there was a theme–having compassion for human beings just because they are human, not due to any accomplishments or instrumental value they possess–that was very out of place given the naturalistic/humanistic plot.

One commenter wrote the following:

Isn’t theism merely one of the ways we “might ascribe a higher meaning on all this to make ourselves feel better”? Theists utilize a belief there is a god giving humans higher intrinsic value (through the concepts of “soul” or “relationship” or “similarity”—all familiar themes) but that doesn’t make it actual reality.

It is as if you are so close to the answer. You realize humans want to give our own species greater “value” (a loaded term, of course) and go to great lengths to manufacture reasons to do so. Where you fall just shy is the failure to realize theism—the belief there is a God who “values” humans—is just one of those manufactured reasons.

I’m glad he brought this point up, for it gives me a chance to add further clarity to my thoughts.

Of course, if theism is false, Dagood’s comment is a good point.  Just because something helps you live life (in this case, a way to ascribe value and meaning to life) doesn’t mean its true.  In that case, theism, just like humanism, is a way for humans to manufacture value.

However, I have excellent reason to hold that theism is true.  In the war of the worldviews, it easily stands on its own two feet. That makes all the difference.  Given the evidence backing it up, its ascriptions of value are actually describing reality.  If I didn’t think this is the case, I wouldn’t be a theist!

The reason why I made the point in the movie review is to give humanists pause.  Many I’ve met don’t get that if naturalism is true, life is absurd, yet they continue to live “as if.”  As I mentioned in the review, if naturalism is true, every attempt at meaning is an effort in shuffling chairs on the Titanic.  That doesn’t make naturalism false and theism true, but it sure should give one pause in blithely jumping on the bandwagon.

Taken one way, though, all this *is* a sort of evidence for theism.  Human beings have intrinsic value, and we know this deep down. It’s why we recoil at gassing babies but don’t think twice about gassing termites.   We know this by intuition, the same way we know “one should not torture babies for fun” is true.  What worldview makes the best sense of that knowledge we possess?  Theism.  Humanity’s intrinsic value is quite at home in a theistic worldview, but it fits very oddly in any naturalistic worldview (many atheistic philosophers, like J.L Mackie, made a career out of arguing as such.).

Heavens ta Mergatroy!

I saw Good Hair, Chris Rock’s new movie, with the wifey tonight.

Good Hair

Good movie!  Very entertaining and informative.


First…time…e-v-er that I have agreed with Al Sharpton.  It happened three times in the span of the movie.  What the heck is going on here?

Better the Second Time Around

For some reason, oftentimes, the second watching of a film is more enriching than the first.

Such was the case last night, as I watched Coyote County Loser at its Orange County premier.

This is not the first time I’ve commented on the film.ccl
To tell you the truth, since I’ve watched it before, I really didn’t feel like going.  It had been a long, tiring day at work, I had another long, tiring day at work to look forward to the next day, and I had a wife I wanted to see.  In the last three weeks, I’ve gotten married, moved into a new place (we still have quite a few boxes to unpack), my wife got a new job, and I got a new job (well, 2 new jobs, sorta).   Add in all the other “to dos” that comes along with a new marriage (getting new bank account, changing insurance, etc), and I’m just flat worn out.  I even told the producer that I’d have to leave before the end of the film.  All this wasn’t because the film sucked (it didn’t…more on that in a minute), but just because I had cashed in my chips long before I arrived.

But I ended up staying the whole time.  I even gleefully (yes…gleefully) stayed for the whole Q&A afterwards.

Why?  There were no Michael Baysian-like special effects for me to visually gorge on.  I was not treated to Lord-of-the-Rings-esque cinematography.  What kept me in my seat was the story.  My soul was enriched from the get-go.  The film caused me to pause and examine my life.  When that happens, I’m hooked in.

One  such “examination” was this: I saw a lot of myself in Jack, the love-em-and-leave-em heart throb from LA.  No, I know I’m no Fabio.  Here’s the deal: for much of the film, he was too busy chasing his next big shot to be able to love anyone.  That would require him to actually slow down and downshift few gears, which he had no intention of doing.  That’s a lot like me; I’ve been so busy lately (actually, it’s not just lately–it’s a constant in my life), for instance, I’ve been desiring but neglecting to write a letter to my grandpa.  I thought a while ago, “That’d be nice.  I need to communicate with him more, cherish him in deeper ways.  A letter would really touch him, I think.” But I keep putting it off.  Like Jack, I’m zipping around with a wink too much to slow down enough, and I’ve been like this well before all the recent change.  If I don’t put people before the process, I’m gonna end up neglecting and hurting those I care for most.

There were a few motifs in the film that I missed the first time around.  Actually, they are so obvious and central in the film that I feel kinda embarrassed to say I missed them the first time around.  I caught the main idea of the film: Jack’s view of relationships is totally based on feeling, while Lauren’s view is based around a list of “must haves.”  Jack thinks love is a game; Lauren thinks love is a savy business transaction.  They find out both their views are horribly wrong–a “legacy” couple–married for 48 years–shows them the main ingredient that starts and keeps love alive: commitment.  Over the years, the commitment and sacrifice the couple practices and embodies transforms Fred, the husband, from a shy, awkward farm boy into a confident, joyous romancer.

Perhaps the most notable thing I missed, though, was the car motif.  Lauren, the female lead, compared men to cars, claiming that just as you must have a list of what you need in a car when vehicle shopping, so you must have a list of requirements for a man.  She called this the “non-negotiable checklist.”

That much I caught the first time, but what I missed was the motif.  Cars are all over the place in the film!  Lauren’s truck consistently breaks down, mirroring the men she takes to task; Jack drives a snazzy sports car that runs out of gas in the beginning of the film; Lauren gets her knowledge of car repair from her dad–when she was young, her dad had a prized antique car (shown in the film), and working on it was the only way Lauren could gain time with him; a car salesman sponsors the radio station Lauren works at, and she visits the salesman when her truck dies; heck, the “loser” himself even sells junk car parts at a salvage yard, and he wins a loaded pickup truck when he wins the “date” radio contest.

Pretty much all the cars in the film, though, leave the characters feeling empty.  Lauren’s truck is a source of constant frustration, and the old car her dad prized is the source of bitter memories.  When the loser wins the truck, it just didn’t feel right–yeah, it was a sweet ride, but Lauren’s heart was crushed in the process of him winning it.  It is not a coincidence, I’m sure, that Jack and Lauren finally connect over a horse-back ride, which is the antithesis of a car.

All this points to the vacuity of Lauren’s view of love.  Her comparison between men and cars is ludicrous, condescending, and leaves both parties feeling empty.  Sure, it keeps women from being hurt, but it keeps them lonely too.  As C.S Lewis once said,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Lauren’s view, by the way, is not just spouted by frosty psychologist radio hosts in indie movies–it’s all over the place in our culture.  Ever hear someone compare their boyfriend or girlfriend to a car when it comes to sex?  “We need to find out if we are sexually compatible before we get married.  You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it first, would you?”

So…I’m a car that you must test drive before you commit?  If that’s not condescending, I don’t know what is.

Jack’s view, however, isn’t any more correct or noble.  It is just as vacuous.  The emptiness of his view comes through loud and clear through another motif: women themselves.  This one is not as prominent as the cars motif, but it’s there.  Every woman that Jack “loves and leaves” ends up bitter.  His agent, for example, gives him hell for him doing just that.  Only when he truly commits to a woman can she feel truly loved, as is the case when he cares for his cancer-stricken sister.  Commitment is in him; he just has to apply it in the area of romance to truly embrace what love is all about.

The man in the “legacy” couple reminds me of my grandpa.  After 56 years of marriage, my grandma passed away.  They had commitment down pat, and therefore they had love too.  As the name implies, they left quite a legacy because of that.

When Fred, the husband in the couple, broke down after Maggie’s (the wife) death, I saw my grandpa right there.

Which reminds me: I’m gonna go write that letter now.


I highly recommend Coyote County Loser.  It is showing at Cinema City Theaters in Yorba Linda until Sept 10.  For tickets and show times, go to Coyotecountyloser.com

Movie Review: District 9

(SPOILER ALERT!!!  Don’t say I didn’t warn you)

Money-hungry, evil, military-industrial complex exploits a ghettoized, oppressed people.  Said oppressed people poorly understood and frequently abused.  So-called terrorist attack.  Media misinformation.  Fear-inducing propaganda.  Why won’t both sides just sit down and talk?

Sound familiar?

No, I’m not talking about anything you’ve seen on the news the last three or four years.  I’m talking about district9District 9, the latest sci-fi thriller produced by Peter Jackson.  This film is not just a film meant to entertain 20-something males who religiously Tivo the Sci-Fi channel and attend Comicon every year.  It actually has a message that it communicates in parable-like fashion.

If you did think I was talking about something in the news in the beginning of the post, that’s because the film’s director (Neil Blomkamp) is most certainly doing that on purpose; District 9 clearly is meant to parallel a very common narrative in our culture.

Blomkamp doesn’t waste any time drawing this parallel: within the first minute of the film (which is shown in mock-documentary-like fashion), one intervewee informs the audience that an alien spaceship didn’t stop over “Manhattan, New York, Los Angeles,” or several other grand international metropoli–it settled down over Johannesburg, South Africa.  Anyone with a high school diploma and a pulse should recognize South Africa as the center of Apartheid, a system of racial segregation that was officially ended fairly recently in the 90’s.  Hmmmm, the plot already thickens.

The ship just sits there for months, with nothing coming out.  Finally, the humans decide to break in themselves, and they find over a million malnourished, directionless, insectoid-like aliens cowering in the dark.  Supposedly their ship broke when a command module came detached and fell to the ground (or was that purposeful?  Who knows.).

Humanitarians rush in to give food and shelter to the aliens, whose leader(s) have died off.  We all know, though, what kind of bricks pave the road to hell: soon, the humanitarians find themselves in over their heads.  The aliens, without their leader, behave animal-like.  Fear of the different swarms in.  The shelters become militarized, and a slum emerges.  A system of rules and regulations evolves that is designed to keep the aliens separate from the humans.  They are called “prawns,” a derogatory slur filled with images of trash-dwelling bugs and bottom-feeding crustaceans.

Violence swells.  Riots are common.  No human likes or trusts the aliens.  The feeling is mutual.  The humans want the aliens to leave.  The aliens want to go home, but for some reason, they can’t.  The film coyly suggests that they are prevented from doing so by the system that traps them in and keeps them oppressed.

A military weapons corporation steps in to be a mediator: Multi-National United.  MNU feigns humanitarian motives, but it is clear they are in the mediating business for one thing: weapons.  The alien weaponry is quite advanced, and MNU wants to learn the technology.  The problem is that the weapons are designed to only work with alien DNA.  No human can operate them, which is a bummer to MNU.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe, an inept and awkward bureaucratic paper-pusher.  Think of a corporate Ned Flanders; that’s Wikus.  He is merely a cog in a vast corporate machine, yet he is appointed to head up an eviction project that will usher the “prawns” out of their current slum and into a concentration camp via a tricky legalese slight of hand.

While he is no doubt inept, he seems like a nice guy.  Soon it is apparent that the niceness, however, is only a veneer: he shows childlike joy in aborting a house of alien fetuses, barges in to the houses to confiscate anything he wants, and shouts slurs (“f****ng prawn!”) at the slightest provocation.  In fact, he calls them the “prawn” slur with the same nonchalance that he’d call a co-worker “Steve” or “buddy.”  This is just his reality, and he never stops to question it until he is forced to by a twist of events.

Even though it is hard to like the aliens, with their animalistic ways, the film doesn’t suggest any moral equivalency or relativism: it is hard to sympathize with Wikus.  Even harder to like him.  Perhaps pity him, yes, but we are clearly not supposed to identify with him.
But then Wikus is exposed to an alien fuel liquid, which causes him to start to morph into an alien.  Seriously.   No lie.

When MNU finds out, they seek to harvest his body for scientific research, making Wikus a fugitive.  In order to hem him in, MNU spins a few lies to the media about Wikus, doctoring photos to make it look like he had sex with a “prawn.”  Now, the public, even Wikus’ own wife, intensely fear an innocent man.  Wikus’ only hope is to turn to the same aliens he gleefully oppressed just a few days earlier.

In so doing, he forms an unlikely partnership with alien Christopher Johnson (no joke.  That is really his name.), who is secretly trying to run an operation to get back to the mother ship to start it.  Wikus’ motives are wholly selfish, while Christopher’s motives are not: Wikus wants to save his own skin and clumsily tries to use Christopher and his son to that effect, but Christopher’s motives are to save “his people.”

There are several philosophical issues raised by the film, and unfortunately space permits me to plumb them all.   The film raises questions about identity over time (Even though Wikus’ physical makeup completely changes, is it still Wikus?  If yes, what grounds his identity?), issues about selflessness vs. selfishness and sticking by one’s friends, and even makes parallels between Christopher and various “messiahs” down through the ages (Moses, anyone?  Though I doubt the film’s writers intended such a parallel, it is there.  Christopher even calls his fellow aliens “my people.”).

One of the main themes that I want to comment on is on the human proclivity to fear.  This is something that you just can’t miss in the film.  It’s clear the aliens aren’t understood and therefore are feared.  People want to keep them away, and a system of rules and mores are erected to keep it that way.  Signs on the street declare “no non-humans allowed.”  Restaurants serve only humans.  The aliens’ names are changed (There’s no way that Christopher Johnson is his real name).  Even the District 9 website is set up to reflect this system: when you go to it, a message instructs you to enter as either a human or non-human.  The website drastically changes tone and message from there.  Fictitiously run by MNU, the website has a soothing female voice for the human side, that encourages the humans that MNU wants to help them live “safe, prosperous lives.”  The voice tells humans to report alien sightings to help make District 9 a safer place, and also informs them of several “career” opportunities for “outstanding,” ambitious candidates.

By contrast, the non-human side of the MNU website features a commanding, authoritarian male voice that instructs the non-humans to follow all rules and regulations, and informs them that any who choose to break the rules will immediately be taken into custody and experience consequences.  Non-humans must work to be “productive members of society.”  Even the access code for the job offerings has radically different connotations: “career” for humans and “labor” for non-humans.  There are other inequities in the website.

In the movie, the eviction campaign run by MNU and headed by Wikus is an extension of this system.  The aliens are duped and coerced to sign eviction papers.  Even when an alien chooses to swat at the paper rather than sign it, that counts, legally, as signing the papers and giving consent.  It’s obvious that the place they are being evicted to, amazingly, is much worse than their current slum.  Humans want to get rid of the aliens, and MNU wants to get a hand on their weapons.  In the film, the humans are the oppressors, the aliens the victims.

Are the aliens even totally to blame for their animalistic behavior, or has the humans’ fear made them that way, turning them into barbarians by putting them in ghettos and taking away their dignity?

At the end, when Christopher Johnson takes the mother ship away, I thought, “now, was that so hard?  Why’d that take 20 years to do?  Couldn’t both sides, who wanted the same thing, just have sat down with each other and figured out how to make that happen?  There was no need for all that bloodshed and violence.”  Again, fear kept both sides from realizing the ultimate goal.

This has become so ingrained in the culture that Wikus accepts it as self-evident.  That’s how he can call the aliens “prawns” yet continue to have a joyful smile on his face.  Like I said above, he only starts to question this way of thinking until he is forced to identify with them and rely upon them for his survival.

A friend of mine remarked that you could substitute pretty much any people group on earth for the aliens, and it would still work.  That’s because that has been the story of human interaction several times throughout our history in this world.  Whether it’s been apartheid, the Scottish during the time of William Wallace, slavery in this country and the civil rights struggles that followed, Egyptians enslaving the Israelites in the time of the Exodus, or religious persecution in China, people have been exploited ad nauseum since the dawn of time.

Why?  The deepest root is good, old fashioned sin and human wickedness.  The heart, the prophet Jeremiah says, is deceitful above all things.  Who can understand it?  An outgrowth of that wickedness, though, is fear of difference.  I guess you could say that while wickedness of the heart is the ultimate cause, fear is a penultimate cause.

I need to point out that the film doesn’t intend this analysis to extend to all difference, and it’s good the writers drew the line somewhere.  Some lifestyles and actions aren’t just different: they are morally wrong for one reason or another.  As I mentioned  above, the film doesn’t really question this, leaving the viewer in a relativistic morass where all actions are and lifestyles are mere cultural expressions and therefore equally valid.  No, there is a definite right and wrong in District 9 which is clearly violated.

Despite the fact that aliens from outer space visit earth, there is no Prime Directive a la Star Trek.  The D9 universe is a moral one, with a clear right and wrong.  We recoil in horror when the MNU execs, one of which is Wikus’ own father-in law, coldly pause to calculate how to harvest Wikus’ body parts for scientific research.  Wikus, who hears the conversation, pleads for help, but the father-in-law simply rebuffs the effort.  Despite the uncouth behavior of the aliens, our moral intuitions rise when we see their oppression.  Their tendency to violence, too, is subject to this moral judgment.

But still, the film suggests that we fail to understand because we fear, and this leads to much chaos and suffering.

This narrative can only be carried so far in paralleling the real world, though.  Some might try to connect the war on terror to this movie.  Though fear is definitely involved in exacerbating things, I don’t think it’s that simple.   “One man’s terrorist is another man’s (or alien’s) freedom fighter” might work in District 9, but not in the world of September 11, car bombings, and beheadings.  Some might also try to make an analogy between the  movie and the current state of many urban neighborhoods, but the root causes that have brought chaos with the latter have more to do with disintegration of the family and other internal moral problems than continued systemic oppression.

In addition to the parallels breaking down at certain key points, another thing that is a negative on the film is that it resorts to making humans the boogeyman.  This is a tired narrative that seems to never die: we are the scourge of the earth, like parasites, raping the planet, and we even oppress poor aliens who arrive on our doorstep, blah blah.  Hollywood and the media loves that story, but I’m tired of seeing it trotted out in cliche’ like fashion so much.

All in all, I give the movie a B for philosophical depth, and a B- overall–the ending is quite unsatisfactory, and the violence is just too much…very bloody, not for the faint of heart.  While the parallels break down at certain points between District 9 and our world, and though it trots out a few hackneyed cliche’s, it raises several important philosophical questions.