In many respects, the task of modern theology has been to pretend to interrogate God in order to ignore Him.
In the upper-middle-brow register, we half-heartedly ask, “Why is there evil in the world?” In the more popular idiom, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Our once God-saturated reality is filled with man’s prideful distrust in his maker and his misplaced, unreflective confidence in himself. Our greatest minds are glamoured with their own potential, as if caught in a vampire’s gaze, moving us closer to annihilation for their own vain pursuits.
And near the towering height of this Babel-of-the-self stands J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” captured in a once-in-a-generation performance by Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s harrowing biopic Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer is the film of the summer for 2023 and it will deserve – but will it get? – all the awards when Hollywood’s self-congratulatory season rolls around again next year. The film speaks more profoundly than any recent mainstream offering about the intractable problem of scientism, and man’s ruin in pursuit of Edenic knowledge.
But two other recent films, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part I, serve as different kinds of responses to the opening of Pandora’s box that Nolan depicts in his deep, disturbing, and technically flawless Oppenheimer.
As I sat in rapt attention watching these three films recently, I wondered to myself whether our mainstream creatives finally understand that human civilization has come very close to the end of its road. Is anyone ready to let God interrogate us instead of we him?
Oppenheimer is, first of all, a brilliant character study. It chronicles the path to destruction of a man who, by accident of the era and nation in which he was born, lived to create the means of destruction of man himself. The Nazi Heisenberg, whom Oppenheimer knew, didn’t work fast enough. Niels Bohr, played by Kenneth Branagh, wouldn’t work for the Nazis in Copenhagen and escaped too late to apply his innovations in physics to weapons, even if he had wanted to. Einstein’s moment had passed, and his regrets were already too many. Instead, the man appointed to turn over the rock, as Bohr tells Oppenheimer in the film, was the reckless genius who had tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge – the man whose half-hearted Left-Wing activism and hot-blooded womanizing destroyed lives before he ever saw the “success” of the blasphemously-named Trinity test of the atomic bomb.
Shot for shot, Nolan’s depiction of Oppenheimer, and especially the bureaucratic trial of Oppenheimer after World War II, is gripping and startling. The man whose work, in a sense, put God in the dock like never before, must finally defend himself in a kangaroo court convened by frenemy Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey, Jr. in his magnificent return to serious acting after a generation-long absence in the MCU.
In a film about scientific innovation, it is telling that Nolan shot and finished the movie on film – not on video – and, per usual, he opted for practical effects over CGI throughout. To give a hint but not spoil the effect, viewers may be startled by what Nolan chooses not to put on screen at all. Ludwig Göransson’s violin-heavy score captures the wild inner life of Oppenheimer, whose self-perception is quintessentially modernist and tragic – a Romantic without the ground of being beneath his feet.
As the end credits of Oppenheimer rolled, I was emotionally drained. My wife and I discussed on the way home how we were the last generation to grow up with the official anxiety of nuclear annihilation, even though the threat is perhaps more real today than it was during the Cold War. Life has strangely gone on and on for decades now with Prometheus bound, seemingly without anyone noticing.
Nonetheless, all but a few technologically-skeptical politicians keep us distracted by the lie of neutrality: If we can just – this time! – use scientific innovation the right way! But as the real Oppenheimer’s own complicated repentance shows, somewhere within us, we all know that the we live in a house of cards. And we can only hope it will stand long enough to see us individually to the end of our threescore years and ten.
To this point, we consider the colorful but bleak vision of the early scientistic age in Asteroid City.
Wes Anderson is right at home working with the bright palette of the western United States of the 1950’s, where Asteroid City is set. But the film begins in black-and-white, and in a play within a play, reminding us of the artifice of everything after The Bomb. We’ve all seen behind the curtain now; but Anderson is clever enough – we may even say manly enough – to acknowledge his own inevitable phoniness with a carefully curated and, alas, easily caricatured aesthetic, which I adore.
As ever, in Asteroid City, Anderson is quirky, but deep.
In the film’s relationship between Stanley Zak, played by Tom Hanks, and his son-in-law Auggie Steenbeck, played by Jason Schwartzman, the audience faces the two great religious options of the nuclear age. On the one hand, Zak is an Episcopalian who is mildly interested in his motherless grandchildren identifying with his socially-advantageous, non-dogmatic faith. This option is the cope of denominationalism, which kept white, post-war America in harmony as evil lurked in its new missile silos. In this world, there is no room for sin and no sense in eschatology. Steenbeck, on the other hand, represents the dark flip-side of the same coin – atheism that claims the name rather than rebranding it, and which is particularly harrowing (and frankly understandable) from an ethnic Jewish man after the Shoah.
Amid the religious confusion among Asteroid City’s medicated, grieving adults, Anderson adds a group of brilliant children: the first Baby Boomers. They have more than what they need, but are angsty for approval. What will they do with themselves but innovate and compete (a favorite theme of Anderson’s throughout his oeuvre)? In Asteroid City, the children gather for the Junior Stargazers Convention, where one of them shows off a particle-destroyer, another a jet pack, and another an outer-space advertising projector – all military-industrial friendly, with an Army general present to award prizes.
But where is it all going? As the popularization of science fiction in the 1950s demonstrated, a world with the ability to destroy itself and without the consolation of Christ’s second coming looked outside the Earth for answers. As Asteroid City teases, maybe an alien invasion would fix our messes, or at least distract us from them. And so much the better if it’s an alien like Kal-El from Krypton who could, in theory, snatch up all the nuclear missiles and throw them into the sun (see Superman IV).
Asteroid City is far from Anderson’s best film. I’ve resigned myself to knowing that nothing he puts on screen is likely to hit me in the heart like his work from the 2000s. But Asteroid City is well worth watching – a humane, melancholic drama that takes the audience to the edge of the wasteland, which we need to see. The Bomb has arrived, yes. But still to come is the pill, abortion, sex-change operations, Agent Orange, the Internet, smart phones, social media; and now, Artificial Intelligence.
Enter the hero we need.
If we can’t have Superman to save us from ourselves, we’ll take Ethan Hunt, played for the seventh time by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I, directed by Christopher McQuarrie. The Mission: Impossible films have developed into the best action franchise of all-time, thanks to McQuarrie’s four (soon to be five) installments. But even in Brian De Palma’s excellent 1996 original, the stage was set for a different kind of American savior with no delusions that the world was progressing towards the end of history.
Hunt and his team stand outside the purview of official national interests. They are unsentimental, to say the least, about the motives of modern technocracy; most of all, they are aware that scientific innovation enables unprecedented nefariousness. Therefore, they reluctantly keep one step ahead by using the bad guys’ tech better than the bad guys do. And they try to have fun while they’re at it.
The McQuarrie-Cruise collaboration rivals Nolan’s work in its total excellence in practical special effects, with Cruise famously undertaking dangerous stunts such as wild motorcycle chases, rock climbing, and hanging outside real airplanes in flight. In the latest installment, the now 61-year-old star drives a motorcycle off a mountain and parachutes to the ground. And speaking of Cruise’s age, he, following the example of an aging Cary Grant, does not do love scenes with young female leads, nor is there any nudity or sexual innuendo. Nonetheless, in Dead Reckoning Part I, there is a natural chemistry between Cruise’s character and two excellent female co-stars, Rebecca Ferguson and Hayley Atwell.
In fact, McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible films have found a moral middle way between the old-school, womanizing 007-type and the new self-deprecating gelding spy who gets himself blown up for the sins of the patriarchy. Ethan Hunt is neither a Lothario nor a snowflake. He is a man, aware of his strength and unwilling to lay it down, but also unwilling to use power for his own glory or gain. And most importantly, Hunt is a human, who understands that no state or institution can control the power of the anti-human phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence. It must be destroyed for the sake of mankind.
But is Ethan Hunt’s quest a fool’s errand, like imagining we could dispose of all the nukes? We shall have to wait until Part II to find out. And while this newest and best Mission: Impossible movie might not make us optimistic about the future, it should give us pause before popping the Oppenheimer-prescribed black pill. At the very least, Hunt’s selflessness stands athwart Oppenheimer’s ego and the blithe aimlessness of Asteroid City.
Our own mission, should we choose to accept it, is well nigh impossible; but it’s worth a shot. Maybe instead of making God defend himself amid our intractable problems, it’s time to ask him to come to our aid in solving them.
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