S. Brent Plate
Clint Eastwood's latest offering, “Hereafter,” a speculative, cinematic glimpse at what lies at the end of human life, is the latest in a series of recent films that explore and provoke questions about what it means to be human. And like “Hereafter,” many of them reflect an uptick in our personal and collective anxieties about the “end”–about the individual experience of death but also fears about the end of Homo sapiens in general.
Current hit films like “Hereafter,” “Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” “Monsters,” “Paranormal Activity 2,” and “Iron Man 2,” among others, each in its own way points to the post-human. Are there other sentient creatures in the universe? Are there unseen beings walking among us? Are we evolving? If so, into what? All of these are, of course, questions that religious traditions have been grappling with for ages.
“Hereafter” looks at human life by exploring death, the possibilities of communicating across the great divide; part of what defines us as humans is both our mortality and our ability to reflect on our mortality. “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” is just one of the many entries in the vast vampire franchise which also deals with questions of death and mortality, about how to communicate from death to life and back again.
“Monsters,” like the many preceding alien-invasion flicks to which it pays homage, wonders again about lifeforms beyond this planet, reflecting both our fascination and our dread at the idea that there are other mortal creatures who also possess self-consciousness. “Paranormal Activity 2,” meanwhile, puts the alien right next to us. Both films reflect the scientific, humanistic and theological question: Are we alone?
“Iron Man 2” lets us wonder about high-tech prostheses and what transcending the limits of our biological bodies might entail, spiritually and psychologically. At the same time, the film prompts us to realize how human bodies are already becoming integrated with technology in radical ways, with our smart phones, medical implants and increasing reliance on military and commercial robotics.
Films have long traded in these interests and anxieties, but there currently seems to be an intensification in our appetite for cinematic fare peppered with death, other-worldliness and ambiguity about embodiment. While we can peer into a telescope or a microscope to reach the edges of the universe known to the empirical mind, science usually leaves us at loose ends when it comes to questions about what lies beyond our abilities to perceive and conceptualize. Religious institutions and practices have traditionally stepped in to answer those questions, but in an age of spiritual flux, popular art often fills the existential gap.
What does this mean for reporters? The images on the screen at the cineplex may originate from the projection booth, but they're also reflections of some of the narratives unfolding in the minds of the audience and society at large. That's why people go to the movies. So when you're scouting for story ideas that hook into contemporary concerns about war, terrorism, technology, social instability and (of course) death, don't forget the religion angle. And buying a ticket to the latest Hollywood blockbuster is a good way to find it.
S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. He is the author/editor of several books, including Religion and Film and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. He recently organized “Stations,” an exhibition on religious art, for Hamilton College's Emerson Gallery.