movie review

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Blaspheming "Blade Runner"

There are cult classics when it comes to movies, and there are cult classics. Blade Runner is one. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is another. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for sure. But why is that?

In my post, “Failed at Faulkner,” I confessed to not understanding the appeal of American novelist William Faulkner. In this post, I confess to not understanding the appeal of Blade Runner.

It took me several attempts over the years, but I persevered and finally succeeded in watching the original Blade Runner movie (in particular, the version designated “The Final Cut”). And for the life of me, I just don’t see why this movie has generated a cult of fans. For those few out there who have not seen Blade Runner, let me simply say that the story concerns a not-too-distant dystopian future in which “replicants” (think, cyborgs, artificial people) come close, through advanced biotechnology, to resembling humans. The replicants pose a danger because they will do anything to claim humanity and blend in with humans. Not surprisingly, the theme of the story concerns what it means to be truly human.

Perhaps I might appreciate Blade Runner more if I took a class in film appreciation. Then maybe I could fathom its impact (good or bad) on viewers and critics. Blade Runner seems to be a movie you have to study to best appreciate it, and I’m not accustomed to studying any movie. I can grudgingly admit the movie’s dystopian setting may have influenced the use of dystopian settings by later movies. That’s about the only positive thing I can say. On the other hand, while we all know a musical score can make or break a movie, unfortunately, the soundtrack by Vangelis felt spotty and didn’t move me.

So what about Blade Runner 2049? In this movie, replicants can procreate, and thereby claim humanity. I found the storyline easier to follow, but at times confusing. Sure, the setting was very familiar: dark, polluted, crowded, consumeristic, dystopian, post-industrial, just as in the first movie. But wouldn’t things have changed more in the thirty years since the time the first movie took place? And the soundtrack, powered by synthesizers, provided a connection back to the original movie. But the movie was too long, and the reappearance of Harrison Ford, who starred in the first movie, did nothing for me.

I’m afraid I won’t be offered membership in the Blade Runner cult. And I probably wouldn’t appreciate membership if I was offered it.

Beyond Human: "Transcendence" and "Lucy"

Speculations regarding the next step in human evolution have abounded since the emergence of science fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As new advances in science and technology have appeared at an accelerating rate in the last fifty years, practitioners of each, as well as writers and philosophers and theologians, have pondered the effect of these advances on human evolution. Some, such as Ray Kurzweil, take this very seriously, treating it with a mixture of extrapolation, excitement, respect, and caution. (Also, see transhumanism.) Others simply approach the topic with entertainment in mind. Two recent movies, "Transcendence" (starring Johnny Depp) and "Lucy" (starring Scarlett Johansson), depict science and technology out of control. Like thousands of other stories, they depict the irresponsible use of power by scientists and technologists. (Hence, the tiresome stereotype of the "evil" scientist.) "Transcendence" focuses on an overworked theme: autonomous computer technology with god-like powers, not necessarily used for good, or what silly humans (!) might consider good. There are parallels to be found in the story of "Lucy." Here, a scientific advance in the field of biochemistry plays a role in accidentally super-charging the brain of an "unwilling volunteer." This person develops god-like powers, not necessarily for good.

In each movie, the main character is transformed into something superhuman, capable of manipulating matter and energy and even (in "Lucy") time. In one movie the superhuman is feared and silly humans attempt to control it. In the other movie, most witnesses are awestruck, and the ones seeking control want the culpable chemical compound for drug trafficking.

The plots of these movies are riddled with scientific and technical holes. For viewers, attaining and maintaining a "willing suspension of disbelief" is difficult. But holes are inevitable in stories like these, where science and technology are extrapolated so far. In "Transcendence," somehow we must map a brain a high level of detail, reverse engineer that mapping to recreate thoughts and memories, and connect the resulting model to the real world in a way that allows the model and the real world to modify each other. In "Lucy," we must accept the notion that we only use a fraction of our brainpower, that using more would be of benefit, that a chemical compound could open all that up, and that this increased brainpower would allow manipulation of one's environment in ways that defy the fundamental laws of physics.

Both stories raise questions of course. If a brain can be reverse-engineered and captured within a computer, would this not amount to a technological Tower of Babel? Let us build an intelligence, we might say, that will display superhuman powers, and we ourselves can become superhuman. And if supercharging a brain can give its owner the ability to manipulate anything at all, would the development of this also not be something from which we would be cast down by our Higher Power? The mind-brain-soul debates will rage into the future, but we might ask, if a brain is replicated electronically, and (by extension) the mind associated with this brain, what happens to the soul? And what effect would there be on the soul if the brain was capable of unlimited power?

In the end, while neither movie really broke new ground, I found both movies entertaining. But I enjoyed "Lucy" more, for the fast pace and suspense, and also because certain scenes reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- one of my favorite movies -- as well as "Altered States," a suspenseful horror story about chemically-induced devolution (vs evolution).