Monday, October 13, 2008

review: religulous, city of ember

Let me get this out the way: Bill Maher's Religulous (a combination of "religious" and "ridiculous") preaches to the choir. The film sets out to investigate the paradoxical "absurd logic" of religious people, and Maher does this by interviewing a variety of religious authorities -- from the everyman on the street, to the actor playing Jesus at Florida's theme park Holy Land, to rabbis and that guy who thinks he's the Second Coming of Jesus. Initially, Maher asks intelligent, objective, and entirely non-offensive questions, such as "why is faith good" or "how has God spoken to you." These are good questions, but, where Religious becomes potentially off-putting, Maher tends not to accept the answers to these questions. For example, an ex-Jew for Jesus says that Jesus performed small miracles for him, and that's why he became a Christian. When asked for an example of a miracle, the man told a story about sticking his cup outside and asking for rain -- and lo and behold, it rains. Maher points out that this isn't a miracle, that sometimes it just rains -- but I can certainly understand how some religious audience members might think this is negative atheism. Is Maher trying to make these people wrong? Well, no, I don't think so. I think he's just pointing out that people believe weird things and that logic is not part of these beliefs.

Bill Maher has repeatedly expressed and emphasized that he is not anti-religion, nor is he an atheist. He is simply anti-certainty (in fact, the term he has recently used is apatheism, which I might start considering myself). The question of the existence of God (or any god) is irrelevant to morality on Earth. We can be moral without religion. Don't believe me? I don't cheat, steal, or murder. Not because it's in the bible, but because it's the law. And although Maher says outrageous things like "religion is insanity by consensus," I do agree with his other comments, such as "faith is just making a virtue out of not thinking." It would be easy to be offended by a statement like that, but that's what faith is -- it doesn't negate thinking, but it does disregard logic. Faith is not concrete; it's a belief.

But back to the movie... I think it's unfairly misrepresentative of religious people. Almost all of my friends are Christians, and they are perfectly normal (although I do have a few that try every Christmas to convert me by giving me a bible with highlighted passages). But this movie isn't about level-headed religion. It's about how religion as one's dominant ideology is often harmful to the good of humanity. For instance, Maher goes into the Creationism Museum (which is an oxy-moron, of course), where dinosaurs co-exist with humans. Is there anything wrong with Creationism? Well, not inofitself, but when it interferes with science and evidential data it becomes a problem. I really don't understand this retrogressive movement against science, how people today can deny evolution. It's mind-boggling to me.

But other than religion-as-opposition to science, Religulous explores connections between Christianity and other religions (the similarities between the Egyptian god Horus and Jesus are mind-blowing!), how this country was founded on the separation of church and state and that our founding fathers were deists (Ben Franklin once said, "Lighthouses are more helpful than religion"), and religion's part in wars. The movie ends in a montage that I think would've served better in the middle of the film, because I don't think the last thought people should leave with is that religion causes war (which may very well be the case sometimes, but it's such a nihilistic note to end on). But sometimes Religulous doesn't even need to say anything because the interviewees will do it for them. A senator from Arkansas, Mark Pryor even says, "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate."

But there was one interview that I particularly appreciated. Bill Maher tends to rag on the idea of the Holy Trinity -- which, by the way, is not mentioned in the bible (neither is the Virgin Birth which, you know, might've been important to mention). Maher interviews an actor playing Jesus at Holy Land, where he also interviews some idiotic tourists. (I think it's rather unfortunate that Maher doesn't interview intellectual religious people. He interviews people who can't construct logical arguments.) And I thought this interview was significant because this actor analogizes the Holy Trinity to ice -- ice can be steam, a solid, or a liquid (water). One thing can be three different things while staying true to itself. Maher is actually impressed with this analogy initially, until later he reveals how silly the concept actually is. But I do think the analogy is an intelligent response.

Is this movie for everyone? Absolutely not -- especially not for people sensitive to questions about their beliefs. But I do think it's important for people to question their own beliefs; if you are right in your beliefs, you shouldn't be afraid of knowledge. Science should support your beliefs (so stop negating or disregarding science!). Taking offense to questions indicates insecurity and a lack of knowledge; taking offense to Maher's approach, however, is a bit different and I can understand how one might feel attacked. But the movie is definitely made for a specific audience... and I am a part of that target audience. I laughed. I clapped. I cried from laughing so hard. There was a comment about Native Americans being Jews, and then the film jump cuts to a scene of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. I don't care who you are; that is hilarious!

I don't necessarily recommend the movie to everyone, but I loved it. A lot. For what this movie is and for what is was trying to accomplish, I give it a solid A.

City of Ember is based on the 2003 apocalyptic book of the same name by Jeanne Duprau. The book, as well as the movie, is about a self-contained, self-maintained underground city called Ember, whose sole light source is a generator that was only meant to last 200 years after the destruction of the world. It's been so long, however, that people have forgotten that a world ever existed outside of Ember, and people have stopped venturing out into the dark Unknown Regions outside the city's boundaries. The movie follows Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan of Atonement) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), two 12-year-olds bordering 16-year-old territory. (Treadaway is too old to play a character of 12, although I think the movie does not distinguish their ages for this reason.) The movie is apparently very close to the book, but, due to this close adaptation, some aspects are lost. Lina is artistic and enjoys drawing things she's never seen, like skyscrapers and blue skies, but in the movie, she is only seen once coloring the sky blue. And Doon discovers rather large animals without much of an explanation as to how they got so big.

But this movie really excels in two areas: the production design and a really well paced plot. The production design is gorgeous. It's exactly what I would imagine a 200+ year old underground city would look like. Everything -- from the tape they use to how they dress to the layout of the city -- is intricate in its detail, and the very look of the movie is infinitely fascinating. (Although I have to note that in some scenes, when the generator fails, there is still light coming from somewhere. It looks like blueish moonlight, but obviously there's no moon underground.) As for the narrative, everything is spaced out evenly. I never got bored. I never thought, "I'm sticking with this character for too long. What's next?" I never got anxious for it to end. It progressed in an ironically natural way (ironic because editing is anything but natural). The main actors were charismatic and not at all annoying -- I mean, how often are children actors annoying? More often than not. But I wanted to spend times with these characters. And it was smart that movie keeps you in the dark (pun intended!) about the myth of the city so that, as the kids discover more clues about Ember, you discover with them.

Of course -- spoiler! -- the kids find a way out of Ember. There are so many "family movies" (what an unfortunate genre) that seem to set up the idea for a theme park ride. Journey to the Center of the Earth is the most obvious example, with the mine carts on a roller coaster track. And how City of Ember ends is no exception, except this time it's a log flume rather than a roller coaster. The CGI is a bit awkward here, but it's such a short scene that that's easy to overlook. The difference is, though, I would love for this to be a ride. I can't even imagine what the production design for the waiting line would be. Wait, yes I can. It would be awesome! I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I was expecting, and although it is a family movie, it's a smart one and it's well-crafted. It's inventive and it encourages curiosity. I would love to see screen adaptations of the other books in the Ember series. I give this movie an A-.


Goddessdster said...

I'm as progressive as they come, but I dislike Maher's take on religion for the same reason I dislike Michael Moore's take on about anything since 2000 - he only presents people whose appearance in the film will enhance his argument. Maher doesn't want to have thoughtful intelligent people discussing their faith (which is not a dirty word, by the way - and doesn't only apply to religion), because they may actually make him think about what he's presenting. [Of course I'm basing this on interviews I've seen him conduct on his show, not the movie.]

Personally, I don't care what Bill Maher thinks about my faith, mostly because he doesn't want to actually think about it, he would rather make blanket statements to support his cause.

I think you've presented a very thoughtful review and I like that you've presented all sides. I suppose I am reluctant to see Religulous, not because I will be offended by what he is saying, but by the fact he is presenting what is in fact a narrow-minded viewpoint as the "better" one. Besides, I can see this same stuff, but with less bluster, by watching Jesus Camp and Friends of God.

And I've gone on and on...Sorry. Babble-spam ends here.

keyser soze said...

You make a very good point -- Maher only includes interviews that support his notion that religion is, to borrow a phrase often misquoted by Marx (and is, indeed, misquoted here), "opium for the masses." This movie is not nearly as objective or investigative as he lead me to believe during his publicity tour, and your analogy to Michael Moore is spot on. Maher sort of ambushes people, and he's rather quick to make people wrong. Although I must admit, I rather agree with what Maher says, just not necessarily how he says it. Is religion silly? Sometimes. It's silly when people don't recognize that Christianity is just as weird as Scientology. Does it negate either of them? Of course not; it simply draws comparisons.

Maher fails to address positive aspects of religion, such as, in America in particular, religious people are statistically more likely to give to charity. Of course, sometimes people like they have to give to charity in order to be good, but does that matter? Without religion, some absolutely would not be able to function. A lot of people can't handle existentialism or nihilistic philosophies. Personally, I'm a good person without religion. Personally, I'm generous without being told to be. But that doesn't mean that religious actions are somehow false. What matters is that charities get the money. What matters is that people are nice to one another. So does it matter how people come to have these perspectives?

Now that is something Maher should have explored. But again, Religulous was made specifically for atheists/agnostics, and I fit into that category, so I was able to laugh at most of the absurdities. Was it fairly representative? Absolutely not. But I don't think fairness is a priority when making a political satire... Should it be? I don't know. But Maher didn't set out to be fair; he set out to be right. And you are absolutely right about that.

keyser soze said...

P.S. Jesus Camp is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. I had to stop it multiple times before I could finish it.

Goddessdster said...

I don't feel I can comment anymore about the movie, having not seen it, but I will say this:
If you haven't seen Friends of God, I highly recommend it. I forget the name of the filmmaker, but she did the same thing as Maher (travels around meeting people who find different and sometimes laughable ways to express their faith - she even goes to Holy Land), but she lets the people speak for themselves and the viewers draw their own conclusions. In one segment, she meets a man who builds simple crosses and puts them up throughout the South. Is his goal - to bring the light of Jesus to everyone - silly? I don't know. It isn't to him and I respect that.

But I'll go even deeper. Because it goes beyond charitable giving. Our culture is very revenge-oriented. You killed my family/partner/stole my money, and you must pay. Compare that to the extraordinary grace displayed by the Amish people whose daughters were killed. Or to the many, many Christians who counsel drug addicts, prisoners, inner city youths, homeless people. They don't do this because it's what good people do, but because they believe it's what Jesus would do. They do not even stop to examine whether or not religion is providing this moral compass. It just is what is right to them. I see nothing worth mocking in that, no matter how silly the mythology on which they base their beliefs.

And this doesn't apply at all to what you just said, which was, again, thoughtful and intelligent, but I feel it needs saying because I think sometimes the liberal elite in this country forgets that for every Jerry Falwell, there are thousands of Tony Campolos. Maher is getting a lot of face time right now and I fear he is spewing more dislike and distrust than free thinking.