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-.