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By S. Brent Plate
professor of religious studies, Hamilton College
A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, Moses scaled a mountain called Sinai in order to bring God’s law to God’s people. God’s message included proscriptions about not making or worshiping images of anything on heaven, earth, or sea. This had to do with God’s exclusive ability to create life, but also with a particular “image of God” understood to be solely invested in the form of humans (see Genesis 1:26-27). Coincidentally, Moses’ brother Aaron was in the valley below forging a golden calf for the people to worship.
What then should we make of the golden statuette called “Oscar”? An icon for the Academy Awards, the trophy is an image of a human body presented to the best filmmakers representing human life through cinema. Those aren’t the award’s requirements, but that’s the way it is: A golden image, given to image makers. Humans are “God’s Oscars,” we might say. We are deep into theological territory here.
The films of 2009 explored the image of the human, and thus the image of God, in an unprecedented way. The year marked the 150th publication anniversary of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” and perhaps it is this fact, however unconscious, that prompted so many filmmakers to tackle perennial questions such as: What does it mean to be human? What are limits of humanity? And, thus, what does the human have to do with the “image of God”?
Aliens and Humans:
From National Geographic to NASA, ancient Chinese literature to C.S. Lewis, humans have long asked: Are we alone? Are there humans, goddesses, or some other unknown creatures on other planets?
James Cameron’s big budgeted Avatar mixes genetic manipulation and an interstellar journey to ponder whether humans can become aliens. Reactions have ranged from outrage at the film’s “pantheism,” to criticizing the great white savior that emerges in the narrative. Not to disregard those interests, the film also portrays a bio-technology that transcends physical disability, allowing the lame to walk, and pondering: Can a human soul step into another life form? Is the soul found in DNA?
In contrast, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 displays neither gods nor particularly attractive mortal beings who come down to earth. (Would you rather be a “Na’vi” or a “Prawn”?) In a post-apartheid allegory, the alien-invader genre (á la Independence Day, War of the Worlds) is rearranged in District 9 to show human-alien interconnections. The segue between life forms makes this an interesting story. As with Avatar, Homo sapiens is transformed into another species via DNA manipulation, and in so doing saves not just humanity, but other species as well.
Apocalypse and Humans:
While Roland Emmerich and other filmmakers focus on the catastrophic end of the world, as in last year’s 2012, something strange always happens: a remnant always remains. From The Matrix to The Terminator, Blade Runner to WALL-E, films have long suggested a post-apocalyptic future in which humans and robots are engaged in ongoing battle.
One 2009 film that didn’t make the Oscar nominations nonetheless does more than others to push the limits of what it is to be human. Shane Acker’s 9 asks: What happens after the end of humanity, now that the machines have taken over? In 9, there are no more humans. The species called Homo sapiens may have been a blip on screen of existence, just as the Creator-scientist states at the beginning, “Life must go on.” This is a rare approach to a film narrative. There is here no Neo, Rick Deckard, or Captain McCrea. Just some robots in funny little puppet suits who might continue life as animated creatures. The premise and promise of the film is that good and evil, and life itself, may go on, but humans will have no part in the battle.
Animals, Action-Heroes, and Humans:
We could also question the limits of the human by looking at big feature films released in 2009 like Ponyo and The Princess and the Frog, as they question the difference between humans and other animals. These are natural queries to be sure, as they help us think through our desires in and through this mortal coil. Yet, with ongoing biological studies about the communications, empathy, and tool-using skills of other animals, the gap between the human and non-human is growing ever narrower.
In another direction we can look to our ongoing lust for superheroes, seen most directly in Watchmen, but in a more down to earth way in The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds. Herein, mortal humans carry out more-than-human activities in order to continue the life of humans. Ordinary humans become heroes, and heroes quickly become superheroes in the quest for transcendence.
God’s Image beyond Humanity:
Aliens and apocalypses, action heroes and animals, have been subjects of films for decades. Yet, collectively and increasingly, the mass media leaves us wondering about the edges of the human. So much attention to the question “What are humans?” might in itself show that we are reaching our ends. Maybe space invaders or global warming, an interspecies or cybernetic hybrid here on earth, will make us other than we presently are.
At the same time, if the major Western monotheistic religious traditions claim that we are made in the “image of God,” then theologically one must wonder about the possibly evolving nature of humans, and thus, even, of God’s own nature. Does God evolve with us? Can “God’s image” include human-animal hybrids, cyber-people, or even the end of humans as we know them? Does the “end of humans” spell the end of God? A new creation?
S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His column, “Pop-eye,” appears occasionally in Religion Dispatches. His recent books include “Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World”; “Blasphemy: Art that Offends.”