My last blog entry discussed why studios are making so many fantasy and science fiction movies. And while Hollywood certainly loves to ride a trend until it dies a painful, protracted death, there must be a reason why audiences continue to flock to these movies–why we love them so much.
I opined that these genres are filling a gap in our searching for greater meaning in our lives in the face of an impersonal digital world. That while we may be “connecting” with someone on Facebook or “communicating” via text message, we are only sharing ourselves with computers and smart phones. Are we flesh and blood or our digital representation? Interestingly enough, that is a question given vastly disparate answers by “The Matrix” and “Avatar,” two movies that will enter this essay.
Additionally, science has explained what used to be magical. As we uncover why the world works as it does, our sense of awe is eroded by explanation. Our search for the fantastic must then turn to core stories that have been told for generations in one form or another. Superhero stories were not invented in the 1940s in comic books; What we call mythology is the original format of those tales. The best of those stories incorporate the recurring events prevalent in all tales or mythological heroes. These parallels were outlined by scholar Joseph Campbell in the book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” in 1949.
Campbell’s exhaustive book examines stories plumbed from all over the world and the commonalities are diffused into touchpoints central to the monomyth of the heroic journey. Campbell theorizes that all lasting tales of heroism have identifiable similarities that resonate with humanity. These similarities can be combined into epic tales that transfer the meaning of what it is to be a hero, regardless of time or religion. The preeminent example of a modern day story incorporating these elements is the “Star Wars” saga, primarily for Anakin and Luke Skywalker. This is no surprise, given that George Lucas used the book as a reference in writing the story.
While the influence of this book probably deserves a book itself, I will provide a few examples of how movies (and their sources) incorporate these archetypes and events into their own mythos.
“The Belly of the Whale” is one such allegory. Campbell states that “the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of a whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.” While many would associate the idea with the Biblical tale of Jonah, a similar (albeit shorter) version of the story happens with Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” Marlin reluctantly enters the belly of the humpback whale because he is afraid of the unknown that awaits him; when he is blasted out of the whale’s blowhole alive and in Sydney, he loses his fear. The hero emerges from the beast a different person (or clownfish). And the beast doesn’t have to be an animal – it can be the Matrix or a phone booth or a tank that enables you to live within a Na’vi body. The idea is that the hero undergoes a change that enables them to reach beyond what was possible before they crossed the threshold of the mouth of the whale.
A “Supernatural Aid” is another common thread amongst these stories. Much of the time an old and magical benefactor helps the hero reach the apex of his/her potential. The most prominent examples in cinema would be Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Gandalf, and Albus Dumbledore, each of whom bestows the wisdom to his charge necessary to overcome the evil that awaits him.
These characters sometimes have agendas of their own (think Greek Gods) but always are essential to the quest. Yet the character is not always superpowered. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben dishes out the mantra “With great power comes great responsibility.” Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred always centers Batman at critical junctures: Michael Caine’s version always seems to have the right advice, such as explaining that we fall down so we can get back up after a particularly stinging failure.
As Elijah Price waxes in “Unbreakable,” comics are the descendants of mythology, and so are the fantasy movies that have pervaded our pop culture. The rise in popularity of these stories with the decline in church attendance is no coincidence. The human subconscious yearns for tales that demonstrate the amazing heights that we can strive for, even if we never can attain them. As society shuns the ecclesiastical, the search for a new communal experience leads us to these cinematic substitutes. So enjoy your time at Friday and Saturday night church!