As readers of this site are aware, I attempt to move beyond a surface level analysis and appreciation of the fantastic in cinema and television to dig a little deeper in order to discover their social, cultural, and at times religious or spiritual aspects these venues provide. Last year I had the opportunity to teach a graduate level course on film and theology, and I used two films of the fantastic to illustrate a process of theologizing that takes place in film in ways that many people may not recognize as an exercise in metaphysics.
The first film was Minority Report (2002), a science fiction film starring Tom Cruise who plays a police officer with the Pre-Crime Unit that draws upon the psychic abilities of three “pre-cognitives” or “pre-cogs” who sense impending murders and provide a narrow window of time for authorities to decipher the visual clues provided by the pre-cogs so that would-be murderers can be arrested before they actually commit their crimes. The program is understandably controversial, and early on it comes under scrutiny through a character played by Colin Farrell. In a scene near the film’s beginning Cruise and Farrell discuss the idea of Pre-Crime against the backdrop of metaphysical questions of human will and responsibility in relation to time (at 3:07-3:53 in the clip found above). Theology hovers in the background of this discussion as the room where the pre-cogs stay is referred to as “the temple” (6:43-7:53 in the clip), the members of the Pre-Crime Unit think of their function as priests, the pre-cogs work together as three persons in unity reminiscent of Christian trinitarian theology of the divine, and the key figure among the pre-cogs is a female reminiscent of feminine aspects of the Holy Spirit. In addition, Farrell’s character, toward the conclusion of the metaphysical discourse with Cruise, makes reference to his studies in the past at Fuller Theological Seminary, a major Protestant theological institution in southern California. This dialogue then represents an aspect of science fiction which lends itself naturally to metaphysical and theological discussions of human nature, free will, and the divine relationship to time.
The second film I used in the course was The Devil’s Advocate (1997), which combines aspects of courtroom drama with demonological and apocalyptic fantasy. Al Pacino plays the owner of a major law firm and Keanu Reeves is his young, aggressive protege. Reeves’ character comes to realize at the climax of the film that his boss is in fact Satan who seeks his help in bringing the antichrist into the world. Reeves resists given his guilt and conservative Christian upbringing, which leads to a lengthy speech by Pacino (an excerpt of which can be found in the clip above) who questions whether God as conceived of in the Judeo-Christian tradition is worthy of worship. While it would be easy to dismiss this film on a superficial level, Pacino’s speech raises serious theological and metaphysical questions related to theodicy, the attempt to justify God’s goodness in the face of evil.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror might be the last places many people would think of as sources for significant metaphysical reflection, but if are willing to look more closely the material is there to challenge us.