War for the Planet of the Apes: Forgiveness and the Darkness Within

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Photo taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

It’s the third instalment of the critically acclaimed series and it’s epic—an epic showdown between man and ape, that is.

For the uninitiated, here’s how it all began.

In the first film of the series, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), an experimental drug intended for curing Alzheimer’s disease is tested on chimpanzees. It ends up increasing the intelligence of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee raised by a young doctor. Caesar releases the chemical into other apes, which makes them smarter. But it results in a “simian flu” that causes the deaths of the majority of the human population.

In the second instalment, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), Koba, an ape who suffered torture and experimentation at the hands of humans in a research facility, rebels against Caesar’s leadership and starts a war with humanity. The human settlement sends a radio call for help that is picked by an army base, resulting in a large-scale military engagement with the apes that lasts for two years, bringing us to “War of the Planet of the Apes” (2017).

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead] Forgiveness, mercy, and redemption are major themes in the third film. Early on, Caesar returns four survivors from a human attack in a show of mercy. He just wants the apes left alone in the forest. Caesar recalls that Koba could not forgive humans for his suffering, and could not let go of the darkness inside. However, things take a turn for the worse when he encounters the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

The Colonel is a man who has eradicated mercy. The latest effect of the simian flu is the loss of human speech, and the Colonel kills anyone who manifests this symptom or who disagrees with his ruthless approach. He has even killed his own son. Harrelson, in camouflage paint and shaven head, reminds one of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film Apocalypse Now (1979), with his cruel atrocities conducted in the name of war and his refusal to answer to higher military command. When he kills Caesar’s wife and son, the primate leader chooses the way of revenge over leading his troop to safer surroundings. Having now suffered terribly himself, Caesar refuses to walk his talk. Can he overcome this journey into his own heart of darkness?

Maurice, a former circus orangutan who serves as Caesar’s advisor and conscience throughout the series, challenges Caesar and at one point, saying, “You sound like Koba.” Later, when Caesar is captured along with the other apes and is rejected by his colony for his lack of leadership, a young chimpanzee, Lake, implores him, “Forgive them. They’ve been through so much.”

The battle rages within Caesar. Before the tale ends, Caesar will face his ultimate test in confronting the Colonel; will he seek an eye for an eye, or will he find within himself—once again—the capacity for mercy?

One reviewer has described director Matt Reeves as having created “a pseudo-Biblical epic shot through with apocalyptic fervor”, with the old world in its death throes as a new order rises. The Exodus motif is clear through the film. A safe and good land has been found “across a desert”, according to the positive report of two scouts, and the apes are freed from oppression and slavery and led to the new and “promised” land.

The question is, will Caesar be able to let go of the hatred that darkened Koba’s heart, and enter the land with his people? Or will he, like Moses, fail to enter the land of promise, seeing it only from a distance?

In his classic book Mere Christianity, Christian writer and apologist C. S. Lewis writes, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Yet, as hard as it can be, forgiveness is central to the life to which we are called to in Christ.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of our Christian faith. We ask God for forgiveness, as we forgive those who have sinned against us (Luke 11:4). The most common Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as “forgiveness” literally means “to release, to let go, to hurl away.” It is to pardon an offender, to choose not to demand payment for a debt. French philosopher Simone Weil said that when we forgive such debts, we give up our self-centred claims on the world. As we forgive, we can also set ourselves (and potentially the perpetrator) free from the cycle of bitterness and blame.

We also forgive because we have experienced God’s forgiveness. The apostle Paul writes, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Counselor Dr. David Seamands concluded that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people. We long for grace, but so often we do not live in the reality of grace.

May the good news of the gospel saturate us so that we become a people of grace in a world of un-grace, and so glorify our Father in heaven.

Why We Want Wonder Woman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Written By Leslie Koh, Singapore

Okay, the bottom-line first: Wonder Woman is watchable. (Oh, and the movie’s great too.)

If you haven’t seen Gal Gadot, the Israeli model-turned-actress who debuted on the big screen in 2009 (Fast & Furious) is good looking. Extremely good looking. Her ancestry is said to include an exotic mix of Jewish, Polish, Austrian, Czech, and German heritage, which explains her unusual beauty (she was Miss Israel in 2004). It’s hard to watch Wonder Woman and not get distracted by er, Wonder Woman.

Okay, okay, back to the movie. It’s got all the usual elements for entertainment, with great sets, good actors, a couple of mind-blowing action scenes, a touch of romance, some attempt at philosophy, and more than a dash of humor. If you’re a girl—I’m guessing here—you might like how the movie puts Amazonian woman power on center stage. And if you’re a guy, there’s, well, Gal Gadot.

As for the plot, some of it is, at least to me, a tad cheesy (apologies to all DC Comic diehards). If you’ve watched the trailers, you’ll know this much already: Diana, an Amazonian princess and warrior, has been raised on a paradise island where her mother has been sheltering her from reality. After rescuing a drowning World War I pilot, however, Diana decides to leave the island and join the war to rid the world of evil.

Through the 2 hours 20 minutes, we see not only how she accomplishes this, but also how she matures in her view of life and humanity, as well as in her understanding of the true sources of good and evil. Can someone really be so naïve? And so simplistic in her belief that she can counter the world’s evil with a pure heart? It’s a little hard to believe, though Gadot’s wide-eyed innocence just about carries it off.

What’s less debatable, perhaps, is that Wonder Woman brings a touch of humanity and humor to a movie world that has been dominated by dark, brooding heroes. When she first made her surprise appearance in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, accompanied by her now-signature tune—an explosive riff of electric guitars—cinema goers cheered. No wonder: it provided a much-needed touch of femininity and humor in a movie that was otherwise rather masculine and gloomy.

Then again, it should come as no surprise, because that was what Wonder Woman was meant to be all about. She was created in 1941 by psychologist William Marston, who was inspired by feminists of that era when he shaped a character who truly believes in the power of love and peace to conquer evil. So Diana Prince, as she is called when she is not wielding her sword, shield and magical lasso, is loving, kind, and sensitive. Naïve? Perhaps—but charmingly so.

But here’s the intriguing thing. From early in the show, we can tell that Wonder Woman is not entirely human; she has some measure of invincibility, even to the passage of time. No spoiler alert needed—Batman v Superman made that pretty clear, and Wonder Woman confirms it.

Is that why the world needs her so much? Is this a tacit acknowledgment that in the fight between good and evil, victory is impossible without help from a superhuman? Are we quietly admitting that while we all have an innate desire for good to prevail, evil is more powerful than we are, and there are just some things that humans can’t do on their own?

At the same time, it would seem that we want our superhuman heroes to be human, too. We want to identify with a Superman who can feel pain. We love Wonder Woman because her feelings can be hurt, and because she can love just like we do. Yes, we want our saviors to be more powerful than we are, yet as vulnerable.

Sound familiar?

I suppose you could over-analyze what is after all, a movie. But it’s hard to avoid seeing hints of an attempt at a Christianity-meets-Greek mythology-meets-DC Comics philosophy. Diana is well aware that the fight between good and evil is a cosmic battle that goes far beyond the wars of men, never lets go of her hope that good will ultimately triumph, and is determined to do her part, knowing that it will take both human and godly will to win this battle.

Why do we need superhuman heroes? Because while we want good to triumph, we know we can’t win the battle on our own. Because we need to hope in a hopeless world. Because, in some ways, we all need a Wonder Woman.

The Circle Shows the Need for Genuine Community

Screenshot from Official Trailer
Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

I recently read Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, which was released a couple of weeks ago as a film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. The story follows 24-year-old graduate Mae Holland who leaves her boring hometown job to get a customer relations position at  the world’s most powerful social media corporation, the Circle, a combination of Google, Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Mae quickly rises through the ranks and things seem wonderful at first, but as the story progresses, Mae’s story takes on a darker tone, allowing Eggers’ tale to confront questions raised by the growth of social media regarding issues such as transparency, the right to privacy, and democracy. Described as this generation’s 1984, Eggers presents a chilling Orwellian view of the possible effects of rampant technology.

One of the ideas I found most interesting in Eggers’ novel is the poor substitute for genuine community that the online world provides, and the insecurity that can result. Connecting mainly by online means, one can detect a real insecurity among the Circle’s members.

A hypersensitive colleague is offended when Mae doesn’t reply to his invitation to come to a brunch he puts on; the situation gets so bad that it requires mediation involving Mae’s supervisor. On another occasion, a friend sends increasingly hostile and paranoid emails, aggrieved that Mae hasn’t replied immediately; they saw each other only 20 minutes ago. Others are offended that she hasn’t taken an interest in their online clubs or posts, or responded immediately to their requests. When a public survey finds that 97 percent of the Circle campus agree that Mae is awesome, she fixates on the three percent who responded with a “frown”. “Likes” and “Smiles” become the dopamine-producing hit that bolsters fragile self-esteem in this digital world that passes for true human communication. As Mae’s ex-boyfriend states, “There’s a new neediness—it pervades everything”.

Mae finds that she acquires a new skill in this brave new technological world: “the ability to look, to the outside world, utterly serene and even cheerful, while in her skull, all was chaos” (p. 322). This desire to appear better than we actually are reflects a lack of true connection and a deep insecurity.

Steven Furtick, the pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, says, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Author Simon Sinek says that growing up in a Facebook-Instagram world has made millennials (people born since 1984) “good at showing that life is a-maz-ing even though I’m depressed.” Sinek’s concern is that these young people lack deep meaningful relationships, and when deep stress arises, they turn not to a person, but to a device, to social media.

The pressure to appear “amazing” while we interact with the profiles of others who are also “amazing” takes a toll. A 2016 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine survey of 1,787 U.S. millennials found that those who used social media frequently had 2.7 times more likelihood of depression than those who used it less regularly. Sadly, it can become hard to be honest about ourselves in such a forum. As one pastor notes about social interaction on Facebook: “Am I interacting with their vulnerable and far more beautiful real self, or their ideal self?”

As Christian psychologist David Benner puts it, revealing my true self means seeking to turn up as who I am in reality and who I am becoming as I seek after God. In contrast, our false self is a type of playacting, pretending, knowingly or unknowingly, to be someone we’re not. It’s a self we craft, package, and present to the world in the hope that it will earn us love based on what we do, what we have, and what others think of us.

We were created for community. As American pastor and missionary Howard Snyder puts it, community in the New Testament sense of koinonia “assumes and requires face-to-face communication” whether in the ancient world or in the age of the Internet. The “one another” life of the New Testament calls us into loving community: accept one another (Rom 15:7), submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21), bear with each other and forgive one another (Col 3:13), encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes 5:11)

There is no app for deep relationships. Such relationships take time and can be awkward, fun, infuriating, fulfilling, and lasting. It is in such relations that we can know love and experience joy as we are accepted and loved by those who know us as we truly are. As we learn to live honestly before God and one another, knowing ourselves as loved and accepted, we can increasingly step out free to be who God created us to be. As we enjoy technology and all it has to offer, let’s continue to engage in the New Testament “one another” life.

Logan: There’s no living with killing

Photo taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Logan is a far cry from the other superhero actioners in the X-Men franchise. Unlike 2000’s original X-Men, rated PG-13 in the US, where the blood-letting was kept to a minimum, this final R-16 instalment is a far darker and more brutal film, gut-wrenching in its visceral violence and profanity.

(Spoiler alert) It is 2029, and the mutant gene has been eradicated. Wolverine is drinking heavily and clearly sickly, working to support an ailing Charles Xavier (Professor X). A woman approaches Logan and asks for his help. Big, nasty corporation Transigen have cloned mutants to be super soldiers, but these mutant kids have escaped. Long story short, Logan ends up reluctant protector to a young girl named Laura, cloned from his DNA. He sets off on the road with Laura and Professor X with heavily armed bad guys in pursuit.

Following in the footsteps of violent anti-violence films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1994), this is no cartoonish portrayal of violence without consequence: innocent people suffer, and those who deal in violence bear the consequences.

Logan draws on the classic 1953 western Shane (watched by Professor X and Laura in the hotel, and quoted by Laura over Logan’s grave). In Shane, a gunslinger tries to live a peaceful life, but in the end has to don his guns once again to protect the peaceful folk against the bullies. In the film’s finale, he says to the young farmer’s son who idolizes him: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.” For Logan director James Mangold, the film reflects the philosophy of Shane’s final words, in that Shane/Logan can never have a life, because they have taken life.

In one particular scene, where Laura explains that she has nightmares in which people hurt her, Logan says of his nightmares, “Mine are different. I hurt people.” Laura admits that she has hurt others, but they were bad people. Logan retorts, “All the same . . . ” His hanging, unfinished reply speaks volumes. The justification that “they deserve it” doesn’t mean much for Logan. It’s still killing, and it leaves its mark on the soul, a “brand that sticks”.

In the end, Logan chooses to care and sacrifices himself to save Laura and her friends. With his final words he says to Laura, “Don’t be what they made you.” Laura has the ability to make choices; she doesn’t need to be a feral killing machine.

Jesus taught, “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:39). American Baptist minister and leader in the civil rights movement Martin Luther King said, “Violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” As American priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor points out, the main purpose of turning the other cheek is “to disarm the violence in us”. In following Christ’s example, rather than taking life, we seek to lay down our lives for others in loving service.

Logan also highlights the importance of hope and forgiveness. The film hints that Xavier’s dementia led to a telepathic seizure that caused the death of a number of mutants in the past. One night while on the run, Xavier, Laura and Logan spend the evening with a family. That night, lying in bed, Professor X says, “This was, without a doubt, the most perfect night I’ve had in a long time.” Then, remembering the tragedy he caused, he says, “I don’t deserve it, do I?”

Xavier’s words reveal his deep sense of shame and regret, and his need for something this world cannot offer. Alongside Logan’s guilt and struggle to connect, it shows these previously heroic figures to be all too flawed and human.

This is a wonderful thing about the gospel: we don’t deserve it. We don’t earn God’s love and forgiveness by working hard or being good, but rather, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8a-9). Philip Yancey describes grace in in the following way:

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more . . . And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less . . . Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.

This human longing for forgiveness and peace is universal, and as one reviewer writes, Logan is a parable of “the hope that can be found in what we do not deserve.” We are loved and accepted. No matter what path we have walked, no matter what darkness we have encountered, grace and love, forgiveness and hope are available to us because of what God has done through Jesus Christ.