Terminator: Dark Fate and the Battle for Our Lives

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 4/5

29 August 1997 is the date of Judgment Day. It’s the doomsday that Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) managed to prevent from happening back in 1995, saving three billion lives. That was the premise of the wildly popular Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), known fondly amongst fans as T2.

Terminator: Dark Fate opens in 2020, and we are transported to Mexico City. We follow the story of one Daniella Ramos (Natalie Reyes) and her brother Diego (Diego Boneta), young siblings working in an automobile factory.

Dark Fate is the sixth film in the Terminator franchise, which began in 1984 (that’s 35 years ago, folks!). However, it’s a direct sequel of T2, the timeline taking off right after Sarah Connor’s victory. Fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton will be thrilled to see them playing prominent roles in Dark Fate’s plot, though Arnie doesn’t appear until one hour into the film.

 

Sent from the future to change the past

In similar fashion to T2, two terminators are sent from the future—one to kill Dani, and one to protect her. We meet advanced kill machine, Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), and protector Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented super human. Both are sent from 2042 to alter the past, of which Dani seems to hold the key to its future.

2042 is a post-apocalyptic world, one damaged by nuclear holocaust, causing humans to group themselves into a Resistance, fighting against an Artificial Intelligence (AI) army known as Legion. And so the fight ensues, and it’s an action-packed ride from beginning to end, all the while keeping us guessing who the future Dani is and why two terminators and a woman would risk their lives for her.

 

The “battlefield” for our lives

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think about how for Christians, our lives are also a “battlefield” between good and evil. In John 10:10, we read that the thief’s only mission is to steal, kill, and destroy. Thankfully, Jesus the Good Shepherd is there to save and protect us, leading us to find pasture and life in abundance.

As humans, we are limited in our foresight of the future. James 4:14 says, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow!” Sometimes, we are not even sure what is going on in our lives, especially when we encounter troubles.

Dani faces a similar situation in the film. She is unsure why a kill order has been issued against her, what with loved ones around her sacrificed in the process. But once she finds out who she is in the future, her stance changes completely.

Like all the Terminator films in the franchise, the fight between man and machine seems never-ending. The characters are always going back in time to undo the past in order to secure their future. A new enemy seems to reinvent itself over the ages, from Skynet to Genisys to Legion—the machines getting better, faster, and more advanced.

 

The fight continues, but victory is ours

In our day-to-day lives, we are sure to face many trials and challenges. Our fight against sin and evil as a result of living in a fallen world may seem continuous. Sometimes it may even seem like the grip of sin and evil is getting stronger by the day, but in moments like these, it helps to know that Jesus has secured the victory for all mankind on the day He died on the cross, proclaiming, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

The battle for our lives has already been won, and unlike the limitations of the “good Terminators” who are ultimately still destructible, Christ’s sacrifice is complete.

Because of that, when life seems difficult, uncertain, and confusing, we can respond by turning to Jesus for strength and help, resting in the knowledge that we have an indestructible protector and strong fortress (Psalm 18:2), one who has sacrificed and risked it all to secure our future.

God has a good plan for our lives and He knows our future. Unlike Dani’s, it may not involve saving the world from AI robots, but it promises to be “more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

The question is: Will we cooperate with His plans?

Joker: Good News for the Outcasts, Losers, and Freaks?

Screenshot taken from Official Teaser Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains mild spoilers.

Joker (2019) is unlike any comic-based film released so far; there are no costumes, no heroic battles, and not one bit of CGI on display. It’s a slow-burning character drama more concerned with personality than plot, as we follow Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime, the psychotic villain known as the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing in the role of Arthur Fleck, a sad, middle-aged clown-for-hire who lives with his mother. Fleck also suffers from mental illness and is on seven kinds of medication. He has a rare condition in which he bursts into uncontrollable fits of laughter at the most inappropriate times. He often takes refuge in a deep and rich fantasy life (and it’s difficult to know at times where imagination ends and reality begins).

Fleck lives in Gotham City circa 1981, a soulless concrete jungle that’s suffering from garbage strikes and giant rats living in the growing mounds of trash, and where the divide between rich and poor is on the rise. Rather than drawing on the latest DC film offerings, director Todd Phillips seems to derive inspiration from the urban grittiness and violence of the New Hollywood era cinema of the 1970s, from films like The French Connection (1971), Death Wish (1975), and Taxi Driver (1978). Gotham is a bleak, filthy, nasty place, and beneath the surface of its exasperated populace is a simmering and roiling frustration and rage ready to boil over.

 

Surviving in the Midst of A Horrific World

Theologian John McQuarrie argues that when we consider sin as not simply the action or even the attitude of an individual, but rather as “a massive disorientation and perversion of human society as a whole,” we can begin to see its truly horrific nature. We see this in communities or societal structures that violate human dignity and create greater inequity. According to McQuarrie, this social dimension of sin is particularly terrifying in that it makes a group or community “answerable to no one,” and exhibit “a hardness and irresponsibility that one rarely finds.”

And it’s in Gotham’s cruel world that the brutalized Fleck must try to survive. Sadly, it’s a world that doesn’t acknowledge, let alone care about, his existence. In one scene, Fleck confronts his social worker, saying, “You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really listened to me.” She responds that funding cuts mean they won’t be meeting again, before saying, “They don’t give a s**t about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a s**t about people like me either.” The “hardness and irresponsibility” of Gotham’s broken system is plain to see.

In moments of vulnerability, Fleck is saddened by the rudeness and lack of civility between people. He longs for human connection, to be treated with warmth and dignity—to be loved. Sadly, such tenderness and affection evade him, and his awkward attempts to reach out and connect with those around him result in mockery, humiliation, and rejection.

 

Restoration and Hope for the Rejected

In a review for Empire, Terri White commented that in the current climate Joker could be viewed as “a lament for outsiders and the ignored,” but she felt such a reading was “too simple.” It’s true that this is an origin story, a dark interpretation of how one of DC’s greatest villains came to be, and we need to be careful of justifying Fleck’s eventual homicidal madness.

And yet I hear the plaintive lamentation for the excluded and overlooked that plays throughout Joker’s tale. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Arthur Fleck had received some of the love and acceptance—indeed, just the basic human respect and civility—that he longed for. Gotham city is a brutal place, and Fleck is constantly on the receiving end of its denizen’s harsh tongues, and ‘just for kicks’ beatings. He is seen as an outcast, a loser, a freak.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18, NLT)

In the social world of Luke’s Gospel, “poor” meant more than those who have little or no money but was a broader category that referred to those of low social status, to social ‘outsiders’ and the marginalized. Jesus came “[t]o set the burdened and battered free” (Luke 4:18, MSG), and throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus bringing restoration and reversal for the life circumstances of so many people, inviting them into the family of God to experience His love and healing power.

Arthur Fleck’s circumstances are tragic and pitiable, and his naïve, almost child-like desire for affirmation and warmth is heartbreaking. He has suffered so much: parental rejection and a traumatic upbringing; lack of a supportive social network of friends and extended family; his mental health issues and lack of social skills; and an incessant barrage of verbal and physical abuse.

Fleck is an outsider, someone lacking status and dignity in his world, a man desperate for Good News, whose father-hunger could be assuaged by the love of the God who is  a “father to the fatherless,” and whose yearning for familial love could be fulfilled, as “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6).

 

Do We See the Forgotten?

One of the most relatable struggles Fleck faces is the difficulty of defining himself in a complex social world that bombards him with messages of his lack of worth. At various times, Fleck’s language reveals an inner-world filled with pain and futility: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” “Nobody saw me. I didn’t even think I existed.”

Psychologist Shahram Heshmat points out that “in the face of identity struggle, many end up adopting darker identities . . . as a compensatory method of experiencing aliveness or staving off depression and meaninglessness.” Fleck has had enough of his powerless existence at the hands of a faceless and brutal system. Sadly, his empowerment has come through travelling a dark and vicious path, and in embracing violence and mayhem.

As his metamorphosis into The Joker is almost complete, he rails, “Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy . . . If it was me dying in the sidewalk. You’d walk right over me.” While Fleck paints a picture of indifference and despair, Christ offers another way. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). This means looking out for other people’s wellbeing, to be aware of others and not just ourselves. The apostle Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 ESV).  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who didn’t ‘walk right over’ a person in need but instead acted with compassion and loving service.

Even though Fleck’s life is filled with trauma and tragedy, there was another path available—albeit a narrow path, but one that leads to life. Drawing on Caleb Young’s wonderful conclusion, life under God is not meant to be a tragedy, or even a dark comedy, but a redemptive love story in which God draws us out of the muck and mire of our brokenness and into his family, where we can know ourselves as loved and accepted.

Why This Joker Should Be Taken Seriously

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 5/5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains mild spoilers.

Joker, directed by Todd Philips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, is a film that is polarizing critics and moviegoers around the world. Some are acclaiming the masterful performance of Phoenix in his iteration of Batman’s arch-rival, while others are attacking what they perceive as the film’s glorification of violence and the condoning of the psychopathic murderer.

Upon watching Joker this week, I saw it as a film that is a lot deeper and more complex than what the critics have expressed. This version of the Joker’s story is one that speaks into how divisive our society is, examines the dark hold that depression has on people, as well as pointing to the emptiness and meaninglessness of life that many of us feel. It is a cautionary tale about the villains our society can create when love, empathy for others, and truth are thrown to the wayside.

 

What Joker Is About

On a basic level, Joker is an origin story for the most famous villain in the DC Comic universe, Arthur Fleck/the Joker. There have been many on-screen versions of the iconic villain, with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight attracting much attention.

However, this is the first time that the Joker has not shared screen time with Batman, and writers Todd Philips and Scott Silver took the opportunity to create a character study of his life—showing us how a mentally ill person like Arthur can turn into a murderous criminal mastermind like the Joker.

There are three stages that I observed to Arthur’s mad decline into becoming the Joker, with each stage surfacing questions that speak to us today.

 

1. Are we guilty of creating villains?

One of the key themes of the film is the divisions that have formed in our world and the way that we tend to vilify those whom we do not understand. In Arthur Fleck’s case, the film shows him trying to make ends meet by dressing up as a clown while he works on his dream of being a stand-up comedian. He struggles with mental illness, most likely brought on by the abuse he had as a child, and his humor is not appreciated in the comedy clubs he visits.

Several times throughout the film, he is severely bullied, both verbally and physically, by different people from various strata of society, starting with a gang of kids to a trio of young professionals to a late night show host played by Robert de Niro. Each episode of bullying drives him further over the edge.

In Arthur’s case, this leads him to violence, a story that is not uncommon in the slew of gun violence and mass shootings that fills up our news feeds on social media. The film throws the challenge back at its audience and makes us question what part we have to play in the creation of real-world villains. Has our lack of empathy and understanding of those who are different from us perpetuated a cycle of bullying and violence? Or, are we like the citizens of Gotham City who pass by or tried to ignore the bullying happening around us?

For me as a follower of Jesus, have I failed in showing love to people I don’t understand and let them know that they are loved and valued? If there was someone like that in Arthur’s life, is it possible that he may not have become the Joker?

 

2. Do we put on a happy face while hiding our struggles?

As a clown and aspiring comedian, Arthur’s desire has been to make people happy, but he admits that he has never been happy a day in his life. He instead “puts on a happy face” to hide the sadness he feels.

Part of his mental illness is a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably even in situations where he does not want to. One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes sees Arthur at night on his living room coach in his underwear laughing hysterically as tears of heartache flow from his eyes in the midst of all-encompassing depression.

This depiction of depression has challenged me deeply. Although I haven’t personally experienced deep depression, I wonder how many around me are trying to “put on a happy face” while they struggle in private.

Are there people who, like Arthur, want to make people laugh but are crippled by depression when no one is around? What can I do or say to let them know that there is someone willing to walk beside them? Or am I simply too selfish with my time and energy to invest into someone struggling with depression?

 

3. Is life a tragedy, comedy, or something else?

One of the most memorable quotes in the film takes place while Arthur is transitioning into the Joker villain character. He is speaking with his mother, who also struggles with mental illness. He confesses to her that, “I used to think my life was a tragedy. Now, I realize it is a comedy.” This realization seems to be the final piece that completes Arthur’s transformation into the full-fledged Joker.

This quote is one that speaks particularly into the sentiment of our culture and society today. There is so much bad news and negativity about the future that it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to view our existence as meaningless and purposeless. Just as the Joker used to think, the story of our existence could be seen as a tragedy. On the other hand, it might be easier to see our existence like the Joker does, as a comedy, where everything including death, destruction, and chaos is something to laugh at.

If only Arthur could have seen that there was another way to view our existence. Not as a tragedy or comedy. But as a romance. A love story between us and our Heavenly Father. In Joker, it is clear that Arthur Fleck, like all of us, is trying to be understood, to be valued, to be loved by someone.

A major plot point of the film is Arthur’s discovery of his birth father and his pursuit of understanding why he was abandoned by him. When Arthur meets with the man who could be his birth father, he doesn’t want any money. He just wants a hug. If only Arthur knew of his Heavenly Father, someone who has always been there waiting for him with open arms. Would his story have changed?

While the Joker’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, it doesn’t have to be the same for those around us. Joker is a challenge to us believers to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in letting the Arthur Flecks of this world know that life isn’t a tragedy or a comedy, but a love story—and to invite them into it.

 

Editor’s Note: To read a different perspective on Joker, check out this review, “Joker: Good News for the Outcasts, Losers, and Freaks?”.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Our Desire to Belong

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 3/5 stars

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) is the first in the X-Men franchise to feature a female lead, hot off the heels of successes like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. This time, fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be thrilled to see Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a mutant with telekinetic superpowers who joins Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters at the tender age of eight.

It’s been 19 years since the first X-Men was released in 2000, and in this 12th installment of the film series, we go back to 1992, with the X-Men on a rescue mission of a space shuttle. It is here in outer space that Jean accidentally absorbs the Phoenix Force—mistaken for a solar flare—and transforms into the powerful Dark Phoenix.

 

A force for good or evil

Jean Grey’s story is one of family and belonging. Orphaned as a child and sent to the X-Mansion, she quickly becomes an important part of the X-Men family. Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) becomes a father figure, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) like an older sister and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) her lover.

But all that is threatened after the “solar flare” accident, when her telekinetic powers are heightened and she’s soon unable to control them. Her fear of hurting the very people she loves drives her away from the X-Mansion, and she leaves behind a trail of catastrophic damages while out and about in New York.

It is here that she meets Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of a shape-shifting alien race called the D’Bari. Vuk explains that the Phoenix Force had wiped out their home planet years ago, and invites Jean to join them in shaping new worlds together. Here, Jean is torn between using her force for good or evil—evil because the D’Bari plan to conquer other planets, including Earth, with the Phoenix Force.

And so the struggle ensues—between mutants and humans (previously allies of the US government, the X-Men are now being hunted down thanks to Jean’s actions), between mutants and aliens (the D’Bari are out to get Jean and the Phoenix Force trapped within her at all costs should she not cooperate), and within the X-Men themselves (jealousy, in-fighting, and Charles’s leadership is questioned).

 

Belonging to a family

But most central of all to the film is the struggle within Jean herself as she deals with a fragile past and a family secret kept hidden from her by Charles, for what she believes about herself will come to define her choices.

Dark Phoenix is an emotional film with plenty of drama and vengeful characters, layered with a haunting and beautiful score by Hans Zimmer. Though its CGI is lacklustre compared to its contemporaries and the storyline predictable, the powerful performances by Sophie Turner and James McAvoy more than make up for it. In my opinion, the winner in this film is Jessica Chastain, what with her silver blonde hair and nude makeup that make her look eerily alien and evil without much effort.

At the heart of Dark Phoenix is the message that Jean is, and always will be, part of the X-Men family—no matter what she has done or thinks she has become. In the film, Charles and Raven’s characters embody God, our Heavenly Father, who believes the best in us, never gives up on us, and accepts us into His family even when no one else will. The Bible says that He “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6), “predestined us for adoption” (Ephesians 1:5), and that He will “never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Isn’t it comforting to know that there is someone who will readily accept us despite our past mistakes? Someone who patiently waits for us to turn back to Him so we can begin to live our true identities—as children of God who walk in His ways.

It is Raven who says to Jean: “I’m not giving up on you, Jean. You’re my family, no matter what.” Jean eventually resolves her inner conflict, realizing that the very people she was running away from were always there for her and weren’t afraid of her powers. It’s when she makes amends for the wrongs that she has done in the course of the film that Jean finds redemption and true belonging.

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, guilt, or feeling out of place, why not turn to God? Just as Jean and the other X-men were adopted into the X-men family, we, too, can find redemption and a sense of belonging in the Kingdom of God, one that will last for all eternity.