Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the necessity of hope

Rating: 4/5

Screenshots taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has finally hit cinemas, and it was well worth the wait.

As the film begins, the malevolent First Order is on the verge of wiping out the Resistance forever. The Rebels are outmanned, outgunned, and on the run for their lives.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the legendary Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for his help to stem the rising tide of evil. Rey hands Skywalker his old lightsaber—but his reaction is not what we were expecting.

 

Luke Skywalker, despair, and the loss of hope

Luke Skywalker has been through a lot in the series. Since the first days when we met him as a whiney youth on Tatooine, he’s been beaten up by Tusken Raiders, hung upside down by Wampa, stuck inside a dead Tauntaun, attacked by a giant Rancor, and mutilated by the biggest bad guy in the galaxy, who just also happens to be his Dad.

Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Luke grow on his hero’s journey from annoying, idealistic adolescent (Episode IV: A New Hope) to poised and self-assured Jedi (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi). However, in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find the youthful hero now a cynical and haunted hermit.

The Skywalker we meet is no archetypal Wise Old Man, no Gandalf or Dumbledore, no sage mentor a la Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, dispensing fatherly insight to guide our confused heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) on her path to master the Force. Rather, we find a man who has withdrawn from life, lost confidence in his ability, and lost hope for the future. He is all too aware of his faults, his hubris and weakness. Skywalker has become disenchanted with the Jedi way, despises himself due to his own inadequacies and failures, and despairs in a hopeless future.

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann tells us that, “without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live.” Moltmann goes on to see hopelessness as a description of Hell, as represented by the inscription above the gates to the abyss in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, “Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.”

Hope is essential for our lives. It’s far more than “fingers-crossed” wishful thinking. For the Christian, Biblical hope is a confident expectation, a sureness that something will come to pass because God has promised it will happen. Our hope is ultimately rooted in God Himself, and what He has done for us in Christ. Paul speaks of hope in Romans: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom 3:24-25).

In the midst of a corrupt world, we are called to believe, to love, to serve—to hope. While we are well aware of the pervading darkness and evil that surrounds us, we are equally aware that there is a greater power, a mighty and loving God who is at work in this world and has promised to never leave us. As we trust God, the source of hope, He is able to fill us with joy and peace, allowing us to “overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).

Isolated and disconnected, Skywalker has fallen into despair. Can he forgive himself, accept his weaknesses alongside his strengths, and once again find a new hope in a world in which the darkness can seem so overwhelming? Will he be able to bless others with hope, or will he succumb to doubt and despair, forever wallowing in the regrets of the past?

 

Kylo Ren and the hope of redemption

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is the fallen villain in this latest trilogy. The son of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and rebel princess Leia Organa, Ren was trained by Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force, but ultimately yielded to the dark side, killing his father in The Force Awakens.

But in this latest film, there are signs of doubt and tortured inner struggle within Ren. Without giving away too much, Rey manages to form a connection with Ren. Can she bring him back to the light, as Luke once did with Anakin/Vader, or is Ren the “son of darkness” Supreme Leader Snoke declares him to be?

At the heart of the first six episodes of this epic series is the tragic fall into darkness of Anakin Skywalker, and his subsequent redemption through the love and belief of his son Luke. As entertainment critic Paul Asay puts it, the story arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader presented a very New Testament-type message: “Even the most broken among us can still be salvaged. They can still, ultimately, be made whole.”

This is why we love a good redemption story.

Because if these bad guys, as flawed and lost as they are, can be redeemed, then that’s good news for us, because we aren’t beyond hope.

There is an old Christian song that contains the beautiful lyric:
“All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife,
but He made something beautiful out of my life.”

This is a wonderful truth about the gospel. God’s love and power can redeem us from the darkest places as we turn to him in humility and repentance, and His grace restore us to the men and women we were meant to be.

We aren’t alone in this life. God is for us; who can be against us?
And this reality fills our lives with hope.

Ozark and dealing with the consequences

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

What if you make choices based on your own personal gratification, but never stop to consider the consequences of your actions? Ozark, a popular crime thriller series that’s now showing on Netflix, explores this idea as it follows the story of financial planner Marty Byrde (played brilliantly by Jason Bateman), who along with his partner Bruce launder money for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico.

Marty is living a sterile and joyless life with his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), who is cheating on him, and Charlotte and Jonah, their two teenage kids. When Bruce is caught stealing from the Cartel and executed, the Cartel plans to kill everyone associated with the enterprise, including Marty. However, Marty convinces the Cartel representative that he can launder US$500 million in five years in the cash-rich tourist area of the Missouri Ozarks. So Marty packs the family up and heads off to the Lake Ozark area, where he finds trying to launder money in a small resort-community more difficult than he realized.

[WARNING: Some spoilers follow] A later episode retrospectively reveals how Marty began working with the Cartel. Initially, Marty isn’t interested. However, things are tough. Wendy is pregnant, and things are financially tight. Slowly, we see Marty’s moral principles shift ever-so-slightly, a step at a time, as he is wooed by the charismatic cartel boss Camino Del Rio.

As he discusses the deal with Wendy, we see Marty rationalize his gradual slide down the slippery moral slope: “I wouldn’t be a mule. I wouldn’t be a dealer. I’d be just pushing my mouse around my desk.”

Watching Marty rationalize his decision is uncomfortable. Seduced by the money and the lifestyle that accompanies it, he thinks himself far removed from the ugliness of the business. This utopian illusion comes crashing down when Marty, having accepted the invitation, is forced to watch as his predecessor is brutally murdered for being suspected of dealing with the Feds. He now realizes there is no neutral ground.

The book of James has a passage that seems apt at this point: “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). The apostle Paul writes to his protégé Timothy: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). And there is plenty of ruin and destruction resulting from the desire for more in Ozark.

One reviewer describes Ozark as “one of the darkest shows on TV”. And it is. The Ozarks is a place where the ravages of corruption, revenge, addiction, avarice, and murder are commonplace. In protagonist Marty Byrde, we witness the warts-and-all portrayal of a brilliant but flawed human being who mistakenly trusts in his own abilities and resourcefulness to save himself and others.

Christian pop-culture commentator Stephen Woodworth sees the show’s brilliance in “its truthful depiction of life without hope. Life all alone. Life without a lifeline.” As Marty responds to each crisis, things go from bad to worse, and we see him sliding deeper into the hole that he’s trying to escape. Marty rejects the idea of a guiding hand of providence; there is no divine power to cry out to, no Savior to rescue him. Many of the characters are trapped in a hell of their own making.

 

Choices and Consequences

 A trailer announcing the second season of Ozark is captioned, “You made your choice. Now deal with the consequences.” The importance of our decisions and dealing with the consequences of our actions forms a constant theme throughout the series, as Marty expounds on the significance of choices as he discusses finances, moral principles, and work ethics.

We also  see this played out in the biblical story. A key example is that of King David, who suffered greatly as a result of poor choices. He commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders her husband Uriah. David later receives forgiveness from God, but the consequences of his choices continue to echo through into the next generation. David’s son Amnon rapes his sister Tamar; then, in retaliation, David’s son Absalom kills Amnon. David does nothing. Absalom then rebels against his father, and is later killed (2 Sam 11-18). From this point, David’s life and reign falls into ruin. Did God forgive David? Yes he did; but David had to suffer the consequences of his ruinous run of bad choices.

In Ozark, we see a similar chain of bad choices and devastating consequences.  Every choice has a consequence, and each character must live with his or her choices.

What choices await all these characters in the upcoming seasons? Can the morally compromised Marty Byrde find redemption for himself and his family? Or will he continue down the road to destruction?

Series one finishes with a momentous choice. The Cartel, the local heroin kingpin, and the FBI are closing in. Wendy, Charlotte, and Jonah, rather than going on the run with new identities, choose to return to the Ozarks so they can be with Marty and remain a family. It’s a truly touching moment. But I can’t help but think that there are going to be consequences for their choice.

As Christians, we know that God has created us with the ability to freely choose, and sometimes we must deal with the aftereffects of our bad choices. But we can live in the certain knowledge that even though we might have to experience the consequences of our poor decisions, our sin has been paid for by Great David’s greater Son and God’s empowering presence will be with us every step of the way. He will provide strength and comfort for us as we endeavor to turn from worldly ways and walk the righteous path.

Justice League: Heroes & Insecurities

Rating: 3/5

Screen shot taken from Official Trailer

Written By Lydia Tan, Singapore

What makes a person a superhero?

Would it be his superpowers? (That would exclude Batman, since the only thing he has is money.) Or a track record of being undefeated? (Superman may be in trouble then.) Or is it simply a person who overcomes his fears to do the right thing in the most trying of circumstances?

In Justice League, our beloved DC superheroes all come together for the very first time to—of course—save the world. Things are not easy, however, because our favorite man of steel is lying six feet underground (watch Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to find out why). That leaves the ridiculously wealthy yet lonely Gotham defender the task of putting together a team of people who barely know each other and who have their respective insecurities and inner demons to fight.

What adds to the challenge is that unlike our dear Bat friend, these guys actually have superpowers—and strong personalities. Put them all together, and the sparks naturally fly, thus raising the question: Can they put aside their differences in time to save the world from ultimate destruction by the evil Steppenwolf and his fly-like underlings? (In case you think the answer is obvious, don’t forget—even Superman can die.)

It’s not an easy challenge. Throughout the movie, we see the insecurities of each superhero laid bare onscreen. Here’s a quick snapshot:

Batman: Trusting others and working in a team
Flash: Acceptance, fitting in
Wonder Woman: Fear of failure, lack of confidence in her leadership ability
Aquaman: Uncertainty, averse to change
Cyborg: Identity, self-acceptance

Each of the superheroes has to confront his or her insecurities head-on if the Justice League is to triumph. To avoid giving any spoilers, I’ll just focus on one—namely the only female superhero, Wonder Woman. Through a conversation with Batman, we learn of her reluctance about taking on leadership responsibilities for fear of bringing harm to the people she cares about. Will she be able to step up to the plate when called for? That’s a question she has to answer in the final showdown.

For me, this is truly a moment of identification. That’s because like our DC heroes, we, as believers, have a great mission to carry out which also involves saving the world—and like them, we may each have our own set of insecurities that hinder us from doing so. Insecurities that hinder us from our task of telling others about the only One who can save us from our sins.

These insecurities could stem from deeply rooted fears such as the fear of offending someone, the fear of not having enough knowledge of the gospel to share, or simply, the fear that we are not living up to what we tell others about the gospel. We can become immobilized as a result.

But like our DC heroes, we can choose to defeat our insecurities if we draw not on our own strength and ability, but on the divine power of the One who can truly bring salvation to the world. “Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.  For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:14-15).

Let us take heart and draw courage from Jesus himself to lay aside our insecurities and our inner preferences for the cause that is worth living and dying for.

Then, we just need to take the first step. As Batman tells Flash on their very first mission together: “Save one person. Don’t talk, don’t fight, get in and get one out.” In other words: Start by sharing the gospel with one person. No excuses, no defenses, just do it.

Thor: Ragnarok – What Does The End Of The World Mean For Us?

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 4/5

What would you do if your home comes under threat of destruction? For Thor, it involves a journey to alien planets, squabbles with family and friends, and letting go of some of the things he was once so attached to.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok spelt the destruction of Asgard—home of the gods. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the same narrative is brought to life with a distinctly comedic flavor. With the impending doom and destruction of his world upon him, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stranded on an alien planet. Thor has one goal throughout the movie: get back and save his homeland.

Thor: Ragnarok represents a bold development in the progress of the series. It’s clearly heavier on comedy, but also a lot more enjoyable. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s what makes it so fun. Director Taika Waititi’s previous work in smaller scale indie comedies means the tone of this movie was always going to be different from its predecessors. And the result is a movie that is exceedingly self-aware, bordering at times on parody. The actors, Hemsworth in particular, seem to revel in the looser, more improvised tone.

The dynamics between characters are richer for it too. There’s a charming road trip-buddy feel to Thor and Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) partnership. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki also develops from the anti-hero of the past movies; the sibling rivalry and bickering he shares with Thor is both compelling and humorous. Driving the evolution of these relationships is Thor’s commitment to being a hero and preventing the end of Asgard.

Similarly, the Bible tells us that our world will eventually come to an end, and how we respond to this defines our adventure now. We all tend to get caught up in the invincibility and seeming permanence of this world, working as hard as we can to wring the value from each activity. Be it career success, performing well in school, or just enjoying life, we work hard to relish the fruits of this world.

But it’s these very things that entice us away from the purpose that God has for us. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster perfectly encapsulates this sentiment—a slave owner who tells his slaves that he loves them, all whilst making them fight to the death.

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

However, the Bible warns us about getting too absorbed in the things of this life, that hold no eternal value. The constant reminder throughout the New Testament is to look forward to the new creation, and everything that it holds in store for us. This has real implications for the way that we live now and should shape what we work for and what we are willing to give up. The plain fact is that all the things of this life will be swept away without a trace by the arrival of the new creation.

In the end, being a hero is very different from what Thor expected. The circumstances call for some hard decisions to be made, but these are the very decisions that make Thor a hero.

What about the decisions that will define us as Christians? What are the things that we will pursue in light of God’s plans for eternity, and all that they hold for us? They vary from individual to individual. But the common denominator has to be the Gospel. It is the one thing that carries eternal value, and whilst its consequences may not seem apparent now, they will certainly be felt at the return of Christ.

This means that it is not just about whether we accept the Gospel, but what we do with it after. We must continue to grow in our conviction and commitment to the Gospel and what it means for us. At the same time, we are commissioned to work for the Gospel, advancing it in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

It’s always worth sitting to the very end of Marvel movies to see what surprises the directors have for us. But for Christians, there are no surprises about the end; our world has an expiry date. God will destroy it as he ushers us into the New Creation. So how should we live now, given the temporal nature of this world? Work for the things that carry true eternal value. In light of eternity, everything else will seem insignificant.