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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?”.

Avengers: Infinity War and the value of life and unity

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Screenshots taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

The Dark Lord Thanos has finally revealed himself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it will take the combined might of the Avengers to stop his genocidal plans of destroying half of all life in the universe.

 Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is the culmination of 10 years and 18 films (starting back in 2008 with Iron Man), and it embodies an ambitious and epic scope unseen before on screen, bringing together numerous storylines with more than 70 characters working across multiple worlds across the universe.

Thanos is Marvel’s greatest cosmic threat (save for perhaps Galactus, the colossal “Devourer of Worlds,” who dines on the life energy of entire planets). It’s a brilliant and emotive portrayal by Josh Brolin, as good a CGI performance as anything Andy Serkis has delivered, such as Gollum/Smeagol in LOTR, or the brooding Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

We first see his purple visage smiling out at us in a post-credit sequence in the first Avengers film, but he has been standing on the fringes of all the action so far, watching from a distance, manipulating events, and biding his time. And now the Mad Titan has stepped out from the shadows and arrived center-stage. As one writer put it, He is “the coming storm, the creeping death, the threat of apocalypse and Armageddon, oblivion and omega.”

The massive Titan warlord wants the dimension-controlling Infinity Stones, six artefacts of inconceivable power that were forged into concentrated existence at the beginning of the universe, and to use them to enforce his despotic will on all of reality. At the start of Infinity War, he has one of the stones in his Infinity Gauntlet; but he needs the other five to put his twisted “plan of salvation” into action. Driven by an insane utilitarianism, inspired by a crazy cosmic pragmatism, Thanos desires to alleviate overpopulation, lack of resources, and suffering by randomly destroying half of all life in order to bring “balance” to the universe. Thanos isn’t intentionally cruel. He derives no pleasure from decimating civilizations. He actually thinks he’s helping people by randomly snuffing out billions of lives.

And against this megalomaniacal plan is arrayed Earth’s mightiest heroes: Asgardians, aliens, and androids. Scientists and soldiers. Spies and sorcerers. The philosophy of the heroes is quite different to that of the Titanic purple bad-guy. When android Vision suggests destroying the Mind Stone in his forehead (which would mean his own death) Captain America Steve Rogers responds, “We don’t trade lives.” This reflects the heroic stance.

 

The Value of Life and the Power of Love

When challenged with a worldview that says life is meaningless when confronted with the vastness and the fate of the universe, the heroes uphold that every individual life is precious. As Christian blogger Logan Judy says, “Super-hero stories have a way of becoming life-affirming stories.” In a world filled with suffering, the Avengers insist on the value of life.

Whenever we take a distant view, seeing human beings as economic units or mere numbers, it’s easy to be dismissive and to de-humanize others. But this is far from the depiction of humanity and of God in Scripture. First, every person in this world is a precious being, bearing the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). As Bible scholar John Stott declares, “It is the divine image in man which gives him an intrinsic dignity or worth, a worth which belongs to all human beings by creation, regardless of race, religion, color, culture, class sex or age.” Such a belief affirms the value of every individual life.

Second, the God in Scripture is both powerful and good, both transcendent and immanent. Christian author David Jackman notes the difficulty of speaking meaningfully of God’s love when we think of this “grubby tennis ball” of a planet, set in the vast infinity of space, our own lives as mere blips in the ever-onward surge of time, and our own individuality among countless billions. Or when we consider the world with all its evil and suffering and so many damaged lives.

Yet the apostle John tells us that the very nature of God is love (1 John 4:8). Jackman declares that, “we must realize that such an infinite yet personal Creator is not too great to be bothered with my tiny life. He is so great that he can be bothered with each of us individually.” As the early church theologian Augustine of Hippo said of God in his Confessions, “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all of us as for each individual.”

Notwithstanding Thanos’ god-like powers, his followers’ references to him as “almighty Thanos” and “Father,” and his references to others as “child” or to his plan of “salvation,” he leaves a lot to be desired in a deity. To invoke C.S. Lewis’ famous description, Thanos may be powerful, but he isn’t good.

 

Unity is Paramount

And so the heroes of the MCU must stand together against the growing power of Thanos. But at the start of Infinity War there is friction, and factions, and egos clash. Stark and Dr Strange butt heads. Thor and Starlord don’t see eye to eye. Secretary of State General Ross still sees Captain America and his crew as fugitives. Thor is wounded after the destruction of Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). James Rhodes (War Machine) is still recovering from injuries suffered in Civil War (2016).

Thanos is an adversary so powerful that you really think he might succeed. If the Avengers are to have any chance of stopping him, they must be united. The things that unite come first; that which divides can follow.

Can Stark put aside past hurt and betrayal? Can Stark and Strange set aside their monumental egos? Can the Avengers unite after being torn apart over the differences that led to Civil War? And can they stop the Mad Titan from getting his hands on the Infinity Stones and wiping out half of all known life?

Our heroes all show courage and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of those who cannot defend themselves. However, the desire for unity is paramount in the story. It’s present in the catch-cry “Avengers Assemble”, reflecting the truth of the old adage: united we stand, divided we fall. These are very real flesh-and-blood characters, with their own pride and pain and ideals and values, but to see them all battle to overcome their individual issues and strive for the sake of others is incredibly moving.

The idea of unity is a powerful theme for God’s people (Ps 133:1). They too “assemble” as the ekklessia, the “called out ones,” i.e. the church. God desires us to reach unity in the faith (Eph 4:13) and to live in love, which “binds all things in unity” (Col 3:14). Our deep love for another “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8) and allows us to remain in powerful and united community, and to stand in unity against all the things that would seek to drive us apart and destroy us.

Even though it’s 160 minutes in length, the story travels along at an action-packed break-neck pace. This film is really Part 1, with Part 2 to come in May 2019. Whatever happens, the Avengers will need to assemble, to come together, and persevere in unity if they’re to stand against the growing destructive might of Thanos.