The Thing I Like About …

Equilibrium:  the part when the feelings-detector goes cold.  [Warning: spoiler alert]

In Equilibrium, no one is allowed to feel emotion; as the cause of all humanity’s suffering, it has been abolished (via a chemical solution), and anyone caught feeling – or trafficking in sensory objects such as paintings, books, music, or baubles – is summarily executed.  We follow John Preston, a Grammaton cleric (the elite, almost-automaton force that finds and eradicates sense-offenders), as he inadvertently finds feelings, and, through them, begins to question the wisdom and ethics of what he and his government have done.

Of course he becomes part of the underground.  Of course he is being watched by his own people.  Of course, because it is an action movie, John Preston is a total ninja – displaying incredible martial arts skills while dispatching the “wicked” without expression or remorse.  As he develops more feelings, however, he grows increasingly unable to control them, and his ability to do his job dwindles to the point of extinction.  His emotions also trump his intuitive training – he becomes easier to misdirect, at least by those who spend their lives misdirecting others – and when he sits in the chair connected to the feelings-detector, he seems less hurt by the fact that he has been set up than by the fact that he allowed himself to be duped.  In a few seconds, his face reflects every emotion he’s having:  betrayal, incredulity, sadness, self-criticism, anger … and all the while, the little needle on the paper is moving so frantically that we see more ink than paper.  From pragmatic, emotionless cleric, John has been reduced to a man so overwhelmed by emotion that he trembles while deciding which one to feel first.

But then he remembers: he is a Grammaton cleric.  He is a total ninja with incredible martial arts skills.  His extensive training allows him to dispatch the wicked without expression or remorse.  The emotions leave his face, and the little needle of the feelings-detector stops moving – one line on the paper.

And then he dispatches the wicked.

Is the movie about how wrong it is to suppress human emotions?  Yes.  Is it about how futile it is to try to suppress human emotions?  Of course.  But in that instant, when the detector goes cold, we see why it’s wrong and futile – human emotions have little to do with what John does, but everything to do with who he does it to.  Emotions – like empathy, love, betrayal – allow him to see who is really wicked; emotions allow him to make ethical distinctions, to judge what is good and what is evil.  And what does he do with all those things that emotions allow him to see? – he acts in a way completely devoid of emotion of any kind.  In a society that had hoped emotionlessness would be the answer to evil, John Preston shows them that emotions and actions are two entirely different things – that ultimately emotions only change the balance between who we protect and who we destroy.

John chooses to act for the sake of good – a choice he could not have made without feelings.  He chooses to become an overwhelming force against those who try to control others, using the very tools the “bad guys” gave him.  He’s certainly intimidating as an implacable cleric, but when he puts his heart into it … he’s unstoppable.


The Thing I Like About …

Harry Brown:  He’s no spring chicken.

Harry Brown is an old man.  He’s not an older man.  He’s an old man.  He’s not some anime-style ninja old man; he’s just a regular old man with asthma and a heart condition.  At one point he passes out and nearly dies from the stress on his body.  He can’t pick up heavy objects.  He can’t wrangle thugs with an expert twist of his wrist.  And when something hits him … he goes right down.  Right.  Down.

But he wasn’t always an old man.  He was once a young man, a Marine in the war, trained to kill people.  He saw darkness all around him and felt it inside him, but when he came back from the war and started a new life with his wife, he (as he explains to his friend) “knew that all that stuff had to be locked away.”  When his friend is killed by the neighbourhood gang of thugs, he walks into his bedroom and pulls out the trunk from his younger days – the one with all that stuff locked away – and he taps into that person he used to be.  He knows what he has to do, and he’s willing to do it, which makes him the bravest – and strongest – man in the neighbourhood.

He’s an old man, but he was once a young man.  He’s a good man, but he once did a great many wretched things – perhaps they were done in the service of his country, but they were wretched things nonetheless.  Everything he does in the film, he does for the sake of decent people, but the things he does are not … kind.  Like many film-heroes, he fights evil with the same darkness the bad guys employ, and it is only the intention of the hero that tips the scales in good’s favour.  Harry’s loving heart gives him the will to fight evil, but it’s the darkness in him that gives him the strength.

That darkness is what the thugs underestimate when they see this old man with the heart condition and the asthma; that’s what they don’t consider when they kill Harry’s friend.  That’s what they don’t see coming, right up until the very end when Harry knocks them down.  Right.  Down.

The Thing I Like About …

Iron Man II:  the little kid who faces the giant robot.

Everyone’s gathered to see Iron Man, but the bad guy has dispensed a horde of giant killer robots to attack the crowd, and Iron Man is stuck far away.  A little boy, perhaps five years old, dressed in a little Iron Man costume, stands as still as a statue while the robot comes toward him.  If the robot lifts a foot, the little guy will be nothing but a smear, but he stands there anyway, lifting his little hand toward the robot the way Iron Man would do.

He doesn’t have weapons or death rays; he probably doesn’t even realize there’s a science behind Tony Stark’s special suit.  All he knows is that when his hero lifts his hand against evil, a magic beam blows the evil up.  All he knows is that when evil threatens, heroes like Iron Man stand still as statues and face the evil.  All he knows is that he’s dressed like Iron Man, so he must therefore be like Iron Man.

In that moment, he is braver than any superhero there ever was.

We owe it to these little guys who emulate all the things we tell them are important; we owe it to them to be as brave as they are, to believe the stuff we tell them about faith, belief, courage, right and wrong.  We owe it to them to stand still as statues and face the evil, with or without magic weapons.

Say what you like about the amazingly egocentric Tony Stark, but he’s the only one who comes to save the little boy, while all the other grown-ups run away screaming.  Tony Stark believes in himself, and the little boy in the Iron Man costume believes in himself, and that’s how the evil robots are defeated.

Let’s try to be as brave and confident as a five-year-old … when you say it that way, it doesn’t sound so hard, right?

Because that’s how evil is defeated.

The Thing I Like About …

When A Stranger Calls (2006):  the heroine is a very good babysitter.

The bad guy in Stranger is a very bad guy – at the beginning of the film, his earlier victims are found in a state so grisly that the audience isn’t even allowed to see it.  His willingness to target children specifically speaks to his evil character, and the uncanny way he has of being everywhere a moment before anyone else is almost supernatural.  He is portrayed as an unstoppable creature so omnipotent and so malevolent that the only thing the protagonists can hope for is a quick death.

But our heroine Jill (played by Camilla Belle), even though she is terrified beyond reason and can think of no way to outwit the bad guy, has her priorities straight.  She never contemplates leaving without the children she is babysitting, children she has never met before tonight.  She stays as calm as possible in front of them, and gives them an example of confidence and determination.  She puts herself in danger to lead the bad guy away from the children, and she endures much pain because of this … but the children are saved unscathed.

My fear is that, in the real world, many of us would be too frightened even to save ourselves, that our efforts to save the children would be thwarted by our tendency to show them the worst kind of infectious despair and fear.

My hope, in watching such a shining example of what-we-should-be/do, is that, if evil ventures into the real world and I happened to be out for the evening, my babysitter would be as awesome as Jill is.

The Thing I Like About …

… Disney Films:  they don’t really pull any punches.

Disney Films are by and large rated “G”, occasionally “PG”; they paint a world full of rainbows and good people and happy endings.  They’re “wholesome” – the whole family can safely be exposed to their imagery without little children being traumatized, confused, or plunged prematurely into adult themes and situations. Disney is … good.  But the Disney villains are not good – not by any stretch of the imagination.

There are a few “villains” – Pirates’ Jack Sparrow, for example, or Syndrome’s secretary in The Incredibles – who either redeem themselves or reveal themselves to have been the good guys all along.  But the typical Disney villain is truly bad.  101 Dalmatians’ Cruella wants to steal puppies, kill them, and make them into a coat.  The Little Mermaid’s Ursula keeps a garden of little souls and chases young girls so that she can kill them.  Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston is misogynistic, cruel, and murderous.  The kids in Escape to Witch Mountain are running from men who want to use them to do horrible things, to commit crimes, and to be life-long prisoners.  You won’t see these kinds of bad guys on Dora the Explorer.

And then there’s life – the one that Disney films say is so wonderful and happy and full of love and rainbows.   Well, the people in a typical Disney film earn those rainbows and those happy endings.  In the Disney version of life, bad things happen to good people … all the time.  Children are abandoned by their parents; fathers die and leave their families with no money and no hope.  Courts hang children for piracy, and dogs get rabies.  Main characters pass away, leaving holes of sadness behind them.  And, of course, let’s not forget the hunters who shot Bambi’s mother.

Disney films are not for the faint of heart.

But they do offer an excellent prescription for what’s wrong with the world, and they do it by looking those wrongs squarely in the face.  Bad things happen to good people.  Bad people happen to good people.  Life can be a kick in the gut.  And, if we’re willing to have hope and act on that hope, then in the end love and goodness can triumph.

Some people say Disney films are sappy and sentimental … to them I say:  Cruella wanted to kill puppies and make them into coatsPuppiesCoats!

The Disney good guys have to face a lot of sincere evil and despair before they get to happy … and that makes it all the more worth winning.

The Thing I Like About …

… Hellraiser VI:  the comment on good and evil.

[Warning:  Spoilers]

Hellraiser VI brings back the character of Kirstie, the heroine of the first two films.  In the first film, she has no idea, of course, what opening the puzzle box will do; she convinces Pinhead and the other Cenobites to take instead the man who opened the box on purpose.  In the second film, her connection to the box is to help save innocent people from her evil stepmother, but she is confronted once more by Pinhead, who believes her repeated experiences with the box indicate her true feelings – that deep down she wants to explore Hell and all the “sights” he offers to show her.  She is hard pressed to escape him and return to her safe, relatively pain-free world.

In the sixth installment, however, we see a Kirstie we didn’t expect.  When her husband brings the box home with him – curious about what secrets it contains – she is justifiably frightened and angry.  She knows what secrets it holds; she’s seen the Hell that lies beyond it, and what the people trapped there are subjected to.  She has had trouble with her husband already – lying, infidelity – but she has no wish to lose her soul to his selfish stupidity.  So, when Pinhead again confronts her about this third “coincidence”, she once more offers the man who opened the box on purpose – her husband.

She goes a bit further, though.  She offers the souls of five others – her husband and the people in whose company he became dishonest and unfaithful to her.

Well, of course, so few people want to go to Hell; it makes perfect sense that she would implicate the truly guilty party – even if it is her husband – to avoid going to Hell.  But to offer, as though they were hers to give, the souls of others – others who had done nothing to her personally but become part of her husband’s double life – is quite another matter.  Especially when, in the second film, she had actually defeated Pinhead, why decide now that the only option is to sacrifice five people for her own safety?

From the beginning of the film series, Kirstie is presented as the “good guy”, the one who faces the Cenobites’ evil and defeats it with her good spirit.  But the sixth film suggests that fear and desperation lead us to make choices we would otherwise not have made – choices at odds with what we have said was “good”.  It suggests that “good” and “evil” are so defined more by relative comparison and a habit of thinking than by actual evaluation.  But is it suggesting that “when you look into the abyss, it looks back into you”?  I’m not so sure.

It seems more to me that Pinhead was right all along – that Kirstie and the box seem to find each other with surprising regularity.  She may be right too, though – she may not be seeking it out, desiring secretly to be tormented in Pinhead’s Hell.  It may be, instead, that the box sees something dark in her – that the box is looking for her, rather than the other way around, and that, rather than being Pinhead’s willing victim, she is in fact someone who could give him a bit of competition.

What sort of person do you think Kirstie really is? – and how much of her is inside each of us?