The Thing I Like About … [mild spoiler]

Minority Report: the part where he confronts the guy who killed his child.

In Minority Report, John Anderton is a man whose job at the Pre-Crime Division allows him to see when people are about to commit a crime; he then goes to arrest them before anything bad can actually happen. He’s a tortured man, suffering from the intense grief of losing his son, and when the events of the film lead him and his friend Agatha to the man who admits to killing the little boy, Anderton understandably contemplates removing this child-killer from the gene-pool.

If he kills the man, then the pre-crime system he has supported for so long will be vindicated. If he kills the man, then his son’s death will be avenged. If he kills the man, then some measure of justice will be done.

If he kills the man, then he will be a killer.

He points his gun at the man … and places him under arrest.

Are we glad that he’s going to allow the child-killer to live? Is anyone ever glad that child-killers are alive? Do we think Anderton would have been justified to blow the guy away … or even torment him in endless creative ways? – probably.

But we’ve watched the struggle too. We’ve seen Anderton’s self-destructive grief and the loss of his marriage. We’ve seen the pitfalls of the Pre-Crime Division, and all the ways that Anderton’s response to this man can affect it. We can see how important it is for Anderton to feel that he has a choice; we agree with Agatha that he has more choices than just to be at the whim of his sadness and anger. We see all the layers and ramifications and interconnectedness of Anderton’s current decision. And in that moment we’re capable of being better people … and of wanting that for Anderton as well.

At the end of the day, it’s not really about the child-killer. It’s about Anderton, about what kind of man he is and what kind of man he can be, about decision and free will and making difficult choices, about letting go of his crippling pain and finding the happy memories on the other side of it. It’s not about the evil he faces; it’s about his choice to face that evil with goodness.

At the end of the day, it’s not about anything that’s ever hurt us (or our loved ones).

It’s about us.

The Thing I Like About … [mild spoiler]

PsychoPass: the part where she can’t save her friend.

In PsychoPass, Akane is a new detective placed in charge of Enforcers, people with cloudy psychopasses who can use their latent criminal tendencies to find actualized criminals but who cannot be allowed into the general population themselves. The psychopass is a government-run assessment of personality and emotional state, and if it’s cloudy, then the detectives and Enforcers are authorized to use specialized guns – Paralyzers. Paralyzers can stun or kill, but each one will only turn on for its authorized owner, and the decision to stun or kill is made by the government-run computer network rather than by the detective.

Akane’s friend Yuki is abducted by the bad guy, and when Akane corners him, he uses Yuki as a shield. Akane trusts her Paralyzer, but it turns out this particular bad guy doesn’t have a typical psychopass, and the gun won’t recognize him as a threat. Akane does find an ordinary shotgun, loaded and ready to go, but she keeps trying to use her Paralyzer. She even aims the shotgun, and eventually fires it to the side, but she can’t bring herself to shoot the shotgun at the bad guy. Shooting him with the Paralyzer would probably kill him, given his criminal proclivities and the fact that he was actively endangering another human being, but Akane – who had literally vaporized other criminals with her Paralyzer – could not shoot the bad guy with the shotgun … even as he slits Yuki’s throat.

Akane can’t shoot him with the shotgun, because it would be her shooting him, and she’s never been expected to make that decision – even though she’s taken lives in the line of duty, it was always the Paralyzer making the ultimate determination, and doing the dirty work. She was just pulling the trigger.

Science fiction uses futuristic or otherworldly settings to explore current human problems, and PsychoPass explores several. But the shotgun incident – that leads to Yuki’s death – explores one that has been plaguing humanity since we arrived on the planet: we want things to be done, but we don’t want to take responsibility for the decision. We want outcomes, but we’re not willing to pay the consequences. “Authority” and “responsibility” are, for some reason, not synonymous; instead we equate responsibility with “blame” – and no one wants to be blamed, especially for stuff they actually do.

Akane isn’t the sort of person who wants others to do her dirty work, or who wants to avoid blame at all costs; in fact, her character takes her job, her responsibility, and consequences very seriously. But she has lived her whole life in a culture that encourages her subservience to the moral decision-making of the government computer network. She’s never been taught how to decide. She’s never learned how to evaluate. Her actions in this world aren’t her own to choose or to judge. She knows that she’s supposed to be “good” rather than “bad”, but she’s never been given the chance to understand the differences between good and evil, and to pick one or the other.

And because Akane lives in a world where a single entity guarantees that “bad guys” will be automatically eliminated, and where all the “burden” of selecting right or wrong will be rendered moot, Yuki’s throat is slit, and she dies for no purpose, and the bad guy gets away. No good is done. No wrong is righted. No cultural value is upheld. It’s a total failure on the parts of the hero, of the police department, and of good itself.

Even as Akane holds the loaded shotgun.

It isn’t that she’s bad, or inept, or that she doesn’t want to save Yuki. It’s not that she thinks the bad guy shouldn’t be stopped, perhaps by extreme measures. It’s that she doesn’t know how to make the decision in the absence of the computer network.

It doesn’t matter if the controlling entity is government, computer networks, parents, religions, bosses, peers on the playground … it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if that entity is benevolent or not, or if it’s competent or not; what matters is whether or not the individual knows how to go it alone. What matters is whether or not the individual has learned for him or herself how to decide – between good and evil, between right and wrong, between left and right. If you can’t decide to shoot – whether it’s a Paralyzer or a shotgun – then why say you’re doing anything at all? Why show up at all? If you don’t know how to tell what’s best to do, then how will you evaluate the moral ability of the entities who’ve been deciding for you?

Find your ethical center. Find the courage of your convictions. Learn how to choose, evaluate and act … how to be responsible, to accept consequences, to adapt to new information.

Before another Yuki dies.

The Thing I Like About …

28 Days Later: the people who are “saving” the chimps.

In 28 Days Later, a group of animal-rights activists break into a lab and attempt to free a group of chimps and other animals that are part of an experiment. The animals don’t look as though they’re being mistreated per se, but they don’t look happy either, and they’re being forced to watch horrible images of violence and chaos. I don’t think animals should be tortured; hopefully few people think animals should be tortured. And I certainly don’t know – even in the context of the film – exactly what purpose there was in forcing the monkeys to watch violent television.

It’s not that I disagreed with the animal-rights activists, per se.

It’s that the animal-rights activists act without knowing all the facts – even when the nice, terrified scientist man tries to tell them the facts – and their subsequent “rescue” of the animals unleashes a zombie plague that decimates England and threatens the whole world.

People pretty much want to do good in the world. And they want that “good” to happen right now, no waiting. No red tape. No discussion. No chance for the people on the “other side” to say their reasons for thinking the “good” thing may not be so good. They get frustrated with government for “dragging their feet” … but then they get equally frustrated – and angry and litigious – if government acts without having “gotten all the facts” … the “good” facts.

Reality is a little more complex than that.

We should champion the causes we think are important. But it’s also important to make sure we know which side we’re on. It’s very, very easy to make mistakes; it’s also very like the world to change of its own accord, so that what was once the truth is no longer so. Should we all just stand around waiting for some ultimate end-of-time fact-meeting before doing anything? Hardly. But it might be useful to listen to the information we’re already receiving, and to base our actions on what will help – instead of on fear, or on a need to “win”, or on a misguided notion that “I was trying to help” will somehow magically put the zombie-rage back in the cage.

The Thing I Like About …

The Lone Ranger: the part with the William Tell Overture.

In the recent movie The Lone Ranger, we see an origin story, tweaked to reflect modern sensibilities about the Ranger, Tonto, the Old West, and good and evil. It’s different from the TV show – of course – but at its heart, it offers the same message: evil rail barons will double-cross innocent, helpless damsels out of their money in order to promote their own selfish interests.

But these aren’t the after-school-cartoons type of evil rail barons, who twirl mustaches and clap their hands together in maniacal glee. These are some really unpleasant-looking bad guys, with scars and anger, who are willing to hurt children and kill people (lots of people) (lots and lots of native people) (and their children). These are the kind of evil rail barons who … well, who actually seem to run the real world half the time, and upon whose darker deeds modern people have built their civilizations with a vague sense of having touched something slimy in exchange for candy. These are the kind of bad guys who seem like actual bad guys, who act in secret and do a lot of damage, and who are apparently unstoppable.

And the new Ranger seems a little bit behind the eight-ball. In fact, he’s dependent on help from a man (Tonto) whose elevator doesn’t quite reach the top. Basically, the new Ranger isn’t the most … Ranger-y … Lone Ranger in the world.

But then the music starts.

Instantly, we’re transported to that feeling we had as kids, watching the Lone Ranger fight bad guys and win, week after week, time after time. Instantly we go back to that time when we knew good conquered evil, no matter what. We knew it. We heard that music and we knew – the bad guys were going down.

We watch this new Ranger fighting some of the worst bad guys out there; we watch him getting his butt handed to him a few times. We watch bridges collapse, and plans fall through, and innocent people suffer. We watch real evil at work. But when the music starts, we laugh in relief, and we enjoy the rest of the movie with a child’s confident heart.

The bad guys are going down. The good guys are gonna win.

They always do.

The Thing I Like About …

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: the part where the computer tech refuses to comply with the bad guy.

In movies like Captain America – all the superhero movies, and things like G.I. Joe, where the heroes don’t have superpowers but they do have super toys – we get used to the heroes going all ninja on the bad guys, no matter what the bad guy throws at them. We know the heroes – or superheroes – have the necessary weapons, skills, and talents to beat the bad guys and defeat evil, and even though we still enjoy watching them do that, we pretty much take for granted that in the end they’ll win. Why wouldn’t they? They’re heavily, heavily armed. Plus, they’re not, you know, real.

But in The Winter Soldier, not everyone is a superhero, or even a heavily armed regular hero. The men and women who sit at rows of desks, monitoring computer reports and satellite feeds, are just ordinary men and women. And today, the bad guys are asking them – at gunpoint – to allow the slaughter of millions. They’re asking one man in particular, and they’ve got a loaded gun shoved up against the back of his head, and if he doesn’t comply they will kill him, and he knows that.

But he doesn’t comply.

Well, of course he doesn’t, you say. Who would?

I don’t know … maybe … all of us? “Millions” is such an abstract notion for most of us, and having a gun to the back of our heads is so not abstract. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to wrap our brains around the evil being suggested, at least not in time to overcome the panic about our own lives. Maybe that’s how good people have always allowed evil to do things that, in hindsight, seem so completely, obviously evil. Maybe we just can’t imagine that anyone could be that bad, and we just don’t want to get shot … and so evil wins this round, and this round, and this round, until the world is hip-deep in a war that only Captain America can win.

So for me, regular-guy-at-desk is the true hero of The Winter Soldier, and he gives me hope that we can stop evil in the real world, even though we don’t really have a Captain America.

We do have plenty of regular-people-at-desks, after all.

A Countdown for the Holidays

The Wisdom of Pinhead: Part Three
“Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”*

Last year for Christmas, I blogged about my favourite part of Hellraiser V: Inferno.  I talked about how Pinhead’s dark, scary message was really a cautionary Christmas tale – avoid superficiality and selfishness and embrace what really matters, or, you know, pay horribly forever.  I realized afterward that Pinhead has always had some very Christmas-y things to say … when seen in the right light.  So this year, I will be presenting a Pinhead-Christmas-personal empowerment-happy-joy-countdown.  At the end of it, I hope readers – Christian and non-Christian alike – are more disposed to find the love and joy the Christmas holiday represents.

And maybe they’ll want to watch the movies too.


“There is no good, Monroe. There is no evil. There is only flesh.”

As individuals and as a society, we make a host of rules and criteria with which we judge … everything.  Sometimes, the rules are no-brainers:  we dislike murder, physical assault, theft.  But all too often the rules simply exist to make ourselves “good” and others “bad”, to justify our decisions, to buffer ourselves from change, or to try in some way to make life a series of guarantees.

But in fact the world has only one guarantee:  if you are alive, then one day you will die, and chances are that you will not know when.  And the world has only one rule:  eat or be eaten.  Only humans have placed emotional and ethical criteria on being part of the food chain … and on most of the other aspects of our lives.

We lose our ability to evaluate or handle our elected governments because we begin to assume that “law” is inherently good … because many laws seem good, and we don’t want to take the time and responsibility to assess each law on its own.  We assume we are “right” and “good” when law is on our side, because we want to feel “right” and “good” … but when the law changes, suddenly the good are bad and the bad are good.  New laws make former followers into the bad guy; other people’s laws that differ from mine are obviously “evil”, “misguided”, “wrong”.

Do I mean that we should all be lawless, or that there is no right or wrong?  Hardly – and Pinhead would agree with me, I think, since the laws of Hell are rather … totalitarian, and he is in charge of enforcing them.  No, I simply mean that we should be more detached from the rules and criteria we create.  We should create the laws to reflect what we feel is good and bad, rather than to feel that “good” and “bad” are some concrete, separate things about which we can do nothing.  We should look dispassionately at ourselves and ask which of our rules and judgments are based on love-versus-harm and which are based on justification, fear, wanting to appear good, and expecting stress-free joy 24/7.

And I believe we should ultimately decide to focus on love-versus-harm, to accept others as long as they hurt no one else, to celebrate our differences rather than fearing them or penalizing them, to be willing to change for the better – not just today but every day, so that we are constantly evolving rather than falling apart and rebuilding.  We make the rules on this planet; we should all be a little more aware of that, I think … and a little more willing to do the work.


* “Santa Claus is comin’ to town” by Coots and Gillespie