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Posts Tagged ‘Liam Neeson’

Ottway

So let’s look at “nature as death” in “The Grey,” which does seem — as Fr. Barron argues — to take the gloomy, atheistic existentialist view of human life and death.

But let’s look closer.  Does the plight of the stranded oilmen do any good in the end?  Does it do the job of a sparring partner and give the men opportunities they might not have had before?

I could explore this question at great length, but I will limit myself to this observation: The experience leads Ottway to prayer.

Ottway_Prayer

About halfway through the movie, Ottway identifies himself as an atheist.  But as the film draws to a close and he finds himself desperately clinging to life, he finally shouts out a prayer straight from the heart (he never uses the name “God,” but we can reasonably assume that’s Who he’s talking to).

The gist of the prayer is this: “If you are there, help me.”

Ottway’s prayer, in its details, does strike the viewer as somewhat irreverent — but it still suggests the beginning of some kind of religious hope.  What he ultimately does with this hope is up to him, but its very presence assures us that he and his fellow strugglers have not necessarily suffered in vain.

Here I will turn once again to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence (CCC 301 — bold added).

Yet how often do we come to this recognition, which brings “wisdom and freedom, joy and confidence”?  When things are going well for us, don’t we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient?  And in the long run, doesn’t this just make us lonely and miserable?

Grey_Campfire

An earlier scene shows the men huddled around a campfire and talking about their pasts, their lives, and their families.  Examination of one’s life in the face of a trial is not uncommon.  How many people, when they are trapped in a burning building or stranded without hope of rescue, look back on their lives and realize how little they appreciated their loved ones, how much they overvalued material possessions, how much kinder or more charitable they could have been in life, etc?

From the eternal perspective, the opportunity to come to terms with these things can be a far greater blessing than a lifetime without suffering or hardship.

God never promises us that we will not have trouble in this world.  But He does speak of the turmoil of the created order as “birth pangs” of the “new heavens and new earth” that the People of God will inherit.

Yes, nature and the world’s troubles warn human beings of the tragic end their souls will meet with if they continue down the road of sin; but for those who trust in God’s mercy — manifested in Christ, Who took suffering and death upon Himself and transformed them into redemptive realities — even the trials of this passing world will ultimately serve as means to their eternal reward.

How surely?  As surely as the Red Sea marked the Hebrews’ passage to the promised land.

Lions

I want to conclude by talking about the early Christian martyrs, who found themselves in circumstances that were, in some ways, the perfect “marriage” of the human cruelty that comes from the Fall and the hostility of nature that is its external consequence: They were fed to lions by the Roman Empire.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that some of the martyrs spoke of the lion’s mouth as a sort of gateway to God.  They saw their deaths in the lions’ dens as acts of sacrifice, loving self-offerings to their Heavenly Father.

So even the cruelties of nature are not hopeless.

We should, of course, use all reasonable means to fight against threats to our lives and livelihoods in this world.  But we should do so with a view to the greater hope that is offered to us by the God Who transcends all things, holding the world in the palm of His hand.

Granted, Carnahan may not have had these things in mind when he made “The Grey.”  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.  But I do think the film makes the question of meaning in the face of death open-ended, and it’s portrayal of nature’s “meanness” is a great tool to help us reflect on this question.

So that’s it for “The Grey.”  Stay tuned for my much briefer — not to mention more upbeat — thoughts on “Big Miracle.”

Images obtained through a Google image search

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To recap the main point of part one: Nature shows us the reality of death, and the wolves in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” represent this aspect of nature.

Where does this come from?  And how does it fit into the Christian meta-narrative?

The answer, from a Christian perspective, is the Fall.

We all know the story.  Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they did it anyway.  Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about this:

The harmony in which (our first parents) had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground” (CCC 400 — bold added)

C.S. Lewis drew on this Christian insight when he sent his beloved Pevensie children back to Narnia in “Prince Caspian,” the second book in his Chronicles of Narnia.

If you have read this book or its predecessor, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (or seen the films), you will remember that when the children had left Narnia, it was a place where: 1) animals spoke; and 2) they and human beings enjoyed each other’s friendship.

Now, the throne of Narnia is occupied by a usurper who does not rule according to the will of Aslan (the Christ-figure of Narnia), and many of the animals are wild, mute, brutish, and hostile.

“Cursed is the ground because of you!  In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles shall it bear for you…” (Genesis 3:17-18, The New American Bible)

Human beings have sinned.  The animals, the trees, and the rest of nature have not.  But when we turned away from God, we dragged the whole of creation down the road to destruction with us.

From that perspective, we can see the hostilities of nature as a sort of “judgment” or “accusation.”  Creation, while also tending to our needs and showering us with beauty, will not let us forget that we have turned away from our loving Creator.

This leads me to draw once again from the writings of Dr. Peter Kreeft, whose magnificent book “Love is Stronger Than Death” I would recommend to anyone.  A basic assertion he makes is that from the standpoint of human reason, we only have hope if death is our fault.

Here is the explanation:

It means that our ultimate hope is not in ourselves, our innocence … To blame ourselves (as the story of Adam does in Genesis) is to clear reality, being, truth, the cosmos … (and) God.  We may yet be reconciled to reality … If reality were out of touch, there would be no hope … all hope of meaning would be gone (Kreeft 16, italics and first parentheses his)

So as depressing as the guilt-death relationship may seem, it dispels the fear we have of a meaningless universe in which all men are simply stuck on an obstacle-laden collision course with death.

And though we find hostility and, in a certain sense, the “taunts” of death in nature, we can find hope and meaning even in these.  I would argue that we can find in them the “sparring partner” that Dr. Kreeft speaks of in his book and to which I referred in my November 26 post, “Why ‘Into the Dance’?”

As I was typing this part of my reflection on “The Grey,” I realized that it is too long for one post.  I tried to avoid this, but as I said, this is a complex subject.  Therefore, I will have mercy on my readers and turn this into a four-part post (as opposed to the three-part post I had originally intended), with “The Grey” comprising three posts.  But the final part of my review of “The Grey” is ready, and will be up tomorrow.

Both photos of “The Grey” from http://www.guardian.co.uk; picture of “Adam and Eve” by Albrecht Dürer from http://www.metmuseum.org; picture of “Prince Caspian” from http://www.e-reading.org.ua (all obtained through a Google image search)

Reference

Kreeft, Peter.  Love is Stronger Than Death.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

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The past year has seen the release of two films that offer very different — one might say polar opposite — reflections on man’s relationship with nature.  Joe Carnahan’s thriller “The Grey” fits into the classic “man vs. nature” theme, whereas Ken Kwapis’ family drama “Big Miracle” has more to do with the man-nature relationship in its positive aspects.

I have a lot to say about both films, so I will review them separately.  Let us begin on the “dark side” of things and delve into “The Grey.”

We could say that the essence of the worldview suggested by “The Grey” is nature as death.  Let’s face it — living in a comfortable world of technological advancements, we modern Westerners are very good at denying the reality of our ultimate demise.  Maybe we don’t explicitly deny it, but we have at least a subconscious tendency to think of death as something far off … if we think of it at all.

Partly, this is because death is not a lot of fun to think about.  I’ll be the first to admit that.  But the fact that we live in the midst of advantages and luxuries that even the kings of ancient times would never have dreamed of has something to do with it as well.

Without the challenges of living in the midst of nature and her wild ways, without the constant reminder of mortality she holds before the eyes of anyone left to her embrace, without the awe-inspiring sense of dependence on something larger than ourselves that she elicits, death is simply not an immediate concern.  In one way or another we accept that it exists, of course; but I would say that we generally take it as an abstract concept rather than a concrete reality that crouches in the shadows, eyes fixed on each one of us, poised to lunge at our throats.

And sooner or later it will not only make its move, but will do so successfully.

I can’t help but think of this when I recall “The Grey,” which follows a band of arctic oilmen who have survived an airplane crash in the Alaskan wilderness.  Led by an experienced hunter named Ottway (Liam Neeson), they struggle for survival in the face of extreme cold, lack of sustenance, and — worst of all — a pack of wolves into whose territory they have unwittingly stumbled.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall the scene in which they are all huddled around a campfire in the woods at night, and out of the darkness the glowing, ravenous eyes of the wolves shine all around them.

Fr. Robert Barron, whose review of “Skyfall” I posted yesterday, did a video commentary on “The Grey” around the time it came out in theaters.  With background reference to the thought of German existentialist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Fr. Barron suggested that we could see the wolves as symbolic of death.

In the eyes of the wolves, we see something like what we see in the eyes of death — something that is against us, not for us; something without mercy or sympathy; something that forces us to be on our guard and to fight with every resource we have available, and yet always gets us in the end.

Fr. Barron sees a definite existentialist bent in Carnahan’s film, and who can blame him?  Still — and I say this with due humility, since Fr. Barron is obviously a far smarter man than I — I think we can glean more from the movie than that.

For my purposes, the wolves represent the “dark side” of nature.  Following our train of thought so far, we would then have to say that the dark side of nature relates to death.  This begs a multi-part question: “Why is it this way?  Why is nature hostile to man?  Why does the reminder of death seem so ingredient in its being?”

This relates to an even bigger question: “Is life really a cosmic absurdity?  Does death have the last word?”

Having addressed the fundamental issue of death, I intend to explore these questions next.

As the representative of the more negative view of the man-nature relationship, “The Grey” is decidedly more complex than “Big Miracle.”  For that reason and in order to give the reader a break, I will divide my reflection on this film into two separate posts and conclude it tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

“The Grey” poster is from http://www.imdb.com, the second photo from http://www.dailyfilmdose.com, and the third photo from http://www.guardian.co.uk (all obtained through a Google image search).

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