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Philip Tallon ~ Martyred Velociraptors and Vegetarian Vampires: The Christian Roots of Redemption in Hollywood

I went with my wife to see Jurassic World the other night. It’s a movie about an ineffective park executive with poor control over the attraction’s carnivorous inclinations. Fittingly, it’s directed in an ineffective style, with poor control over dialogue, editing, and characterization. The one exception is the dinosaurs, who are perfect, and whose Cretaceous carnivorous instincts get to explode pleasurably onto the reopened park’s Disnified main street. Pleasurably, I should say, for the dinosaurs and the audience, not the rich tourists attacked by pterodactyls while drinking at Jurassic World’s Margaritaville.

In most ways, Jurassic World is just Jurassic Park, but with more at stake. The story of human hubris punished by nature is the same. Most of the dinosaurs have appeared in previous films. But there’s one big difference, and I think it’s worth a note. As seen in the trailer, Chris Pratt’s character, a dinosaur trainer named Owen, has tamed the first film’s villainous velociraptors. Early in the film, a hapless Jurassic World employee falls into the raptor pit. Everyone writes him off for dead, but Owen rushes in, asserting his alpha role over the raptors and saving the goofball’s life. Later in the movie, the raptors become the heroes, riding alongside Owen as they go on the hunt.

At this point in the movie, and again later when yet another dangerous dinosaur from the first film returns as a semi-hero, I was struck that Batman was wrong. He says in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

But in Hollywood, the opposite is true, “You either die a monster or live long enough to see yourself become the hero.” Which is to say, there’s an operative logic of redemption running so deep in Western storytelling that, given enough time, we should expect that all villains will eventually become heroes. Origen may have been wrong to state that even the devil will eventually be saved, but a certain kind of “narrative universalism” is true in Hollywood.

More evidence for my thesis about this deep, redemptive theme in Hollywood films was in the trailers. Terminator Genisys features lovable old Arnold, a terminator-turned-good, fighting his evil old self (a brilliantly created CG representation of young Arnold from the first movie). The Terminator series has carried on this redemptive theme for so long that younger viewers may be unaware that the Schwarzenegger-shaped terminator model was ever evil.

Even further evidence is easily found in your Netflix list or on any Redbox, with a host of monster-types-turned film heroes. E.g. I, Frankenstein, Godzilla, Despicable Me 2, Fido, and Maleficent. Respectively, these show: Frankenstein’s-monster-turned-hero, destructive-lizard-turned-hero, super-villain-turned-hero, zombie-turned-hero, and Disney-villain-turned-hero.I could go on all day with more examples. These are just some recent ones.

Perhaps the best recent example is Twilight, where one of the most sexually-predatory, satanic monsters in the popular imagination becomes, not just a hero, but a monogamy-seeking vegetarian of sorts, forsaking his natural prey for humanely sourced animal blood.

This theme of forsaking violence is also found in a number of other kids’ movies, where beasts of prey attempt to overcome their carnivorous appetites. You can see this in the terrible movie Shark Tale, or in the infinitely better Finding Nemo–whose repentant sharks, with their mantra, “Fish are friends, not food”–make explicit the groaning Paul talks about in Romans 8. They’re seeking a deliverance and restoration of harmony.

It is hard not to see this perennial theme of monster redemption as anything but theological. if John Wesley could have used film clips in his sermon, preaching, perhaps in a movie theater rather than in a field, he might have played Finding Nemo at a key point in “The General Deliverance,” when he talked about the restoration of all creation from any bloodlust:

The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed…They will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil. No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood. So far from it that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6, etc.)

This theme of monsters-turned-heroes is right there in scripture, with Paul’s story in Acts, when murderer-turns-martyr for the gospel. It is also seen in the incorporation of monsters like gargoyles into medieval church art, where even grotesque creatures find a purpose and place in the redeemed life.pic

But it is also even more explicitly seen in some of the stories of the saints of the early church, especially in the apocryphal-but-interesting story of St. Christopher. In one variant of the story of St. Christopher, he was a dog-headed monster, a cynocephaly, who on meeting Christ and carrying him across a river, repents and is turned into a human.

These conversion stories, even of monsters, is made possible by the Christian theology of creation, which holds that everything God created is good, and the most sin can do is distort that goodness. Moral evil cannot completely eradicate goodness in anything. Redemption means restoring the good originally intended, untwisting and untangling the distortions of God’s primeval intention. Monsters are save-able (in theory) because there can be no purely evil thing. If a thing exists, it isn’t beyond the possibility of redemption.

It has long clear to me that, though popular culture forsakes any explicit theological grounding, the narrative “operating system” of Western storytelling still runs on the “kernel” of Christian theology. Self-sacrifice and resurrection is central in Hollywood blockbusters (The Matrix, Tangled, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, etc.). The hope of the gospel lives on even after the truth of the gospel is forgotten.

This is akin to the way that church architecture often proclaims bigger theological truths than the preacher. In old churches, which faced east in expectation of Christ’s return, the hope of the second coming may be denied from the pulpit. Tombstones in old church graveyards faced east for the same reason, preaching a “sermon in stone” about the hope of the resurrection to future, less faithful, generations.

The theme of monsters being redeemed is, of course, partly a result of the need for Hollywood to milk any old iconography with some juice left in it for new products. But the ease with which we accept these stories of redemption, and our desire to see monsters turned into heroes, speaks to a deeper need to know that nothing with a shred of goodness in it is beyond the scope of salvation. Deep down, we are all velociraptors in search of an alpha.