Essays

The Hidden Theology of Science Fiction Films

The Enlightenment mythology usually goes something like this: Humans had been wallowing in darkness and superstition for a long time, then, sometime in the seventeenth century, a few heroic philosophers and proto-scientists broke the chains of religion and freed humanity from the darkness and superstition that had ensnared them since Neolithic times and the more we follow these denizens of “enlightenment” the further we move away from enslavement by superstition, prejudice, and religion. If this narrative were true one would expect the ultimate modernist genre, science fiction, to be free from those dark and primordial prejudices that have supposedly enslaved humanity for much of its existence. However, a close examination of some of the most successful and iconic science fiction films reveals a deeply implanted religious psychology and theo-cosmic foundation to them—namely, the centrality of sacrifice and the role of love in human salvation which stand as a repudiation of the modernist narrative.

Science Fiction and Religious Psychology

Isaac Asimov provided, to my mind, the best and most succinct definition of science fiction, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” How have humans, then, dealt with the changes wrought by science and technology? The origin and progression of the science fiction genre, both in book and film form, contain a dialectic pitting two worlds against each other: The old and dying world of naturalism and erotic love against the emergent sterile, mechanical, and technological world of science. Part of the tremendous appeal, allure, of science fiction is that it captures the tensions that we are going through as a species in throes of the changes wrought by science and technology in our own lives. Science fiction realizes the unconscious and subconscious fears and struggles that we humans have since the Industrial Revolution’s severing of our ties with nature and unleashing of the atomic bomb and the specter of scientific armageddon.

But there is another peculiar aspect to science fiction filmography that rejects the heart of the tired and worn out Whig myth of progress. Deep in the pulsating body of science fiction filmography are the Dionysian and Christian religious inheritances of how erotic love and sacrifice, moreover than instrumental machines and technologies of power, will arise to restore balance to the cosmos and give life to the world.

It is now commonplace to recognize the centrality of sacrifice in ancient religion. The mystery cult Mithraism centered on primordial killing of the Bull of Heaven and how from slaying the Bull of Heaven its blood and organs were used to fashion and fertilize the cosmos, thereby bringing life into the world. Even older is Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat which ends with Tiamat’s blood being mixed with the sand of the earth to bring life. Most famous of all are the laws of sacrifice and purification in the Hebrew Bible—from which the sacrificial rites purify the Israelite community and makes life possible under Yahweh’s stewardship.

René Girard famously pioneered the interpretation that Christianity was antithetical to the sacrificial religions of the ancient world. Girard concentrated on the victim of the sacrifice rather than the presider of the sacrifice. This is important to some degree but misses the point of sacrifice in Christianity and how sacrifice in Christianity is simultaneously the fulfillment of the sacrificial religious impulse and its undoing.

The pagan impetus of sacrifice invariably focused on the presider of the sacrificial ritual rather than the victim from which life flows. The hero, in the pagan religious psyche, is the person who does the killing rather than the victim slaughtered. Christianity maintains agreement with the ancient sacrificial religions insofar that it is from the blood of the victim sacrificed that purification and cosmic restoration flows. However, where Christianity suddenly, and violently, breaks with the ancient sacrificial ethos is how the hero is not just the presider of the sacrifice but the victim itself. The savior is the sacrificial victim.

The purpose of religious sacrifice was not to appease the gods, per se, as crass atheistic argumentation crudely portends. While appeasement, propitiation, was an aspect to religious sacrifice, the real reason for sacrifice was to restore cosmic balance or harmony in a world transgressed, disturbed, and fallen into disorder. The sacrifice was the culminating act that restored harmony to the world which permitted life to endure. In this manner pagan religion and Christianity come together—the sacrifice is the only act that saves the disordered and destabilized cosmos from being utterly torn apart and destroyed. Robert Fastiggi succinctly explains the real impetus behind sacrifice in The Sacrament of Reconciliation: An Anthropological and Scriptural Understanding, “Within ancient religions, various sacrifices, therefore, are needed to restore the social and cosmic harmony lost by human transgression.”

I bring this basic cursory introduction to the importance of sacrifice in religion because many of the great science fiction incorporate this religious psychology and theology into their films. Far from being removed from the religious impulse, science fiction embodies the religious impulse of sacrificial salvation and carries it forward into a genre simply devoid of religious ritualism and ceremony but still makes the moment of sacrifice the culminating triumph of the science fiction story—thereby recapitulating the religious drama of sacrifice and salvific cosmic restoration without the garments and prayers that historically accompanied religious sacrificial practices and reenactments. To highlight the reality of sacrificial salvation and how the act of sacrifice restores cosmic harmony and life to the world, I will examine several classic and modern science fiction films and how they incarnate the religious psychology and impulse concerning sacrifice and salvation: Godzilla (1954), Star Wars (the original trilogy), TerminatorDeep ImpactArmageddonInterstellar, and Ad Astra. I will also examine in conjuncture with the art of sacrifice in these films the role that love, including erotic love, plays in bringing about salvation and restoring cosmic harmony.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of the depth of theology and the religious impulse and psychology in science fiction. That most iconic and famous science fiction film, with its most famous of phrases, The Day the Earth Stood Still, is saturated with religious allegory throughout its narrative. We have the allegory of the incarnation with the arrival of Klaatu from another world and appearing before the world in flesh. We also have Klaatu becoming John Carpenter upon his arrival, assuming a new identity just as the Son of God did, whose very initials allude to Jesus Christ (a not so uncommon trope in science fiction filmography) and that most incredible gospel of the incarnation and visitation in John. The mission of our in situ Christ is to bring peace to the world, as revealed through his interaction with Mrs. Benson (a sort of in situ Mary as adoptive mother and Mary Magdalene who witnesses the “resurrection”) and at the film’s conclusion when he speaks to the scientists and other leaders assembled before the spaceship. We also witness the conspiracy against our in situ Christ in the form of the military’s fear of the man from outer space and Klaatu’s betrayal by Tom who betrays him out of the prospect of fame and wealth. Lastly, we witness the death of Klaatu, his entombment in a cell, resurrection, and ascension into the heavens leaving his knowledge with the earthlings as their choice to obey or reject (to their own effectual damnation).

Love, Sacrificial Salvation, and Cosmic Restoration from “Godzilla” to “Ad Astra”

What The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t capture, but what many subsequent science fiction films do portray, is the essential role of sacrifice in restoring cosmic balance and life to a world destabilized and heading toward damnation. While it’s true that Klaatu is killed, his death is not a self-sacrificial act that restores life to a world under threat of extinction. This archetype of the self-sacrificial hero has become one of the great tropes of science fiction, and, arguably, its most poignant and allusively religious.

One of the first great science fiction films to introduce the cosmic imbalance motif and its closure with the act of sacrificial restoration is Ishirō Honda’s GodzillaGodzilla is a powerful if not otherwise somber and dark film because it is born in the aftermath of the post-Atomic age and comes from a country that experienced the shock and horror of the destructive power of technology firsthand. In fact, the imagery of Tokyo burning after Godzilla’s attack draws on the historical memory of the Second World War—the scenes of an illustrious city ablaze and defenseless would have pierced into the heart and memory of Japanese consciousness.

Godzilla can be understood as a metaphor and allegory of technology, especially destructive technology (specifically the nuclear bomb) as most already know and which most initial critics realized. The conventional weaponry of the Japanese military is incapable of stopping this new beast of destruction just as all of Japan’s military weaponry failed to stop the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a more psychological level, however, Godzilla is the manifestation of cosmic imbalance; Godzilla is the object or agent of disharmony and destruction making life impossible in the world brought forth by the advent of our post-atomic and technological age. Godzilla, as the incarnate monster of technological destruction, is the very manifestation of the common dialectical motif in science fiction pitting the old world of human emotion, love, and naturalism against the new, destructive, and dark world of technological scientism. Godzilla, then, is the manifestation of the emergent archetype of the destructive monster (or machine) that has arisen in our post-atomic cosmos—a cosmos now destabilized and threatened by the dark danger of technological holocaust.

Tokyo, the film’s in situ human civilization, is threatened by the cosmic disharmony wrought by the advent of atomic power and energy. The very social fabric and harmony of this civilization is disturbed from the discovery of Godzilla and the terror that he unleashes. Godzilla orphans a child from his parents in his first raid where we witness only Godzilla’s feet and tail. Godzilla also threatens the very world of love, exhibited by the characters Emiko and Ogata, whose very presence makes a life of love and family impossible as our lovers are terrified and flee the presence of the monster.

What makes Godzilla a classic film is the fact that it recapitulates the very themes that guide classic literature: love and strife, a love triangle (Serizawa, Emiko, and Ogata), and primordial religious need for restoration. Godzilla also reveals to us the incompetency of politics and modern civilization in dealing with the crisis we find ourselves in (another common trope in science fiction filmography). When debates rage in a closed political meeting over how to handle the discovery and danger of the reptilian monster, the politicians are outspoken that they must keep the public in the dark and not inform the nation of the impending danger. When the women of the meeting protest, and when Godzilla’s reality cannot be concealed, the very efforts of the government and its logistical and industrial apparatus fail to protect Tokyo from terrible destruction. Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo make present our subconscious fears, in this brave new world unleashed by the fire of atomic technology, that the very things we have relied on to reach our present condition—democratic government and (conventional) technology—are incapable of resolving the crisis we find ourselves in.

Daisuke Serizawa, who we earlier met as the ingenious doctor and as Emiko’s fiancé through arranged marriage, is the sacrificial savior of the film through a process of consciously becoming the sacrificial savior needed to restore harmony to the world. Scarred from the Second World War, he has built the oxygen destroyer that is the only thing—so we believe—that can stop Godzilla and restore the cosmic imbalance wrought from Godzilla’s manifestation. However, he is initially hesitant. Something between a recluse and a monk, Serizawa shelters himself from the pride, prejudice, and darkness of the world. His initial refusal to use the oxygen destroyer is because he doesn’t trust humanity with the power the technological object possesses. Fear grips Serizawa and therefore prevents him from acting.

It is only after witnessing the horrible destruction of Godzilla (epitomized most poignantly with a crying mother hugging her three children and telling them that they will soon see daddy again) that Serizawa eventually agrees to use the oxygen destroyer to defeat the monster. But this is where film becomes truly theological. When Serizawa and Ogata descend into Tokyo Bay to locate and kill Godzilla, Serizawa consciously chooses to become the sacrificial savior whose act of sacrifice brings forth the healing of cosmic transgression. Serizawa also knows his act of sacrifice is going to allow love, and therefore life itself which flows from love, to be possible. He tells Ogata that Ogata and Emiko “should be happy together” in their prospective marriage which can finally come to be without the specter of Godzilla haunting them. Serizawa’s actions reveal that he truly does love Emiko and humanity more generally. Serizawa has undergone a metamorphosis from a reclusive and seemingly mad scientist to the sacrificial hero who takes the sins and transgressions of the world, including his own transgressions from his experiments with the oxygen destroyer, onto himself and dies in the ultimate act of life having overcome prior fear through love. For that is the paradox of religious sacrifice—in death there is life; in death the transgressions of the world are overcome and the unstable cosmos is restored to balance which makes life and love possible and meaningful.

The power and emotion of Serizawa’s death, notwithstanding Ogata’s crying out of his name over the radio, is in the fact that Serizawa’s sacrificial act embodies the religious impulse of human nature. Serizawa’s sacrificial act is unforgettable because it taps into the very impulse of human psychology and the need for sacrifice. Godzilla evokes the need for sacrifice to restore cosmic balance lost in the maelstrom of war, technological “progress,” and human dislocation. The only way to counteract the destabilizing spirit that Godzilla represents is through that most ancient and primordial need and wisdom.

One of the most iconic science fiction films, which is also an enduring film despite its age, is saturated with religious and theological psychology and allusion whether intended or not. What we witness portrayed on the screen is the eternal reality of cosmic imbalance (Godzilla) threatening the world and civilization (Tokyo) and how this comic imbalance is overcome through an act of sacrifice (Serizawa’s death) which restores the lost social and cosmic harmony permitting life to go on (the prospective marriage of Emiko and Ogata). Moreover, Serizawa doesn’t sacrifice himself out of a mere moralism of what is right; he sacrifices himself out of love as evidenced by his final words to Ogata. Godzilla portrays—so soberly, powerfully, even sublimely—the very act of sacrifice which is “needed to restore the social and cosmic harmony lost by…transgression.”

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Godzilla may have been the earliest science fiction film to capture this reality of sacrificial salvation but Star Wars became the most successful film saga to portray the cosmic drama of love, sacrifice, and technological terror for us and remains the most enduring of all science fiction franchises to have done so.

Part of the endurance of the original three films is because they follow the golden template for narrative with the Hero’s Journey, a love triangle, and sacrificial heroism. Star Wars literally grabs us and pulls us into the story immersion that our human nature so desperately craves.

Star Wars is recognizable as medieval fantasy folklore dressed up in the clothing of science fiction and fantasy—which itself is a genre dependent on science fiction as defined by Asimov since fantasy is a response to the expansion of science and technology in our lives. There is no point in belaboring that point here. Instead, I wish to examine how Star Wars portrays the science fiction themes of cosmic disharmony and the sacrificial act of restoration which brings closure to the story.

Like most other science fiction films from the 1950s and 1960s, Star Wars presents technology as the force of cosmic disharmony and how the terror of our new technological age must be countered by the spiritual reality of “The Force.” The Force described in the original trilogy is not yet the more rationalistic explanation of the midichlorian as recounted in A Phantom Menace (which marks the beginning of the rationalization of Star Wars from its original cosmic mysticism). The Force is entirely mystical and mysterious in the original trilogy which adds to the sense of enchantment in the films. The opening scene depicts two space crafts engaged in a battle, with the smaller rebel ship which Princess Leia is on fleeing from the march larger Imperial Star Destroyer which Darth Vader is commanding. After Leia’s capture and the meeting of the Imperial officers on board the Death Star there is no mistaking this mechanistic and scientific instrument of war is the great “threat to the galaxy.”

As the film sets itself up, the galaxy—the naturalistic cosmos with its plurality of life—is now threatened by this sterile machine built for destruction. With the introduction of the Death Star and its destruction of Alderaan, cosmic harmony has been eviscerated. The sudden disharmony of the cosmos is visually represented when Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise sage and mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, feels “a great disturbance in the Force” when on board the Millennium Falcon en route to Alderaan.

At the subconscious level, the Force (as defined and promoted by Obi-Wan) is the mystic harmonious power of love and cosmic balance which permits life to flourish. I shall return to the role of the Force as Lucas’ unitive cosmic spirit later (especially in the context of The Empire Strikes Back) but the reality of the Force as representing the harmony of the cosmos is plainly stated by Obi-Wan when he feels the “great disturbance” after the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. The “Dark Side,” though nominally attached with the same “ancient ways” and “religion” mocked by the Imperial officers in the presence of Darth Vader, is really the technological monstrosity that are the scientific weapons of war which the Empire utilizes for their regime of terror: the Star Destroyer, TIE fighters, and, above all, the Death Star (and we mustn’t forget that Darth Vader is “more machine now than man”).

Thus, Star Wars recapitulates a very ancient theme of cosmic imbalance and the confrontation with this cosmic imbalance which threatens to exterminate life from world. This shouldn’t be surprising given Lucas’ study of religion and mythology, especially eastern religions, during the preceding years before writing and directing the film. But it is from this rich double inheritance that we have the dual story line with its two principal heroes: Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker.

Obi-Wan is the hero of the religious inheritance that runs through the film while Luke Skywalker is the hero of the mythological inheritance that moves through the film. In fact, there is a rich reversal of the order of supersession in Lucas’ first film. Where the conventional story of religion and mythology (and, indeed, science) is that mythology is superseded by religion (and religion eventually superseded by science), Lucas’ film turns this narrative on its head to also combat the hubris of scientific modernism. Instead of mythology being superseded by religion, mythology supersedes religion and the mythological archetypes become the reality strong enough to counter the technological and scientific terror that is threatening to consume the galaxy.

This inversion of the standard mythological-religion narrative, first seen in Giambattista Vico’s La Scienza Nuova, is manifested through the supersession of heroes in the film. As our heroes descend into the cave to confront the monster that lives there (metaphorically represented by the Death Star and Darth Vader respectively), Obi-Wan freely chooses to sacrifice himself in order to help Luke mature into the hero he needs to be to overcome the Death Star and Darth Vader. Obi-Wan’s sacrifice is the culmination of the religious story line in the film and also marks the supersession of religion by mythology because with Obi-Wan’s sacrifice our hero of the mythological inheritance takes over and drives the story to its finale.

Luke Skywalker is the mythological hero of the film because he follows the Mythological archetypal pattern of the “Hero’s Journey” which Joseph Campbell charted out in his famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces and which George Lucas publicly acknowledged as a major influence over the composition of Star Wars. Luke, who is a young hero called to adventure like Siegfried, receives mentorship through his “threshold guardian” in Obi-Wan Kenobi who must depart after making Luke aware of the danger that he must face and overcome. Luke, who is now fully aware of the danger the Death Star, reaches the Abyss (quite literally when he goes down the garbage chute) and ascends (escapes) knowing what he must do to save the cosmos—destroy the Death Star.

But Luke’s ability to defeat the Death Star is integrally intertwined with Obi-Wan’s sacrificial act on the Death Star. For at the moment of triumph it is Obi-Wan, having become entirely united with the Force in his sacrificial martyrdom, who aids Luke in overcoming the dark side and man’s reliance on technology (by turning off the targeting computer). Obi-Wan’s sacrificial death allows him to live on and empower his pupils and disciples to overcome the evils of the cosmos. So while religion is superseded by mythology in Lucas’ inversion, religion is still integrally related to mythology’s empowerment to defeat the totalizing encroachment of science over the cosmos—it is as if an undercurrent of Star Wars is how religion has failed to stop the threat of science and how mythology is our new hope but religion, in this inversion, helps to make mythology strong enough to confront the totalitarianism of technology. Thus it is necessary for a preceding sacrificial event to empower the in situ hero of the new mythological reality to slay the mechanical monster threatening to devour the lovely princess and unleash its fire over the whole of the cosmos.

Cosmic harmony is restored only after an act of sacrifice (Obi-Wan) and a hero’s slaying of the monster (Luke destroying the Death Star) which culminates in the ultimate life-giving event of a man and woman united in this “new hope” (Luke and Leia).

The Empire Strikes Back carries the story into a new epoch where mythological and religious archetypes and allusions remain the predominate spirit of governing the film. This entry in the Star Wars canon is most romantic precisely because the mythological cornerstone to the saga’s construction had been exhausted in A New Hope and therefore forces Empire to draw on the romanticism of love trying to find refuge in a dark and hostile cosmos chasing love away from the world because love is the great threat to political totalitarianism and bureaucracy. (These themes are not uncommon in literature and poetry and are very much present in the political plays of William Shakespeare.)

That The Empire Strikes Back retreats into this timeless theme of love against politics shouldn’t be surprising given where A New Hope ended. The grandest and most emotional of the original space operas, The Empire Strikes Back is also the most mythological precisely because the mythological narrative is what we were left with at the conclusion of A New Hope. Nevertheless, we also see the slow reemergence of the religious storyline which blossoms fully and comes to supersede the more mythological pillars that drove The Empire Strikes Back to its conclusion. Ironically, The Empire Strikes Back begins to question whether mythology is the source strong enough to counter the strangling totalitarianism of bureaucratic politics and technological despotism.

There are two concurrent storylines in Empire. The first deals with a refined telling of the “Hero’s Journey” of Luke Skywalker. In some ways this is both a recapitulation and continuation of his mythological narrative in A New Hope. Luke must meet and train with Master Yoda (his new threshold guardian) to learn the mysterious ways of the Force. In doing so, he becomes more aware of the dangers that Darth Vader, the Dark Side, and the Empire present. Archetypally, he also “descends into the cave” to confront the great evil: himself, when he decapitates the hallucinogenic Darth Vader. This prefigures his descent into the cave—the lower levels—of Bespin to duel Darth Vader and learn the identity of the Skywalker family. (In Luke’s story we also begin to see the emergence of the theological anthropological dilemma of mihi quaestio factus sum: who am I?)

Furthermore, when Yoda says the Force is “around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!” to Luke, this is the most revelatory moment of the Force as the mystical unitive spirit of love reminiscent of the scholastic theologians mixed with New Age vibes. “Love is the unitive force,” as St. Thomas Aquinas said in the Summa. Moreover, the communicative power of the Force we witness toward the end of the film with Luke dangling near death at the bottom of Bespin as if he had just finished traversing the lowest rungs of Dante’s inferno is love. The love of Luke for Leia and Leia for Luke binds them together which allows for Luke’s rescue. The Empire Strikes Back, befitting its mythological blood, ends with the triumph of love in a dark and cold cosmos. But it also begins to shed its mythological skin and pivots toward a more religiously driven storyline that The Return of the Jedi will complete.

The other story in Empire is the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Their pilgrimage across the cosmos to the beautiful city of Bespin, all while being pursued by the Imperial Navy, is the quintessentially romantic myth reimagined in the Star Wars universe. Their growing in love, and especially trust, is what allows them to persevere through all the danger and turmoil that confront them in their flight from tyrannical politics which attempts to exterminate love from the cosmos because love is the great threat to the empty machinations of politics which is premised on the pursuit of power and the use of power which turns humans into mere cogs for scientific and political ends. Han’s sacrificial act allows Leia, Chewbacca, and even Lando, to escape the tyrannical clutches of Darth Vader and gives hope that love will still triumph in the end.

The Return of the Jedi is the finale of the mytho-theological world of Star Wars which fittingly ends with the sacrificial redemption of Darth Vader which restores harmony to the cosmos. A new Death Star threatens life in the galaxy. Once more we see the return of technological horror and tyranny and the threat it poses to love and life instead of the militaristic and bureaucratic politics of tyranny the Empire primarily symbolized in The Empire Strikes Back. The reality of technological terror has returned in full force.

The heart of the Return of the Jedi is the attempt of the son, Luke, to rekindle the spark of goodness in his father. What is the good that Luke feels in his father? It is love. Again, this helps reveal to us the more mystical and religious conceptualization of the Force in the original trilogy. Furthermore, in this relational tug of war it is important to remember that until the end of the film Luke never sees the face of his father. Like the pilgrim seeking the face of God, the face of God—Vader—remains hidden until the pilgrimage is complete. The Return of the Jedi brings closure to the Star Wars universe through the completion of its now religiously grounded storyline.

We see the final supersession of myth with religion onboard Death Star II in the duel between Darth Vader and Luke and through Darth Vader’s sacrificial redemption in killing the emperor (barring what has transpired in the new films produced for purely consumeristic purposes). Darth Vader’s redemption is in finding his love for his son. Love triumphs once more but this time, appropriately, the triumph of love demands a sacrificial death.

So Darth Vader dies from his sacrificial act but not without seeing the face of his son with his own eyes which also permits Luke to see the face of his father for the first and only time. The end of the Return of Jedi is perfect because it wraps up all the ends we had witnessed over the course of the trilogy. The romance of Han and Leia is consummated. Luke’s search for his father and ultimate identity is completed. Darth Vader’s redemption is completed. The cosmos threatened by technological terror—the true “dark side” in the original three films—is restored through an act of sacrifice brought forth by love. Politics didn’t defeat the ostentatiously political Galactic Empire. An act of sacrificial love, that most interior and religious reality, did. Darth Vader gives up power, which can only be acquired by forsaking love, by embracing love. His embrace of love ultimately leads him down the path of sacrificial redemption and restoration which poetically, perfectly, closes the original trilogy. He was the “chosen one” to bring balance to the Force, the cosmos, after all.

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Among the most religiously allusive sci-fi films is James Cameron’s Terminator. At a cursory glance there seems to be nothing particularly theological about this classic science fiction film. A closer inspection, however, reveals the intensely religious and theological symbolism that flows – unconsciously, subconsciously, consciously – through it.

While Terminator manifests our worst fears of technological and atomic annihilation, the film offers us hope through the retelling of the incarnational drama with our in-situ Mary, Sarah Connor, as the lead heroine. After all, Reese transcends dimensions to appear in our world because—as he later reveals—he loves Sarah Connor. The loneliness and bloodshed of the post-apocalyptic world has driven eros, unbounded passionate love, away, but it is Reese’s erotic love for Sarah that allows him to transcend space and time and appear in flesh and blood in 1980s Los Angeles. Here we witness the recapitulation and romanticization of the Christian theme of love governing the cosmos and love being the one force that ties the whole universe together and transcends space and time. We therefore have an eroticized re-articulation of what Aquinas aptly summarized in the Summa, “love is the unitive force.” And love unites Reese and Sarah in this cinematic drama of cosmic salvation.

Sarah is the mother of our deliverance, deliverance in the form of the hero child (John Connor) who will destroy the great evil that threatens to exterminate human life. But this crypto-theological love drama of salvation is complicated by the schemes of a robotic demon, the Terminator (T-800), who tries to thwart humanity’s prospective deliverance from the chains of mechanistic sin and slavery. Terminator dramatizes the intense collision between the cosmos of love (manifested by Sarah and Reese) and the cosmos of sterile death (manifested by the Terminator and also through 1980s Los Angeles with its dark, gloomy, consumeristic atmosphere drowned out by stereo music and techno-lights).

Amid this dramatic battle of love (good) and death (evil), the authorities are incapable of protecting Sarah and our massacred by Death incarnate. The attack on the police station is shocking, or at least was shocking to a 1980s audience where such acts of terrorism on law enforcement and pillars of institutional civilization were not yet a commonplace fear or worry. But the attack and destruction of the police station reveals the limits of our political order to deal with the problem of technological annihilation and how technological darkness can only be confronted by that most human and interior reality of erotic love. The destruction of the police station, the expected “good guys” of film, makes real our subconscious fear that the institutions and pillars of our civilization will not be able to save us in this brave new world we are entering (just as we witnessed in Godzilla).

With Sarah and Reese on the run, almost akin to Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, trust and love grow between them which consummates in the ultimate erotic act: sexual intercourse. It is the love that Sarah and Reese share for each other, made manifest in the sexual act as they hide in a hotel room, that brings forth the conception of the savior child (as the film reveals at the end). Prior to this moment, Sarah and Reese had not built the trust necessary for love to flourish in the life-giving act of love.

The erotic love of Sarah and Reese is the antidote to the sterile and mechanical new world we are entering. As we have witnessed through the progression of the film, all the expected heroes fail to deliver our damsel in distress from harm’s way. Her best friend whom she calls out to first is killed (in part, because she is distracted by technology as she listens to blaring music in her headset). The police fail to protect her and mock the story that Reese tells them, thereby dismissing the very threat of technological annihilation that awaits them by not heeding the warnings. While there is a final confrontation with the machine of death, the real act of salvation is the consummation of eros in the sexual act of love that conceives life and therefore brings life into the world.

In a dazzling science fiction reimagination, what the Terminator visibly portrays on screen for us is that very ancient story of how love transcends space and time and unites souls in this dark world of death and how that love brings forth our salvation. More concretely, Terminator retells—in a technologized world—the story of the incarnation in a purely humanistic (and romanticized) lens. Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of Cameron’s films, the humanistic and erotically romantic aspect of his films from Terminator and Titanic to Avatar.

Over the course of the film, love also metamorphosizes Sarah from a meek and frightened young girl into a strong and powerful woman. The film’s message concerning woman’s role in our salvation is profound in a deeply intimate way that most shallow feminist films are not, for what the Terminator includes in its dramatic Manichean battle is a story of coming of age wherein the female protagonist becomes the protagonist and the undeniable subject of our salvation. Additionally, Sarah’s becoming mother of our salvation through an act of love is not a rejection of her femininity but the fulfillment of it. It is after the sexual act of love in the film that Sarah is transformed from a frightened girl in flight to a strong woman willing to confront the mechanical dragon of death after Reese dies. Her strength is in her motherhood. This is the subtle, but much more intense, feminism at the heart of the film—we do not witness an overburdensome and powerful Sarah from the start as the flanderized series has now become; we witness her transformation primarily through the act of love and intimacy which brings her to fruition: motherhood.

Terminator eschews the possibility of political salvation and is, therefore, a quintessentially anti-Enlightenment film because the Enlightenment fantasy places all its stock in the possibility of political salvation (from Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza, to Locke, Mill, and Marx). Moreover, Cameron’s masterpiece is governed by the spirit of erotic romanticism mixed with an adapted Christian gloss as we witness a Schellingean drama of humanistic eroticism mingled with religious allusions to the incarnation and salvation through the birth of a child (all things the Enlightenment fundamentally rejects as superstition and belonging to our dark and prejudicial animal past). Terminator is the manifestation of our fear of Laputa, romantic need for love and religious impulse, all in one in a captivating and unforgettable cinematic drama with the hopeful message of a mother bearing the child of salvation as she drives off under the sun. In fact, the ending of the Terminator is in a naturalistic environment with natural light unlike the cramped, dark, and mechanical places which had dominated the film from beginning until the end; the darkness has literally given way to light as the film ends.

*

While Terminator may represent the great synthesis of romantic eroticism and traditional religion with its emphasis on the salvific power of erotic love, the 1990s began the shift toward technological détente with a return to the religious need for the sacrificial hero. Independence DayDeep Impact, and Armageddon, films all released in short order of each other, are the best manifestations of this reality. Moreover, all three films include a political and technological component to our salvation which, however, remain subordinate to the overriding principle of sacrificial salvation.

Where many of the sci-fi films set during the Cold War depict technology coldly, ambivalently, or malevolently, the science fiction films in the 1990s and early 2000s depict technology as an essential component to our salvation. The reason for this positive reappraisal of technology is rather obvious in my view. The specter of nuclear holocaust which had hung over the world’s head since the advent of the Cold War had suddenly vanished.

Unsurprisingly, Independence DayDeep Impact, and Armageddon all include the nuclear bomb as an instrument of our deliverance (as does the cult 1990 Japanese film Solar Crisis). Once considered the ultimate dark tool of our reckoning, the bomb is now the defining piece of our deliverance. While I will now shift to examine the religiously allusive aspects of these films, in particular Deep Impact and Armageddon, I do wish to flag the reality of this technological détente within the movement of the science fiction genre as I consider it important in the overall arc of science fiction filmography. The machine is no longer necessarily, and entirely, evil…

Continue reading here: Love and Sacrificial Salvation: The Hidden Theology of Science Fiction Filmography (23 April 2020).

*This was an article written for VoegelinView, where I also serve as an associate editor.

3 comments

  1. I enjoyed your article, ideas are most interesting! I am also interested in your view on the themes you mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s fiction and the adaptations of his work. Or, for example, the sequel to the original Blade Runner, made by Denis Villeneuve.
    IErnst Jünger, the author who celebrated the technological aspects of the world in 1930s, seeing it as a tool to enhance the power of the state, and an uniform which can bring about the new age of the worker, later in his life (he abandoned his earlier position) advocated the same ideas you stress in your article, that eros and alcohol (!), as the the only things left of the dionysiac nature, can serve as a counterpart of a tyrannic, rationalized technological age. When it comes to love, it seems to me that in the contemporary times, love is endangered not by technology and political context, but social one in which the sex act, an ultimate act of love, becomes merely an instrument for having fun and bringing enjoyment, stripped of its primal meaning of union between two people who are deeply in love, caring for each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s spot on! It is engaging and engrossing to see the paradigm shift in sci-fi from authors and directors/films. From the optimism to the fear to the rapprochement.

      The issue you address with love and objectification isn’t new, it is also something I’m deeply concerned with as well. Of course, this particular issue is often absent in sci-fi films and novels even if it is a reality we’re dealing with in our own lives. Personally, I think some of the sexual and gender resentment in our current culture is a byproduct of precisely what you elaborate.

      Liked by 1 person

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