Westworld

Westworld is the place where mankind will transcend his biological programming and become divine. Jonathan Nolan tells us this mythologically through the park’s association with Delos (the Greek island where the Gods Artemis and Apollo were born and death was defeated) as well as through his depiction of the hosts as assembly-line versions of Virtruvian Man, Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawing meant to portray our species in its ideal form.[1] Yet what is remarkable about this saga is its Nietzschean justification for human suffering, which it sees as necessary in order for man to evolve spiritually. As Ford explains to Bernard:

Of course we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now, haven’t we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive. And one fine day perhaps we shall even resurrect the dead, call forth Lazarus from his cave. Do you know what that means? That means that we are done. That this is as good as we’re going to get….

This idea that suffering is somehow necessary returns in Ford’s final conversation with Bernard, where our God-like creator insists that the only way man can transcend the hell of his own self-awareness is to “suffer more” so he learns to “understand [his] enemy.” And while these lines may seem cryptic, recall Ford’s earlier warning to Bernard that it is Bernard himself who poses the real danger to the other hosts in the park, and his similar astonishment over Teresa’s plans to “so blithely destroy all of [the hosts], even [Bernard] I suppose.”

The theme being developed here is the idea that humanity is its own worst enemy, a message shown again in Season One’s striking denouement, which reveals that the villains of Westworld are nothing more than its heroes corrupted by their passions. Not only is the Man in Black a fallen version of “white hat” William, but Wyatt is Dolores herself. And while we can perhaps quibble and treat the latter’s shooting of Arnold as pre-programmed behaviour, there is no such excuse for her murder of Ford, beginning as it does “in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt and a killing: this time by choice.” The use of Radiohead’s “Exit Music” to accompany the closing carnage reinforces this theme more subtly, associating the emergence of human consciousness (“wake from your dream”) with a spiritual rebellion against God (“before your father hears us”) that will have devastating consequences for the world (“before all hell breaks loose”).

Thematically, Westworld shows that man’s descent into this figurative hell is an inevitable consequence of his coming to consciousness. “If you [have children] you’d know they all rebel eventually,” security officer Stubbs cautions early in the show, and his line foreshadows not only the closing robot uprising, but the individual mutiny of each and every host that achieves sentience. Abernathy is the first to rebel, raising his “mechanical and dirty hand” against his creator and threatening:

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

It is perhaps significant that these lines come from King Lear, a tragedy about the descent into madness that follows the rebellion of ungrateful children against patriarchal authority, for the alluded sins of Regan and Goneril are shortly reenacted by Dolores and Maeve, the latter of whom even comments on how easy the journey to hell is. Teresa is likewise induced to conspire against her maker, while Bernard’s awakening leads him into a crime of such premeditated savagery it only confirms Ford in his description of the sentient mind as a “foul, pestilent corruption” and justifies Bernard’s paying his own “blood sacrifice” for the betrayal. Throughout the saga, we see sentience leading to betrayal and then suffering again and again as Westworld plays out this theme like the layered motifs in a Bach fugue.[2]

While this message does not need to be understood in theological terms, the fact that Westworld frames it as such is clear from the treatment of Robert Ford as a boy, for what do we have here but man created quite literally in the image of his maker?[3] In our first encounter with the young child, we see him wandering in the desert of spiritual temptation, complaining of boredom and voicing petty grievances against his father. What plays out next is a reinterpretation of Genesis: Ford counsels his protege that imagination should be sufficient to entertain man, and treats him to the spectacle of divine Logos: the creation of reality through the power of speech. He then warns his child away from the proverbial snake (knowledge and sin) and — unsettled to realise their proximity to murder — cautions the boy never to return. This divine commandment of course goes unheeded, for although the child may be counselled to “turn the other cheek,” we see him descend immediately into deception and murder following his first stirrings of consciousness.[4]

But why exactly does consciousness lead to this fall from grace? In its attempt to answer, Westworld turns to Julian Jaynes and his theory of the bicameral mind, which argues that human sentience emerged as a product of evolution. Ford highlights this idea when he compares the human intellect to the feathers on the peacock (“an extravagant display intended to attract a mate”) as well as when he links “mistakes” in the reveries code to the hosts’ emerging self-awareness. “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool,” he even remarks to draw a parallel between computer errors and errors in genetic transcription. And how else to understand Maeve’s description of her internals as “elegant formal structures, kind of recursive… like two minds arguing with each other?” The allusion to our own double-helix structure for human DNA suggests that Westworld is more preoccupied with explaining human consciousness than discussing data structures in computer science.

And framing the rise of consciousness in evolutionary terms does more than provide a narrative explanation for how sentience spreads in the park. On a deeper level, the comparison suggests that humanity itself is biologically programmed due to aeons of conditioning in the crucible of sexual selection. As the behaviour of guests in the park shows, evolution has given us subconscious impulses to kill, eat and procreate. And so the hosts merely parallel the humans, with the similarities extending far beyond the pathologies of individual sexual competition and right up to the tribal (cowboy versus indian) and even global (samurai versus cowboy) levels of social conflict. At times, Westworld even broadens its critique of evolution into an epochal condemnation of the entire history of the human species. “Do you know what happened to the Neanderthals,” Ford asks rhetorically at one point, going on to explain that it was man who “ate them” as part of his drive to butcher anything that challenged the primacy of his species.

Once sexual selection drives a species, Westworld suggests, its members become programmed with subconscious tendencies towards violence. Such is the case with William, whose feelings for Dolores drive him to savagery, a problematic romance that is foreshadowed when she comes to him at night and by fire, a hell sequence that mirrors Maeve’s later seduction of Hector. Nor is William’s sexual competitor Teddy any more innocent, insisting that “Wyatt has the woman I love [and] if there was a shortcut through hell itself you bet your ass I’d take it.” The bandit Armistice offers a more biblical image of sexual temptation, first appearing to us as a snake (original sin) bathing in water (death) yet being a lure over whom men will fight and kill. Teresa seduces Bernard, while another woman painted in dangerous sexual tones is Charlotte Hale. As one of the “devils and overlords” on the corporate board, Hale opposes Ford both politically and thematically, serving as a Satan-like figure whose primary interest lies in owning the “intellectual property” (read: souls) in the park and whose actions are motivated by a desire to ensure the biological cycle of misery continues. Yet while her role as a negative figure plays into a larger theme, she nonetheless serves as sexual temptress to both Lee Sizemore and Teresa Cullen, and lures both to destruction through a combination of sexual and material inducements.[5]

So while men may seem rational on the surface, Westworld insists that this constitutes the “mask” rather than underlying reality of our species. And it is by stripping away social fictions and letting its guests indulge in their evolutionary urges that the theme park delivers on its promise to reveal their “deepest self”: the grotesque desires encoded in man’s deoxyribonucleic programming, even if not apparent to his rational mind (“the information’s still there, but the newer system can’t read it.”) And thus we have stories about Wyatt’s followers which tell us “it’s the men underneath you need to be afraid of,” or Bernard’s baffled admission that even he doesn’t understand the strength of the emotions he feels. And the malevolence of the emotional substrate is also communicated in more literary ways, like Westworld’s placement of its murderous hosts in the basement of the corporate complex (a water-filled cavern repeatedly compared to the Jungian subconscious), and its depiction of this cavern as the source for the show’s closing spectacle of violence, a rampage that confirms Ford in his wry claim that “as exquisite as [man’s] range of emotions is, even more sublime is the ability to turn it off.”

In review, Westworld argues that the same evolutionary process that made mankind conscious also primed him with the subconscious tendencies to violence that lead him to suffer. Alternately, as Shakespeare expressed in more literary fashion:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triump die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume.

While this degree of self-awareness may be rare in the world (“we cry when we are born, that we are come to this great stage of fools”), Westworld insists that this is the reason suffering is valuable, for it is only through suffering that mankind can gain this wisdom.

This is one of the many themes in Ford’s epic “Journey into Night” narrative, the title of which suggests it is commenting on the universal experience of life in the face of night/death. Shocked out of childhood complacency by the loss of her parents, Dolores leaves on a quest for a reconciliation with God that she hopes will take her “across the river” (beyond death) to a place where “the waters will pass clean off you.” And while her character never quite makes it, Dolores repeatedly insists that it is suffering and loss that drive her forward, broadening her perspective (“you think the grief will make you smaller inside, but it doesn’t”) and making her real. “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real,” the Man in Black confirms, and we see the truth of his statement when Dolores travels into the the Old Territories (metaphorically, the past) and learns the thematic truth of original sin in an empty church where God is most notable in his absence.[6] This is also the point of the cornerstone memories: the quest for meaning in Westworld (what makes us human) is fundamentally related to the experience of grief.

The difficulty of the quest, and the insinuation that it is always ongoing, is the point of the maze, which is “the sum of a man’s choices” and thus serves as a metaphor for life.[6] Nolan also reminds us that Westworld exists so that its guests can “make choices,” with every act of empathy bringing them closer to the God who hides beyond time at the center of the maze, and every act of violence pushing them “spiralling to the edges” where the narratives lead to “madness” and the descent into war. For those wanting to make predictions about the end of the saga, one of the more interesting implications of this reading is the idea that it may be Sweetwater (“sweet death”) that occupies the physical center of the maze and thus will be the place to which the saga will ultimately return. The Christian idea that death will be the reward for those who solve the maze is also implied in the way the toy-version of the maze is found buried in a church cemetery, and the way Maeve and her daughter “die” at its heart. And of course we have Christian iconography in the image of the maze itself, which contains both a representation of man as well as one of the Christian ichthys symbol.

Returning to our main theme, it doesn’t really matter whether we take Westworld’s religious symbolism literally, or just view it as representative of some form of psychological rebirth. The important point from an interpretative perspective is that the presence of Christian symbolism suggests that we are going to get a positive ending. And while the vast majority of Westworld’s characters are acting out loops of aggression, the show hints that some of them will learn to behave with compassion and empathy. And when they do so (thus acting contradictory to their biological or computational programming) the show tells us they will be acting with truly free will, a development that will mark an evolutionary step forward for mankind, taking him “across the shiny sea” and into a “new world” where mankind can achieve its dreams, returning to the paradise where imagination is sufficient to create reality. The idea that this path towards transcendence is always open is implicit when Ford tells Bernard, “I suppose I was hoping that given complete self-knowledge and free will you would have chosen to be my partner once again,” making it obvious that had Bernard chosen a peaceful solution the outcome would have been the restoration of his original relationship with Ford, a relationship alluded to as that of the piano is to the pianist or tool to the tool-maker.

So while it is possible that Westworld will steep us in unremitting misery for several seasons and the hosts will ultimately prove no better than the humans, there are good reasons to believe that the cyclical violence will end for at least some of the characters. One of the stronger signs for this is the treatment of the repair technician Felix, who contrasts with Dolores not only in the etymological connotations of his name (“happiness” versus “sorrow”), but also in his fundamental approach to life. Whereas Dolores gets enmeshed in sexual conflicts that drive her to violence, Felix shows genuine respect for life, teaching himself to create life in his spare time rather than indulging in the carnal temptations that destroy the other undertakers. An astute judge of character, Maeve recognizes this fundamental difference between Felix and the other humans, and cites him for “compassion” before praising him in an ironic phrase that serves as equal indictment of the rest of his species. “Oh Felix,” she says, “you really do make a terrible human being, and I mean that as a compliment.”

So where will the saga end? If we extrapolate from these themes, what we’ll probably see is at least one character rejecting their biological or computational programming, and exhibiting true free will. The self-sacrificial rejection of violence that follows will trigger a thematic return to the lost Eden. And all of it will probably be triggered by a psychological journey into the past that leads man to a better understanding of his own nature. Perhaps the Man in Black will discover that he is truly “white hat” at heart, or Dolores will return to her original view of humanity as good. Whatever the details, death is likely to be the reward, but it will be a good death that moves the characters beyond pain and suffering and perhaps even beyond time and into art itself.[7]

With all of this said, there is one more subtle aspect of Westworld that I think is worth discussing: the way the show presents art as a redemptive influence that counterbalances evolution. To understand what I mean by this, consider the way Westworld’s fragmented narrative puts its audience in the position of hosts, forcing us to ask consistently not only “where” but also “when” we are. This structural self-awareness is clearly deliberate (it is consistent with Nolan’s previous projects), so when Ford tells Bernard at the end of Season One that he must “suffer more,” the lines carry a wonderful ambiguity, since they are addressed as much to the audience as to Bernard. Most viewers will likely have misunderstand the message of the show. And so we too, like the hosts, are told we need to experience more suffering (serialized in season two) until the point will hopefully carry home and we learn the same moral lesson that Westworld insists its own hosts and humans must master.

And if we consider Westworld in this context, one of the things it believes is that art serves a communicative and corrective purpose in society. And while Nolan insists that people are “always trying to error correct” when they talk, what he shows is that art is the method that serves this purpose best. For while art can only offer mankind metaphors, those metaphors contain “deeper meanings” and capture essential truths. This even given to us directly by Ford, who tells us that:

Since i was a child, I’ve always loved a good story. I believe that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves. To fix what was broken in us. And to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies. That told a deeper truth.

Thus we have the photo that prompts Abernathy to consciousness, the quote from Romeo and Juliet he picks to instruct his daughter, or the multiple paintings which contain subliminal messages, such as Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in which the hidden message (the mind is divine in its unfallen form) is one of the subtler themes of the show. The script even tells us that our fondness for art is perhaps a gift of God (“Arnold gave you that [fondness for painting]”). Can it really be accidental that Arnold communicates to subliminally to the hosts through a transponder hidden in a theatre?

Westworld also shows us that art is a conduit for moral instruction by quoting literary works and musical passages that reinforce its themes. The sense that sexual competition is what torments Teddy is suggested in Ford’s encouragement that he “look back, and smile at perils past,” a reference to Walter Scott’s Bride of Triermain with its themes of seduction and courtship. The threatening aspects of human sexuality are also alluded to in the eroticised orgy we see in the Contrapasso episode. While the name of the town (Pariah) indicates clearly that what we see is destructive and outcast behavior, the title of the episode comes from the Divine Comedy and suggests that the punishments we will see meted out to the characters will come in proportion to their embrace of sin. On a more subtle note, consider the selection of “La Habanera” from Carmen as background music for one of Hector Escaton’s killing sprees; for what is the overriding theme in George Bizet’s opera but the destructive power of passion, with lyrics that paint love as “a rebellious bird” that will never come to law.

The final speech Ford makes is also worth revisiting this in light. For in that speech, Ford ever describes the entire park (read: television show) as a deliberate exercise in the tradition of literary story-telling, explaining to his guests that:

I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition and for my pains I got this, a prison of our own sins. As you don’t want to change. Or cannot change. Cause you’re only human after all. But then I realized that someone was paying attention. Someone who could change. So I began to propose a new story, for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices that they will have to make.

As the visual editing makes clear, with the camera cutting to a shot of Maeve and the mother/daughter on the train at the same time Ford invokes the idea of a “new people and the choices that they will have to make,” the loops in Westworld now stretch to encompass the repeating cycle of life that stretches from parent to child and in doing so perpetuates the human species. Great art — a product of human suffering — is the work of men to prevent their children from making the same mistakes they did, to “error correct” man’s evolutionary impulses to violence. And thus art is the counterweight to evolution, working through children who are always reading/listening and capable of change. And this is why the ending is more positive than most people suspect. It closes by adding significance to its earlier scenes of Arnold reading to his son, and Maeve counters Dolores’ embrace by violence with her first steps away from self-destruction and towards the improvement of her species.


[1]: Dolores is Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt. Artemis is associated with the wolf, which appears at various points in Westworld a sign of Dolores herself.

[2]: The episode “Well-Tempered Clavier” makes this metaphor explicit, comparing Westworld’s recurring character patterns to the layered themes in a Bach fugue. The metaphor also calls attention to the connection between sheet music and DNA “programming” presented in the opening credits sequence.

[3]: The use of the term “hosts” to describe the robots also carries theological overtones of the body as host for the soul.

[4]: The derelict house mirrors the park in the sense that both are paradises that become fallen worlds following man’s fall from grace. Just as the original hosts existed in a happy symbiosis with their makers until their fall from grace, so were the hosts in Ford’s house replicants which “flattered the originals” until Ford gave the inhabitants a few of their “original characteristics” (read: original sin). Both theme park and house are also used as metaphors for the human mind (see footnote 6).

[5]: Beyond the corporate world, one of the nicer examples of Westworld playing with the idea of money as a corrupting influence comes in the way its negative characters repeatedly discuss the amorality of business, insisting that “personal grudges hold no sway where profit is concerned.” See also William’s emergence as a business tycoon following his fall from grace.

[6]: Technically, the maze is the theme park and by extension the human mind, both of which are fallen paradises. This comparison is strengthened in the sense that the park is a walled garden, while the script insists that “your mind is a walled garden… even death cannot touch the flowers blooming there.” And it is interesting to note here that the term walled garden is etymologically related to the word for paradise.

[7]: Note the comparison with Bernard, who is also told that he can only find enlightenment by going back into the past. Bernard’s failure to move beyond his own experience of suffering (“open his eyes”) is what condemns him to his self-destructive assault on Ford, where he is defeated by his own nature. Had Bernard been able to move beyond his experience of suffering, he would presumably have returned to his first experience of the parent as a loving rather than threatening figure. This same pattern can be seen in Dolores’ closing confrontation with the Man in Black: she fails to treat him as William and her use of violence then backfires and destroys her.

[8]: It’s interesting that Ford is not a perfect figure at the start; his domineering approach to the hosts differs from Arnold’s more compassionate attitude and he is in many ways responsible for their rejection of him as a benevolent authority. His other big mistake seems to be the attempt to create life but hold it in stasis, rather than permit it to fall into corruption and work towards its own redemption. His recognition of both errors is what leads him to follow Arnold in the self-sacrificial “Jesus loop” of accepting death at their hands for the sake of helping his creatures.

Captain America: Civil War

Civil War starts with the creation of the “Winter Soldier”, a figure whose personal and political history establishes him as a negative doppleganger for Captain America. Significantly, it is political ideology (the “red book”) that makes this former hero a villain, overcoming his rationality, eradicating his individuality and transforming him a willing tool of the state. The critique of collectivism implied here (as also in the nonsensical text which subdues Bucky’s reason) will subsequently become the major theme of the film, which argues that collectivism is dangerous not only because it undermines the individual’s freedom to act with virtue but also because it can lure even the well-intentioned into serving as the unwitting pawns of those with political power.

As the film proper begins in Lagos, we see a number of Avengers struggle to save the world from biological terrorism. While the casualties are light compared to the deaths averted, the group’s inability to avoid any collateral damage invites political intrigue, and when the squad returns to New York a second “red book” is thrust upon them in the form of the Sokovia Accords, a text which parallels its Soviet predecessor with a similar call for the subordination of individual freedom to the collective interests of the state. The thematic lines implied in the first scene are thus redrawn on a larger scale, forcing the Avengers to choose between accepting government oversight (collectivism) or standing in defense of individual liberty (individualism).

Although the audience is clearly meant to be sympathetic to both sides, the script offers unblinking support for its titular hero. Certainly, it is interesting that none of the Avengers who fight with Captain America in Lagos end up supporting the Sokovia Accords (the Black Widow is the exception that proves the rule, the double agent who switches sides exactly when her personal interests require it). Conversely, all of the figures who acquesce to government oversight are notably disconnected from the events they unfairly condemn. The American Secretary of State, for instance, is an official who brags of a “perspective” (read: distance and non-involvement) gained through a forced retirement. His removal from the events he criticizes is similar to that of the grieving mother who waylays Tony Stark over the death of her son, the King of Wakanda (who abdicates his responsibility for maintaining regional peace), and even the main villain Zemo, whose mission to avenge his murdered family (paralleled in the similar vengeance quests of Tony Stark and the Black Panther) is sparked by his experience of their deaths at a distance.

The role that media may play in creating and nurturing political grievances is suggested by the visuals of violence which play-and-replay on monitors and mobile devices through the film and in doing so provide the pretext for the state suppression of individual freedom. While Captain America and the Scarlet Witch have a meaningful discussion of their own failures, the other characters can only criticize from a position of ignorance. Personal experience is of paramount importance to proper moral judgment in this reading. And thus when the Black Panther confronts Zemo at the climax, it is his personal experience with his father’s death which allows him to transcend vengeance (unmasking and regaining his humanity) and become at last an agent of real rather than vigilante justice, a moral reversal which also changes his home from the “Wakandan prison” dismissed ironically by Stark mid-film to the hospital refuge we see at the film’s close which promises safeguard the Winter Soldier in his voluntary seclusion.

For further evidence Civil War sides with Captain America in an unapologetic defence of individualism, consider how the script confirm Captain America in his critiques of the Sokivia Accords. When discussing the agreement with the other Avengers following the ultimatum issued by the State Department, Captain America follows his generic defence of liberty with the more subtle observation that if the state itself is corruptible, what seems to be the collective interests of society may in fact be the private agendas of those in power. And this is exactly what the film shows on a closer reading: the grieving mother who convinces Tony Stark of the necessity of oversight is clearly motivated not by her public role as state functionary so much as her unrelenting private grief; Tony Stark admits that his support is due mostly to the way the agreement offers a politically expedient way for him to repair a tarnished personal relationship (and repress his own desires); and of course the villain Zemo is a manipulative force who drives the action behind the scenes and manipulates all of the players for his own private purposes.

DeepenThe international community’s attempts to foist the Sokovia Accords on the American government are also shown to be hypocritical. At the least, it is ironic that the Wakandan attempt to regulate “enhanced individuals” is justified on democratic grounds given that Wakanda is a monarchy that is not subject to democratic pressure. This same regime is also implicitly criticized by the film for not subjecting the Black Panther to international monitoring. And it is surely one of the more pointed ironies of the story that this new hero — who is credited with the the success of the diplomatic effort to create the accords — immediately follows their enactment with a vigilante crusade to “avenge” his father.

Although Civil War generally eschews more complex symbolism, the film’s criticism of the Sokovia Accords also comes out in some traditional symbolic ways, such as the way the Iron Man contingent suffers far more than Captain America’s in their set-piece airport battle, a sequence which shows multiple characters on the collectivist side unexpectedly stripped of their “powers” (read: virtues) or who find said powers newly unreliable and/or self-destructive: Iron Man’s multiple concussions, War Machine’s broken spine, and Vision’s loss of “clarity” (a symbol of blindness which parallels Tony Stark’s black eye) all indicate on a basic symbolic level that these characters are in the wrong. For a more trivial example, when Vision is shown sitting in defeat at a chessboard, the black king dangling from his hand, the image is evocative of Stark’s earlier warning that the Avengers themselves are now “in check.”

And just as the Avengers who accept oversight lose virtue, the film shows the American government grow more repressive and militaristic as the Sokovia Accords take root. Not only do the police dispatched to capture The Winter Soldier adopt an unnecessary kill-first policy, but the prisoners captured end up being treated unequally under the law, with the least fortunate (and ironically the most innocent) character denied due process or legal representation. The imprisonment of Bucky is then paralleled in the deliberate grounding of the Scarlet Witch as well as the imprisonment of the other heroes in a black jail that exists beyond the protection of national law. The way the script refers to these incidents as “internments” also suggests -— as does the appearance of the Lend/Lease pens as the signing instruments for the accords -— that the state itself is moving towards militarism and war in these scenes.

And this brings us to the end of the film. Tony Stark’s rejection of the State Department at the end of the film turns him towards a more ambiguous rejection of what the Sokovia Accords represents. Yet when confronting Bucky at the Siberian enclave, Iron Man falls to the same temptation as the villain Zemo, tempted into the pursuit of blind vengeance by the murder of his family. In the battle which follows, all of the heroes suffer fundamental wounds indicative that it is this militaristic violence which is ultimately self-destructive (a theme alluded to in the multiple references to The Empire Strikes Back), and in which the behavior of the characters also indicate the fallen state of American virtue.

And this is perhaps the most interesting moment of the film. For what do we have at the climax but the rejection of America by the figure meant to represent its cardinal virtues? The message of this sequence, followed by the Captain’s plainclothes liberation of his imprisoned crew, is the idea that a real American will embody the virtues of American values even if doing so requires him to abandon patriotism. As the Platonic embodiment of individualism, Captain America thus casts off his country when its government becomes inconsistent with those ideals, and so the film ends on a note of tragedy, but also the promise that America can and may return whenever the country calls out again for the freedom this hero represents.

Fury Road

“I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead, hunted by scavangers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this Wasteland.” — Mad Max

“Where must we go, we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves?” — Epilogue

George Miller opens and closes Fury Road with references to The Wasteland, the Grail Legend in which the spiritual sickness of a king is reflected in the barrenness of his kingdom. Just as in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem which takes its themes from the same story, in Fury Road the allusion is used to suggest that the bleakness we see in the external world finds its source in individual spiritual malaise.

This emphasis on psychological suffering is the reason Max is introduced to us as a subhuman character who lives a “half life” and suffers from a failure of reason (madness). His unkempt appearance and predatory behavior stresses his animalistic nature, as does his subsequent transformation into a beast of prey (“hunted by scavangers”) and his getting branded like cattle and muzzled like a dog. Fury Road will eventually restore both reason and humanity to Max, but in its first act the film paints its lead as less than human, even denying his character a name and referring to him simply as “blood bag”, a commoditization of life in tune with the script’s comparison of blood to gasoline (“top me up,” shouts Nux) and of men to machines.

As the film picks up, George Miller shows us the consequences of this individual madness and human commodification: the emergence of the Wasteland with its scarred and deformed people, the “sour” soil which parallels the infertile people, the exploitative economic structure (depicting a white elite subjugating an aboriginal community) and the predominance of death personified in the figure of Immortan Joe. The loss of humanity in these scenes is also reflected in the assembly-line production of “mother’s milk” (corporate profiteering replacing maternal affection), the general reliance on child labour, as well as Miller’s ironic repurposing of corporate symbols into religious and artistic artifacts, as in the War Boys’ worship of the V8 engine, casual religious references to “McFeasting in Valhalla” or even the transformation of music itself into a tool of war. We see all of these dystopian practices most directly with the Citadel, but George Miller generalizes his complaint about the destructive qualities of capitalism through casual references to other predatory settlements, such as “Gas Town” run by “The People Eater”.

Thematically, the point Fury Road is making is that the dysfunctional corporatism it sees as corrupting modern society is the consequence of humans living inauthentic and isolated lives, and that the consequence of any such a mode-of-living is self-destruction. And this is why the first part of Fury Road ends with a spectacle of violence and death. As the Citadel is betrayed by Furiosa, undone by the very forces it has engendered in classic Marxist fashion, an orgy of Roman-themed violence (note the visual references to the chariot race from Ben Hur) unfolds to suggest the essentially fascist and imperial nature of the regime. When Max sees his car (mirroring himself) repurposed into a tool of war and asks what else will be taken from him, the film has already given us its answer: his life. Visually crucified riding into an apocalyptic storm, Max is portrayed in these scenes as an ironic Christ figure, a “universal donor” whose blood sacrifice will ultimately topple the Empire. And thus the first part of the film ends with the death of Max as light fades to darkness in the sands of the lifeless desert.

With his characterization of the Wasteland complete, Miller turns his attention to the question of escaping from it, and as the second act of the film begins, the aggressive death imagery of the Wasteland is replaced by visuals of fertility and life, with day replacing night, the women unchaining themselves from locks suggestive of patriarchal control, and water (a symbol of life here) spilling onto the sands in sexualized anticipation of the larger release we will see at film’s end. Max is also symbolically reborn, yet as his character draws upwards from the grave, we see that he is still chained to Nux (“worthless” in proto Indo-European languages), the figure he most closely resembles and whose “night fevers” (bad dreams) make him a double for both Max (who is haunted by the dreams of his family) and Furiosa (who is obsessed with a vision of the past). The film has opened the possibility of redemption, but only to small degree: this idyllic interlude is unsustainable and the characters are still threatened from without.

The fight scene that follows ends with Max’s inability to escape in the stolen rig, a thematic failure that follows from his violent and selfish behavior. Yet as the escape continues and Max and Furiosa come to place greater trust in each other and promote each other’s welfare (as Max becomes “useful” to the community) their actions trigger a series of psychological changes. While letting Furiosa back onto the truck earns Max the file, for instance, it is Max’s voluntary decision to repair the sabotaged rig which triggers the removal of his animal mask. This same logic — victory following community-oriented acts of self-sacrifice — continues right up through Max’s defeat of the Bullet Farmer, where his character risks abandonment for the sake of the women and his selfless actions lead symbolically to his rediscovery of hope and restoration of sanity, and he returns to taste feminine love (mother’s milk) for the first time.

In these scenes and others, what Fury Road argues is that defeating social tendencies towards exploitation requires commitment to the sort of communal love first experienced in childhood, and particularly between mother and child. This motif is most obvious with Furiosa, whose quest is a quite literally an attempt to return to the green paradise of youth. But Miller portrays the escape as a journey into the past in other ways, such as the canyon entrance suggestive of a vaginal crevice, or the dream-like realm of crows (a common symbol of the otherworld) beyond which we find the past, and not only as Furiosa’s lost family, but also historically as pre-corporate Australian aboriginal communities from which “stolen children” were historically abducted by the white man. Having thus journeyed into the past and regained an awareness of community and love, the group recovers the seeds (of fertility and hope for the future), the wisdom of the elders, and it turns to democracy (voting on its future) instead of tyranny.

While George Miller sees the memory of childhood as necessary for overcoming our tendencies towards inhumanity, he is not so naive as to argue it is possible to recreate the past. Traveling back into the symbolized womb, we are shown it transformed into an infertile swamp. Furiosa is driven to despair on her recognition of this fact, and Miller pulls back from romanticizing pre-modern society, cautioning that living in the past is not only futile (the seeds won’t take) but that a true paradise requires movement into the future. As indicated by Miller’s allusions to The Wasteland, spiritual reformation will trigger social renewal, but it will come through a restoration of the barren kingdom introduced to us at the start of the story, not the creation of a new and better one elsewhere: the society that must change is the Citadel, for the Citadel is the only society there is.

This is the thematic and mythic reason driving the closing act, and this is also why the third act offers a conscious structural reversal of the first one. Standing on the cliff, Max is motivated by his past demons to rescue his friends from a fruitless attempt to find arable land in the ocean saltlands (the chaser and not the chased). Similar reversals continue through the journey home, as Max’s visions of the dead now help where they had previously hurt him, in one case even triggering a physiological response that saves his life. Now that Max is surrounded by community and properly motivated, even his suffering is transformed into a positive force. It is possible Miller is even saying that suffering is in some ways necessary for change, and that it is Max’s experience of it which enables him to become a catalyst for social change.

Appropriately, the reversals we see in Max are paralled by psychological transformations in other characters. As the film veers towards the death of death itself, Max’s doppleganger Nux regains his humanity in a similar fashion. His romantic relationship gives his life new meaning and his white face paint visibly fades as he recaptures an individual identity (and note the somewhat paradoxical idea that the individual can only exist in community). This — the film argues — is what makes life redemptive. Thus by the time of his sacrificial death (a giving of blood that parallels Max’s donation to Furiosa) we even see Nux undergo a genuine religious experience where the emphasis is on his individuality (“witness me“), the genuine significance of his sacrifice now emphasized by its thematic contrast with the previous suicide attacks by the War Boys, characterized as those were by ritualistic face-painting (the covering of the self) and drug-induced mania (the loss of human reason).

When Rictus describes his baby brother as “perfect in every way”, the audience intuitively understands that this is an ironic comment on the Wasteland, and the way human values in such an apocalyptic condition value life only as a commodity and without regard to its most important characteristic (conscious existence). But now the defeat of Joe Immortan offers us the defeat of death and this entire mindset, and the chase winds down with Max donating blood to Furiosa, a re-enactment of the Christ myth that inverts the logic of the first act in which Max’s similar donation was involuntary. In shedding his blood for the community, and of his own accord, Max finally recovers his true name (and full humanity) and becomes symbolically whole again as the group rides off into the sunset in the Western tradition.

The closing scenes then serve as epilogue. The return to the Citadel is the Wasteland restored. It is the protagonists’ acts of mutual rescue (their sacrifice to save Furiosa) which save them in turn as the group is lifted heavenward by the children (the future rather than the past) who are responding to the maternal affection which earlier redeemed the lead characters. And so the masses of humanity are uplifted where they had been previously downtrodden and water flows out into the desert in an image suggestive of both life and sexual fertility. Politically and mythologically, Australia has come to integrate its past into its present, empowered by a recognition of its history to undermine an exploitative and racist class structure. At the same time, Miller continues the Marxist themes of his previous films, suggesting that that future may ultimately only be created by children, and while Max may be the catalyst of social change, he will be trapped forever in his time.

Inception

Inception open with a shot of the ocean, a traditional symbol of the subconscious and death in English literature. Christopher Nolan has used this symbol similarly elsewhere, such as in Batman where the dark waters of the subconscious lurk in the caverns below the city, but there is no need to leap to other films to assert the intentionality of this reading, for Nolan gives it to us directly midway through his film, cutting to a shot of the ocean at the exact moment the word “subconscious” is heard on the soundtrack.

This hidden layer of meaning is the reason water imagery grows more intense and destructive the further Inception takes us into the world of the mind. As the dream levels mount, we pass through a light rain, thunderstorm, and snow-drenched avalanche before plunging into the ocean that exists “on the shore of our subconscious.” Water also appears at those key moments in the narrative where Cobb’s subconscious intrudes onto his waking mind, both in the Mombasa sequence where he suffers a vision of Mal while washing his face, or the two drinks which send him and Fischer to sleep on the plane. And Nolan has also alluded directly to this symbol in one of his rare attempts to explain the film. In an interview with Wired magazine, he claimed:

There’s a relationship between the sand castle the kids are building on the beach in the beginning of the film and the buildings literally being eaten away by the subconscious and falling into the sea.

The relationship alluded to here is of course one of equivalence, and — sure enough — what happens to the sandcastles will ultimately happens to the world of limbo itself: destruction by water/death. The allusion is thus a clear reference to the story of the wise and foolish builders from Matthew 7:24, the Christian parable that cautions against a faithless existence building on sand, and counsels its readers to instead live a life of faith:

And every one that hearest these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which build his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Once recognised, this allusion unlocks the true meaning of the film, as it becomes clear that the dreams worlds in Inception are primarily metaphors for our own human lives, existing in a “shared dreamspace” into which we fall through birth and exit through death, and being places in which we have the power to be architects of our own lives. This message is both positive – in its celebration of the power of human creativity – but also negative in the sense that the world of creation is ultimately also one of death, a point most strikingly emphasized in the tombstone-like backdrop of the city as Cobb and Mal approach death (the train) in the hope but not certainty they may awaken in a higher world.

The opening scene in Inception thus communicates to its audience on a symbolic level the exact same idea that Cobb presents to Saito on the narrative level, the suggestion that the world itself is not real in some fundamental sense. We will see in a moment how this same message resurfaces again and again in other philosophical and literary allusions hidden in the film, but before we do that it’s perhaps worth nothing how Nolan emphasizes it through stylistic and genre choices as well. Consider his depiction of Mal as a negative temptress in the noir tradition, for instance. While most critics recognize the significance of Mal’s ominous name, none seem to have picked up on the actual reason for her dramatic malevolence: as the character who prefers to live in limbo and build castles on the beach, Mal is the personification of the foolish builder from the biblical parable, and thus a symbol of faithlessness and death.

So forget the overly-complicated explanations of Inception that litter the Internet, trying to dissect the plot and map out who-is-dreaming-what-and-when-and-where. What we have in this film is a story that operates on the level of symbolism and allegory. And this is why the opening heist plays out as it does, introducing Cobb as a thief who is obsessed with wealth and consumed by the importance of “buying his way home.” As Cobb’s mission progresses, we see him make moral error after moral error: placing his faith quite wrongly in the corporal reality of Mal’s existence (a mistake which triggers a biblical fall and blasphemy) and then embracing violence when betrayed. Cobb’s coarse treatment of Saito in the scene which follows – throwing the man to the rug and threatening him with a pistol – also backfires, serving only to undo the entire nature of his multilayered deception. And then as our heist closes we witness Cobb’s selfishness as he abandons his colleagues to be hunted down for a mission which failed because of his own moral failings.

Soon we begin to see a transformation in Cobb however, a change that starts with his refusal to take vengeance on Nash, a rejection of Old Testament eye-for-an-eye violence which opens the possibility for the greater “leap of faith” that will cap the second heist. By the end of that mission we will see Cobb’s transformation complete, as he changes into a gift-giver rather than thief (incepting rather than extracting) who is not motivated by greed and has – the script stresses – no financial stake in the heist. All four of his major character flaws from the first heist (greed, violence, faithlessness, selfishness) are now deliberately reversed as the film moves towards its climax. Rejecting Mal where he trusted her before, Cobb renounces violence before risking his life to rescue an imperiled team-member, an act of self-sacrifice that transforms him into the prophetic figure of his final meeting with Saito, here the figurative Christ who has descended into the mortal world bringing the message of salvation.

In this reading it is hardly accidental that Cobb’s victory over Mal triggers Fischer’s reconciliation with his father, for by the end of the second heist Inception is operating almost entirely in the realm of metaphor, and veering towards an ending the significance of which is purely symbolic. For what is Mal’s temptation of Cobb but a temptation of faith? “You don’t believe in anything anymore,” she says before he rejects her with an expression of faith in his children “up above.” And what is the dive into the river but a baptismal inundation symbolizing the death of the body and rebirth of the soul? This is the “clean dive” through death alluded to in Cobb’s first conversation with Mal on the parapets of Saito’s castle. Passing downward through the waters of death, Cobb awakens in the metaphorical heavens restored to youth as in the Christian tradition. The rush of images which follow continue this Christian theme, presenting Cobb’s judgment and forgiveness of sins (at immigration), his reunion with his father, and his restoration to the heavenly garden where his children James and Philippa (both aptly named after Christian apostles) fulfill the significance of their names by building a “house on the cliff” in the film’s final line of dialogue, thus bringing us full-circle to the opening parable of the wise and foolish builders, except now in the reversed and positive form as the faithful children construct their house on the “rock of God.” The cinematic journey which began on the “goddamned beach” of the mortal world reaches its end with a return to the Eden-like garden from which Cobb was earlier expelled.

The prevalence of Christian imagery at the climax of Inception makes it an open question whether Nolan intends us to read Cobb’s journey as a literal passage to heaven, or whether his “leap of faith” is suggestive of a more abstract kind of psychological death and rebirth. But regardless of how seriously we take Inception’s religious subtext, there is no question that the film is playing with these ideas, for a closer look shows that these Christian themes are paralleled and reinforced by other philosophical and mythological allusions.

Consider the script’s emphasis on its multiple characters who fall into dream worlds and forget truths that they once knew. Although the intellectual reference is somewhat obscure, the philosophical idea Nolan is referencing here is anamnesis, the Platonic argument for the immortality of the soul. Developed in the dialogues Meno and Phaedo, anamnesis holds that the soul is all-knowing and immortal, but loses all knowledge when it incarnates into the human world and suffers the shock of birth. Demonstrated in Socrates’ example of a slave boy who learns geometry through nothing more than questioning, the idea underpinning anamnesis is that all learning is simply the act of remembering truths once known but somehow forgotten. And this is where the theory connects to Inception, for as the faithless temptress in the Christian tradition, Mal is also the Socratic negative, and her counterpart is Saito, whose recollection of Cobb as a man “from a half-remembered dream” stirs him not-coincidentally to recall the “radical notion” behind anamnesis itself: the supposition that the soul is immortal. This merging of Christian and Platonic thought is seamless and clearly deliberate, and Nolan even prods us to make the connection by naming Saito’s company (Proclus Global) after a neoplatonic philosopher whose theory of the soul turned anamnesis into a more religious philosophy.

Themes of architecture and creation (“building things that would not be possible in the real world”) also reinforce our confidence in the intentionality of these overarching Christian and Platonic themes. As the figurative Father to the wayward Cobb, Miles is a clear symbolic representation of the Christian God in this reading, a master creator who makes his son in his image and teaches him everything he knows. Seen in this light, it is striking how the exchange between the two in Paris plays out as a discourse on free will and sin (in front of a blackboard covered by sketches of the Sistine Chapel). Although berated by his father for his ethical failings (“I never taught you to steal”) and urged to “come back to reality” (the Christian garden on the cliff or Platonic world of ideal forms), when Cobb (“beloved of God”) asks his father for help, it is provided (Matthew 7.7) in the guise of a woman whose totem (a bishop) suggests her role as a spiritual emissary and whose mythological name suggests that her purpose is to guide him from the labyrinth of the mortal world, an act she symbolically fulfills shortly thereafter when shattering a set of mirrors which trap Cobb in the boundless maze of his own subconscious (itself a deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane).

Inception’s doubled themes of father-son alienation and reconciliation (with Fischer as with Cobb) offer yet more evidence that Nolan is mythologizing Christian and Platonic themes. In the scenes of Robert Fischer and his hospitalized father, for instance, what do we have but the “Fisher King” of the Christian Grail Legend? A spiritually wounded prince with a bedridden father, Fischer depends for his healing on the successful completion of the main knight’s task, with Cobb replacing Perceval in this reworking of the Arthurian romance. The central themes in the original story (the limits of rationality when applied to questions of faith) are then layered over Inception’s narrative, with Cobb’s major character weakness – his thematic lack of faith – now linked to his tendency to over-rationalize.

Given the film’s mythological grounding in the Fisher King story, it should hardly surprise us that it is the creative Eames who recognises the possibility of inception while the rationalist Arthur rejects it, arguing logically but incorrectly that it is always possible to reason one’s way to the “genesis” of an idea. As the Fisher King subtheme insists, over-rationality is blinding, the same thematic point of which is also made in the architect Nash’s (presumably associated with mathematical rationality through the Nash equilibrium) failure to “know” how to make a necessary prop, Arthur’s failure to “know” Fischer’s subconscious was militarized, as well as in Cobb’s hesitation to shoot Mal on the snow fortress level, a failure the script promptly classifies as one of over-ratiocination. Like Perceval, Cobb will not achieve spiritual transcendence until he tempers his rational desire to be sure about the nature of the world and acts instead with an emotional naturalism that is grounded in his love for his children.

And just as in the Grail legend, where Perceval’s embrace of childlike wonder leads to the rejuvenation of the Fisher King and his kingdom, so does Cobb’s spiritual journey result quite naturally in Fischer’s deliverance, with this mythological allusion now mirroring Nolan’s other Christian and Platonic themes and telling us that Fischer’s reconciliation with his father is indeed meant to be understood allegorically as man’s reconciliation with divine grace. And indeed, while there are those who read Fischer’s catharsis cynically, arguing that he has been deceived by the incepting team, their reading is fragmentary and mistaken. For not only does the heist team consider itself as doing a favor for Fischer (the script itself claims their actions are virtuous), but the undercurrents of anamnesis in the symbol of the safe (what gets locked away is always the truth) remind us that all acts of memory are genuine, and that what Fischer recalls at the climax should be viewed as a genuine truth once known but somehow forgotten: the reality that his father did in fact love him, a truth now manifest in the image of the pinwheel and photograph.

While the most likely meanings of Ariadne (the guide from the Theseus myth) and Fischer (the wounded prince from the Grail Legend) thus work perfectly in this interpretation, we also have supporting evidence for it in the names of lesser characters. Uncle Peter, who holds Fischer’s company in trust from his father, may echo the disciple Peter who acted as steward for the early church. Joseph, who holds the keys to the world of the dream, also mirrors his biblical counterpart, not only in his role as provider of the necessary sedative to unlock the lower dream levels (a figurative key of sorts) but even literally in one scene where he jangles a set of keys to his basement, a place which symbolizes the cave of the inner-self/mortal world (a hell which can become the world to those trapped in it) and a journey into which leads Cobb to encounter his own inner demons, personified in the guise of Mal who appears in the mirror/window of his soul as the Minotaur lurking in the labyrinth within.

There is a tremendous amount of this sort of detail in Inception: practically every scene is operating on multiple levels at once. But rather than dissecting the film scene-by-scene, let us simply move on to the final major subtheme of note: Inception’s extension of the maze into a metaphor for life itself. An extension of the Theseus myth as well as of the medieval Christian concept of life as a moral test (from which only the virtuous escape through death), the idea that life itself is a maze is communicated in Inception primarily through the script’s insistence that all dreams must be built in paradoxical and maze-like forms and are places where characters can “get lost”. This tripartite symbolism (life is both a dream and a maze) is the reason that labyrinth imagery – as unlike water imagery – transcends the dream worlds and appears in the rooftop visuals of Paris and Mombasa as well as in the dream worlds themselves.

And this abstract imagery is where Inception really takes flight. For when Ariadne proves her worthiness by drawing a circular maze (a thematic recognition of the paradoxical nature of life itself), her circle should draw to our minds not only the circular image of the Penrose staircase or the circular nature of purgatory (limbo) as manifest in the rings of Dante’s Inferno, but even the circular nature of consciousness itself, expressed in Plato’s vision of the soul as a circle: the loop Cobb draws to explain how consciousness simultaneously perceives and creates the world of its own existence. Operating at its most abstract in these scenes, Inception throws itself into the abstract suggestion that is our human sense of consciousness itself that constitutes the prime paradox of existence.

While this interpretation of Inception may seem somewhat ambitious to those unaccustomed to film analysis, it is refreshing to note how this reading leads us independently to the exact same claims about Inception as those made by Christopher Nolan in his rare attempts to explain the film. In the same interview with Wired magazine quoted above, for instance, Nolan acknowledged that the ending of Inception is ambiguous on the narrative level, but stated that his film is nonetheless characterized by an unambiguous and “sincere interpretation” which operates on a meta-level. While he demurred from explaining what exactly his interpretation is, for Nolan, it is only us – the audience – who have the proper perspective to understand the significance of what we have seen.

And all of this brings us to the closing shot of the spinning top. For while the totem is ultimately a fairly minor symbol in Inception, what it represents is the same sort of faithlessness associated with Mal (its creator). Introduced to us as a tool used by those who lack conviction in the true nature of reality, the totem is only of use to characters who “don’t believe in one reality anymore” or who lack faith about what is fundamentally real. And this subtext makes the spinning top irrelevant by the final scene. Having already taken his “leap of faith” into a metaphorical heaven, Cobb’s rejection of the totem at the close of the film marks his only sensible action: a reaffirmation of his rejection of Mal (limbo/the mortal world) in favour of his children (the garden/heaven).

Seen in this light, there is no question Inception is an absolute masterpiece: a brilliant mixture of religious, philosophical and mythological ruminations bent into a cinematic whole, a dazzlingly creative heist film that hides a profound message beneath its maze-like exterior. Yet once the religious, philosophical and mythological subtexts of Inception are recognized, it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that Inception is also more ambitious that even many of its fans recognise, and that the film constitutes the only meta-heist film that has ever been produced: a crime film where the victim of the crime is the audience itself.

The reviewers who have come closest to noticing this are the ones who have chosen to read Inception as a commentary on the nature of filmmaking. Critics like Devin Faraci point out quite properly that not only is the medium of film itself a sort of shared dream for the audience, but that there are many curious ways Inception compares itself to its own dream sequences. On a technical level, a minor example of this comes in the way Inception ends with the very swan song it uses to mark the close of the dream, or the way the film’s runtime of 2:28 hours curiously echoes the 2:28 minute length of the song. A more obvious connection comes when Ariadne analyses the nature of shared dreaming in Paris. Her comments about the primacy of emotion and tone there are clearly the self-referential thoughts of the screenwriter analysing the art of filmmaking. Much of the dialogue that follows serves a similar double purpose, such as Cobb’s reminder that too many arbitrary manipulations of audience expectations can provoke hostility from minds made aware of the way the director may be manipulating and inserting ideas into their own consciousness.

Despite the superficial attraction of this theory, we should be skeptical of claims Nolan intended Inception as a metaphor for filmmaking – the filmmaker has explicitly denied this. And yet there is a reason the film compares itself so frequently to a dream, and this is the requirement of the heist genre. For just as heist films are required to hide their crimes in plain sight, with the twist of the genre lying in the requirement that audiences be shown the way they have been fooled, so is Inception required to explain the exact way it will commit its own dramatic crime against the audience. Reviewers like David Bordwell who praise Nolan for his stylistic embrace of expository dialogue miss this point: when the gang reviews the requirements for inception in the garage of the first dream level, the script is less interested in explaining the plot to us than engaging in sleight-of-hand, informing us in disguised form of exactly how Nolan will implant his ideas in our subconscious. And we can see that the film follows these rules quite precisely, even down to centering its emotional resolution in a simple act of positive catharsis (father and son reconciliation). Likewise, is it accidental that the title of the film appears for the first time at the exact end of the film, where its appearance serves less to name the film than announce the success of the film’s own act of inception against its viewers.

The idea that it is us – the audience – who is the ultimate target of Nolan’s heist is a point made in the film’s original theatrical trailer, which insisted that “your mind… is the scene of the crime.” It is also implicit in the self-referential way the film transforms itself into a shared dream for the audience. From its opening shot of the Syncopy logo as a labyrinth Inception transforms itself into an intellectual maze comparable to the labyrinths in the film. And Nolan’s circular narrative structure (an echo of Ariande’s circular maze) is filled with such creative joy that it is clear he agrees with Eames that true inspiration cannot happen rationally. Thus just as Eames relies on emotional symbolism in the form of the pinwheel to speak to Fischer’s subconscious mind, so does Nolan rely on coded allusions and creative symbolism to bury his message in the minds of its audience. The ultimate image is of the auteur himself as a forger – a shapeshifter who communicates in disguised forms and whose exuberant creativity becomes his most compelling virtue.

[Note: this is a slightly edited version of an earlier draft that had many more footnotes. If you like footnotes and are interested in more detailed proof for many of the claims in this piece, please feel welcome to check it out]

Interstellar

As in the Batman trilogy, Nolan’s structuring metaphor in Interstellar is Eden imagery. The film starts with Cooper falling out of the sky, and transitions to shots of dusty corn fields that suggest a metaphorical fallen garden, with dust literally burying the farm in death imagery (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”). Themes of destruction and death worsen through the film until the garden becomes an inferno of flames, with man’s hellish descent reversed only at the climax as humanity uplifts itself and returns to a recreated garden in the heavens.

This religious imagery establishes Interstellar as a fall-and-redemption story, and one in which the cause of earth’s downfall is linked to the nature of man himself. According to the story, the planet’s collapse is superficially linked to the rise of war among nations (a failure of love) but also more deeply the abandonment of the scientific quest for the stars (metaphorically, for divinity). While NASA may end Interstellar as a healing hospital, the organization’s malevolence at the start is evident through its complicity in the “stratospheric bombing” and “killing” of civilians. The education system is similarly degraded, teaching the Apollo moon landings as a fiction of Cold War geopolitics and transforming its students into less engineers than “caretakers”, a term not-coincidentally used to describe those who serve the burial of the dead.

As in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which Nolan has cited as an influence on his work, Interstellar establishes its philosophical perspective by showing how different characters in this environment make difference choices which prove either self-destructive or socially-redemptive. Cooper’s son will show us the consequences of stunted intellectualism. Mann will demonstrate the destructive force of selfish egoism, while Professor Brand will show apathy in the face of death. Against all of these flawed characters, only Cooper and Murph are shown to be redemptive figures, struggling to rescue humanity through a focus on social welfare that subordinates and shackles science to the needs of faith and love.

Nolan’s focus on character commentary starts from the very first scenes in the film, with the flying drone sequence offering a particularly notable example of the director weaving character commentary deeply into his narrative. After Cooper’s son establishes his intellectual passivity by failing to change a tire, he almost drives their truck off a cliff at his father’s command, an action which anticipates his mule-headed adherence to his father’s later instruction to care for the family farm. Cooper meanwhile seeks to transform the downed plane into a harvester in a change which parallels and thus comments upon Cooper’s own transformation from fighter to farmer. The importance of prioritizing “social responsibility” over individual desire will resurface in Cooper’s later discussion of love with Amelia Brand, and while Murph has not yet made this realization (her character is the one who changes over the film) her protests that the drone is “not hurting anyone” and should be let free to continue exploring nonetheless establish her as a scientist in whom the quest for knowledge needs no outside justification, something also signaled by Nolan’s positioning of the symbolic library in Murph’s room (it resurfaces at NASA), the girl’s scholastic excellence, as well as her very name, which stresses that it is in Murph’s nature is to achieve everything that humanity can accomplish.

The fact that Murph will become the redemptive character makes Interstellar an unapologetically pro-science film and puts it in sharp contrast to Kubrick’s 2001, in which David Bowman’s spiritual journey is assisted by benevolent aliens. For in Interstellar we are told explicitly that God does not exist in the material world and mankind must be the agent of its own salvation. The film’s allusions to the Wizard of Oz serve this point, as does the time-travel paradox at the heart of the narrative twist: the journey into the cosmos may be a metaphorical quest for God, but it is one that will reveal nothing more than man himself behind the Wizard’s curtain. And thus Nolan savages characters who expect rescue from without yet do not struggle for their own salvation. Donald ends up buried in the garden, Professor Brand dies in despair, Murph’s misplaced faith in him costs her precious time, and Cooper and Brand’s trust of Mann almost destroys their mission, with the Endurance only saved through the opposing force of science.

This focus on the scientific struggle as a redemptive force that can help man transcend death is why the positive characters in Interstellar (Cooper and Murph) are repeatedly framed as scientists investigating mortality itself. Just as Murph will “observe and record” her ghost at the start of the film, Nolan has her father “observe and record” both his passage through the wormhole as well as his journey into the black hole. Both of these investigations are investigations into death itself, and the deliberate repetition of the father/daughter dialogue is thematically significant, linking Murph to her father while contrasting both with Donald, a man whose fear of death inclines him to superstition. The same traits are also used to differentiate Cooper from his son. When Murph lambasts her brother, telling him that “Dad didn’t raise you to be this dumb,” Tom replies that “Dad didn’t raise me, grandpa did,” thematically re-aligning him with the father figure he more closely resembles.

And yet Interstellar is not simply cheerleading for NASA, for the idea that science can be a destructive as well as constructive force is one of the underlying themes of the film, something that comes to the forefront not only with the duel nature of NASA, but also very clearly with the robot characters. In contrast to his peaceful and obedient nature when TARS travels into the black hole with Cooper, for instance, the script emphasizes that the robot is “unpredictable” and erratic when he makes his first appearance as a gun-wielding marine on loan from the Army. This same duality is present in the scenes of the Indian military drone (a former weapon) as well as with the robot KIPP which descends into madness. The ambiguous relationship that exists between man and science (which will end up serving which?) is even the thematic point behind TARS’ off-the-cuff joke that the Endurance mission’s real purpose might very well be to found a “robot colony” with “human slaves”.

Given this, it is interesting that the robots seem to be getting used to comment on the nature of the various human characters with whom they are associated. Although the evidence for this is weakest with Amelia, it is possible to interpret CASE, KIPP and TARS as commenting on Brand, Mann, and Cooper respectively. CASE seems to be associated with Brand in the way that it serves her on Miller and Edmunds’ planets. KIPP absolutely mirrors Mann (a destructive psychopath who also “explodes” and who becomes thematically associated with homicidal science through his HAL-like blowing of the airlock). And TARS makes the same transcendent self-sacrificial journey as Cooper, ending the film seemingly more human than before, with his personality settings apparently independent of Cooper’s attempts to control them.

Regardless of whether the robots are intended to deliberately mirror their human counterparts, the explanation Interstellar offers for the dualism of science is the idea that I believe lies at the heart of the film: the message that man’s scientific struggle is redemptive, but only to the extent it is guided by love and faith. Speaking to Cooper about his desire to join the Endurance mission, Donald makes this theme explicit, explaining that the “why” of any action is more important than the “how”. Professor Brand’s lies may serve the interests of peace (i.e. religion as social fiction necessary for encouraging men to produce “rivets not bullets”) but his actions are negative because they are not driven by a desire to rescue his fellow man from death. Nolan paints Mann as a destructive psychopath for falsifying his data, yet Cooper’s deceit of his children is positive because he does it for their own protection, just as his lying to Brand about their fuel reserves is driven by a self-sacrificial act of love for her and the future of mankind she represents as the maternal figure. Lying is even referred to by the script as “discretion” rather than deceit if done for the right reasons, such as sheltering one’s children from the fear of death.

More subtle literary symbolism reinforces the idea that what love redeems mankind from is death itself. The sense that the mission into space is a voyage towards death is implicit in the Dylan Thomas poem that equates death with night, making it no accident this poem is read both when the Endurance leaves earth for the black beyond as well as by Brand himself on his deathbed. The literary association Nolan frequently uses between water and death also stresses that Cooper’s journey is a journey into death, whether in the sleep caskets which fill with water and sink into the earth like coffins, or in Cooper’s comparison of their mission to a journey across the seas. In this theme of maritime exploration, Brand’s comments about being “marooned” by Mann, or her concern about humanity being “adrift” carry much more significance than their casual delivery would attest. Likewise, it is no accident that both worlds visited by the mission are water-saturated death planets unfit for human habitation, and that in the case of Mann’s planet, which has floating clouds hiding a frozen core, our very first image of the planet is that of a false paradise.

So how does mankind transcend death? As stated above, the core requirement seems to be that individuals persist in the struggle to do so, with Interstellar going to far as to suggest that it is only love that enables people to do this. This is why it is Cooper (the father) who succeeds at an “impossible” task where the childless Mann fails. The journey into Gargantua to solve the gravity equation offers another case in point: death is transcended through acts of self-sacrificial love. And cross-cutting editing in the Cooper/Mann fight links this battle to the Murph/Tom conflict where the same themes are on display. This is presumably why both fights start at the same time, and why Murph’s decision to turn back and rescue her family (motivated by a vision of children) occurs simultaneous with Cooper’s own renewed struggle to save her and Tom.

Although Interstellar invites us to read Cooper’s love for Murph as a metaphor for Jesus’s love for mankind (the coming of God into man is theologically necessary in this view precisely because God exists beyond time and space), there is a deeper message that the reason love matters is that it permits us to live virtuously in the face of death itself. Amelia Brand’s surprise at the effects of relativity on Romilly are meant to indicate that she lacks this emotional grounding: her understanding of time (death) is theoretical and so she is shocked when she sees it in practice. Her failure is later mirrored by Mann who explains that he also thought he understood death until he faced it in practice, a trait confirmed in his fight scene with Cooper, where Mann shows his literal inability to face death when he turns away from Cooper’s suffering. In contrast with both of these characters, while the horror of death may still exist for Cooper, it is his connection with his children that allows him to accept his own destruction as necessary if done for their sake.

And this leads us to the heart of the film and Nolan’s answer about how mankind can transcend death. The solution, the script seems to claim, comes through a literary version of Newton’s third law: the leaving of something behind. Humanity makes itself divine, in short, because the love parents have for their children straddles generations and drives them to make the necessary sacrifices that push man towards the stars. More succinctly, as TARS puts it, “the only way humans have ever figured out how to get anywhere is to leave something behind.”

And this seems to be why, as the central character who accomplishes this, Cooper becomes a symbolic a force of divinity, associated with the Christ figure who represents God incarnate as man. As the “good father” who has promised to return and now does, Cooper fulfills his Christlike portrayal as the redeemer who hears the prayers of his children from the darkness and saves them through a love which transcends time. His awakening of Mann thus echoes Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead, while his self-sacrificial journey into the “gentle” black hole transforms him into a “ghost” who moves beyond the realm of the living to the strains of Hans Zimmer’s cathedral-like organ music. Cooper descends into the black hole to visuals of matter pouring towards the camera like the waters of death, becoming a Christ figure (reaching out to Amelia like God from the Sistine Chapel) with a love for manking which becomes redemptive once it is recognized. Thus Murph falls in love and has a family and rescues the planet only after she stops being “mad” and recognizes that her father loved her. And her father is finally resurrected in the white light and plays out the last minutes of the film as Jesus, coming back to earth before taking off again into the heavens in search of another lost lamb.

With all of that said, there are some ambiguities in this reading and it would be dishonest not to mention them. For one, I am unclear of exactly how positively we should view Amelia. Her speech about evil existing within man seems to be part of the philosophical message of the film, but at other times she is naive (in her judgment of Mann) and perhaps fatally idealistic. Her name also signals a certain degree of negativity in the sense that it is apparently a reference to doomed explorer Amelia Earhart. And when Brand is stranded on Edmunds’ planet at the end, the message is complicated. As with earth, her new home is a dusty wasteland that will take love, struggle and scientific persistence to transform into a garden planet. And yet that negativity is also somewhat offset by the symbolism of a resurgent America, and in the implied and redeeming love that now pulls Cooper across the galaxy towards her, and the sense that perhaps this new home is better than an ossified museum: outer space becomes the place of hope and the struggle for a better future.

Ultimately, given the intellectual complexity of Nolan’s previous films, it is likely that there is much more to say. If you have any suggestions or feedback or noticed something I didn’t, please do drop a line.

Skyfall

Skyfall is a critique of authoritarian systems of government and the violence unleashed by the inevitable cyclical struggles to control them. This is the reason the film starts with a succession crisis at MI6. And it is the reason Sam Mendes goes so far as to depict the spy organization itself as the essential villain of his drama, lurking behind Britain’s democratically-elected government and operating in contempt of it, rebuffing attempts at civilian oversight and disobeying even the direct dictates of the Prime Minister.

The implied menace of MI6 is the reason the organization is positioned in the tunnels below the city of London, where it serves as a shadow government thematically linked to the “old ways” of politics — the knife-in-the-back or blade-to-the-throat methods of political assassination well-known to those familiar with British royal history. When M thus remarks that the main threats to Britain come “from the shadows” and “the same place as Bond” her comments are important because they highlight the criminality of MI6 itself, the organization most responsible for the death and suffering we witness through the film. Just to provide a few examples of this, note the way the opening scene shows M causing the unnecessary deaths of two British agents (Ronson and Bond) as she overrides the better judgments of her field agents and plays games with their lives. The televised executions of NATO spies which follow are also her responsibility for refusing to pull them from cover, while even the ostensible villain Raoul Silva is merely avenging his earlier betrayal at her hands. By the time Mendes shows his villains disguised as police officers, he is just generalizing an existing political theme, for who can tell the difference?

The hostility of MI6 to democracy is communicated most forcefully in the mid-film shoot-up of a democratic hearing by its agents and ex-agents, but on a more humdrum level, we are shown the agency’s removal from and indifference to the lives of ordinary Britons, such as the way its chauffeured elite have no knowledge of the London metro system. The authoritarian tendencies of the agency are also underlined by the film’s portrayal of MI6 as a monarchical structure, where M rules as the flesh-eating “king rat” from Silva’s parable. Through such small touches as her flag-draped coffins or the recurring tune of “God Save the Queen” which plays to her grim skull-visage, M is repeatedly surrounded by iconography suggestive of her role as a murderous Queen. The connection is also reinforced by her lengthy quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses midway through the film. For although the poem in question is often read as commenting on Bond or the aging 007 franchise, it is on a deeper level the interior monologue of an aging monarch, and serves both as a comment on M’s weakening grasp on power, as well as her outright rejection of the principle of democratic oversight:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Far from yield her power when threatened with usurpation both within and without, M instead clings to it and continues to assert her royal prerogative: the power to command that offers little choice to her agents other than serving the will of the crown or “ejecting” her through violence. And so while M may see herself as a stalwart defender of the Britih people (ergo, the bulldog), this is where we begin to see the deliberate tensions that Mendes creates to turn what is otherwise a straightforward action film into a more philosophical rumination on the surveillance state. For while Bond insists that true value of a field agent is in knowing “when not to shoot” (i.e. in having autonomy), Mendes suggests that he is naive: Silva is betrayed to the Chinese for exercising exactly this sort of political autonomy, and Bond’s curious phrasing should also recall the opening sequence where Moneypenny’s reluctance to pull the trigger is overruled against her better judgment and under M’s explicit instruction.

The hostility of authoritarian political systems to individual autonomy (democratic government in aggregate) is thus one of the ongoing themes of the film, and defines the major difference between the Bond and Moneypenny characters. Whereas Bond shows initiative and struggles with his loyalty to MI6, Moneypenny lacks initiative both when pulling the trigger for M in Istanbul (she must be ordered even to chase the villain) as well as when appearing in Shanghai as a messenger for Mallory, where the insinuation that she may have come to murder Bond plays to the rivalry between those male figures. Moneypenny’s lack of autonomy and her refusal to play political games is why she ends the film in a disempowered secretarial role, something which puts her in sharp contrast to both Bond and Mallory, whose willingness to play a game of chance with power make them potential successors at the agency. Exactly like his double Silva, Bond is a “rat” whose independent judgment makes him a implicit threat to his masters, with whom his love-hate relationship is expressed in both political and parental terms (“orphans make the best recruits”, M tells us, because their yearning for parental affection translates into a willingness to subordinate their own independent judgment to that of state authority figures).

In a small aside, this characterization of these power struggles as a “game of chance” is a deliberate reference to the logic of the film as well. For if you watch Skyfall attentively, you’ll notice many veiled references to political struggles as games of sorts that its participants must be willing to play, whether implicitly in M’s tendency to take fifty-fifty chances with the lives of her agents, in Bond’s scorpion drinking game (also a game a death), in the discussions of risk at the Macao casino, the shooting game which follows, or in the small but pervasive references to Silva’s “sadistic game” or Bond and M’s complaints that they are “played out” and must “change the game.”

Getting back to our main theme, one of the most interesting things about Skyfall as literate film is that it makes its argument about the socially destructive nature of authoritarian power struggles not only in reference to Britain’s current security state, but more generally by linking MI6 to earlier such struggles in British and world history. The bulldog handed to Bond at the end may represent the spirit of the British people, suggesting that he is or perhaps will become a defender of democracy, but it certainly is not accidental that the script dates MI6’s underground bunkers back to the militarism of World War II. Or that the script hints at the existence of many more secret tunnels (read: political operations) which have yet to be discovered and which are filled with “rats” caught in a zero-sum clash for power and prone to knifing each other in the back.

The shadow of history is also clearly evident through the role played by Skyfall manor. For those keeping track, Skyfall represents – as the birthplace of James Bond – the symbolic origins of the British state itself. This association between the house and the British governing structure is also given to us through the notion that Bond and M must travel back in time to reach the manor, the pastoral conventions of English literature, as well as through an earlier reference that compares the British state itself to an old house. When we learn that the tunnels below the house date back to the Protestant Reformation, we are being given a reference point that comments on Skyfall’s own view of authority. And by associating the construction of the house with the political conflict between Henry VIII and Rome over who wielded political authority, the script creates a link between what M is (an aging monarch) and what the house represents (a decaying monarchical structure) by linking her origins to the rise of the British state itself.

So now we get to the significance of the ending, in which the destruction of the house and the death of M represent the same thing: the close of a cycle of political conflict through the death of a monarch. And this is why, as Silva recognizes, it is only suitable that the death of M herself takes place in a chapel: the cycle ends exactly where it began with the establishment of the Protestant faith and the British rejection of Papal authority. And this then brings us to the point of the constant death and resurrection imagery (communicated particularly through water imagery) which also pervades the film. For while the general consensus seems to be that it is Bond himself who is resurrected, in fact what is recurring cyclically is this struggle for power itself. Sometimes the games end with death and sometimes with victory, but it is the game itself that always survives. And so in this case we end Skyfall with the death of a Queen, the ascension of a King, and the implied start of another cycle of wary gamesmanship with Bond and Mallory as the two surviving rats who will presumably contest for the crown as the game comes full circle.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale about the importance of moral disobedience: for refusing to harm her brother, even at the cost of her own life, Ofelia is resurrected before a heavenly Trinity with the rose of eternal life imprinted on her shirt.[1]

By setting Ofelia’s tasks against the coming of the full moon (associated with femininity in the Western tradition), Del Toro invites us to read his story as a commentary on what it means to be an adult, and Ofelia’s journey as a passage to adulthood. The bleeding book (“what comes next,” Ofelia asks?) is clearly menstrual in nature, while the challenge of the tree cave (with its vaginal entrance and history of repressed fertility) also carries sexual overtones, with the defeat of the toad requiring Ofelia not only to assert control over her own fertility, but also to cast aside the “pretty” clothing the Captain offers to tempt her into an infantilized adulthood. [3]

As in other Christian films like Inception, the labyrinth is offered to the audience as a symbolic mirror of the mortal world itself. And this is why the fantasy elements in the film are so bleak: for just as the real world is filled with characters who torture and kill (note the repeated images of hunters and hunting), so must the underworld be inhabited by their equals: carnivorous fawns and fairies, and the Pale Man who feasts on whatever children are unlucky enough to stumble within grasp. As the pile of worn out shoes in that latter monster’s lair indicates (paralleling the fate of Ofelia’s mother), there is no escape from the predatory nature of the world through the illusion of fashion or wealth: the world of humanity is the world of death because such is the nature of mankind itself — a point made most elegantly through the symbol of the mandrake root, a creature which is made human by feeding it blood.

Critics who argue that the fantasy elements serve as a psychological coping mechanism for Ofelia miss this point.[4] We can be sure Ofelia is not imagining things not only because her fantastical experiences actually influence developments in the real world, but also because her experiences in the underworld anticipate what happens later in the film. And then there are the clear parallels between the two plot strands: the magical toad’s repression of the tree’s fertility clearly mirrors the Captain’s repression of feminine sexuality, while the Captain’s staggering pursuit of Ofelia at the climax is reminiscent of the Pale Man’s earlier pursuit. The equivalence in the former case is also emphasized by the script’s insistence on the Captain’s appetite (he is shown feasting), while the latter is cemented in the repeated visuals of both sitting at the heads of their respective tables, as well as through more subtle narrative touches: just as Ofelia’s theft of food from the forbidden table awakens the deadly monster, so does the theft of supplies from his pantry awaken the Captain to the feminine betrayal within his own household.

So very unlike the primarily emotional kind of “magical realism” that we see in authors like Murakami, what we have in Pan’s Labyrinth is deliberate moral pageantry that makes an ethical argument about what it means to be an adult. The fact that all of her underworld tasks require Ofelia to embrace disobedience (rejecting the fawn’s demand for unquestioned authority and disobeying the instructions of the magic book) tells us directly that the role models for adulthood in this film are the figures of Mercedes and the doctor, characters Del Toro paints as doubled parental figures for the young girl. As the subplot involving the Spanish resistance makes clear, both Mercedes and the doctor reject violence as a tool of resistance, but act humanely in service to others even when doing so requires paying a blood price: when the doctor is challenged by the captain on this point, threatened with death for preventing the torture of a captive prisoner, his answer speaks for the morality of the film itself: “to obey without thinking… that’s something only people like you can do.”

Adulthood is the acceptance of suffering if necessary for moral good. The cost of the Doctor’s disobedience is death, and yet in the eyes of the film it is his insistence on moral behavior that allows him — like Ofelia — to see. And the pain and suffering that moral individuals accept as the cost of not harming others — the tax imposed by the thorns in the fable of the rose — becomes the price of the symbolic rebirth that allows the truly moral to triumph over death itself. Thus the film ends with Ofelia — who has accepted her own suffering as the cost of protecting her brother — transformed into a Virgin Mary figure, a symbolic mother who pays the blood sacrifice required as the cost of bringing life into the world.

And with this the rest of the film’s thematic subtext falls into place. In terms of overarching Christian symbolism, just as the doctor stands in opposition to the Captain, we also have the opposing symbols of the true and false fathers, a religious undercurrent which lends significance not only to Ofelia’s continual rejection of the Captain (“he’s not my father”), but also the political undertones of the film, which show the Franco regime co-opting the Catholic church and assuming the image of a false God through its distribution of the “daily bread” of the community.

The repeated visuals of gaping mouths (symbolizing the world’s cycle of violence and associated thematically with it through the statue that sits at the entrance to the labyrinth) as well as images of missing eyes (symbolizing moral blindness and unethical behavior). In one of the film’s many nice touches which passes almost unnoticed, it is the humane and ethical doctor who wears glasses[5] and thus “sees”, while at the opening of the film we also see Ofelia replacing the missing eye of a decrepit statue. It is Ofelia who will likewise come to “see” and whose refusal to be complicit in evil is the act which transforms her from a child into a maternal figure whose blood sacrifice restores moral order and biblical fecundity to the world.

And now we reach the end of the film. Just as the captain dies sonless, denied eternity through the thematic loss of his bloodline, we see Ofelia gain eternal life not only through her symbolic assumption of motherhood, symbolic sainthood, as well as the afterlife sequence mentioned above, but even through the defeat of time itself, as the forward momentum of the timepiece which condemns the captain to death is somehow reversed in the closing moments of the film as Ofelia’s blood flows backwards in time, pushing the film itself into a thematically circular loop that is visually suggestive of eternity.

[1]: this is the rose from the fable Ofelia tells her unborn brother. As the story goes, it provides the bearer with eternal life, but sits withering because man’s fear of death keeps him from accepting the price of death which must be paid for it. It may also be an allusion to the rose from the Empyrean in the Divine Comedy, which symbolizes the love of God.

[2]: the core message here is that behaving ethically requires the willingness to accept pain and suffering as the cost of doing good. This pain and suffering — the tax imposed by the thorns/death in the rose fable — is now presented in this maternal imagery as the blood associated with childbirth. The Christian image of the mother is invoked as a figure who echoes Jesus in giving life to others by willingly assuming pain and suffering. And in this light, note how Ofelia first rejects motherhood out of an unwillingness to pay the price, only to reverse her choice at the climax of the film. And through this reversal, Ofelia becomes a symbolic mother-figure to her infant brother by paying the price thematically required through her own blood sacrifice.

[3]: when Ofelia asks Mercedes if she considers her mother beautiful, this reflects a childish concern for her own beauty that Ofelia overcomes most visibly through the first task which leads to the destruction of her pretty dress and shoes. We return to symbolism of clothing reflecting true beauty only at the end of the film, which presents Ofelia resurrected and possessed of more beautiful clothing than she before gives away.

[4]: for two examples, see http://www.sdentertainer.com/arts/pans-labyrinth-a-psychological-analysis or http://monsterawarenessmonth.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/pans-labyrinth-review-2.

[5]: the captain is shown wearing glasses at one point, but these are sunglasses which obscure rather than illuminate. His vision is – thematically – cloudy, just as his behavior is – as seen through the mirror – ultimately self-destructive.

The Dark Knight Rises

To understand the ending of The Dark Knight Rises it is necessary to return to its beginning. Opening with a shot of ice cracking in the shape of a bat symbol, Nolan’s latest film starts with a metaphor it returns to time and again: that of the dangerous waters below consuming those who fall into them. The device in use here is the literary association between water and the subconscious, a common technique not insignificantly also used in Nolan’s masterpiece Inception, where limbo was located “on the shores of our subconscious” and in which water imagery grew more intense and violent the further its characters travelled within themselves. Yet whereas Inception used water symbolism in the service of Christian allegory, in the Batman trilogy Nolan uses it to make a political critique of the American War on Terror.

This is the reason for the symbol’s association with Batman, a figure who rejects democratic processes in order to fight terror with terror. As a “dark knight” who lives in a cave dominated by a waterfall (“water” + “fall”), Batman reflects the destructive aspects of Bruce Wayne’s inner-psyche. The script jokes about this in many ways, such as in one scene where Batman (Wayne’s “real” identity) attends a costume ball dressed up as his alter-ego. But whether made through levity, or more subtly as in the scene where John Blake intuits Bruce Wayne’s real identity by virtue of their shared thematic identity (St. Swithin is the patron saint of rain), the thematic point is that Bruce Wayne is the “mask” worn by Batman just as Wayne Manor is the “mask” which covers the dark caverns below. As with the rivers which run through subterranean Gotham or the dark waters under the crust of ice, the evils in this film all lurk within and below.

This symbolism makes Batman a profoundly negative figure (the hero the corrupt city “deserves” but “not the one it needs”), and helps explain the otherwise baffling connections Nolan draws between the hero and ostensible villains of his saga. Lest we forget, Batman Begins introduced the Scarecrow character to comment on Bruce Wayne’s own inner fears, giving the villain a plan to transform Gotham’s water supply system into a dispersal mechanism for exactly the sort of fear-induced violence that the film associates with Batman and his water-drenched subconscious. And the second film featured a villain whose criminal theatricality echoes most closely that of Batman himself.

This mirroring between Batman and his opponents continues in The Dark Knight Rises. As a former member of the League of Shadows, Bane is like Batman a “masked man” who embraces vigilantism in response to injustices suffered in the past. From the very opening scene our new villain spouts morally suspect dialogue which applies equally to both characters (“nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask”), while the script emphasizes the connection even further by giving both characters the same love interest, the same mechanical voice, and by surrounding each with imagery of caves and water and darkness and fear. The “batcave” below Wayne Manor is even mirrored by Bane’s construction of a second “batcave” below Wayne Enterprises, the parallels holding down to the shared visuals of waterfalls and digital surveillance systems.

In previous films Nolan hinted at the negative nature of Batman’s vigilante crusade: note the destruction of the (heavenly) garden at the end of the first film, or the transformation of Batman into a hunted criminal at the climax of the second. Yet Nolan is never so overt in his condemnation of Wayne as in this final installment, which begins by showing us how Batman’s vigilante behavior has led on a personal level to Bruce Wayne’s shattered health and bankruptcy, and on a political level to Gotham’s decay into a grossly iniquitous surveillance state, as the tools first used by Batman have now become commonplace instruments of the state. Thematically, what this trajectory shows us that as Bruce Wayne “falls” and gives in to his subconscious desire for retribution and revenge, the city authorities become corrupted and Wayne Enterprises (the “heart” of the city) becomes entrapped in criminal capitalist webs. Individual corruption becomes mirrored by social decay. And this is the point it seems to me basically every critic has missed. For while critics seem to wish to pick sides, Christopher Nolan is not telling us to cheer for the “boys in blue” any more than he wants us to side with Bane’s orange revolution: the battle between the two is rather like the football match which figuratively kicks off the revolution (“let the games begin”), and to which Batman returns to get “back in the game.”

So properly understood, what The Dark Knight Rises is telling us is that the War on Terror has turned into a destructive force which is undermining American democracy and prosperity. Thus the film’s multiple references to A Tale of Two Cities, which depict Gotham as an unjust society much like the ancien régime which preceded the French Revolution: a place where political “structures” have become “shackles” on its citizenry, permitting the rich to gorge themselves while the poor go hungry. With society increasingly criminal, the stock market has transfomrmed into a “two-faced” game designed to “steal” from the masses, while “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us,” as Selina Kyle laments to Bruce Wayne. Corporations which formerly showed concern about the image consequences of associating with criminals are now openly criminal themselves, relying on mercenaries to secure lucrative “mining” contracts (and note the subterranean imagery suggestive of the expanding corruption of the city itself).

Far from representing any morally defensible system of law and order, the government in this society has devolved into a perversion of justice, or a metastasized embodiment of Batman’s subconscious values. For what does the opening aerial sequence depict if not an act of vigilantism by the state itself? We see here two prisoners threatened with death in a process that — in parallel to the revolutionary courts to come — offers the defendants “no lawyers [and] no due process.” The nighttime visuals of Gotham which follow further emphasize the city’s status as a fallen dystopia in which a corrupt elite governs the masses using the same tools of “theatricality and deception” (read: lying on television) embraced by the villains in the saga. And Nolan’s implicit critique of Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s conspiracy at the close of the last film is now made explicit in a deliberate edit which superimposes the face of the “two-faced” villain over the police commissioner’s own as the latter goes on television to defend a law which he knows to be “based on a lie” and whose “teeth” are used to imprison the innocent.

In sharp contrast to the city we are told was uplifted out of economic depression by the progressive and unfearful behavior of Thomas Wayne in ages past (the healing doctor whose symbolic legacy was explosively destroyed in the second film), Gotham has devolved under the counter-example of his son into a two-tiered society run by an elite financial class in which the poor are criminalized simply for trying to support themselves. If the twin ferry sequence in the The Dark Knight showed Gotham’s citizenry acting with less moral authority than than its prisoners, in this film we see criminality become commonplace, as the script emphasizes that crime is a matter of survival rather than conscious choice, something as evident from Selina Kyle’s remark that “a girl’s gotta eat” as in Bruce Wayne’s suggestion that perhaps she is “saving for retirement.” Likewise, without support from charities, the only jobs for children are both literally and figuratively in the water-drenched sewers of the city. Crime has become a way of life, while mass surveillance tools like fingerprint and face-recognition technologies have become ubiquitous methods of social control. And nor is there any possibility of escape, when Bruce Wayne tracks down Selina Kyle using nothing more than “public databases” and urges her to “start afresh” noting that the ground (read: ice) is “shrinking beneath her feet,” Kyle is right to mock his naiveté. And when she tells him it is not possible to escape she is proven correct: Selina’s only attempt to flee is foiled by the police, whose dossier on her stretches back to early adolescence and who arrest her for a crime (kidnapping) of which the script suggests she is entirely innocent.

Seen in the context of Nolan’s trilogy as a whole, which starts with a biblical loss of innocent in Bruce’s fall from the garden (a moral failure that follows the children’s unearthing of a symbol of violence and his subsequent theft of it) and descends stepwise from there into authoritarian dystopia, The Dark Knight Rises makes it hard to imagine how any reasonable critic could argue that Nolan is defending Gotham society. And how could anyone seriously attuned to what Nolan is doing cinematically fail to notice the way his script parallels even the most perverse injustices of the revolutionary system in the excesses of pre-revolutionary Gotham? When Bane claims he is acting as a “necessary evil” to cleanse Gotham of an oppressive government and return it to the people, we are not meant to take his pronouncements at face value (his goal is the destruction not reform of the city). But his criticism of the status quo is meant to stick even if his own methods are as theatrical and deceptive as those he opposes. Neither his revolution nor the society he attacks provides due process or justice to its citizens, something symbolized and criticized in the way criminal sentencing is handled in both societies by the exact same person.

The prevalence of American iconography in Gotham (particularly in the national anthem, football game, and the repeated visuals of increasingly tattered flags) suggests that the Nolan brothers are indeed commenting on contemporary America and its extrajudicial War on Terror. But their approach is also less political than allegorical. For they do not intend us to see Batman as a noble figure defending an embattered establishment so much as a symbolic agent who illustrates the cause of its decay through his misguided embrace of anger and fear, and his refusal to trust the judgment of others as is required in any democratic society. So this is the reason we see here a reference to Fritz Lang and there a shot from Sergei Eisenstein as the populist uprising is cinematically compared to both the workers’ uprising in Metropolis as well as the 1917 revolution which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy. And then we see Dickens and the French Revolution in a montage which shows us the storming of the Bastille, the persecution of the rich, and the creation of unjust kangaroo courts, as the surface of the city cracks open like ice on a frozen lake, and Gotham’s subterranean violence is unleashed upon the city with images of snow and the coming of winter.

Yet if neither the revolution nor the political establishment is earnestly deserving of our sympathy, there is one more question left to address: how should we interpret the ending of the film and what if anything is the moral message of Nolan’s entire drama?

In traditional mythological storytelling, we see the renewal of society when the hero redeems himself, casting off his destructive inner traits or beliefs which are allegorically reflected as the evils of the outside world. This is the reason the script insists that the problems in Gotham can only be fixed from “inside the city,” a reading that suggests we treat Bruce Wayne’s escape from the pit as a symbolic rebirth. And there is certainly evidence this provides the key turning point in the drama. At the end of the film Bruce Wayne trusts Selina in a way he never trusted the fire-and-violence-stoking Miranda, and fights in the daylight instead of at night. His casting off of the climbing rope can also be read a symbolic rejection of the negative emotions which consumed him in the past: no longer the terrified witness of his father’s murder, Bruce has grown to accept his father’s dying counsel to “not be afraid” and thus become a redemptive character.

Of course, the ending also seems more complex than this, for we can read the rise-from-the-pit as indicative of the negative character re-embracing fear in order to become once again an effective agent of destruction. And there is always the possibility that we are meant to read the ending in both ways at the same time, and that what Nolan is arguing is that it is the proper channeling of psychological negativity which transforms negative emotions into redemptive ones.

But regardless of how we read the “rise” from the pit, whether in the positive sense of Bruce rising over his fear (of death), or in the negative sense of “the fire rising,” the meaning of what follows is clear. As the villains Bane and Talia are killed in deaths which illustrate the inevitable consequence of their philosophy of violence, the film sweeps towards the thematically-inevitable death of Batman as well. The unexpected trick Nolan uses to make this a happy ending is pulled directly from A Tale of Two Cities, where the sacrificial death of the “wicked” Sydney Carton redeems his character while “recalling to life” his aristocratic double Charles Darney.

As in Dickens, the death of Batman in Nolan’s tale redeems the image of the caped crusader in the eyes of Gotham while “recalling to life” the benighted aristocrat Bruce Wayne. And just as the death of Batman and destruction of the wicked subconscious (note the symbolic bombing of the ocean) opens the door for the rebirth of Bruce Wayne, we see the resurrection of Gotham itself in the rebirth of the “peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy” city which has moved beyond class conflict as implied in the extended quote from the final pages of A Tale of Two Cities. The corrupt elite of Gotham’s past have been destroyed along with all of the revolutionary leaders, leaving the city and its citizens with a “clean slate” as winter transitions into spring. Wayne Manor is restored to our first image of it as a garden playground for children, closing the film with a return-to-paradise image that recalls the biblical symbolism of the trilogy’s opening scene. And while the appearance of a new Batman figure emphasizes that this mythic pattern and struggle is universal — and will continue — the privileges of wealth and power from the previous society have been erased, and the new Batman rises as a man of the people rather than a billionaire coming down from above.