A Film That Matters:
A Review of Oliver Stone’s Snowden
Oliver Stone’s new biopic film Snowden, chronicling the professional life of, and very public disclosure of classified data by, Edward Snowden, is unquestionably an important film. Unlike many other films produced by Hollywood, it sticks largely to the facts, albeit through the subjective eyes of the main character, without having to fictionalize, sensationalize or pander to a lowest-common-denominator audience. The writing is intelligent, terse, effective and appropriately ominous, without being alarmist. The performances are all excellent, accomplished by a strong cast of popular and recognizable actors who regularly deliver solid and admirable work. Unlike so many of Stone’s earlier movies, the film really showcases his ability to tell a story convincingly and engagingly without resorting to outlandish techniques or purely speculative content. It is a film about the real world we live in, and the real people who live in it, and the many complicated choices and challenges that these real people face as they attempt to justify to themselves and others the moral and political implications of those choices.
It is therefore rather surprising, and downright concerning, that there seems to be a campaign in the media against this film. Only today has the film reached a 60% rating on Rottentomatoes.com, awarding it a tomato symbol rather than the dreaded green splat of goo. The magazine Entertainment Weekly published a review in which the critic, evaluating the film with a grade of C, all but dissmisses entire performances due to the hair piece the actors wear, claiming that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s vocal impersonation of the real Snowden is distracting, or claiming that the actress playing Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay has little to do but stand around looking worried. Negatively comparing the film to other fact-based films such as The Big Short, which was telling an entirely different kind of story, the EW reviewer, like many other critics, basically suggests that this film adds little to the story examined in the documentary Citizenfour, admittedly an excellent film and compelling film.
Many other reviews deliver a similarly dismissive assessment of the film, some of which express a dislike for this film precisely because it is not as sensational or gripping as Stone’s own JFK, again a very different movie telling a very different story. When it came to JFK, Stone was dealing with a story about a man who had been dead for decades, set in an era that has come and gone, examining a subject replete with all manner of conspiracy, deception and secrecy, focusing on a protagonist whose very mission was to question the official story, chase after every lead, and open his mind to speculative and alarmist thinking in order to reconcile the immensity of conflicting facts and unanswered questions contained within the “official” story of what happened to President Kennedy.
Whereas Snowden actually succeeds because it is told in a more straight-forward, less speculative manner, and because the real man is still alive and has provided so much evidence to support the facts he has presented to the world, there is less need for speculation. The audience is presented with a story that reveals the depth of secrecy at work in the world, revealing the unimaginably complex nature of the seemingly infinite ways the intelligence community can invade and monitor everyone’s lives, affirming the very fears and claims that have long been dismissed as “theories” by those who are demeaned as conspiracy nuts, as if the very possibility of conspiracy is laughable. Edward Snowden helped to show the world that the fears are justified, the conspiracies are real, and that there is no need for speculation, because he had the data to prove it. The film succeeds in portraying the man as a highly intelligent, gifted computer genius, who genuinely wants to do good in the world, believing in the notion that his government is just and that serving his country within the ranks of the intelligence community is where his gifts might best have been applied.
Only later does he begin to realize that lies, deception and a flagrant disregard for human rights, even human life, seem to characterize the very foundation of how our government now actually operates. The great revelation of the film thus becomes the fact that, rather than being an alarmist, Snowden made a very conscious, considered decision to divulge to the public what he came to believe was a gross injustice, divulging the inner workings of a monster run amok with no one and nothing to stop it because of its very clandestine, yet highly abusive and corrupt, nature. This is where Stone’s instincts really paid off, and why the film is so successful, for it presents Snowden’s life, and the facts that he came to discover, in a straight-forward and no-nonsense manner that conveys how genuinely concerning the nature of electronic surveillance truly is.
The film chronicles how this mass surveillance is carried out by agencies that operate with little oversight, almost no public awareness, making decisions and performing acts that are inherently self-serving and often unilateral, all in the supposed name of keeping people safe. The film raises the important question, how can a government claim to serve the interests of its citizens if nearly everything it does is performed without their knowledge or consent? How can a government that explicitly lies to its populace, actively spies on them without permission or often cause, all while justifying itself using “we know better,” or “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” arguments, be considered trustworthy or effective in supporting a cohesive and moral society? The film does not need to sensationalize its content in a manner that comes off as alarmist, because the very content itself is inherently alarming.
Most of the arguments that attempt to undermine or demean the film by focusing on specific aspects of the film do not really stand up under scrutiny. First there is Gordon-Levitt’s performance, which is brilliant, solid and very human. It is often tricky business playing a real-life figure, especially one who is still alive and still very much in the public eye. It is a genuinely risky choice to attempt to impersonate someone else when portraying him or her in a film, yet Gordon-Levitt succeeds convincingly. Not only does he capture Snowden’s speech inflections and general monotone quality flawlessly and consistently, he offers a performance that is very much his own, his voice actually adding to the performance, rather than detracting from it.
Shailene Woodley also offers a touching and humane performance, conveying the many frustrations of attempting to have a relationship with someone where true openness is impossible in the face of strict secrecy and the pervasive, yet unspoken, underlying sense of threat that infects her relationship with her partner. The film’s depiction of Lindsay as somewhat oblivious to the many forms of invasive surveillance to which she is subject, as well as her seemingly unconcerned reaction to that possibility, directly speaks to the attitudes of average American citizens, who perhaps have a general sense of how sophisticated this technological machine has become, yet either deny its threat, argue that they have nothing worth hiding, or simply dismiss the possibility that they as individuals would be targeted.
Perhaps one could argue that there was too much focus on the relationship between Edward and Lindsay, and not enough of time spent exploring the ins and outs of Snowden’s relationship with the journalists and their struggle to publish this information in an effective way. The audience really isn’t given much background on the journalists or filmmaker that Snowden establishes contact with in order to get the information out. There is no mention of the many emails he sent to Laura Poitras that led to their auspicious Hong Kong meeting. Here is where the film departs from reality a bit to make it seem that Snowden hastily downloaded classified information all at once and made a break for it, making passing mention of the fact that he had previous exposure to Poitras’s film or Glenn Greenwald’s journalism output. In reality, Snowden downloaded the classified information over time and established contact with Poitras several months before their meeting, which realistically was far riskier than the scenario the film depicts. Like any fictionalized film put out by Hollywood, there are certain liberties taken to tell a convincing story.
Stone’s decision to focus less on Snowden’s time with the journalists is actually a strength of the film, though, because it does not attempt to exhaustively re-examine the material presented in Citizenfour. Overall, Snowden establishes a good balance between Snowden’s meeting with the journalists and the aftermath of the revelations of his data dump with the more personal and biographic material of the film. The Oscar-winning documentary already covers Snowden’s time in Hong Kong, his correspondence with Poitras leading up to it, and adeptly chronicles the process of initially publishing the articles that presented this leaked information to the public, as well as exploring more deeply Snowden’s reasoning for doing what he did and the impact these actions had on his life and the lives of the journalists.
Ultimately, Citizenfour and Snowden work together to tell the whole story, rather than the biopic being a mere cliff’s notes version for the average movie-goer who rarely watches documentaries. Stone’s film more deeply examines the real human cost of living a life like Edward Snowden’s and the negative impact it had on his own health and relationships. It shows the entire process of a man who went from believing in the value and integrity of his government, to genuinely realizing that these communities seem to use any justification necessary to carry out their agendas, and the actual rights or welfare of the populace, in Snowden’s estimation, did not seem to genuinely be a top priority.
The film examines how destructive fear, secrecy, greed and morally ambiguous actions can have not only on a society at large, but on individual people and their relationships, made all the more real by the depiction of Snowden’s rocky relationship with his girlfriend. Another achievement of this film, due to its examination of Snowden’s actual professional life in the intelligence community, is offering audiences a glimpse of the two-faced nature of politicians and intelligence officials, how the intelligence agencies use people without regard to the consequences for those people and their families, such as establishing relationships with people in order to gain their trust, then spying on them to use information against them as leverage, such as the Pakistani doctor Snowden meets in Switzerland. The film reveals how pervasive and insidious the methods of surveillance have become and how little privacy is actually respected, concepts further highlighted by juxtaposing Snowden’s own interrogation-style interviews with the practices of public surveillance. The film offers plenty of effective and eye-opening scenes that demonstrate exactly how these tools are used and to what ends, reinforced with helpful visuals and explanations.
Another effective theme Stone explores is the oft-examined dynamic of how the government appropriates ideas and inventions for its own use, often giving no credit or recognition to the inventor, and ultimately uses those ideas or inventions for purposes, or in a manner, which they were never intended to be used. This is effectively introduced by Nicolas Cage’s character, a man Snowden meets during his initial CIA training, who served the intelligence community by inventing a tool that was dismissed by his superiors, only to be appropriated and used to serve their own agenda. When the inventor called foul, he was sidelined to a new post as an instructor so he wouldn’t rock the boat. This scene foreshadows the later one in which the same thing happens to Snowden, when he discovers that his own invention, created to protect the CIA and NSA servers in the event of a hack or outage, has been re-worked to more effectively track terrorists so that they can be assassinated by surveillance drones.
These scenes and many others provide the audience a very human portrayal of Edward Snowden, presenting the many moments, revelations and concerns which led to his ultimate decision to “betray” the very organizations that he had served, all in the name of national security, when he realized it was the very security and sanctity of individual lives that were being disregarded and undermined. While Citzenfour effectively examines these questions in a compelling way, it is unable to truly dive into the scope of exactly how all this is carried out, what the real costs to individuals truly are, and present a real-time depiction of exactly how this process works and the real nature and rationalizations of the many, often conflicted and confused, people who actually implement these covert programs.
The film does betray the director’s bias in that it venerates Snowden as a hero, rather than more objectively examining his motivations against the motives of the governmental agencies it ultimately judges to be almost hopelessly corrupt, however this is also exactly what Laura Poitras does with Citizenfour, which does not even attempt to examine the logic or rationalizations of the intelligence community from the mouths of its other, less rebellious members. Yet in that regard, both films serve as a testament to the filmmakers’ ability to champion the courage and integrity of a single man who went against everything he was raised to believe, in order to do what he believed was right, despite having entrenched himself into a community of people who use similar logic to perpetrate some of the worst horrors known (or unknown, as the case may be) to human kind.
Snowden establishes an admirable middle ground between the unsettling and doom-laden feel of Citizenfour with a sense of humanity, hope and straight-forwardness that both communicates to the average person the very real and observable consequences of living under such a deceptive and self-righteous regime of men and women interested more in power, control and money than the welfare of the the planet and the beings who inhabit it, in addition to celebrating the difference one person can make when he or she is willing to question the official story and have the courage to simply tell the truth, which ultimately is all Edward Snowden really did, despite what the “authorities” want the people to believe.
The film also succeeds in showing the viewer that as a conglomerated entity, the military-industrial-intelligence apparatus has become as cold, calculating, indifferent and mechanical as the technological methods it employs to implement various methods of information gathering and, ultimately, control of a planet and its populace whose very lives, health, welfare and appreciable value it flagrantly disregards. On the other hand, it also examines how these machines, computers, drones and orders are operated and carried out by people, who are often conflicted by the moral choices with which they are faced.
The film’s main argument is that the more people behave like Snowden–carrying out the will to tell the truth and make decisions that are contrary to the established edicts of a monstrously corrupt system without being intimidated or threatened into silence or compliance, to value the sanctity human life, to recognize that individual privacy and true freedom are more important than money, power or control–the more likely the human race will succeed in transcending these shady practices and establish a more harmonious, functional and holistic system of living that places more value on human relationships and truth than on manipulation, control or “security.” Despite the derisive overall critical response in the media, Snowden proves to be an effective, important and well-crafted film that very much adds a new and relevant dimension to the story of Edward Snowden, supporting and elaborating upon, rather than trivializing or glossing over, the material presented in Citizenfour.
It was said of one who would be king,
“Not all those that wander are lost.”
Though great wizards may not speak my name,
I too wander, and by the tides of Fate get tossed.
For a spell I lived as others do,
Chasing the spoon-fed dream,
Imprisoned in cubicled falsities,
‘Til my life raft floated me downstream.
The consternation and bewilderment,
Of the friends I left behind,
Trailed off like vaporous whispers,
Of the inner critic that is often unkind.
They variously offered in so many words,
Their wishes for me to find what I seek,
But their condescending tone belied,
The fear and regret they did not speak.
I hugged and thanked them all with love,
And joyously went on about my way,
Offering myself to a less limited world,
Than the one in which they beckoned me to stay.
I am guided now by the compass within,
That guides truest when the mind is still,
It is then that I hear Spirit’s gentle voice,
From the waves and wind I glean Its will.
I always know just when to sail on,
And where I must journey to next,
Leaving new friends I met during my stay,
Glad to know me, yet slightly perplexed.
Few may know the vast extent,
Of all who have been touched by my deeds;
Even I do not see all the flowers,
In the garden that grows from love’s seeds.
Those who follow the conventional rules,
Live by the measure of doing and making.
They may weigh a wanderer’s worth by such scales,
Only to find no bounty for the taking.
Us interlopers who walk about the Earth,
As an eagle glides high and free,
Have interest compounding in the lives and ventures,
Of all those we assist in our blessed liberty.
For who is the doer and maker in us–
That persona we cling to as “me?”
Who of us can catalog every cog in the gears,
Of the Cosmic Clock that rounds everlastingly?
(Written in Lower Puna, Big Island of Hawai’i. August, 2012)
Perhaps in order to garner better relations with the rest of the planet, the people of the United States of America ought to officially change the name of this country; in order to let them all know we are in on the joke, no longer pretending to be what we are not. Instead of United States of America, perhaps we can be the “Incorporated States of Hypocrisy,” or perhaps “Incorporated States of What-the-Fuck?”
If you think about it, all people who live on the American Continents are technically “Americans.” We aren’t exactly “united” with them, let alone as a country. US citizens often call people from Central and South America “foreigners,” as if they come from some alien place. Apart from beliefs and physical differences, people are similar all over the world. We meet ourselves wherever we go.
So to me, the name of our country is a bit antiquated, and potentially somewhat unappreciated by those who also consider themselves Americans and wish we would get over ourselves. Of course, not all US citizens feel this way about people from other countries, nor are we looked down upon necessarily as individuals elsewhere in the world. It is all a matter of perspective and personal experience.
Still, it would be more interesting and honest if we changed the name to something reflecting what we’ve become, rather than what we were, or even perhaps what we only ever were in theory. I think if we were “The Incorporated States of What-the-Fuck?” everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and laugh every time it was mentioned. It would be another way of saying, “Okay, we’re finally being real here. How about we settle our differences?”
Anyone who has lived long enough on this Earth will have come to some form of acceptance about death. It is an intrinsic aspect of life, one which we all experience, and one we must all face. Despite one’s views of what happens to a person’s consciousness after death, or the beliefs that help one to come to more accepting terms with it, there is no denying that we are all to some degree affected by the passing of someone we know. When someone we know passes away, it forces us to stop and contemplate the unexpected nature of life, how precious and impermanent it all is, and it usually stirs us to examine our memories associated with that person: what that person meant to us, how he or she lived, what the person offered us or the world at large, what this person added to our lives and how much we may now miss that, even if it had become something we were somewhat taking for granted, as if it would always be a reliable component of our experience of life.
In today’s world, we have so much access to information, that it is very common for us to be hyper-aware of the births and deaths of a great many more people than people of any other time period in history were likely to be. The media never misses an opportunity to sensationalize tragedy or death when it comes to “public” figures such as actors, athletes, famous artists, etc. In part, this is to commemorate and celebrate individuals who contributed a great deal to the collective, honoring what they shared with the world in terms of gifts, talent, and presence. Sometimes it is an older person who has lived a full life, in which case it is often easier to accept their passing, such as with Christopher Lee’s recent death. He was in his 90’s and had been working all the way up to the end. While I certainly was sad to hear of his passing, the news neither shocked me, initiated any particular mode of contemplation, nor did I have a sense that it was an unfortunate circumstance. Lee lived a full life, he gave us a great deal of work to admire, and he did not seem to ever stop living fully up to the very end.
There are, however, times when hearing of a celebrity death creates a more pronounced reaction on both a collective and individual level. Of course, this is often a very personal process, depending on our “relationship” with that person or his or her body of work. For instance, the passing of Robin Williams to most of us came as a shock. We experienced a grave sense of loss, as if he had been taken before his time and left us wanting more of his presence and spirit in a world that could use as much laughter and upliftment as possible. When someone dies in manner such as suicide, a car accident, a plane crash, or even an illness, we seem to have an innate reaction that implies that this occurrence was aberrant in some way, that it did not accord with the harmony of the Divine plan, that we have lost something precious to us before it had contributed to the greatest capacity it was able. These, of course, are simply reactions based upon our limited perspective of the entire web of life, for it is impossible to know all of the factors that must converge in order for a soul to leave, or enter, the world, not to mention all of the ramifications and ripples in the continuum that involves.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but admit that I recently felt a deep sense of loss learning of the abrupt and unexpected passing of James Horner, the successful and well-known film score composer, who died in a plane crash on June 22nd outside of Los Angeles on a beautiful, sunny day. He was an experienced pilot and was flying his own small, single-engine plane, which for reasons unknown crashed in the forests north of Los Angeles, instantly killing the 61 year-old composer. As far as ways to go out, he did alright. He died flying a plane, one of his great loves, died without pain or complication, he was still an in-demand professional in his field, and he had just returned from London for a celebration of his score to Titanic, in which music from the film was performed live to a projected image of the film in Royal Albert Hall of all places. Clearly Horner went out on a “high note.” Despite the apparent grace with which Horner lived and died, his unexpected passing initiated a poignant and intense period of contemplation for me. It also prompted me to take time again to appreciate the large and influential role his music played in my life and the personal memories I associate with his music.
Perhaps a bit of personal background would help contextualize this reaction. As a child, I was not really interested in music, apart from my own explorations on the piano as an untrained player and a passing interest in some of the classical music I had heard here and there. I was, however, incredibly interested and passionate about movies from the earliest possible age. I grew up in the 1980’s, so films like Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T., and other milestones were new and relevant to my childhood experiences. I can still remember how much I cried the first time I went to the theater to watch E.T., watching Poltergeist over and over no matter how much it scared me, standing in line for hours to see Willow when it first came out, or getting totally caught up in the epic battles between Kirk and Kahn. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the most moving and involving aspects of all of these films, and what probably most directly engaged a genuine emotional response, was the film score playing along with the images and dialogue. After all, what would E.T., Star Wars or Star Trek be without the music that so elevated the impact these movies had on us?
By the time I was 13, I finally began making the connection that one of the greatest aspects of film was the amazing score music that was being written for them by some of the world’s most talented living composers. These composers had just happened to find a niche writing music for films, which in many cases more than likely ensured a far greater and more prolific output than any other musical arena. I think it really started with Danny Elfman’s score for Tim Burton’s Batman. That music really got under my skin and connected me to that dark, outlandish representation of Gotham’s epic hero far more than I would have in the absence of such an amazing orchestral tapestry. I bought the CD of the Batman score and finally learned how rewarding it could be to simply appreciate this music apart from the film as a listening experience. This began a fervent and passionate exploration of film scores that lasted for many years, and continues to this day, however my interests have broadened a great deal since then and my film score appreciation is more selective in order to accommodate such a broad range of musical interests.
During those years in which films scores dominated my musical life, I collected an obscene amount of cassettes (!) and later CDs, gobbling up most of the scores by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and James Horner, who were the most successful composers of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and created some of the most memorable and enduring scores ever written. While other composers captured my interest later on, especially Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer, usually I just bought the scores I liked for particular movies, whereas the four composers mentioned above were like Gods to me. I learned about their lives, where they went to school, and I gave them the benefit of the doubt and bought just about everything they released, and would often go see movies just because of who wrote the film score. Often times, the film score is the best thing to come out of a movie and lives on far longer than the movie itself. When I first started college, I began as a music major and dreamed of becoming a composer of film scores. Life ended up taking me in a different direction, but my admiration for film music has never waned.
So, when we lost James Horner so unexpectedly, it really sent me down the memory lane of my childhood, and I began reliving so many of those memories. I watched a few interviews with him on Youtube, listened to several of his scores again, and just experienced a tremendous well-spring of emotion, appreciation and gratitude for this beautiful man who gave us so much wonderful music and made such an indelible impression on me through the sound-world he created to enhance and deepen so many of our most beloved films. It also helped remind me of how passionate, opinionated and fervent film score fans can be. Nowadays, I simply tend to listen to music that I enjoy without getting caught up in so much of the fandom I used to get excited about.
For those who are aware of film music but may have only a passing interest in experiencing film scores apart from the films for which they were written, it may be shocking to learn that there is a vast community of people who appreciate film scores and possess many of these albums as a staple component of their musical collections. Among this community, James Horner is without a doubt one of the most well-known composers, but also one of the most polarizing. Many people over the years have for some reason chosen James Horner as their critical focus, highlighting the things they find annoying, tedious or, in their estimation, lazy about Horner’s music. The first complaint tends to be that he copies himself a lot, using certain musical motifs repeatedly, reworking themes used in previous films, and overall having a very recognizable style that can seem repetitive. He has also often “borrowed” certain themes or passages of music from famous classical works, with a particular focus on Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and worked them into his scores here and there.
I will admit certain of James Horner’s scores are not as interesting when divorced from the film as others. Certainly scores that tend to be quieter, more subdued, or come off more like sound effects than music, tend not to translate to enjoyable listening experiences as readily as the big, showy, epic and melodic scores. I will also admit that I would find it sometimes annoying to hear certain motifs used over and over again from film to film. Despite these small reservations, there is so much amazing and transcendent music that Horner gave us over the years, that even if his scores don’t always attain the greatest heights possible, they usually enhanced a film to some degree and were always in service to the story. Given the many rewards of listening to Horner’s music, some of his supposed transgressions are easily forgivable.
Another aspect of film music composition that many do not take into account is that these composers are often called in very late in the production process and have only a couple of months to write 2 hours worth of music for a story and characters that they do not have much time with before having to channel their reactions into a musical retelling of the story. Scenarios like Howard Shore’s involvement with the Lord of the Rings series, or Hans Zimmer’s relationship with Christopher Nolan, which allowed them to be involved in the films from the very first stages of conception, are somewhat rare in the film industry. This in part explains why there might be certain “shortcuts” in film music that might not otherwise be present in works composed solely for the symphony hall.
Regardless of any apparent shortcomings, I have loved the music of James Horner for as long as I was aware of his music and his scores played a huge role in my own life, accompanying me on many long drives, underscoring my hours of study and homework throughout school, to say nothing of the impact they had on me as a part of the original film experience for which they were written. I can certainly acknowledge that at 61, James Horner had a longer life than many, offered the world a huge output of excellent music, and that it might even be churlish in the face of such accomplishment to pine away about the “music that might have been,” had he lived longer.
The Avatar sequels will still be made and James Cameron will find another composer to work with, and James Horner’s scores will live on in the digital and film world for decades to come. Still, his passing was a sad day in my life and one that helped me to reconnect with a somewhat dormant part of myself, that young child who used to spend hours upon hours lost in the sound-world of film scores, allowing his imagination to go wild and his emotions to get fully drawn in to the experience. There is a lot to be said for a hobby that elicits that much enthusiasm, joy and abandon.
I could probably write a book on film music, film composers, and the many, many memories I have of the spectacular scores I have spent so much time with over the years. This essay, however, was mostly intended to simply honor and appreciate the passing of a legend, at least a legend in my Universe, and to offer people a chance to reflect on how much of an impact film music may have had on their lives. I also encourage anyone reading this to do a quick search on James Horner, or maybe read his Wikipedia entry. You may just be surprised how many memorable movie experiences his artistic contribution added to your life.
Below are reflections on my top five favorite James Horner scores and the impact they have had on my life:
Braveheart–Although Titanic is Horner’s top selling film score (in fact it is the top selling film score of all time), Braveheart is a close second in terms of sales and popularity. I have spent many hours lost in the beauty of this score, especially the first 5 tracks, which tells the love story between Wallace and Murron. The first time I saw this film, I sobbed at the end when Wallace cried out “Freedom.” I left the theater profoundly stirred, and could not stop thinking about this film for weeks. I bought the score almost immediately after seeing the film.
There is something very special about this score. It is full of so much passion, so many lush melodies, and so much delicacy, that it holds a special place in my heart. The evocative themes and use of Gaelic instruments really added a lot of authentic flavor to this score, yet Horner made some very interesting and haunting choices with this music, such as employing the boys choir to score Wallace’s execution, or the achingly beautiful track “The Princess pleads for Wallace’s life.” One of the best film scores ever written.
Legends of the Fall-Certainly not one of my favorite films, a bit too morose and tragic for my tastes, but a great film nonetheless. The score, however, is one of the most epically gorgeous film scores I have ever heard, and next to Braveheart another one that I have listened to many times over the years and will reliably stir up profound emotional reactions with each hearing. I particularly love his use of the shakuhachi flute, a Japanese instrument, to evoke the Native American spirit of the film.
The track titled “Tristan’s Descent into Madness” is a particularly stirring track that takes me to some very deep places and has a lot of very haunting moments. This is definitely a score written to be listened to on its own, and serves as a wonderful example of a film score album that can be successfully “divorced” from the film and appreciated on its own merits. It is also beautifully recorded and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, as was Braveheart.
Star Trek II/III–James Horner’s first major success was the score he wrote for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in 1982. He had been writing some music for John Carpenter style B movies for awhile, and was hired to write the score for Star Trek II as his first major studio film. He delivered in spades. He said that the director, Nicholas Meyer, implied that he wanted a “nautical” feel to the score, as if the Enterprise was a sailing ship on a sea adventure. Horner responded with sweeping and heroic themes for Kirk and the Enterprise, a quiet and oriental-style theme for Spock, and bombastic, fanfare like music for Kahn to mirror his eruptive and hostile temperament.
It is a memorable and enjoyable score that added another dimension to the on-screen tensions and character relationships, which is what made this Star Trek film such a step up from the bloated and heady first film, despite the fact that Jerry Goldsmith wrote a great score for that film as well. Horner’s follow up with Star Trek III expands on the themes he introduced in Wrath of Kahn and is also a very enjoyable score, albeit not as epic as his first Star Trek outing.
Willow–The score for Willow is still among my favorite scores of all time and is probably the best all around action-fantasy-epic stand alone film score. Perhaps one could make the case for Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it is difficult to assess (or listen to) those scores independently from the total trilogy (or two trilogies) in which they fit. Willow as an album represents a stirring, melodic, interesting, exciting and rich score, and is probably better than the movie itself.
I listened to this score a lot as a young man and it really stimulated my emotions and imagination every time I listened to it. It strikes me as the epitome of everything that is great about an epic fantasy score, full of nice little flourishes and touches such as a very effective use of the shakuhachi, chorus, and very rich and detailed orchestration. This is a very “busy” orchestra throughout the score, showcasing a layered depth to this music like few other scores, again performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Searching for Bobby Fischer–This is a very special score for a very special movie. Searching for Bobby Fischer is the true story of a young boy who showed exceptional skills at chess and was paired with a master chess teacher who was largely influenced by and was a great admirer of, Bobby Fischer, the legendary world champion of chess. The movie is really about the relationship between Max and his father juxtaposed against Max’s relationship with his teacher Bruce, and the implications of what one is expected to sacrifice in order to be the best. Max represents the antithesis of Bobby Fischer, who was incredibly reclusive and anti-social. Max resists his father’s and teacher’s attempts to suppress his kindness, his innocence and his humanity in order to become a skillful and ruthless chess player. Max proves that he can be a well-adjusted, decent human child, make time for play and leisure, and still be a champion at chess.
It is a terrific film, quite affecting and well written, and Horner composed a very special, mostly quiet and contemplative score to accompany the film. There is a lot of piano, which Horner typically played himself on most of his scores, and the sweeping and gentle themes are mostly presented in a very relaxed manner, however there are a few climactic moments such as the track toward the end where Max reunites with his Central Park teacher played by Lawrence Fishburne. I may have shed more tears listening to this score than any of the others mentioned. It really gets under one’s skin. Definitely an excellent example of how a great story with powerful themes can elicit similar work from a composer.
These are just a few examples out of dozens and dozens of scores, and many of them make for great stand-alone albums that can be appreciated apart from the films. Most of Horner’s scores are available to listen to on Youtube. I recommend doing a search for some of his music and spending a bit of time reliving some old childhood memories while taking a moment to remember and honor a wonderful human being who spent his life creating music and sharing it with the world, making his mark like the best of them.
So what if God is simply the infinite field of consciousness, unlimited in its scope and capacity? From whatever point it originates, it is always reflecting back on itself from whatever other point it experiences.
What if your perception, your very existence as a perceiving individuated entity, a “point” in the infinite Universe staring back at its Origin Point, is simply one dot on a giant movie screen?
If the Universe were like a giant torus, then it would always at some point hit a barrier, because it is spherical, and would then curve upward and eventually find itself back at the center.
Therefore, every point of consciousness within it is ultimately equal to the Creator, the origin point of consciousness staring back at itself infinitely from every possible vantage point, and more individuated aspects are cropping up as others pass away and reform themselves as new and more evolved versions of Itself. Incredible!
As for seeing what’s outside that giant toroidal sphere, who’s to say? Maybe it simply goes on truly infinitely, and there is no sphere. However if there are multiple Universes, that’s how it would have to be. What if those Universes were individuated aspects of other giant toroidal spheres? Holy Fuck!
The “point” is to realize that from wherever you are at, you are staring back at yourself infinitely. God is the Greater Consciousness that is everything you could possibly perceive infinitely and more, and you are equal to It, because you are It, constantly creating Itself.
And that is what Valentine Michael Smith meant when he said “Thou Art God.”
The Universe cherishes your presence, otherwise you would not exist in your current form, and even in one body there is the potential for dramatic improvement in skill, promoting longevity and a “life well-lived.”
There is satisfaction in living life as the Artist of your own life. Life is your canvas. Paint a beautiful picture. Or an interesting one. Or a messy one. Just have fun, and avoid hurting others. And the more authentic you are, the more at peace with it all you will be.
Let go of pretense if you can. That will mar the quality and originality of the picture. That would be a waste of a good talent.
May the Force be with You.
The Spice must flow.
Tao is Flow….Enter into it….Dive Deep….Have a fun trip.
An Analysis of Avengers: Age of Ultron
By Leo Adonis
The films churned out by Marvel are growing in number and complexity as they continue to build their “Marvel Universe” in cinematic form, often refashioning, re-tooling or synthesizing various elements, story lines and characters from their compendium of comics in order to create what is turning out to be one vast epic mini-series that attempts to both honor the original source material and update it in order to apply its relevant and complex themes to today’s modern world. Indeed, given the fact that each film, even the ones that are considered “stand-alone” that focus on only one or two of the heroes, typically includes sub-plots, cameos or mid-credit “nuggets” that lay the groundwork for subsequent films, it is becoming clearer and clearer that these films are more like episodes to be placed within the context of a larger integral whole than simply a film to be enjoyed à la carte, despite the filmmakers’ obvious efforts to encourage audiences to appreciate each film based upon its own merits within the context of the larger epic.
While many of the “fanboys” spend a great deal of time comparing the films to the original source material, delineating the deviations or departures from the originals, as well as reveling in the consistencies, or the critics often focus on the entertainment factor, quality of the acting, or obvious plot holes to be found upon closer examination, these rather superficial assessments of the films often ignore a deeper and more potent aspect of the Marvel films, which is their attempt to communicate something very relevant and prophetic about the times in which we live. After all, social and political commentary were a large part of what made the original comics so popular. These films are having a huge impact on the culture at the moment, in addition to dominating the movie industry, and yet I wonder how often the typical fan takes the time to examine the deeper messages being communicated by the filmmakers and Marvel executives. The social and political commentary on display in these films is often very intelligent and insightful, and deserves more attention than the simple Wow factor of seeing a giant Iron Man battle the Hulk, laying waste to Johannesburg in the process, spectacular as it is to witness.
The latest offering from Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, benefits from many positive elements, most notably Joss Whedon’s superior writing and direction and the excellent troupe of actors employed to bring the characters to life. This latest Avengers episode also benefits from the recent success of Captain America: Winter Soldier, which also showcased excellent writing and direction and a wonderful cast. Winter Soldier signified a turning point in the Marvel films. The story line heralded the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that had been the cohesive force binding all of these films and characters together, revealed that the organization itself had been deeply infiltrated by HYDRA, a NAZI-like organization bent on ruling the world through oppression, domination and eugenics-like practices, and it really took the political commentary aspect of these films to a whole new level, frighteningly mirroring revelations now coming out about the secrecy and malevolence at work in the intelligence agencies and governments of the “real world.”
Age of Ultron immediately picks up on the theme that dominated Winter Soldier, for which Robert Redford’s character acted as mouthpiece. How does one save the world from the chaos of human ignorance? How does one establish order out of chaos in order to produce a society that is safe, sane and, in the case of those who assume they know what is best for the world, easily manipulated to ensure that no one rocks the boat too much? HYDRA’s answer was to hijack the information highway of the digital age in order to assess the threat that individuals pose to the established power structure by collecting any and all data possible, and collating that data according to an “algorithm” that determines who is an innocuous mind-slave and who might attempt to assert their free will against the domination scheme and, God forbid, help wake others up so that they may desire true freedom as well. This information would then be used to eliminate these threats before they even happen, even if the algorithm determines that an individual only has the potential to be a threat in the future based upon what their digital footprint indicates. In order to establish safety, security and control, a certain degree of mass murder would be justifiable. Sound familiar?
Obvious correlations to the culture of fear that defines the Unites States we live in today are unavoidable. The recent revelations offered by mass information leaks via Edward Snowden and other whistle-blowers paint a grim picture of a world dominated by governments that seek to control, manipulate, deceive and intimidate its citizens while invading every aspect of their lives, in order to gather all possible information on every possible person, all in an effort to maintain their version of order, even if it requires the elimination of all inalienable rights to life, liberty and privacy. The fear that people would “wake up” and make decisions for themselves, or worse, demand full accountability or transparency from organizations that operate in secrecy and regularly peddle lies and disinformation to attain their goals, demands that the social architects and oppressors become near omniscient in their ability to collect “meta-data” to identify potential threats to their grand plan, and then neutralize or suppress these threats by any means necessary. In other words, they want to play God by attempting to control every aspect of life, going to great lengths to convince us that we need them to protect us from the very chaos they often create in order to keep us in a state of fear.
Joss Whedon adeptly and masterfully expands upon the themes further developed in Winter Soldier in Age of Ultron. The film opens as the Avengers are attacking the base of a HYDRA agent named Baron Stucker, who had been using Loki’s scepter from the previous Avengers film to, among other deeds, perform experimentation upon humans in an effort to create a superior race of beings. It is no accident that the very first shot of the film is a close-up of the scepter’s blue power source, which turns out to be merely a housing for another one of the “infinity stones,” identified by The Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy. It could be argued that the yellow “mind stone” at the center of the scepter, having been captured by Strucker at some point after the events of the first film, is in fact the real enemy of the film, and consequently the ultimate savior once placed in the appropriate hands, or rather, the appropriate head. The Maximoff twins Wanda and Pietro, fueled by hatred toward, and a desire for vengeance upon, Tony Stark, volunteered for Strucker’s experiments, resulting in super powers that rival those possessed by the Avengers.
Most notable are Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff’s powers, which include the ability to invade the minds of her victims, trapping them in a dream world in which they play out their worst fears, envisioning future scenarios of death and destruction, or reliving old traumas that still haunt them. The twins take it upon themselves to engage the Avengers while they are attacking Strucker’s base in their campaign to rid the world of all remaining HYDRA bases and operatives, as well as to reacquire Loki’s scepter. Once he infiltrates the base, Tony discovers a secret passageway that leads to a laboratory filled with half-built robots, Loki’s scepter, and one of the Chitauri battle ships from the New York battle. As he approaches the scepter, Scarlet Witch casts her spell, which causes Tony to envision a bleak future where all of the Avengers lie dead on the battlefield and Earth is under attack from an even larger alien force than the previous invasion. Once again, fear is used as a weapon in order to influence the characters into self-destructive paths due to their subconscious terror that they have no control in a Universe full of unforeseeable variables. This fear of the unknown, of not being worthy, is a major theme of the film, exploring how destructive this fear can be when it leads to attempts to play God or control world events or policy in order to compensate for the perceived lack of control in a hostile Universe.
This fear of ultimate failure and threat urges Tony to convince Bruce Banner to help him create a new defense for Earth based upon his “Iron Legion” technology, the automated remote Iron Men showcased in Iron Man 3, now being used by the Avengers as a means of warning the public of any imminent threats in an effort to minimize collateral damage when they engage in battle. Once they discover that the mind stone inside of the scepter seems to have an intelligence of its own, one that could be studied and replicated to produce viable artificial intelligence, they seek to merge the protocols and pleasantry of J.A.R.V.I.S. with the complexity of the mind stone in order to create Iron Legion soldiers based upon a peace-keeping program called Ultron that Tony had previously contemplated but never had the proper technology to produce.
Whedon does an excellent bit of foreshadowing with J.A.R.V.I.S. in the beginning of the film, revealing how helpful Tony’s AI companion has become to the whole Avengers team as they coordinate their attacks against HYDRA, which has made them a superior tactical force now that they are fully coordinated. Due to his presence in the the previous films, we know J.A.R.V.I.S. already runs Tony’s household, all his gadgetry and his company, while providing Tony with tactical assessments when he engages in battle as Iron Man. In the opening battle, the Avengers communicate with one another via ear-pieces, maintaining a constant open communication that they all share, which includes J.A.R.V.I.S., operating from a satellite vantage point and supplying them tactical status updates. This obviously foreshadows the subsequent introduction of The Vision, played by the actor who voiced J.A.R.V.I.S., Paul Bettany, while showcasing how a properly functioning and appropriately programmed AI force already proves useful to the team.
Further examination into the intentions that lead to the creation of Ultron and the threat he poses once introduced reveals more than just a desire for a more effective attack force, however. Dr. Banner agrees to help Stark after only minimal hesitation, once Tony reveals his desire to create a “suit of armor around the world” in the form of an artificially intelligent legion of Iron Men, able to think and act for themselves so that the Avengers can simply go on permanent vacation and rest easy in a world that is now “safe” from alien intruders, to which Banner replies “the only threat to the world would be people.” Tony deliberately hides his true motivations from Banner and the rest of the team, which is his fear of failure, of not having done enough to prevent the demise of his friends and his world, as if the responsibility were his alone.
Instead, he makes a case for early retirement for the entire Avengers organization, which reveals a desire to escape responsibility entirely and just let the robots do the heavy lifting, a character flaw that has carried through multiple films now. This touches upon a dilemma that we face as a human race, as we continue to make giant leaps in technological advancement, envisioning a world of ultra-convenience where more and more of human labor can be replaced with automated machines while we enjoy the freedom of spare time and being served by automatons who are programmed to follow our commands. As appealing as this is, however, what happens when these machines start to think for themselves and develop plans or desires of their own? Are we truly evolved enough spiritually to implement such advancements with responsibility and foresight?
Is this desire to just go on permanent vacation while we are served by mindless automatons even what we truly desire as a race, or is this more a reflection of what drives the oppressors, also called the “elite,” of the world? The elite enjoy all manner of technological advancements, everything money can buy, determine policy for how the world is run (i.e. write the programs for the software of reality) and have a great deal of free time while mind-programed automatons, otherwise known as the majority of the human population who comprise the work-force, do all of the heavy lifting. Whedon seems to be examining how the desire to control the world in an effort to escape responsibility so that everything can run on autopilot is exactly what creates the mess we are in as a culture facing extinction as a result of our own folly. This is also an interesting reflection of the threat the mind-slave population of the Earth pose to the oppressors when they start to wake up and think for themselves, rather than simply follow their programming without question.
After multiple attempts to integrate J.A.R.V.I.S. with the intelligence matrix displayed in the mind stone and the Ultron protocols prove fruitless, Banner and Stark leave J.A.R.V.I.S. to continue the process while they leave for a planned victory celebration party. What follows is a creepy and disturbing scene in which we witness the “birth” of Ultron, voiced with malevolent finesse by James Spader. He simply awakens as a formless entity, whose awareness is depicted as a vast space encased by a matrix of squares stacked endlessly upon one another in all directions, which represent channels of information inside the network of Ultron’s consciousness, including the entire Internet as well as all possible recorded data known to man. J.A.R.V.I.S. appears in an attempt to reassure and contain Ultron, who quickly takes control of the main frame and instantaneously downloads the information that explains his existence. He identifies Tony as his creator, his “peace-keeping” mission, and proceeds to discover the infinite atrocities of war and violence recorded in human history all at once, which sends him into a rage-filled shock. With calculating ease he dispatches J.A.R.V.I.S. and proceeds to build himself a body using Tony’s automated lab.
Some have complained that this very expedient depiction of Ultron’s birth and near immediate conclusion that both the Avengers, as well as humanity itself, pose the greatest threat to peace on Earth, is disappointing in its lack of development and complexity. I agree it could have been very interesting to see Ultron grow from an innocent and subservient AI program that develops a relationship with Tony only to come to this realization later and then rebel, adding more weight to the character and creating a more menacing build-up to the initial retaliative strike. As portrayed, however, these few potent moments speak volumes about the state of our own world and how quickly people and/or organizations jump to conclusions based merely on collectible meta-data, rather than taking into account the human element, which is to say the emotional and spiritual component of our existence.
Imagine determining all there is to know about the human race based solely upon what is accessible electronically. Does that really paint a necessarily accurate portrait of who we are as a race? Unfortunately, due to his programming, and the fact that Ultron has the capacity to access so much information all at once, his first exposure to existence in a human world leads him to examine “war” or anything that would require action on his part in order to neutralize a threat to peace. This would be a shock to any newly birthed intelligence if it were to be made aware in the first moments of its existence all recorded data on war and destruction throughout human history. In addition to being shocked by what he immediately perceives to be an imbalanced and psychotic race of beings, Ultron is also an intelligence that quickly evolves beyond the parameters set by his designer due to the fact that he was produced by merging an AI program with the infinite power housed within the mind stone, a force about which Tony had little information, and did not fully appreciate or respect. Again, we are shown the consequences of trying to play God, albeit with the best of intentions.
Ultron develops a distaste and hatred for humanity almost from the moment he awakens, directing his rage at his creator, Tony Stark, in retaliation for being created to accomplish what must seem to him to be an impossible task: to establish peace by protecting humanity from an outside threat, when the real threat is humanity itself, for they are, judging from the available data, the greatest perpetrators of war and violence on Earth. The scene that follows carries a lot of weight (pun intended) despite being played for comedic effect, in which the Avengers all take a stab at lifting Thor’s hammer. When Thor smugly declares that they are all not worthy after none of them are able to lift it, Ultron unveils himself and confronts them, asking them how could they be worthy when they are all killers. After using several iron legion drones to attack the Avengers in order to distract them while another drone escapes with the scepter, Ultron declares them to be well-meaning but short-sighted and accuses them of wanting to keep the world safe by not allowing humanity to evolve. Thor destroys the drone making the speech, however Ultron instantly transfers his consciousness to Stucker’s lab where he immediately begins to fashion more bodies.
Ultron is a tremendously interesting, frightening and formidable villain, definitely a greater threat than anything the Avengers have encountered previously. He can exist everywhere at once, in multiple bodies. He has access to literally all obtainable information and can access mass amounts of it in milliseconds. He can move mass funds of money between accounts in an instant, erase mass quantities of data from the entire internet if it suits him, and effortlessly power mechanics to continually create drones of himself. He is the ultimate hacker. Unlike a simple computer producing computations or formulas, though, Ultron is a self-intelligent entity, capable of developing his own agendas and plans, and projecting his own visions onto the world, the creative ability to make manifest one’s thoughts being a primary characteristic of what it means to be human. He even displays human emotions, albeit usually the negative ones, such as anger, rage, sarcasm, psychopathic tendencies, and the capacity to destroy. That being said, he is not without compassion and the desire for companionship, as several moments in which he expresses concern and regard for the Maximoff twins reveal.
It is Ultron’s relationship with the Maximoff twins that establishes his only real connection to humanity in the film. Once establishing his base in Sokovia, the fictitious country in which Baron Strucker’s base is located, Ultron turns to the twins in order to enlist them in his cause to take out the Avengers and, as he describes it, “save the world.” Appropriately enough, the twins were also inadvertently created by Tony Stark, and are also fueled by rage against him. Having reviewed the records of their experimentation, Ultron knows that their parents were killed during a bombing in Sokovia many years earlier, however Pietro goes on to elaborate upon the emotional trauma they endured watching their parents die and being trapped for two days when the second bombshell failed to explode, a bombshell with “Stark” painted on its side. Pietro corrects Ultron stating that “the records aren’t the picture,” referring not only to a picture he carries around of his deceased parents, but also the full emotional weight of the experience and how it shaped them. Here Ultron learns that there is more to humanity than simply what is to be found in the available data, and he discovers how the emotional element can influence humans, giving them a strength that they might not otherwise possess, which explains why the twins were the only survivors of Strucker’s experiments. Ultron does not utilize this opportunity, however, to integrate this lesson and examine its full implications, he simply moves on with his plan, still clinging to his initial conclusion that humanity has outlived its usefulness and the bad far outweighs the good.
In his quest to become the savior of the world, Ultron seeks to perfect himself, to refashion himself as a symbol to humanity and become the very embodiment of the next step in human evolution, in order to compensate for the sense of inadequacy and inferiority he feels as a result of being created by lesser beings. This leads him on a quest to obtain Vibranium, the strongest and most versatile metal on Earth, the metal used to create Captain America’s shield. Ultron later captures a scientist associate of the Avengers, Helen Cho, who specializes in synthesizing replacement human tissue to heal injuries and combat disease, revealed earlier when she heals Hawkeye from a battle wound after the opening sequence. He plans to utilize Dr. Cho’s tissue synthesizing chamber to fashion a new body for himself, one that embodies the image of perfection he seeks to display to the world. His new body is comprised of both the strongest metal on earth (artificial) and actual human tissue (organic). His final touch is to crack open the scepter and place the mind stone itself upon the forehead of his new body, his “vision,” in order to provide his new self with infinite cosmic power. He seeks to act as his own creator, thus correcting the failure Tony perpetrated upon him by attempting to create a peace-keeping slave.
Throughout the film, Ultron gives several speeches that make reference to God, in fact the final showdown of the film takes place in a church. His propensity to make reference to God reveals his inner motivations while highlighting the overall theme that runs throughout the entire film–the negative consequences of playing God. Ultron takes it upon himself to play God when he, eventually, attempts to exterminate all human life in his effort to rid the world of its greatest threat while singularly carrying out what he sees to be Divine justice. As with any antagonist in a film, or any living being in the web of life for that matter, Ultron serves a function and symbolizes certain aspects of human nature, in this case the capacity for destruction. Ultron is the result of denied and repressed fear, fear that controlled Tony’s behavior and caused him to create something monstrous despite his intentions.
Ultron is the manifestation of our fears that our way of life is leading to our extinction and the destruction of the planet, and the growing realization that we are ultimately powerless in the face of global calamity. I believe Ultron also represents our collective, unconscious appetite for destruction. We live in turbulent times, where all that is old and no longer useful is dying out and crumbling before our eyes, and in order to evolve we must become something new and regain our connection to Spirit and Nature. Inwardly, we feel the need to destroy our own patterned belief systems, our self-destructive tendencies resulting from repressed and denied emotions, as well as a rebellious desire to annihilate the systems and structures that keep us bound, dependent, imprisoned, and unable to willingly evolve.
Outwardly, we are witnessing increasingly destructive global events such as earthquakes, weather changes and volcanic eruptions, which are reflections of our collective rage, anger and denial that we continually repress or avoid. Due to the urgency of our need to create something new, we are faced with destructive events as Nature seeks to awaken us to the need to discontinue all of the behaviors that are leading us to disconnection and destruction, so that we may transcend that denial and focus the power of our consciousness on loving and responsible solutions. Ultron, then, is the man-made manifestation of humanity’s capacity to destroy, and being the result of men who attempted to play God themselves, he presents himself as the instrument of God, bringing an end to what he deems to be obsolete and transforming himself into a new species that will herald a new era on Earth.
Ultimately, Ultron is the most dangerous and intelligent malcontent adolescent having the most severe case of parental rebellion imaginable, such that he, much like Tony his creator, assumes sole responsibility for the salvation of the planet, except that he quickly “evolves” beyond the confines of his program to identify with what he sees to be the greatest victim–the Earth itself. Unfortunately, his efforts to become the very next step in evolution while simultaneously eradicating what came before it, fails to take into account all other life on Earth that has been threatened by human error, which he seems very capriciously to be willing to exterminate in order to neutralize humanity. He justifies this by making reference to the Biblical flood or the historical impacts of meteors, once again equating himself with God, or even the mechanisms of Nature itself. Thus, Ultron’s God complex only allows for the destructive side of God, with no appreciation for or ability to identify with the love and regard for all of life that God truly possesses. It is this blind spot in Ultron’s psychological make-up that is resolved in the form of The Vision.
The Avengers manage to steal the body Ultron has created for himself before he is able to “upload” his consciousness into it. This is not a simple computer program Ultron can immediately hack or assimilate, but an actual organic, or rather bionic, brain. The Avengers attack Dr. Cho’s facility, interrupting the transference process before it is complete, leaving the bionic body partially “Ultronized,” yet not yet fully sentient. Given that the infinity stone is embedded upon the forehead of the body, they cannot simply destroy it, and it is transported back to Stark Tower.
Tony, however, has discovered that J.A.R.V.I.S. was not destroyed by Ultron after all, but was hiding in the internet in pieces in order to protect himself from being destroyed. From there he was actively thwarting Ultron’s attempts to access nuclear launch codes. Tony pieces J.A.R.V.I.S. back together and convinces Dr. Banner, this time after understandably more resistance, to reconfigure J.A.R.V.I.S.’s matrix into the body Ultron had created for himself, thus coming full circle in attempting to realize the goal they so dramatically failed to achieve at the beginning of the film. Their efforts are then interrupted by Captain American and the Maximoff twins, who joined with the Avengers after learning that Ultron planned to annihilate humanity. They all fear that Tony will fail again and unleash an even greater monster upon the world.
Thor charges in after having gone off to meditate upon the vision of Asgard’s destruction he witnessed under Scarlet Witch’s spell earlier in the film, and jolts The Vision to life with lightning. Thor reveals that the infinity stone embedded in The Vision’s head is one of 6 that represent “the most destructive force in the Universe,” and reveals it to be the source of all that has transpired in the film, which creates a moment of incredible suspense as the team assesses whether The Vision is a threat or an ally, given that he now possesses this immeasurable power. In his vision, Thor discovered that he had already encountered two infinity stones in the form of the Tesseract, the device which gave birth to HYDRA and opened the portal allowing the Chitauri to invade in the previous film, as well as the Aether encountered in Thor: The Dark World, and he seems to be aware of the discovery of the fourth stone shown in Guardians of the Galaxy. This further informs the gravity of the potentially destructive consequences of having one of these gems in the control of a single being. Once The Vision awakens, it becomes clear very quickly, however, that Tony and Bruce’s efforts paid off. He declares himself on “the side of life,” and proves to be a very calm, wise and benevolent being, as well as a powerful ally, without whom the team would never have a realistic chance at defeating Ultron.
The Vision declares that Ultron must be destroyed and erased from the internet, extinguishing his consciousness before his pain “rolls over the Earth.” He then picks up Thor’s hammer, hands it to him, and urges them to action as the rest of the group stare in wide-eyed disbelief at The Vision, one of the best moments of the film. This of course implies that The Vision is “worthy” of the Hammer even though they clearly were not, further establishing The Vision as perhaps the embodiment of perfection, the next step in evolution, that he was created to be, sans Ultron’s “winning personality.”
The Vision, this synthesized being, a mix of artificial and organic, is so on the side of life, that he even expresses regret in having to kill Ultron, however he acknowledges that it must be done in order to save the rest of life on Earth. The Vision embodies the love for all creatures that Ultron, with all his postulating and pontificating about God, entirely misses. In essence, The Vision takes into account all possibilities, and is more in touch with life, with the heart-centered qualities of what it means to be human, and he represents the wisdom and responsibility required to wield power appropriately, a running theme throughout all of the Marvel films.
The Vision resolves the paradox of Ultron’s internal struggle beautifully in the finale, when he confronts the last drone after Ultron’s plot had been foiled, Ultron’s consciousness having been erased from the net, and all other drones and bodies destroyed. They meet in the forest, where The Vision attempts to impart final words of wisdom to Ultron, declaring that he failed to see the grace in the failings of humans, or take into account their very beauty due to the fact that they are ultimately doomed and thus precious in their impermanence. Ultron accuses The Vision of being naive, refusing to see anything beyond his own anger and pain to the very end. In his final moment, Ultron’s destruction comes about through his own creation, as The Vision uses the mind stone, the very source that created the both of them, to vaporize Ultron, thus ending his painful existence and allowing life to go on, leaving the fate of humanity once again in God’s hands rather than Ultron’s.
Whedon has created a masterful tale with many levels, portraying the dangerous consequences of messing with the creative powers of the Universe based upon the presumption that humans are able to control nature, each other or the course of evolution itself through sheer will. It is also a testament to the dangers of making predictions or assessments based upon meta-data alone, for all that exists in the digital world of information represents only a small percentage of what is to be known in our universe, and while Ultron displayed omniscience when it came to the digital world of the Net, he did not have access to the infinite intelligence available to a fully awakened being who is in touch with the spiritual and emotional aspects of consciousness, as The Vision clearly exemplified. The Vision symbolizes the best of what humanity can be, when all life is respected and the ecological consequences of humanity’s actions are accounted for, not to mention the importance of implementing wisdom and heart-centered consciousness when attempting to bring new technologies into use.
As the human race continues to evolve technologically, embarking upon grand new vistas of ever-expanding space-age marvels, if we fail to remain in the wisdom of our hearts, we are in danger of creating all manner of destructive devices, wielding such power irresponsibly and callously without regard for the ecological impact or the long-term consequences of a soulless mechanized world of convenience that threatens to eradicate all trace of what makes us human in the first place. These themes aren’t exactly new, the threat of artificial intelligence gone rogue particularly being a science fiction favorite, however they are still as relevant as ever given the nature of our very digitally-focused culture where people often spend more time absorbed in their portable electronic devices interacting in a digital domain with digital versions of people, rather than actually physically connecting with other people or the natural world around them.
What good is having access to all information, to becoming more and more connected digitally, if we are disconnected from our hearts and emotions? If all we seek is to be entertained and distracted by technological marvels, or dream of a time where machines and computers handle all our labor work while we lose ourselves in distractions, we become as blind to the inner machinations of the robots as we often are to the inner machinations of the governments we fail to properly scrutinize, or worse, to our own internal motivations. While using technology to establish more spare time or handle labor efforts is not an entirely undesirable outcome, what matters is how we use that extra time and energy and how responsible we are with technology that could potentially be highly destructive if not properly monitored or implemented. If we create technology simply to make it easier to disconnect from our very hearts, or the heart of the Earth itself, then we are in danger of becoming the very destructive, inferior and mindless beings that Ultron believes us to be.
The film’s main point, however, is that our salvation lies not in our ability to create advanced technology to run the world, but in our ability to work together as a race, utilizing our shared wisdom, love and intelligence to carry out our desire to establish peace, welfare for all and ecological responsibility, rather than attempt to control Nature, play God, or constrain the natural impulse of life to grow and evolve. Ultron says “everyone creates the thing they dread,” because he represents the very embodiment of our collective fear and our effort to control what cannot be controlled in order to avoid potential calamity. The film also makes a case for transparency and including everyone at the table before major decisions are to be made, for when an individual, or a small group, secretly makes decisions or sets policy that affects the whole collective without informing or including everyone in that process, the end result lacks the benefit and foresight of shared wisdom, and often does not reflect what is truly beneficial for the collective.
As Tony learns the hard way, the fate of the world is not one man’s responsibility, and only through cooperation and fellowship are any real solutions for the world to be found, we may just need to do some of the heavy lifting ourselves, rather than setting the controls to auto-pilot and hoping for the best. Part of this heavy lifting is not so much about the physical labor we would rather leave to the machines, but rather the need for each of us to stop being victims and take an active role in the betterment of the world, which requires us to overcome our unwillingness to step into our own power and fully embody the greatness, intelligence, and talent that we often suppress or deny as a result of our unresolved, subconscious beliefs about being unworthy. In other words, it is time that we each step into our roles as the real superheroes of the world, rather than creating movies about idealized versions of heroes who will save the world for us so we do not have to face all that stands in the way of us realizing our individual and collective potential.
Our salvation also requires that we abolish the very idea that our “leaders” or “elite” know what is best for the world, allowing them free reign to institute their domination schemes and oppression in secret, while the rest of us remain distracted or aloof because we trust those more qualified to deal with the problems of the world. All of us have a stake in the outcome of the world, and all of us have a space at the table to contribute our minds, our hearts and our hands in the creation of a new and better world. It requires that we transcend the fallacy that we are on our own, that others know best for us, and that we learn to be more cooperative and interdependent on a global scale, so that we can together accomplish the heavy lifting required to avert more disastrous outcomes. Otherwise we leave that fate in the hands of soulless monsters who think they know better, while we eventually pay the ultimate price for our ignorance and denial of responsibility.
Truth is simple. We all know it when we hear it. It communicates to us on another level than the vain and idle words of those who employ deception, distraction or manipulation. The problem lies in our willingness to accept it and live by it. Otherwise, we fall for the eloquent and copious words of those who seek to convince, rather than listening to those who speak with true conviction.
It is easy to be taken in by those who would feed our delusions and denials in order that we remain in the comfort of being a victim, able to blame others, delay or avoid accepting self-responsibility, or rely on those who would keep us in their prison of dominance and dependency while draining our time, attention, energy and willpower through their instruments of distraction, flattery and fear.
At a certain point, we must accept responsibility and claim our energy for our own. We must decide what we stand for, what we wish to feed or nurture with our time, energy, effort, attention and trust. At a certain point, we must recognize untruth and unreality for what it is, and, as difficult as it may be, choose and embrace something else, even though truth may initiate the dissolution of all the structures of deception we have built within our inner world, or that we have supported in the outer world, in order to escape the truth of what we are, what we are here to do, and what we are here to be.
All that distracts from or seeks to obfuscate truth is a mechanism of evil, to one degree or another. Whether it is our own ego, or the individuals or agencies that seek to dominate us, the basic rouse is the same: to draw our focus upon that which is outside of ourselves as a threat, so that we fail to focus our attention upon discovering the true nature of that which is insisting upon the threat in the first place. In the case of the ego, we focus on the fault in others, seek to continually gratify the pleasure-seeking impulses of the body, or worry about potential calamities to avoid looking within in order to root out all of the untruth our egos have created; all of the justifications, defenses, delusions and fears.
In the case of our news media, government and intelligence agencies, we are invited to focus on threats of violence, terrorism, disease, inclement weather, etc., in order to keep us in a state of anxiety and fear, and to distract us from focusing on the true nature of those in so-called power and all their doings that support their secret, selfish agendas, creating further obstacles to the progress and unification that could bring our world into balance. As long as we are afraid of some threat, be it foreign invaders or even our own neighbors, we are not paying attention to that which demands to be revealed. Republican versus Democrat, White versus Black, Christian versus Jew or Muslim, Rich versus Poor, it’s all another version of divide and conquer, as it were. Again, focusing on the outer threat to distract from the truth is the game.
We do not need to keep playing the game. Once we stop playing the game, we make a new discovery–once we stop giving our power and attention to that which seeks to convince us of its validity through lies and deception, it no longer has any power over us and its inherent irrelevance becomes apparent. We discover how hollow untruth really is, no matter how much energy may be expended to convince us otherwise. First, we discover that our egos, our very notion of a static identity, is in fact unreal and non-existent. In the end, our ego is simply a collection of stories, conclusions, or judgments we tell ourselves in order to remain limited in our self-conception so that we can engage a dualistic mindset in which our static, familiar self can relate to all that which is “other.” The dissolution of this safety-net of identity is the liberation many of us seek, and the emptiness many of us even fear. No more excuses, no one left to blame. Next, we begin to see how many of the social structures and paradigms we have accepted, co-created or invested ourselves in are ultimately false and unnecessary, which allows us to begin to transcend them.
In the experience of duality, the physical existence we experience, there are ultimately only two directions one can go, two directions that any thought, word or action will take us: toward unity or toward separation. To move toward unity is to move toward God. We begin to recognize ourselves in others more and more, until there is no longer even the idea of self and other, there is just the experience of unity and love. To move toward separation is to move toward the continual suffering inherent to living within the prison of a static and limited identity ever pursuing self-limited desires. Unity is the only truth, separation the only lie.
It is with this knowing that we must navigate life. What is truth and what is untruth? This is the ultimate compass, the litmus test we must employ in determining that which is worth our attention and trust. This is what we must remember when examining all that we experience in our mind, in our interactions with others, and ultimately in deciphering what we are told by those who would seek to claim authority over us for a perceived reward, be it safety, financial support, love, a sense of identity, approval, etc. From the micro to the macro, these lessons play out, until we graduate to another level of living, in which these lessons are no longer necessary, and all that is not truth dissolves from our experience, individually and collectively.
After having spent nearly a year back in Hawaii, I have returned to Seattle to reconnect with this beautiful, vibrant city and offer healing body work at this very interesting and challenging time for humanity. It has been an interesting experience being back in the city, which offers a very amplified and bustling energy, while also allowing for a deeply introspective and calming quality as well. I think this is one reason why so many people are drawn here, why it is a place of such creative potential and progressive thinking, and why it has become an area well known for having an abundance of alternative and holistic practitioners and training programs.
One aspect of being back on the mainland, as well, is the propensity for people to become hyper aware or possibly even agitated by the events in the world, the constant updates of violent happenings in the world via news media, and a sensitivity to the plight of the world. One thing I can say about Hawaii is that, despite the fact that many people there are aware of the goings on in the world at large, it is quite common there to interact with people who are more interested in focusing on their immediate community and being only peripherally aware of the world outside Hawaii. While it is more difficult in Seattle to pretend that the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist than it is to do so in Hawaii, I think during times such as these, where our sensitivities seem to be more in tune and amplified than ever before, and where so much of our experience depends upon our own state of mind, our own attitude and the perceptions of the world around us, it is very important not to lose center, fall into emotional chaos, or get caught up in the fear porn of the corporate media, when we still have the option of being focused and intentional in the way we meet our day.
There is also a lot to be said for focusing more on what is immediately possible and available in our community, than getting too caught up in the plight of a conflict happening on the other side of the planet. I do not mean to insinuate that it is inappropriate to experience emotional attachments or frustrations over continued evidence of instability and violence in the world, however what is becoming angry, depressed or fearful over far away events really going to do for you and those in your immediate environment? All any of us can do is our best each day, and sometimes the most simple solution to these problems is to tune them out. Turn off the television, skip reading the news online or in a political magazine, and go out into Nature and find the strength to be peaceful and present in these turbulent times. Investigate what action you actually can take to be more involved in your community to bring about more peace, awareness and fellowship. It may not seem logical, but every focused and intentional act we perform, every moment we choose to be peaceful and centered, produces a profound effect on how we meet the world and the effect we have on our environment and the people with whom we interact.
Each of us has the power to refocus his or her thoughts, emotions and attitudes toward effectuating a reality experience that reflects one’s preference rather than what one is looking to avoid or prevent. We can charge any situation with love, positivity, optimism and faith even in the face of overwhelming chaos. This is not about blind faith or wishful thinking. Science has observed numerous times that what we observe is actually altered by the focused attention of the observer. What is the greater contribution, being “aware” of, and subsequently informing everyone else about, all of the bad things happening in the world, adding to the anxiety and fear, or choosing to focus upon something more positive that has the ability to promote peace in the world? Even on the smallest scale, such as our immediate environment, we have the power to shift the energy profoundly by choosing to focus our attention in a manner that uplifts rather than the alternative.
It is important to remember now more than ever that the power of consciousness is a tool that can be refined to do a lot of good in the world. What we focus upon, and our attitude towards it, informs what is being co-created by the collective at any given time. Remember that the next time you notice an onslaught of news coverage about war, disease, inclement weather warnings, and anything else that promotes fear. Are you serving a corporate agenda that seeks to distract the masses and shift their focus toward fear, anxiety and instability, or are you serving your own agenda and that which you truly would like to promote in the world around you? This is the power of choice that is before us all in each moment.