Home EVENTS Why Sci-Fi Films Like ‘Rebel Moon’ Love Religion

Why Sci-Fi Films Like ‘Rebel Moon’ Love Religion

Why Sci-Fi Films Like ‘Rebel Moon’ Love Religion


(REVIEW) “Rebel Moon” reminds us that religion is not just a trope in a sci-fi film, it’s baked into its DNA as a way of re-enchanting us to an often dead-feeling universe.

“Rebel Moon — Part 1: A Child Of Fire” opened in limited theaters on Dec. 15 (ahead of its Netflix release a week later) to very poor reviews from critics. This is not a huge surprise given that Zack Snyder has never been a critical darling.

Snyder — whether he’s working in the superhero genre (“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), zombie genre (“Army of The Dead”) or now sci-fi — has an eye for the great mythic stories and characters, but never seems to recreate the essence of what made them popular. Instead, he largely rips off their surface-level imagery and tropes, then expects our feelings for these archetypes to transfer to these rip-offs. 

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One place “Rebel Moon” does that is with religion. The film uses many of the genre tropes like a prophecy of a chosen one who can do unexplainable magic, but this is never used to explore any deeper themes or emotions. Rather, it is used as a little sprinkling of transcendence to give us the same feeling we get from “the force” in the “Star Wars” saga.

It’s almost there less because we have a purpose, but because we expect it. This is much the same way he treats religion in his DC films, with Superman often posing like Jesus in the shape of a cross or dying in a woman’s arms, but with no connection to any deeper themes.

Religion has long played a far bigger role in sci-fi than in many other genres like drama and romance. “Star Wars” is ultimately the story of a religious order of warrior monks from the past who serve the mystical energy of the universe “the force” and return to a corrupt modern secular society to set the world right. “Avatar” has their planet god Eywa, “Dune” has the mystical warrior nuns the Bene Gesserit and the prophecy of The Chosen One, “Ender’s Game” has a protagonist born to religious parents who goes on to found his own religion.

Both science fiction and fantasy genres are very recent forms of storytelling. For most of human history, humans had a deeply religious and “enchanted” imagination. Not only did God exist – but nature itself was filled with wonder and magical creatures.

Stories like the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were heroic epics that had gods and magical creatures, but weren’t considered sci-fi or fantasy. Because the world was “enchanted,” it meant that you could discover transcendent meaning and purpose there; conforming to that meaning and purpose was the task of our life. 

When the enlightenment swept throughout Europe and proposed to explain all of the supposed magic in the world with impartial science, it largely took the magic and wonder out of the world. As a result, the world was no longer a place where you discovered meaning and purpose, but was simply raw material to carve up to do whatever you want with.

As recounted in the documentary “Faith in Imagination: The Fantasy Makers” (free to watch on YouTube), various Christian writers — such as George McDonald, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis — responded to this by creating the fantasy genre, which told stories about worlds like ours or connected somehow to ours that were still magical.

You saw God at the center of it, whether that was McDonald’s “Phantastes,” Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” or Lewis’ “Narnia” books. By showing worlds that were enchanted, they hoped that people would see that vision of the world resonated more with them — and looked to their own world to re-enchant them, too.

Science fiction, however, had a slightly different track. Sci-fi — rather than trying to subvert the Enlightenment’s view of the world — largely embraced it. While books like “Frankenstein” looked on the achievements of science with skepticism, most sci-fi, such as “Star Trek” and The Day The Earth Stood Still,” among others, either operate in a world where religion is not mentioned, but explicitly rejected and explained away as something that has a purely materialistic cause. Yet, for every one of these, there’s still a “Star Wars,” “Avatar,” “Dune” and “Ender’s Game.” 

Why would sci-fi films have so much religion as opposed to other genres? Particularly since it was born out of enlightenment values rather than as a rejection of it?

For starters, sci-fi and fantasy are a lot more similar than they are different. Orson Scott Card (author of “Ender’s Game”), who’s written for both sci-fi and fantasy, once said the difference between the two was that “sci-fi has rivets, fantasy has trees.” 

Famed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke said “magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” Many people, seeing how similar movies like “Star Wars” were to fantasy stories, have vainly tried to rebrand them as “science fantasy” to preserve sci-fi as one which has plausible explanations for its wonders based in science.

The fact is that most people like sci-fi for the same reason that they like fantasy: Because it lets them re-enter a world of enchantment and wonder that has been lost post-enlightenment, which is, that desire for enchantment drives them to sci-fi/fantasy and to church.

It makes sense that a genre built around fulfilling that sense of wonder would pull on faith. In fact, the sci-fi genre of movies (as opposed to the more grounded genres of drama/romance) have been shown in at least one study to be the best genre at creating that feeling of wonder and awe that makes you want to be heroic and altruistic toward others.

Another reason that sci-fi — along with fantasy — might be so ripe for explorations of religion is because it’s distant enough from our own lives to be safe to depict. It’s a point that I made in my review of “The Shift” that, while made-up religion, is popular in sci-fi depictions. If you portray a real-world religion you are likely to offend someone if you don’t portray it the way that comports with their experience. Likewise, as people become more secular, depictions of real-world religions are less likely to resonate with audiences, but because the religion depicted claims to be made up. 

This, of course, poses its own unique potential dangers. “Rebel Moon” takes the surface level contours of its archetypes and religion, but doesn’t include the red meat of it that actually satisfies the soul. The fathers of the fantasy genre hoped that by taking us through stories to an enchanted world we could “re-enchant” our own world. And yet, in the same way that social media and porn can make us more lonely by giving us surface-level satisfaction for our need for connection, and thereby sapping us of some of our motivation to get what we really need.  

Likewise, if we don’t use sci-fi and fantasy to draw us closer to the enchantment in our own world, but as a fix to make it easier to starve ourselves of transcendence in our real lives. Also, just like porn, sci-fi can promise us a vision of religion tailored to our preferences rather than one that conforms to truth, something that harms users in the process. 

And yet, the capacity of science fiction to re-enchant us to this world — backed up by studies like the one mentioned earlier — is also impossible to deny. We were made for a religious and enchanted universe. Shallow treatments of it abound because we hunger for the real thing. Hopefully, the sci-fi genre continues to make faith a part of re-enchanting our imaginations – and hopefully we continue to use it to re-enchant our world rather than live with its disenchantment. 

“Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child Of Fire” is in select theaters now and arrives on Netflix on Dec. 22.


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