Wrestling with issues of life and death in genre films: ordinary and customary. Doing so from a religious and/or spiritual perspective: not so much. Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, which expands wide tomorrow, tackles Alice Sebold's novel and flings its spiritual concerns firmly into the realm of wide-eyed, teenage fantasy. The director successfully added drama to the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, but critical reaction to the heavy dose of other-worldly whimsy that he adds to the criminal / domestic drama of a young girl's murder has been mixed. (See, for example, the thoughtful review by Cinematical's Elisabeth Rappe.)
By its very nature, science fiction invites debate on the past, present, and future of mankind, thus treading boldly into arenas formerly reserved for sacred discussions. Religion in sci-fi movies becomes a hazier issue to define by today's terms. Is 2001: A Space Odyssey a religious picture? How about Planet of the Apes? Rather than split any more hairs, and without passing judgment on the merits of the religions involved, here's a list of the Top Ten Religious Sci-Fi Characters.
1. Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
As if his desert home and hooded robe weren't enough, old Ben spills off religious platitudes like water over a broken dam. He doesn't force his faith down anyone else's throat, but neither does he hesitate to speak about it in warm, personal terms. In repudiation of lapsed believer Darth Vader's contempt for his "devotion to that ancient religion," Obi-Wan displays genteel grace and self-sacrificing faith in a key climactic scene, providing admirable inspiration for everyone.
2. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton in Alien 3)
On a planet full of rapists and murderers, Dutton as Dillon strikes me as the most reasonable and therefore the most compassionate and committed -- admirable traits in the truly devoted. As portrayed by Dutton, Dillon is an old-world prophet in the manner of a blue-collar working class hero. He starts off in fierce protest at the presence of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), fearing for the temptation she presents. Eventually we come to appreciate that he is, in his own blunt fashion, always putting the interests of others ahead of his own.
3. Thomas Anderson / Neo (Keanu Reeves in The Matrix)
The sequels squeezed out much of the joyful abandon of the original, which remains a heady brew of action, philosophy and religion. Neo is fighting against his own destiny on an instinctual level, even as he seeks greater understanding of the world that surrounds him. Science fiction is obsessed with messiahs, though it professes not to believe in them. The Wachowski Siblings definitely provided a rich new background for a classic tale of redemption.
4. Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster in Contact)
She is firm in her convictions and unwavering in her beliefs. Now, it happens that she worships at the altar of science, having lost her faith in a higher being after she lost her parents as a child. But Ellie's sincerity and righteous devotion can be admired by any person of faith. Even in her most cantankerous moments, she is far more appealing than the unctuous, smug sanctity of so-called holy man Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey).
5. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson in The X-Files: I Want to Believe)
Like Ellie in Contact, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) seeks the truth. He even seems ready to overlook the terrible transgressions of a defrocked priest if it gets him further down the road. But that's a huge roadblock for Dana Scully. Her faith in God cannot be ignored, nor can her righteous indignation at the sins that the priest perpetrated against children. The case becomes a test of faith, and a test of the depth of Mulder and Scully's love for each other.
6. Tomas / Tommy / Tom (Hugh Jackman in The Fountain)
I will not pretend that I "understand" Darren Aronofsky's ambitious epic in its entirety. It's more a film that you experience and endure, and then watch again and again, in bits and pieces, to savor the moments that really hit home. The overarching achievement of The Fountain is that it feels like an intensely intimate, inordinately individual, spiritual quest, even as it follows a character (in three different iterations) across a thousand years seeking to save his beloved.
7. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass in Serenity)
In Joss Whedon's bawdy, rowdy space opera, he found room for a sage priest who embraces common sense as well as an elevated perspective of the proceedings. In Ron Glass's portrayal of Shepherd Book, he balanced the righteous and the rueful in just the right measure.
8. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson in Signs)
It's much easier to accept Mel Gibson as an anti-religious lout than a man of the cloth; he's more effective as a furious father than as a peaceful zealot. Despite my numerous problems with the film itself, Hess is a stirring example of a man who yearns to believe again.
9. Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in Dune)
Many people cannot get past their distaste for David Lynch's movie as a whole. But the film's spiritual elements cannot be ignored so easily, especially when they are depicted with such rare empathy. Biblical allusions abound in Frank Herbert's novel. In the film, Paul Atreides is more a man of action than a man of the cloth, but he barely hesitates before using the unusual -- some might say supernatural -- powers granted to him by "the spice" to overturn an evil dynasty. As a side note, I do wish that Alejandro Jodorowsky had been able to mount his version in the 70s. That would have been an undeniable religious experience.
10. Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm in The Fifth Element)
Admittedly, this is a bit of foolishness. Luc Besson's extreme vision of the future is a cinematic orgy starring Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Fritz Lang, and the ethereal, highly distracting Milla Jovovich. Bruce Willis provides the earthly contrast, allowing Father Vito to take the high road as a member of the supporting cast, a Friar Tuck to Willis' reluctant Robin Hood.