Friday, December 23, 2005


Close Encounters With The Morality Police

So there's a discussion of Spielberg's new film Munich, which is about Israel tracking down and killing the men who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 olympics, over at Ann Althouse's place. This particular discussion started with the idea of Spielberg not being historically accurate in a film "inspired by real events." The main complaint seems to be too much empathy for terrorists, and making Israel look bloodthirsty for wanting to protect its citizens from murderers. I think that's a fair generalization of some of the discussion there. Others extended Spielberg's lack of . . . ethics, or . . . appropriate direction, or . . . well, I guess there are just some people who hate him. Good for them. Everyone needs a burning coal of resentment to keep them warm on the long, cold nights of winter. But when it comes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that's where I draw the line.

Here's a take from commenter Henry Woodbury:
Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The hero is a guy who abandons his family to seek aliens who have shown their higher intellect by kidnapping aviators and terrorizing small children.

The vacuum that is Spielberg's moral sense has been sucking for a long long time.

I'm sorry, but I have to give old Steven the benefit of the doubt here, and my task has been made easier because Henry didn't put out his best effort to back up his claim. Where to begin?

How about last part first? I don't recall small children being terrorized by it. I grant you that his mom was afraid, maybe even terrorized, but in her case, it was fear for her son. In fact, Barry was determined to meet the aliens, and actually struggled to get away from his mother, and to them. He wanted to go. The hero, Roy Neary, felt the same.

Everyone taken against their will was kidnapped. However, based on Roy and Barry's cases, we know that not everyone taken by the aliens is taken against their will. There were several aviators and military types who were taken. We might presume that at least some of them would be willing, although in the case of the squadron that was taken, it does seem unlikely that all of the squadron members were willing. There were also a number of civilians who went with the aliens. Some of these may also have been willing.

The problem here is ascribing human motives to nonhumans. I would submit that while those taken unwillingly may have been victims of a kidnapping, those who did the taking were not, in fact, kidnappers. What would you call a pack of wolves who take down a moose and eat it? Murderers? Is a biologist who takes some bug out of the Amazon back to New York a kidnapper now? The answer is no to both questions. We should also say no to ascribing the crime of kidnapping to the aliens.

Further, everyone was returned at the same age at which they were taken. For many of them, this means that their family and friends are all dead and buried. This is a terrible loss for those who were taken, but it also means that they were rather well treated and will be able to live a full life here on earth. They are likely to be treated well by the government and a public who will pay a lot of money to see and hear their stories. Historians and sociologists will have a chance to talk to live witnesses to ways of life that are only faintly remembered by drooling elders, if any of them are still around. If I had a chance to come back a hundred years from now, at my current age, I might consider it, and I'm a disinterested observer.

We can agree now that the aliens don't terrorize small children or kidnap people. We should also be able to agree that they weren't attempting to show their intelligence by their behaviors. We simply don't have evidence from the film that this was the motivation of the aliens. Similarly, the biologist collecting bug samples is not trying to show the bugs how smart he is.

Which leaves us with Roy, the family abandoner. If those were my kids, I wouldn't have many qualms in abandoning them either. Couldn't we equally say that the wife didn't support Roy, and in effect abandoned him? She was the one who left, after all. The argument can't be made that she had to leave because her husband was a crazy alien believer, because there really were aliens. He wasn't crazy.

Put that aside though, the fact that he was right and she abandoned him. No one can deny that he had a life changing experience. He would never be the same again. Out of a nothing existence, there was suddenly a bright, shining light (no pun intended) of clarity. The new Roy has a purpose, a vision that sustains him. A direction and goal to which he can aim his life. He wasn't alone. There were many others who felt the same way. Roy happened to be the only one who made it to the landing site.

At the landing site, we notice that the government has a number of "volunteers" to make this trip, a group to which Neary is quickly added. Yet, when the aliens make their selections, they pick Neary out of the group. What motivates this choice? We might infer that even volunteers are not necessarily ready for the trip. Which implies that those who are ready are the ones who are taken. Which suggests the possibility that none of the people who are taken are taken unwillingly. Another argument against the kidnapping theory.

Back to Roy's family. Having a hero abandon his family (again, not really supported by what happens in the film) is a sign to Henry that Spielberg's moral sense sucks. Some marriages end in divorce. Some of these marriages involve children. Roy's marriage, while not formally ending with a divorce, is ended. Is it the fact of not formally divorcing that shows the bad moral sense, or is anyone who divorces, immoral? I do not know Henry. He may very well feel that all divorce is wrong and immoral. This is fine, and certainly his perogative. However, in this case, I don't think he's shown that his opinion is borne out by what actually happens in the film itself. Of course, this is all just my opinion.

It's tough being right all the time.

Actual Update: I don't usually feel good about dumping links in comment sections. If someone is interested, they can click on my name and come over here. I just left a quick note, saying I didn't agree with Henry. He replied, so I went ahead and put much of this into the comments over at Ann's place, linked above. Go on over there and have a read, if you haven't already. Henry and I may have to agree to disagree on this one, but we probably both agree that there is plenty of good stuff to read over there.
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