The Killing Fields

Warner Brothers, produced by David Puttnam; rated R.

In the final scenes of The Killing Fields, John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Heaven” plays in the background. It would have been a good song with which to start, not finish, the story.

At the outset, the Khmer Rouge are about to topple the Lon Nol government. Believing that there was no God, heaven, or, as another line from the Lennon tune has it, “no religion too,” they proceeded to put this belief into practice. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, proclaimed “year zero” and proceeded to kill some three million people out of a population of seven million, confirming Dostoevsky’s dictum that “if there is no God, all things are permitted.”

One function of art is to be an aid to memory. Since statistics don’t bleed, one would expect that the first film dealing with Cambodian genocide would be something of a work of justice. But Killing Fields disappoints, especially coming from even-handed David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire.

Based on a New York Times story, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” the film attempts to chart the relationship between Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran. However, the adversary relationship between Schanberg and American military and diplomatic officials receives more attention, hence Dith Pran’s character is poorly developed. Foul-mouthed, dope-smoking foreign journalists steal his scenes.

While the horrors of war—especially abandoned children—are effectively depicted, more gory footage is devoted to an accidental American bombing than to the unparalleled atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, shown mainly by Dith Pran stumbling on a pile of skulls, which, like statistics, don’t bleed or cry. The Pol Pot regime comes off as little worse than a World War II Japanese concentration camp.

Asked by a journalist if he had been wrong about the Khmer Rouge, Schanberg plays the politician himself and changes the subject to American bombing. To have drama, characters must change; Schanberg is the same Don Quixote charging the windmills of Watergate at the end as he is in the beginning. In the clumsy Nixon bashing that also abounds, one hears the grinding of a well-worn ax.

Killing Fields works as a survival story, but promises so much more. It could have been a much-needed dramatic investigation into what happens when people “imagine there’s no heaven,” and act on it. But for this, audiences will have to wait, perhaps for a very long time.

Reviewed by Lloyd Billingsley, a screenwriter and novelist in California

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2010: Odyssey Ii

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, produced and directed by Peter Hyams; rated PG.

In the not-so-dist ant past, a Small group of intrepid motion picture studio executives set out on a great venture: to try to fashion a coherent money-making sequel to a classic, but philosophically obscure, film from the 1960s. 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays extra-terrestrial Scrabble with a variety of trendy issues—from war in Central America to the question of Higher Intelligence in the cosmos.

As their respective governments engage in sinister sword-rattling on earth, an apolitical band of Russian and American scientists orbit Jupiter trying to piece together what went wrong on a similar, earlier mission (depicted in 2001): Why did HAL, the infallible computer, murder the original crew? What is the origin of the enormous monolith hovering nearby? What is the nature of intelligence—and why didn’t anyone apply some of it to the creation of this movie?

In a daffy dénouement that surely would have baffled Einstein, these questions are dealt with superficially, leaving one with the distinct impression that, like the audience, the successful spacemen are smiling simply because this tedious film is over.

Reviewed by Harry M. Cheney, a sound editor for MGM who lives in Southern California.

For a theological perspective on this space fantasy, reviewer Cheney talked to Dirk J. Nelson, pastor of Christian education at Rolling Hills Covenant Church, Rolling Hills Estates, California. Following is an abridged version of that discussion with Dr. Nelson.

Cheney: What kind of theological system are we dealing with in 2010?

Nelson: I think we are either dealing with a high-tech Buddhism—or a privatized eclecticism indulged in by the director.

He seems to borrow from a variety of religious sources, including the Judeo-Christian belief in a Genesis-like creation.

In that respect, the figure of the forbidden tree of knowledge from Genesis is represented by “Europa,” the planet “created” at the end of the film. We are even told, “You may inhabit every other planet but this one.

In light of this creation and the wielding of what amounts to almost divine power, are we being confronted by a deity? Or is it merely a highly advanced-extraterrestrial creature—a sort of “offspring of E.T.”?

That personality [deity or extraterrestrial] is identified in this movie as “the Landlord,” a figure suggestive of a borrowed space inhabited, if not owned and created, by some prior Being or Cause.

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There is a sense in both 2001 and 2010 that hapless mankind evolves or stagnates, lives or dies at the whim of this almost-divine authority. Certainly there is some sort of all-powerful life force here.

The stereotypical Americans on board the spaceship, unstructured and undisciplined, had the freedom and insight to see that there was life on Europa. But ultimately, the focus is less on “Is there a God?” and more on whether there is a harmony in the universe of 2010, which includes Landlords, Tenants—and computers. The machine has been raised to the status of life with some kind of spirit and soul. One of the most significant aspects of the film is Dr. Chandra’s special relationship to his own creation: HAL, the computer.

If there is any religious system in the film, it is here, at this juncture. What has been created in the image of man has been brought into harmony with the individual components of the cosmos.

What is the film saying about the uniqueness of Man? Can computers be elevated to the level of mankind simply because they think?

Because they think and feel.

But these so-called feelings are still only electrical impulses. When you elevate electro-magnetic intelligence to thelevel of humanity, you reduce the spirit of mankind to mere electrical impulses. It’s impossible for a computer to have a soul—or is it?

That’s the question. When you program intelligence to have feelings and bring it alongside Man, the uniqueness of Man now has been shared with what he has created. Does that destroy his uniqueness? I myself may be worth something; but if I have five computers that do the same thing alongside of me, am I then trivialized?

The idea, however, is that Man is created spiritually in the image of God. The computer is simply a mechanical reflection of Man.

In a sense, then, you might say that a computer is God twice removed. That is, I am in God’s image: What is in my image? Is it not also continuously in God’s image?

I don’t think so.

I don’t either. But that is the most probing question for Christians viewing this movie. As technology develops this capability, we’re going to have to define, once again, who we are in the cosmos.

What hope, if any, does 2010 have to offer in that case?

I would say that some form of enlightenment has occurred, particularly in the case of Bowman [the lone surviving astronaut from 2001], who keeps repeating, “Something wonderful is going to happen.” You have the structures of this high-tech Buddhism played out in space—in a futuristic sense to be sure—but you still have rudiments of these ancient concepts of enlightenment, Nirvana, and the harmony of life acted out on a vast scale. It’s not a faithful reproduction of Buddhism, it’s just these various concepts visualized in a highly personal way by the director.

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Essentially, 2010 is as doctrinaire as some grade-B Christian movies: pure propaganda. If you take this film seriously, then everything is capable of entering into that harmonious soul. Yet, even though theoretically we have all this, we keep looking beyond ourselves for a Source that can provide meaning for our existence.

So the film was really crying out for a transcendent concept?

I’m not so sure about the film. I know I was.

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