Sunday, March 15, 2009

Proof of life

I was over at a friend's house the other day, and as we were flipping through channels, The Golden Compass caught our attention. He hadn't seen it, but he doesn't care if he starts watching in the middle of a movie, nor whether we talk over it. I hate coming in in the middle -- a topic for another time -- but since I'd already seen this one, I wasn't worried. Plus, it looked terrific in HD.

I really liked The Golden Compass, not only for the slick visuals, the world it created, and the performance of the actress playing Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards, watch your back Dakota Fanning), but also because Christians tried to organize a ban of it. Philip Pullman, the writer of the His Dark Materials series on which the film is based, is an admitted atheist, and I understand his books are overtly critical of the church. Much of that was toned down for the movie, but one controversial aspect still remained: Each human character is symbiotically joined to an animal incarnation of his/her soul, referred to as a "demon," which follows him/her around -- a monkey, a bird, a cat, a dog, and so forth. "Demon" is one of those words that sends Christians running down to their local megachurch to donate, and any movie that pisses off Christians is fine by me.

As I was watching, I was also reminded of the following:

Man, a lot of people die in this movie.

In fact, you could argue that The Golden Compass may have had one of the highest body counts of any movie in 2007. There's not much actual gore -- after all, the intention was for children to be one of its largest audiences -- but what does happen is that every time a human character is killed, his/her demon disappears in a puff of glimmering pixie dust.

This made some of the battles damn cool to watch. As a human hit the dirt -- or in this case, the snow -- his/her demon went "poof," adding an extra visual dimension to the sometimes-confusing melee of the grand-scale battle sequence. Plus, it provided another thing you don't usually get -- indisputable visual proof that the person was not just injured, but killed.

For most kids, the siginficance of this probably went straight over their heads. But for a discerning audient like me, it made me think long and hard about portrayals of violence and death in movies intended for children. Not because I'm a prude, but just because I like to think about things, in case you hadn't noticed.

Now, violence is an inescapable part of children's programming. Just think back to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Wile E. Coyote was getting crushed, pancaked, exploded, or dropped a 1/2 mile off a cliff in every scene. However, since he was back in the next scene, no worse for the wear, you didn't have to worry too much about all those traumas that should have killed him.

The other prominent example from my childhood, which I often think back to, is the G.I. Joe cartoons I watched. The very essence of the show was armed combat between a paramilitary unit and the evil minions of Cobra. But whenever a fighter jet would get shot down, they always held the shot long enough to show two parachutes popping safely out of the explosion. And though a huge amount of gunfire -- portrayed as laser blasts so it was easier to see -- was exchanged between the foot soldiers, no one ever got fatally hit. Every battle ended with massive lines of captured Cobra soldiers walking to their imprisonment with their hands on their heads.

You might call all of this "proof of life."

And it's more than a little bit dishonest. How can no one be killed in the entire history of the skirmish between G.I. Joe and Cobra? It just doesn't compute, though it's definitely a lot more cheery.

In the case of proof of life, it's not enough for it to be uncertain death. If a person looks like he or she could have gotten killed, you can't just leave it ambiguous. You actually have to show the person's okay if you want to maintain a certain standard of child-appropriateness.

This happens in TV commercials all the time. Let's say somebody flies a jetpack into electrical wires after drinking the soda being advertised. You might cut away to your product shot, but you better bet the ad won't end without that guy stumbling back toward his friends wearing a goofy expression -- maybe with a blackened face, tattered clothes and electrocuted hair, but always composed enough to show he hasn't lost his good humor.

A couple days after half-watching about 1/3 of The Golden Compass, I was watching another action-adventure intended for children: the awkwardly named kid-spy movie Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. (This one was strictly for work, I'll have you know). And here too I noticed a lot of instances of relatively certain death. The character played by Ewan McGregor shoots a pursuing bad guy on a motorcycle, and all you see in the next shot is the guy's empty boot and crashed cycle. The assassin played by Damian Lewis later plugs a guy driving a forklift, and the sound of his head depressing the horn tells you that guy ain't breathing again. At the very end of the movie -- if you for some reason want to see this movie, you can skip ahead -- the villain played by Mickey Rourke falls off of a building. The fact that Mickey Rourke is in the movie might seem to disqualify it from being targeted at kids, but it is about a 14-year-old secret agent, so I'll let you decide.

It's tempting to assume that this is a recent phenomenon, this increased violence in children's movies. The reactionary stance is, of course, that video game violence has become so prominent, and that kids love that stuff so much, that you have to up the ante in films and TV just to have any hope of holding their attention.

But as I thought harder, I realized it's probably always been this way. The first film I ever saw was an extremely violent movie called Star Wars. Maybe you've heard of it. You don't think of Star Wars as violent, but let's consider some of what happens. (Warning, spoilers to follow -- ha ha).

- The entire planet of Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star, killing presumably millions if not billions of people
- Darth Vader strangles an inferior officer to death, and kills several others with just the power of the Force
- Aunt Baru and Uncle Owen are massacred by storm troopers, and you see their smoking skeletal remains
- Han Solo remorselessly pops a cap in Greedo's ass
- Walrus Man (yep, that was the name of the action figure) gets his arm sliced off by Ben Kenobi's lightsaber
- Kenobi is killed by a lightsaber strike to his midsection, which causes him to vanish
- Numerous rebel troops and storm troopers are gunned down in laser battles
- Dozens of tie fighters and X-wing fighters explode, killing the pilot
- The Death Star explodes, killing the presumably thousands if not tens of thousands of people on board

Yet I walked out of that theater in 1977, when I was less than four years old, with a grin a mile wide on my face.

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