by Chelsea Willis
Fritz Lang’s 1927 German impressionist film Metropolis opens with a dramatic contrast between flesh and technology. The frantic pumping of cylinders and the screeching of whistles transition to the mechanized marching of the hands—workers confined to the dim underground of the great city above them and powerless to do anything but work and die for something they can never attain. Stretching into the sky above ground is the Tower of Babel, strong and secure, a construction symbolizing mortal power acquired on the backs of those trapped underground.
The Christian symbolism in Metropolis is hard to miss. The virginal, motherly figure, Maria, leads the workers in the underworld and quells their rebellion with promises of a savior. The blatant Christ-figure, Freder, is meant to save those in the underground from his first contact with Maria. He is the son of the man who leads the over-world, or the “head,” who is willingly separated from the “hands”–the underworld workers. At the end of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the characters in both worlds are redeemed by Freder’s sacrifices, giving viewers a positive message despite of some of the darker elements of the film. Humanity can be brought back from certain physical and moral destruction with the help of a heart, preferably one like Freder’s, who has remained untainted from corruption and understands the plight of the sinners among which he lives.
The heavy-handed nature of the film’s imagery, while somewhat necessary for its final message to be effective, often causes a disconnect with non-Christian audiences who are more interested in the humanist aspects of science fiction. Metropolis is a marvel of the silent film era and a building block of the science fiction film genre, but the present disagreement between science and religion has driven a wedge between art and meaning in contemporary interpretations of Metropolis and most other films of the genre as well. Overtly Christian symbolism is ignored or not taken seriously by some secular audiences because of its religious nature. This separation of art and message, regardless of the vehicle, contradicts the very thing Metropolis is saying—the practical, creating hand and the visionary, creative head cannot ignore one another or risk mutual destruction.
And, as cheesy as the metaphor may be, that connection lies in the heart.
Modern cinematic works of science fiction try to imitate the message of Metropolis, showing the resourcefulness of humanity to solve its own problems, many of which it also created.
The 1993 epic Jurassic Park features a group who takes a test tour of a theme park filled with genetically-engineered dinosaurs. Even without watching the film, anyone can see where problems might arise. In a moment of misguided clarity following the failure of the park’s systems, the park’s creator John Hammond proclaims everything wrong with what he had done: “Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time it’ll be flawless.”
Vision and action, in this case, are connected by money instead of a heart. Instead of love or care for those around him, Hammond lets his pocketbook take the lead, letting it rule his thoughts while disregarding the actions that result from his decisions. It takes at least four fatalities and the near deaths of his grandchildren for him to realize the error of his way. The park and his genetics project are abandoned until the sequel.
The genre-defining film Blade Runner (1982) shows the aftermath of the same stubborn act of creation. Nexus-6 replicants, androids designed for the exploration of deep space with a four-year life span, are banned from coming to earth after a group of them rebelled against their human leaders. The plot revolves around a trained replicant bounty hunter, or Blade Runner, named Rick Deckard as he hunts a group of four replicants who escaped to earth with the goal of prolonging their relatively short lives.
The creator of the Nexus-6, Eldon Tyrell, is confronted by one of the replicants who demands that Tyrell change his programming so that his life won’t end. Tyrell admits that he can’t prolong the replicant’s life, and instead professes to the extraordinary machine, “You were made as well as we could make you!”
It isn’t enough. With a kiss, the replicant sends Tyrell off to “the god of biomechanics” for placing science where his heart should be. The message isn’t necessarily a good one, but revenge and spite is something widely understood among audiences. Like a child, the replicant destroyed something because it didn’t get what it wanted. In this case, it was its creator.
Perhaps the reason why secular science fiction fans might have a difficult time with Metropolis’ warning against what destroys us is the message’s contrast with the humanist themes of contemporary science fiction. Metropolis has an inherently good, straightforward message: redemption. The heart between the head and the hands beats with hope and love, merciful to both those above and below ground despite the crimes they had committed against one another. The movie uses tropes that still appear in movies today, but as close as the two groups get to the edge of destruction, they are still redeemed in the end. Many modern films, for sake of realism, shy away from this complete redemption–ironically, the cynical Old Testament response of an-eye-for-an-eye is more far more popular. Violence begets violence, not mercy, just as heartless creators, like Tyrell, beget heartless creations, like the replicants.
In Metropolis, the leaders of the over-world, much like the scientists in Jurassic Park, are so concerned with what they can do that they never stop to consider if they should, and they place productivity and money above the lives of thousands. The masses of the underworld, like the replicants of Blade Runner, are consumed with the idea of a better life, so much so that they are willing to risk their lives and the lives of others to obtain it.
Both Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, however, end with redemptive failure. John Hammond runs from his creation with the few survivors that have gathered at the helicopter landing pad. His reluctant decision to abandon the island saves the others, but he sees this as a monetary loss instead of an emotional one. Every replicant Rick Deckard was sent out to kill is dead by the end of the film, forced to live their last few weeks on the run from the law. The death of Eldon Tyrell, the creator of the replicants, does not redeem the machines. The limits placed on the replicants at their creation still exist, and despite Tyrell’s flattery, they are still condemned at the end of their four year life span regardless of the actions of the replicants or their creator.
This failure is echoed across science fiction, with humans unable to overcome what they have created or wronged. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and I, Robot (2004) warn against the sentience of artificial beings. District 9 (2009) portrays a realistic clash of humans with an alien race that is wasting away. The more recent film adaption of Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic novel, I Am Legend (2007) offers the idea of redemption in Robert Neville’s timely discovery of a cure for the vampire-like virus that claimed the majority those treated with a mutated cure for cancer. He sacrifices himself, acting as the lamb on the altar of human error, to ensure the escape of two survivors who find him, and through them he ensures the survival of the human race. Neville’s death acts as a delayed mediator between the head of the scientists who created the virus and the hands that carried the actions out. Not only does he correct those actions, but his intentions are pure and hopeful.
Instead of a living hope to reconnect the vision of the head with the action of the hands, many science fiction films compile a patchwork imitation of a heart. The tragedy of hands and head acting apart from each other is rarely redeemed. Audiences are left with a cathartic combination of loss and regret that is the result of a synthetic connection—not a heart, but something cobbled together through technology, science, or money.
Maybe the idea of a synthetic heart to join head and hands is appropriate to science fiction, but it’s not practical. The humanist idea that humans can solve any problem with the proper tools–science, money, technology, sheer manpower–is misleading and empty in its connection to humanity’s purpose. These synthetic hearts don’t feel emotion–no love or hate or empathy. Morality and meaning are subjective to science and economy, and so these imitation hearts only work as programmed, pumping stale blood through a body of work that had long ago rejected a suitable transplant.
Despite that heart, the head might still make a good decision, like finding a cure for cancer in I Am Legend, and the hands might craft something useful, like the space-exploring replicants in Blade Runner, but without the connection of a living, redemptive heart, the two can never intentionally come together. While the image of Freder as the communicative, self-sacrificing heart might be over-dramatized, the message is the right one. He redeems the head and the hands, connecting his father and the workers through desiring peace, giving love, and sharing hope.
The problem doesn’t lie in observing the dysfunctional nature of the modern relationship between head and hands; that nature is the essence of our society, after all. The problem lies in always observing and never acting, like Freder’s father in the Tower, watching as the framework of his world falls to pieces in hands that no longer accept his instruction.
Chelsea Willis studies English Writing at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. When she’s not studying, she enjoys reading, writing, and watching horror movies by herself.