Robots, Million Dollar Baby, and Terri: Life & Death Stories
- Dr. Marc T. Newman AgapePress
- 2005 3 Mar
March 29, 2005
G.K. Chesterton once noted that "children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy." Youth is idealistic, while many of us, more advanced in years, have become jaded -- trying to find our way through a fallen world, praying we are not judged too harshly. These disparate attitudes create very different stories -- for children, fairy tales; for adults, sometimes desperate dramas. Children's stories are fantasies, we tell ourselves, while the uglier stories of our adulthood are "realistic." The existence of this dualistic view of the world is the only way I can explain the simultaneous success of two films currently sharing space at the cineplex: Robots and Million Dollar Baby.
Million Dollar Baby is the recipient of multiple Academy Awards. Robots may be nominated next year, but for technical categories, not for story. Million Dollar Baby is a "serious" film -- which is code for dark, edgy, and divisive, while Robots has been deplored by some critics as simplistic and fluffy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While Million Dollar Baby confronts Western culture with a story designed to stir controversy about euthanasia, it stacks the deck so firmly in favor of its predetermined situational ethic that the result is not so much artistic persuasion but coercion. Robots has an agenda as well -- but it is either so skillfully woven that none of the critics I read noticed it, or the adult eyes that viewed the film for professional purposes were already too pessimistic to see.
Euthanasia as Necessary Tragedy
The Hostile Family
Maggie Fitzgerald, the protagonist of Million Dollar Baby, is self-proclaimed "trailer trash." Her family is poor -- yet greedy, petty, stupid, mean and ungrateful. The more Maggie tries to better her family's lot in life, the more they complain. Maggie's mother is so jealous of her success that she tries to lure Maggie back under her influence by saying that all of her friends and relations are "laughing" at her professional boxing success. When Maggie later is paralyzed, her family comes to visit her in the hospital -- but only after having a spin at the local theme parks. Their only concern is to get their hands on Maggie's money. There is not a single scrap of humanity in these characters -- they are not people, but devices. They represent "the life not worth living" from which Maggie has escaped through boxing -- and now that boxing is over, there looms the prospect that she may be fated to return -- a life worse than death.
The Raw Deal
After training with Frankie Dunn, a man who becomes her surrogate father, Maggie gains fame through boxing, and some degree of fortune. In an instant all of it is destroyed by a sucker punch (one of many missed by a referee who looks away so often he must have been trained by the WWF). The blow comes from an immoral boxer not worthy to unlace Maggie's boxing gloves. Maggie is the winsome heroine KO'd by a twist of fate right out of Greek tragedy. She has been dealt such a raw hand that audience members don't feel that they have the right to deny her anything she asks -- including help to end her life.
The Lack of Credible Opposition
Only one character in the film represents the transcendent authority to say no to Maggie's desire to be killed: Frankie Dunn's priest, Father Horvak. Frankie is supposed to represent the Catholic rank and file -- he is not a "Christmas Catholic," but a man who religiously attends Mass and appears eager to ask his priest questions. Horvak is a burnout. He uses profanity against his parishioner, falsely accuses him of lying, tries to persuade him not to come to Mass, and when the time comes that Frankie really needs advice, Horvak parrots the church's position on euthanasia, but relays no sense of compassion, common struggle, or the kind of friendship that would have guided Frankie to a better decision. Horvak, having squandered his moral authority, is impotent and irrelevant. This parishioner is on his own.
Euthanasia as the Only Option
The immoral blow and the freak accident leave Maggie a paraplegic -- a condition faced by many people in our nation -- but she is not through suffering. Her bedsores are so bad that she has to have a leg amputated. She has risen so far, and fallen so fast, that the audience is driven to despair with her. Maggie's earnest pleas for Frankie to kill her are soft-lit and tragic. Frankie's offer to get her a wheelchair that she can control by blowing into a straw and then sending her off to college rings hollow.. Her own abortive attempt to brutally kill herself is so bloody and horrifying, that Frankie's injection seems like a mother's comforting touch. The message of the film is that there is such a thing as a life not worth living -- so it is best to get on with it and die.
Life -- the Battle Worth Fighting
The Beauty of Developing Life
Robots opens with Mr. Copperbottom dashing through the streets crowing that he is going to be a father. The impeding addition of a new member to his family fills him with delight. Like Maggie and her family in Million Dollar Baby, the Copperbottoms are not wealthy -- Mr. Copperbottom literally is a dishwasher, and their son Rodney's growth is made possible by the addition of used, hand-me-down parts (in one embarrassing instance, parts from an older female cousin). But poverty is not equated with meanness -- it is a financial situation, not a moral indictment. Each transition in Rodney's growth, both mentally and physically, is greeted enthusiastically by his mother and father. Even when his inventions go awry, the family supports his efforts.
All Life Can Be Beautiful
Even though Rodney's family has limited means, they are close. Rodney believes that his father is the "greatest robot in the world." Rodney is also impressed by Mr. Bigweld, head of Bigweld Industries in Robot City. Bigweld's slogan is "You can shine no matter what you are made of" -- even if you are made up of old or used parts. Million Dollar Baby argues that if you are sufficiently damaged, an acceptable response is to give up hope and die. Bigweld's other slogan is, "find a need, fill a need." Robots claims that even if you are old and run down it is the job of the culture to discover your problems, help you out, and make you shine.
All is not well in Robot City. Ratchet, an evil robot, has usurped power at Bigweld Industries. Ratchet is greedy for gain so he outlaws the making of spare parts and he has closed the door to robotic inventors. Ratchet doesn't want to make life better; he wants to remake life in his own image. In explaining his new advertising campaign to his executives, Ratchet admits that his goal is to make robots feel terrible about themselves and their wretched condition. His new slogan is "Why be you when you can be new?" Robots that are unable or unwilling to be "new" are tagged with the dehumanizing label "outmodes." The allusions to Nazi visions of Jews as "useless eaters" and "human vermin" are undisguised. Ratchet believes that all "outmodes" need to be torn to bits and then melted down. He has an ulterior motive. The owner of Robot City's "chop shop" is his mother. The outmodes will supply her with a constant stream of metal and money.
Children see moral issues in black and white, but many adults want to cloud controversies over life and death with shades of gray. Any child watching Robots recognizes that Ratchet is evil, and that his desire to sweep up and put to death other robots is wrong. The kids want Ratchet to be defeated and cheer when that inevitably happens. No such moral imperative exists in Million Dollar Baby. Terrifying questions of right and wrong are swept aside to make room for a purely emotional response to remarkably difficult circumstances. The audience is led to believe that this end, too, is inevitable -- but it is not. No child would want to imagine a world in which Ratchet reigns, so he had to be defeated. All of us could entertain a world in which Maggie lives and even prospers -- but that would have to be another story. In this one, Maggie has to die.
Fighting for Life
Mr. Copperbottom is literally run down -- he only has a few miles left, Rodney is told. Ratchet is withholding the spare parts that could save his father, and there seems to be no hope. This terrible news comes to Rodney on the heels of a moral defeat -- he discovers that Mr. Bigweld has been turned out from Bigweld Industries and is now spending his time in the meaningless pursuit of bigger and bigger domino arrangements. But instead of defeat, Rodney discovers the will to fight. His father does not need verbal comfort -- he needs spare parts, and Rodney determines to fight to get them. Inspired by Rodney's perseverance, even Bigweld comes out of hiding to join in the battle to restore dignity to the older, poorer robots. They see the need and they combine their forces to fill it.
Million Dollar Baby does not see a need to live, but a need to die. Even though the "spare parts" (special wheelchairs, medical treatment, other challenges and opportunities) are available to give Maggie the same kind of meaningful life that is shared by thousands of paraplegic people in the United States, she has lost hope. The film does not allow for hope to come to her from the Church through Frankie Dunn. It is not Christianity that informs Maggie's decision, but Maggie's despair that infects Frankie Dunn, whose relationship with his church is so flawed that it cannot wield any influence. Dunn does not fight for her life, but slips into her room in the cover of darkness, puts her to death, and then disappears forever. Dunn views what he has done as a love gift to Maggie, but he has only confirmed her fatalism.
Doing right and valuing the lives and contributions of everyone ultimately ends well in Robots. Rodney, for his faithful service, is essentially awarded the keys to the kingdom of Bigweld Industries -- he is named Bigweld's successor. Rodney is not only able to end his father's suffering by getting him new parts, but he helps his father to achieve his lifelong quest of being a musician. Overcoming an evil regime leads to increased joy and a better world. The robots have fought for justice, and they have achieved it.
The final scene in Million Dollar Baby shows Frankie Dunn has left his boxing gym and has apparently purchased an old diner in the middle of nowhere. He is seen through a window eating pie, with his head down. We never discover if Frankie found any kind of true satisfaction as he contemplates his role in bringing death to his boxer, but there is no celebration. Frankie Dunn has done something that he freely admitted was wrong, and now will likely spend the rest of his life seeking mercy.
Fiction and Reality
Some people want to know why we should get exercised about what are, after all, "just movies." But scholars have known for years that people think in stories, make sense of their world through stories, and are persuaded most handily by stories. Stories both reflect and influence reality.
As I sit here writing, Terri Schiavo is in her last hours of life. My nine-year-old has been watching the story unfold on television screens in breakfast areas of hotels as we traveled in the south. He is a child, and so in his innocence he craves justice. He cannot understand what is so wrong with allowing this woman to be given food and water -- why we are withholding the "spare parts" she needs to continue living, even though it is clear that she has a mother and father completely willing to take care of her -- to allow her to "shine" to the best of her abilities. As he tried to work his way through various scenarios that, in his nine-year-old mind would bring a good end to this dilemma, his voice trembled and he was near tears. His moral clarity was astounding -- as the Bible says, "out of the mouths of babes."
Most adults, however, are wicked. They would prefer to do that which they suspect is actually wrong, and then simply hope for mercy. They will take their children to Robots and cheer along with them when evil is defeated by good. Later they will hire a babysitter, leave those children in the safety of their home, so they can go and sit alone in a darkened theater where they will engage in moral relativism with Frankie Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald, lament the "difficult choices" that must be made, and leave the theater moved, but depressed. There is no exhilaration in deliberate death.
Both Robots and Million Dollar Baby share screens, sometimes side-by-side, in your local theater. These films represent cinematic monologues striving toward debate. Christians can use these films to confront a culture of death with the culture of life. Films that purposefully, or by accident, cause us to confront "first principles" open the door to important discussions that have the power to change the way people will think when they find themselves in the position to make titanic moral decisions. We just need to open our mouths when the lights come up.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com (www.movieministry.com) -- an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
© 2005 Agape Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.