*Posted by Kirk Spencer
Life is full of thresholds—from the turnstiles before the rollercoaster to the end of the escalator, docks and doorways, portals and passageways, dusks and dawns, like steps of the stair to mark the intersections from matriculations to graduations, starting blocks to finish lines… they all remind us of our many transgressions, transitions and transformations. Of all these liminal moments, the “bridge” may be the most powerful; for it combines three liminal elements into one. The bridge itself is a transition. Below the bridge are banks which, as shorelines, are transitions. And the water between the banks, in its flowing, figuratively and literally, reflects the constant flux of existence. All these transgressions are fraught with dislocation and doubt. Yet amid (and because of) the uncertainty, we find a chance for hope—hope of crossing the bar and reaching the other bank. For as long as the bridge is not broken, there is hope of reaching the other side. But what if the bridge is broken?
The image of a broken bridge is featured in many recent movies. Not as isolated elements, but as integral parts of the story. In the movie The Book of Eli (2010), Denzel Washington plays a wandering prophet/hero named Eli. In this post-apocalyptic “western,” he is headed west on a mission from God. Near the beginning of the movie, he is seen standing on a broken bridge. From high above, he watches a heartless scene of human depravity playing out down below. Though the details are never given, it is implied that the world was destroyed (and this very bridge broken) by just such human depravity. The movie emphasizes the destructive power of this lustful, primordial “will to power.” In Scripture we see it from the garden in Eden to the fields below Armageddon as humanity has attempted to empower itself at all costs and using all means (including religion.) And in doing so, we alienate ourselves from God and others, ruining our lives and our world. In the movie I Robot (2004), a broken bridge is featured over the dry lakebed of Lake Michigan. The lakebed has become a landfill for lost (out-of-date) cyber-souls, alienated because of their inadequacies. These semi-sentient robots are patiently waiting for a savior to repair the “bridge” and make them whole. There is also a broken bridge featured in the movie I am Legend (2007). In this case, it is the Brooklyn Bridge with its beautiful pointed arches, which as an aspect of cathedral architecture, hint at the religious messages of the movie.
In the blockbuster I Am Legend (2007), mankind in its attempt to save itself from cancer, unleashes a biological disaster. What remains of humanity and its urban centers is quickly returning back to Nature and the natural state. This disaster is not only man-made, as in a nuclear holocaust, it is made-of-man, as in a moral holocaust. This moral disaster is illustrated near the beginning of the movie. As the sun sets, and darkness creeps over New York City, Robert Neville (Will Smith) closes up his house with sliding metal barriers over windows and doors. It is like he is preparing for the arrival of a storm. He then curls up in his bathtub as if a tornado were approaching. A “tornado” of screaming can be heard outside in the night. Later, we see this “storm” of humanity running toward a beautiful triumphal arch outside Neville’s home. This arch of triumph fills-up with approaching shadows, and then all the security lights go out as everything is plunged into darkness. This scene is a vivid, visual echo of a dominant theme in the movie: The victory of Darkness in all its manic depravity. Mankind had, in the wake of a rabies-like disease, lost all “typical human behavior” and was “de-evolving” quickly into a degraded animalistic population of “Darkseekers.” This condition is expressed most clearly in the uncontrollable rage of those infected.
At one point in the movie Neville has lost all hope and seeks a “showdown” with the Darkseekers. He is saved by Anna (“grace”) who tells Robert (“bright flame”) Neville (“new village”) about a bright flame of hope in the darkness, a new village of survivors in a safe-zone called Bethel (“House of God”). (At the end of the film, when the gates of Bethel open, the first thing you see is the house of God—a church—with its bells tolling.) There are other messianic themes throughout the movie. The cross appears on Neville’s lapel and hangs from the rearview mirror of Anna’s SUV. Also Neville appears on the cover of TIME Magazine with “Savior?” written across his image. However, while not necessarily messianic, the most obvious recurring element is that of a butterfly. For instance, the butterfly appears multiple times in his daughter’s playful hand gestures. Just after she shows her parents this gesture for the first time, the top of the gold starburst pin on the shoulder of Neville’s uniform appears raised and darkened to generate a butterfly shape. Then a real butterfly is seen in Central Park. There is also a butterfly tattoo on Anna’s neck. The appearance of these butterflies can be easily understood as simple coincidence or selective observation. However, when the wings of a butterfly appear in the shattering safety-glass of Neville’s lab, the loud soundtrack suddenly ends. In the quiet interlude that follows, Neville sees the Darkseeker, as the worm-like body of the broken butterfly. Then Neville hears the voice of his daughter whispering, “Daddy look—it’s a butterfly.” In this moment, the butterfly is no longer a coincidental element. It recalls the hope that the Darkseekers can be transformed—the possibility of metamorphosis. Earlier Anna had said, “The world is quieter now. You just have to listen. If we listen, we can hear God’s plan.” In the quiet of this last climatic scene, Neville sees the butterflies as more than coincidences and begins to listen again and reconsider the faith he lost.
We do not know exactly what the protagonist heard or what he believed. We do know about his disbelief. In one pivotal scene, Neville speaks very plainly, and forcefully, about his lapse into atheism. He has given up on the possibility of a theodicy. To him, the death and destruction that has engulfed the world is inescapable proof that God does not exist. He ended his “atheodicy” with these words: “Every single person that you or I have ever known is DEAD! DEAD!!! There is no God! There is no God.” Interestingly these words were yelled into Anna’s (“Grace”) face with his lower jaw yawning open in the signature posture of the Darkseekers. I’ve noticed that, starting with The Mummy (1999), many movies use such a gaping-jawed sort of roar to signify raging evil, like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Whatever Neville’s state belief or disbelief, before the appearance of the broken butterfly, in the quiet after its appearance, Neville clearly heard something from God. And he heard it in the image of the reoccurring butterfly. There is no chorus to explain the action, except Neville’s statement to Anna, “I think this is why you’re here.” And her question, “What are you doing?” Then his words “I’m listening.” A continuation of their earlier conversation: He is listening to hear God’s plan—God’s plan for us—to repair the broken bridges and bring hope to a world dominated by death and self-destruction—in this case by way of his blood and his death.
There is one more butterfly I have not mentioned. It “flutters” by quickly near the beginning of the film when no one would notice (or even know what to notice.) However, it is definitely worth noticing. The butterfly appears quickly, screen right, as Neville turns left in his sports car. The camera pans in on a series of posters plastered to the side of an abandoned tank. One of the posters is torn in such a way as to expose the blue fragments of other, older posters below. The torn portion takes the unmistakable shape of a blue butterfly. This “torn” butterfly at the beginning—just like the “broken” butterfly at the end—is not intentional (at least not by human agency). But both are certainly intentional thematic elements within the movie. Below this “torn” butterfly is a drawing of that most iconic detail from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” It appears in many movies to signify the gap between God and Man. It is the part where God’s hand is reaching out to Adam’s limp and lifeless hand as a sort of bridge, signifying the giving of life from God to Man. Yet in the depiction on this poster, Adam’s hand holds a pistol, pointed toward God, clearly signifying the giving of death from Man to God. In the final climatic scene, Neville points a gun at the Darkseeker and the butterfly appears between them, implying God’s presence in the “coincidence.” The same message is found on the poster. Below the blue butterfly on the poster are these words: “God still loves us.” Below the gun pointed toward God what appears to be the words: “Do we still love God?” If this fleeting image is a key, it is possible to see the recurrent butterflies—especially the butterfly broken in glass and torn in the poster—as a sign of God’s continued love and presence, even when the world is being torn apart like the poster or broken into fragments as in the safety-glass. God still loves us when we have forgotten or hate Him—even when we want Him dead. In all of this, “God still loves us” and provides a way of transformation. In this sense, the message of the poster is similar to the message Neville sends out over the radio every day as he sits below the broken Brooklyn Bridge. (Strangely appropriate in this context, the name “Brooklyn” comes from the Dutch “breukelen” which means “broken land.”) This is Neville’s message below the broken “BrokenLand” Bridge: “If there is anybody out there, anybody, please. You are not alone.” It is a strange mix of a call for help and a call to help. Like on the torn butterfly poster: “God still loves us” and we should also love. He wants to know he is loved and needs to love others. Below the broken bridges we need to be connected to God and to be a part of the connection to others.
In the three broken bridges of the three movies mentioned, this narrative progression can be seen. Our own inadequacies have led to ignorance and violence which has broken the bridge to what we were meant to be. Because of our alienation, we live in a ghetto of hopelessness. In this state we long for reconciliation and transformation. Even in our hatred (or indifference) for a God we don’t believe in, even when we want Him out of our lives, even then, He lays down his life, broken for us, to repair the bridges we have burned. It is the good message of the Cross: God provides the possibility of metamorphosis—a way of transformation within our transitions caused by our transgressions. In our transformation, we can move beyond the self-ish love of power that broke the bridge in the first place, to be able to share and express the self-less love of God that repairs the bridge. Because “God still loves us” “we can still love.” And, in this we find that life is itself liminal—a transition, a translation, a threshold to what is to come. In between Past and Future, in His present, we find God—a gift given between two identities—what we are and what we can be. In this liminal space between questions and answers, faith and sight; in the Land of Nod between Eden and Heaven, it is here that Christ becomes the bridge broken for us while repairing the bridges we have broken.