When I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes recently, I was surprised by how invested I started to feel in the eventual triumph of the film’s good guys. I imagined what I would do if I was in the story, looking to my own past for evidence to justify thinking that I would be on the right side of the conflict. I wondered if the protagonist would think highly of me. I felt a tangible animosity toward the bad guy. And I was jubilant when the forces of good ultimately prevailed.
Afterwards, I thought it quite strange that I should feel so intensely about a work of fiction.
When was the last time you took a stand against evil? Against a foe so fully corrupted that there was no hope of redemption, nor second-guessing about unseen consequences. When was the last time you acted with total certainty in defense of liberty and justice? Moved with the swiftness of certitude, emboldened by an unspoken feeling that the universe will protect those who champion the light.
I never have. Every conflict I’ve opted into has become more confusing as it progressed, sapping away my conviction even as I tried to plan the next move. In the beginning, I can see a clear division between right and wrong, like the different colored tiles of a mosaic; but when I step back and look at the complete image, I realize that it doesn’t have those clear divisions. Stuck in that moral haze, there is no absolute victory.
There is no cinematic battle of good against evil in this life. There are no obvious right choices untainted by doubt or troubling complexity. We live in the age of moral uncertainty.
I see now that I love movies with clear sides because they allow me to do something that is impossible in real life: to feel invested without doubt or caution, to thirst for total defeat of the enemy.
I only wish the real-world enemies of justice were so easily identified, and that eliminating them would solve all our problems.