LDS themes in Battlestar Galactica, Knowing, and Watchmen?

SPOILERS BELOW! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

[NOTE: welcome to all the traffic from Twitter and from Roger Ebert's review of "Knowing"! I've expanded a few things below for clarification.]

I’m going to discuss religious themes, particularly as related to LDS beliefs and themes, as found in the movies “Watchmen” and “Knowing”, as well as in the finale of the TV series “Battlestar Galactica”. In doing so, I’ll freely discuss spoilers, at least in “Knowing” and BSG. You’ve been warned.

If you don’t want to read the spoilers, let me tell you that I strongly recommend the BSG finale (the whole series, really) and the movie “Knowing”. I haven’t seen “Watchmen” (though I’ve read the graphic novel several times over the years), but based on what I’ve read about the film, I don’t plan on seeing it.

Battlestar Galactica finale [Spoilers!]

I was startled — pleasantly so, but still very surprised — that at the end, Battlestar Galactica very deliberately invoked God, angels, and divine intervention at the end, rather than coming up with some scientific explanation for the various strange going-ons during the last four years. Of course, the original (1978) Battlestar Galactica series (which was as wretched as this version was outstanding) was created by Glen Larson, an LDS producer who wove LDS keywords and themes into the series. That, in turn, inspired this entry in Orson Scott Card’s classic work, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (Orion Books, 1981):

Battlestar Galactica [the original 1978 series, that is] — In an effort to embarrass the Church, the devil caused Mormon terms like “eternal marriage” and “the Council of the Twelve” and “Kobol” (Kolob) to be presented in an uninspired, untalented, badly written television show. Thus, when missionaries tell investigators about the Council of the Twelve, the investigators are quite likely to giggle and say, “I’m sorry to laugh, but that just reminds me of the silliest sort of science fiction.”

This updated version, running over the past four years, was much, much better — in my opinion, one of the finest drama on TV in recent years — even though it maintained at least a few of the references from the original series. Even so, I suspect there were a lot of BSG viewers last night who were very unhappy with the direct religious answers given in the final episode, particularly with Kara Thrace vanishing into thin air. [And they are: see this review, plus the comments. BSG series creator Ron Moore says, “I have more than accepted the fact that there will be people who will never quite get over [Thrace's vanishing].”] But, frankly, it explains everything that has happened for the past four years better than any other answer.

And, interestingly, it steers things ever so quietly into LDS territory by the end. You have the idea of humanity existing independently on multiple worlds; of God using humans (often unknowingly) to carry out His designs; of what is in effect a “war in heaven” over whose plan will be followed; and of repeating patterns of wickedness, war, and destruction, with a small band of chosen people being led from the judged and doomed civilization to a new location, a promised land where they can start fresh. I was particularly struck by the theme — not explicitly spelled out, but certainly implied — that Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six were unwitting agents of God’s judgment and destruction of the human colonies because they had reached yet another dead end.

Once the final set of DVDs comes out, I look forward to watching through the whole series with fresh eyes, knowing now where things are leading. In the meantime, here are some explanations from Ron Moore and others. Again you’ll see from the comments there that a lot of people were angry with the religious aspects of the finale. And here are even more explanations from Ron Moore.

Knowing [Big, big spoilers!]

This movie, starring Nic Cage as John Koestler (an MIT physics professor), just opened yesterday, and my wife and I saw it today. The basic premise is that 50 years ago, a young girl named Lucinda Embry is tormented by whispers that she constantly hears. She also sees this strange, silent man at a distance. When her elementary school class is chosen to draw pictures for a time capsule that will be buried for 50 years — an idea that she herself suggested — she instead fills both side of a large sheet of drawing paper with apparently random numbers. Fifty years later, the time capsule at the elementary school is opened, and Koestler’s son Caleb happens to get the young girls letter to open. He brings it home; Kosetler happens to look at it and notices the string 0911012996 — which he matches with the date 9/11/2009 and the 2996 killed in the attack at the World Trade Center. Further analysis shows that the date, number of people killed, and lat/long coordinates in a long string of disasters over the past 50 years. There are only three disasters left, all within the next week, and the last one has for the number of people what Koestler at first thinks is “33”.

In the meantime, his son Caleb starts hearing the same whispers as did Lucinda, and he begins seeing the same strange, silent men, one of whom gives Caleb a small black stone (more of these stones appear throughout the film, always in association with these men and the whispering voices). Koestler tries to track down Lucinda — who died years earlier — but instead meets up with Lucinda’s daughter, Diane Wayland, and grand-daughter, Abby Wayland, who is roughly Caleb’s age and who starts hearing the same whispers (and seeing the same strange men). During investigation with Diane at Lucinda’s abandoned trailer, Koestler realizes that the last two characters are not “33” but “EE” — meaning “Everyone Else”. In other words, the world is going to end in several days.

And it does. The Sun has a major flare-up, scouring the face of the entire earth, destroying all life on earth.

First, however, those strange, silent men save a number of ‘chosen people’. As they do so, they transform from human shape into beings that you could interpret as aliens or as angels; their spaceships are wheels within wheels as per Ezekiel’s vision. Among those saved are Caleb Koestler and Abby Wayland. They and the others are chosen by virtue of the fact that only they can hear the whisperings of the ‘angels’, as did Lucinda. Cage cannot, and so he is left behind to die, and we see the destruction of the whole Earth by fire as the Sun flares up.

At the end, Caleb and Abby are dropped off on an unspoiled, Edenic world. In the distance, we can see other ‘ships’, presumably dropping off other ‘chosen’ people. Caleb and Abby go walking through an open meadow, filled with unearthly grass, and then they start running. As they do, the camera pans around until you see in the middle of this (dare I say spacious) field a large, beautiful white tree. Fade to white and roll credits.

The lights came up, Sandra looked at me and said, “There’s gotta be a Mormon involved in this somewhere.” While the concept of the tree of life is in no way unique to Mormondom, I don’t believe it is a common positive (i.e., non-Fall-related) image or icon in most religions other than the LDS Church, particularly when represented as a large, white tree in the middle of an open field. And then you have the small, dark stones, which immediately call to mind Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Another subplot involves John Koestler’s loss of (religious) faith after the death of his wife, and his struggle with the key phrase inscribed by his wife in a locket and used between Koestler and his son: “Together Forever”.  Koestler appears to regain his faith at the end, even as he embraces his parents and sister moments before they are all engulfed in the solar blast. And, of course, as with BSG you have the overarching theme (familiar to Book of Mormon readers) of a civilization destroyed, with a small ‘worthy’ band miraculously transported to a new location, a promised land where they can start fresh.

I thought the film was excellent, by the way. I kept expecting some of the usual Hollywood tropes and resolutions and was pleasantly surprised at how unflinching it was in moving to its conclusion.

[UPDATE: It's clear that Sandra and I weren't the only ones to wonder about these themes; this blog is getting a small but steady stream of Google search hits with searchwords such as "knowing movie mormon", "knowing 2009 mormonism", and "is the director of the movie knowing LDS?". ]

Watchmen

I haven’t seen the movie version of “Watchmen”. I won’t, either,  given the reports of quite graphic sex and violence, more graphic than in the graphic novel itself (which I’ve owned for years and have read several times). And I wouldn’t be mentioning it in this post at all, were it not for the article “God Exists, and He’s Mormon” by Jeremy Lott over at the American Spectator website. I’m not particularly bothered or offended by this article. But as often happens with LDS doctrine, Lott knows a lot less than he thinks he does in making his comparisons between God as Latter-day Saints believe in Him and the character Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen”. Some key points that Lott misses:

God existed before and created this universe (i.e, this particular time-space continuum). In fact, we all existed before this universe did; after all, we’re all eternal, and the universe is only about 13 billion years old, a mere blink of the eye. Something clearly existed before this universe; our belief in God does not have him as an uncreated Creator, bringing everything into existence ex nihilo. But Lott makes him sound like someone shuffling around materials lying around.

God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent. Lott focuses one interpretation of God’s foreknowledge by Richard Hopkins which is by no means universally accepted within the Church. Lott doesn’t address omnipotence at all.

God apparently served the same role as the Savior when He (the Father) was in mortality. Christ himself says, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19); Joseph Smith explicitly interpreted this passage in that way in the King Follett discourse. Dr. Manhattan, by contrast, was a regular human (not a God incarnate) who was caught in a nuclear accident.

God is utterly moral, righteous, and pure in love. Lott ignores the fact that Dr. Manhattan is pretty much amoral and self-absorbed, and struggles with the very concept of love.

God is an unchanging God (in key ways). This has been a debate in LDS doctrine pretty much since the days of Brigham Young: does God, now exalted, change in any meaningful sense, or is any “advancement” merely in glory and kingdoms (again as per the King Follett discourse)? In either case, a key to worshiping God is to have faith that He is — in all important respects — an unchanging God (cf. Mormon 9:19, Moroni 8:18, and D&C 20:17).Dr. Manhattan is definitely not an unchanging being in any sense.

In all, some interesting themes.  ..bruce..

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2 thoughts on “LDS themes in Battlestar Galactica, Knowing, and Watchmen?

  1. Hmm, interesting. I will have to check out Knowing, and see if it’s good.

    The classic BSG, though, in my opinion, was an awesome show. Now, I was young (I was 9 going on 10 in 1978), and when I see episodes now, I laugh. But I remember hearing that GAL was LDS, and how fun it was to find those references in the storyline. So I always thought it was an LDS writer interjecting some LDS bits into his storyline, which I thought added to the coolness of it.

    I have only watched a few episodes of the new BSG. I have refrained from watching simply because it seemed to have jumped the shark a little, creating a over-sexed, jittery, and highly actionized version that lacked all the charm and maybe even innocence that I remember from the classic series.

    Maybe I am unique in my impression, though, and should try to watch the new series again, now that it is out on DVD.

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