Every fantastic story includes philosophy at some degree. That’s because, whether we admit it or not, philosophy underpins all that we do and believe. Socrates believed we’re all philosophers, but not frequently explicit about it. So, it should come as no surprise that philosophy shows up in films and television shows.
One of my oldest memories of philosophical mysteries comes in Star Trek episodes. Science fiction has long been a way for exploring philosophies without seeming to challenge the established order of things. Artists, artists, writers, choreographers, and other creative individuals have always understood that their choices can cause their audiences to reflect and perhaps reinterpret.
One movie at which the philosophical content struck me over the head was The Matrix. Keanu Reeve’s character was looking glass, a Lewis Carroll kind of character. But this goes further back to two philosophers, Descartes and Plato. Descartes concerned in his meditations that he could never be sure of what he knew. Senses can fool us; we may even be deliberately misled with a deceiving demon. Back in The Matrix, the deceiving demons were digital. Plato came alive in that his Allegory of the Cave is within the development of the narrative. When liberated from the chains, the inhabitant of the cave might not be able to convince other people of the true fact of the world. They might not even wish to know the truth (I’m remembering here the personality who, upon eating a steak in the digitally-enhanced entire world, acknowledged he knew it was not real, but that didn’t matter).
Provided that there have been films, there’s been a philosophical foundation. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times copes with issues of individualism vs. corporate identity. The Wizard of Oz presents characters who are never quite what they seem, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Society pushes us into jobs, and occasionally our individuality is forfeited or even unknown due to our place in the community.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking both highlight theological principles. Beloved integrates the notion of both prophetic judgment and witness. Dead Man Walking draws upon the ideas of atonement, punishment, and forgiveness. Voltaire said that philosophy, to be worthwhile, must make a difference in your everyday life, on the street where you reside. Both these movies touch us to the core, but also show how we interact with other people to maintain our ordinary life.
Perhaps my favorite philosophical movie of all could be one you might never figure: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are several bits in this that the mind boggles at making selections. There are political philosophies at play “you do not vote for kings!” We see questions of value and aesthetics –“bring me a shrubbery!” We have logic –“how do you determine that someone is a witch? She has to be made from wood (because witches wood and burn burns), and since wood floats as do ducks, if the woman weighs as much as a duck, she needs to be a witch.” An individual can immediately see why the debate is wrong, but you can spend a great deal of time figuring out precisely why it is wrong. Lest we think this is an absurd thing to do, take note that contemporary political speech is frequently filled with just such problems with logic that get masked with the enthusiasm of the listeners to reach the desired end.
Philosophy is at the heart of what we do. Becoming more aware of how it’s demonstrated about us makes us more likely to live up to Socrates’ desire which most of us live an examined, and so worthwhile, life.