Hunting for Christ-figures in popular films is fast becoming the religious equivalent of a “Where’s Waldo” adventure, particularly within the SF genre. Who would have thought that Mr. Carpenter in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or E.T. in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Prot in K-Pax, or Neo in The Matrix, or the Starman in Starman, or Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie, or James Cole in Twelve Monkeys were all alien Messiahs? Yet they are. Who knew?
These transcendental heroes are not accidental byproducts of the scriptwriting process but rather deliberately engineered cinematic transfigurations of Jesus Christ. But why do writers and directors feature Christ-figures in their stories? Their motivations are to be found in a complex interplay of history, fear, fun, image saturation, cultural pervasiveness, and changing notions of faith and blasphemy, humor and holiness. It’s often a question of tactics and the need to reinvent, re-present, or even subvert the sacred for the children of the media. Sometimes it’s even a straightforward desire to tell a good story.
Given all this, it’s important to recognize that, whatever your theological beliefs, Jesus is alive and well and living in popular films. Appropriately enough, going to the people, speaking their language and idiom, and using stories of the familiar to teach about the transcendent was the strategy of Jesus himself. Popular films are increasingly the cultural language by which meanings, values, and mythologies and other narratives are learned and transmitted. It is fitting to reintroduce audiences to their own cultural myths and religious storytelling heritage in a form that will be more easily understood in this Hollywood age, and the very existence of Christ-figures and their subtexts makes it important to recognize them when we come across them.
Here are some ways to recognize the Christ-figure in his various celluloid (and now digital) incarnations.
For a start, they’re usually outsiders, vaguely defined as from “above” or “beyond” or “out there”—and thus in the world but not of the world. Consider how Superman (Christopher Reeve) in Superman: The Movie literally escapes from the planet Krypton, thus making him a holy refugee (but not an accidental tourist). Alternatively, in K-Pax, Prot (Kevin Spacey) leaves his home planet to visit Earth as an intergalactic tourist, complete with a trip diary! They often arrive through some form of deliberate intervention by a distant God-figure. For example, Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sends his infant son to Earth to help the planet progress socially, in addition to providing his offspring a safe haven.
Christ-figures usually have alter-egos, one mundane and the other fantastic. They’re special beings who appear normal. With our prototype, the ancient carpenter Jesus is also the Christ, the Son of God. The newspaperman Clark Kent is Superman, the son of Jor-El. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is also Mr. Carpenter who roams effortlessly among the people, as the carpenter Jesus did. In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is just an ordinary office worker and a skilled computer hacker who becomes “the one” destined to free humanity from its illusory computer-generated world.
Sometimes they begin their “divine” mission when they reach the mystical age of thirty, the age Jesus began his public ministry. For example, in Superman: The Movie, Clark Kent walks into the Fortress of Solitude as a troubled eighteen-year-old teenager; twelve years later, at age thirty, Superman flies out and starts “saving the world” professionally.
Christ-figures sometimes have the iconic number of twelve intimate friends surrounding them (representing the Apostles) as depicted in God Told Me To, but usually they have a lesser number. In the Apostles’ place other iconic biblical characters surround them and highlight their messianic identity. Often one of the intimate friends of the Christ-figure plays the Judas role. For example, in The Matrix, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) betrays Neo to the Matrix’s cyber-enforcers in return for a “better” illusional life.
Frequently, there’s also a Magdalene-figure hanging around—a sexually tagged woman who is related to the Christ-figure in some way, but doesn’t know exactly how to express her sexuality with him. Consider Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in Superman: The Movie, a journalist who is in love with Superman. She writes articles about sex maniacs and in an “interview” asks Superman how “big” he is (rather than how tall); both are embarrassed by this sexual innuendo. She asks Superman to tell her the color of her underpants (pink—iconic of girls and romance), thus inviting Superman to examine her sexual wares via his X-ray vision.
Sometimes a John the Baptist figure points the way to the Christ-figure. For example, in Jesus of Montreal, the actor Pascal Berger (Cedric Noel) refers to Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau) as a fellow actor greater than himself. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) announces that Neo is “the one” and that he would subsequently diminish in importance as the Christ-figure Neo grows in importance.
In the ultimate sign of Christ-identification, Christ-figures frequently “die” and then miraculously come back to life again. This is dramatized by Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, by E.T. in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and by Neo in The Matrix, among several others.
At some point, the Christ-figure is often physically displayed in a cruciform position (identifying him with the iconic Christian symbol). This can be done subtly, as when Klaatu is machine-gunned to death and falls to the ground in a cruciform posture, complete with splayed arms and bent knee. Conversely, it can be done openly, as in Jesus of Montreal when Daniel Coulombe plays the part of the crucified Christ in the revamped Passion Play. (Later, in a postmodern resurrection scene, his dead organs are farmed out to grateful transplant recipients. Like Jesus, he literally gives of his body so that others may live.)
More usually, Christ-figures return home by ascending into the starry heavens as in The Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or more mysteriously in Starman and K-Pax.
At some point, but not so often, the Christ-figure is clothed to physically look like Jesus, especially his iconic white toga. For example, E.T. is placed in a bike basket and covered with a cloth to hide him, but it ends up making him look like Jesus with a head shroud. In Jesus of Montreal, Daniel Coulombe overtly displays a naked, scourged, crucified Jesus on the cross, just as the real Christ probably appeared.
In a de facto Hollywood tradition, the cinematic Christ-figure is frequently depicted with blue eyes, as evidenced by Superman in Superman: The Movie and the mysterious boarder (Jurgen Prochnow) in The Seventh Sign. It would be more believable, however, if they were to match the likely Semitic brown eyes of an ethnic Jew—called “The King of the Jews”—who had a Jewish mother and lived in the desert environments of Palestine.
Quite often, someone will, either directly or indirectly, on-screen or off-screen, refer to the Christ-figure as either: “My God!” or “Oh God!” or “Jesus Christ!” or “Jesus!” or “Christ!” or “Gee!” These verbal identifiers are usually disguised as a curse, astonishment, or disgust. This is the case in The Green Mile and Platoon, and especially in Superman II as deputy sheriff Dwayne (Peter Whitman), in a moment of panic, refers to the anti-Christ General Zod (Terence Stamp) as “Jesus H. Christ!”
Not infrequently, the Christ-figure’s name literally has the initials J.C. For example, John Coffey in The Green Mile, or John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or James Cole in Twelve Monkeys. At other times, he is called “Chris” or “Christopher” (that is, Christ bearer). Sometimes the physical word “Christopher” or another word is partially blocked to give the visual impression of the word “Chris” to indirectly tag his religious nature. Sometimes filmmakers fuse these elements together, as in Twelve Monkeys when James Cole (Bruce Willis) wears a top with “Chris” on it. That is, a named J.C. who is a Christ-figure wears a “Chris” top as he is sent from another world to try and save this world for the benefit of humanity. Filmmakers can be cunning (or sometimes merely blatant) in this way.
A more in-depth examination will no doubt reveal many more structural features and further refinements to this list. The shape, history, and future of this strand of filmmaking are fascinating areas for additional research—and add an important dimension to our enjoyment of the genre. Happy hunting.
Anton Karl Kozlovic is a research scholar in the School of Humanities at The Flinders University of South Australia. He is interested in religion-and-film, science fiction, and popular culture and has published in numerous academic journals. This is his first Metaphilm publication.