I’m watching Star Trek Beyond and Krall just threatened to kill Sulu in order to coerce the crew into giving him the Abronath (a bioweapon capable of huge destruction). But rather than letting a crew member die, an Ensign named Syl turns over the weapon from its hiding place in the back of her head. It’s a very familiar scene. You find similar scenes in Star Wars, most of the superhero films, and even children movies like Disney’s Hercules. Remember when Hercules gives up his power to save Meg and thus allows Hades to terrorize the city and even assault Mount Olympus?
My complaint is not that this trope has become repetitive (here’s a long list of similar scenes), but that we simply accept it as a legitimate ethical decision. Do we agree that it is appropriate to surrender thousands, millions, possibly billions of lives (the stakes keep getting higher) in order to save Sulu? Why does this ever make sense? Spaceballs even parodies this trope when The King sacrifices himself and the entire population of his home planet just so the princess doesn’t get her old nose back. When it’s a nose, we understand the absurdity, but that absurdity is harder to recognize when someone’s life is at stake.
Of course in Star Trek they do end up defeating Krall, and that helps us feel better about the decision. But they don’t win until a lot of people die—a lot more people than would have died if they hadn’t turned over artifact in the first place. And when they do turn over the artifact, Krall laughs and calls it a human weakness. But we are not supposed to agree. We are supposed to understand that somehow the arithmetic of surrendering thousands of lives in order to save one is still somehow noble.
We see this on a smaller scale in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In the end, fifteen people die trying to rescue Anne. The one person who questions whether or not this rescue operation is a good idea, is dismissed as a heartless coward. Rescuing the girl even at the expense of 15 lives is portrayed as a human strength, and not rescuing the girl is portrayed as a human weakness.
And we must believe these messages because they keep being perpetuated. But here’s the thing: this is not some complex ethical dilemma the characters face. Let’s return to Star Trek. It’s definitely not easy to see a loved one die, but if you can save a thousand people instead, the right choice is obvious. You save a thousand people every time. And yet somehow, in our moral compass there is room to suspend this ethical imperative.
This “suspension of the ethical” is something I believe Hollywood unknowingly borrows from the Bible. Or more accurately, it is something our society has inherited from Christian philosophers, though we remain blissfully unaware. It’s first found in the story of Abraham and Isaac, as noted by the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. There is a pretty clear ethical responsibility for a father to protect (and at least not kill) his son. When Abraham decides to kill Isaac, he isn’t really dealing with a complex ethical dilemma either. A complex ethical dilemma would have been if God told him to kill his son in order to save his wife. That’s a hard choice.
If that had been Abraham’s choice it would have been like the tragic heroes of the Greco-Roman tradition. Kierkegaard mentions Agamemnon as an example. Here’s a man to whom the Gods gave a choice. If he wants to get a good wind so that his crew can continue their assigned mission, he must sacrifice his daughter. His daughter’s death allows the rest of the crew to survive. Though tragic, her death is understandable because we can see what is gained. It is an ethical decision because it guarantees the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But when Abraham is told to kill Isaac, it is NOT in order to save a nation or preserve the ideals of the state. Abraham’s choice is not a rational weighing of his options.
In Hollywood, the heroes often make a similar Abrahamic choice. In Pushing Daisies, the pie maker saves Chuck, but not because he considered his options. Rather, he saved Chuck because his love for her allowed him to momentarily forget the fact that someone else would die. It was an impulse, a passion, not a decision. If Agamemnon was a Hollywood hero, he would have saved the girl even if it meant the crew was going to perish instead. Yet there is something about this irrational decision that still moves us. So where does this drama come from? What makes these scenes so powerful? It’s one thing when someone dies in order to save others; it’s clear why that has dramatic merit. But this is not that. These heroes do the opposite. They let people die. They make the wrong choice, or at least seem to.
Killing your own son seems to be the wrong choice, and that is exactly why it is so hard from Abraham to do it. Saving Sulu instead of the the entire population of the space station seems wrong. And that’s why it’s so interesting. These characters are going against the grain—against their own ethics. In a moment of passion, Abraham chooses faith over his own understanding.
To make these choices the heroes can’t calculate; they simply follow their heart. And we allow our heroes to “follow their heart” even when that seems to be leading them away from the most desirable outcomes, even if a lot of people will suffer because of it. The tension lies in the discrepancy between what we think and what we feel. Between our intellect and our passion.
In the moment when Hercules gives up his power to save Meg thus leaving the city heroless, “The single individual becomes higher than the universal.” Meg is more important than all of Thebes. This is a paradox we’ve internalized as a culture: we seem to recognize that sometimes it is right for the shepherd to leave the ninety and nine to save a single soul (to take a parable straight from the mouth of Jesus (Luke 15:4)). It’s absurd and haunting. It means that a person might be worth as much as the whole world.
It gets to the core of humanity that our heroes often follow their passions instead of intellect. Their choices are not always a calculation but an impulse, a prompting. In the face of love, we allow our heroes to suspend even the most obvious ethical imperatives. And, as with Abraham, even though it’s absurd, things tend to work out: an angel appears and Isaac is saved, Krall’s attack is thwarted by the Beastie Boys, and Hercules becomes a God.
We embrace these cinematic moments even though we don’t comprehend them and we’ve forgotten where they come from. Perhaps that’s why our modern iterations aren’t as satisfying as Abraham. Abraham follows his heart it in order to do the will of God. Our Hollywood heroes more often than not follow their heart to save a love interest—the deep passion of faith is replaced with the passion of infatuation. It’s almost disappointing. And yet it still carries truth—some good old Christian truth: That right and wrong are not entirely reducible to pragmatism. It’s a wonderfully bizarre algebra that can allow a single individual to be worth the whole universe.