Produced by Spyglass Entertainment
and Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay by Gerald Di Pego and Daniel Quinn
Released by Buena Vista Pictures

Pushing Tin
Produced by Art Linson Productions,
3 Miles Apart Productions Ltd., et al.
Directed by Mike Newell
Screenplay by Darcy Frey and Glen Charles
Released by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace
Produced by Lucas film Ltd.
Directed by George Lucas
Screenplay by George Lucas
Released by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Produced by Bona Fide Productions, MTV Productions,
and Paramount Pictures
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor III;
based on a novel by Tom Perrotta
Released by Paramount Pictures

A scene from director Jon Turteltaub’s Instinct will set the stage for this month’s film homily. We see Anthony Hopkins as primatologist Ethan Powell, his white hair festooned wildly over his beetling brows, his eyes glittering with an obsession worthy of the Ancient Mariner. He is reclining among a tribe of mountain gorillas in their leafy habitat. With rigorous scientific discipline, he’s spent months inching his way into their gentle lives. His full acceptance is now at hand. The head male absently holds out a crooked forefinger and Powell touches it with his own far more eager digit, tip to trembling fingertip in the middle of the screen. It’s a perfectly inverted Sistine moment. In place of God imparting spirit to Adam, we have a gorilla bestowing soulful warmth to an icy professional. Michelangelo had it wrong: Real inspiration comes from below, not above. Instead of reaching for our spiritual destiny, we must delve into our animal origins if we want to become whole and saved.

What is it about filmmakers? They have at their disposal a technical art form of staggering ingenuity, yet they’re forever urging us to flee our machine-ridden civilization and return to the primal life. Disney expects to make zillions plying this line with Tarzan, its cartoon version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp version of Rousseau’s noble savage. No doubt market research indicates Americans are longing for yet another romance of the virtuous primitive. The same nostalgia for primal purity infects three of this month’s films—Instinct, Pushing Tin, and Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. Only the fourth. Election, reminds us that snakes lurk in the garden.

Instinct argues that we moderns can only be saved from our hellish technocracy by returning to a prelapsarian harmony with the beasts, in particular gorillas. (Why is it always gorillas? Or bears? Or dolphins? Why can’t we watch a big name star chummy up with crocodiles or horned toads for once?) When Powell is brought back from deepest Africa (that’s Rwanda today) snarling in chains for having split a few human skulls, he’s thrown into a Florida loony bin. It seems he’s been driven mad by humanity’s crimes against Mother Nature. Ten thousand years ago, he hisses to his wide-eyed psychiatrist (played by Cuba Gooding with a remarkable lack of therapeutic detachment), humankind knew how to “live in the world” with other creatures. Then some miscreants Powell dubs the “Takers” started interfering with the natural balance by thinking too much. With calculating hubris, they demanded “dominion,” the right to use things—wood, stone, beasts—to their own ends. And so we, their descendants, find ourselves outcasts of the original garden.

Of course, what with sabertooths, bacteria, and famine, humans didn’t last all that long 10,000 years ago. But no Hobbesian caution about life in the state of nature can deter anyone infected with Rousseau’s romance of origins. Such sentimental hankering for the idyllic existence of primitives can only flourish among those comfortably ensconced in civilization. The dignity of life without central heating, indoor plumbing, and Starbuck’s on the corner is largely lost on those who have to live it.

Does Turteltaub believe in his malarkey? Perhaps the credit crawl provides a clue. Here, we discover Hopkins’ wild man look is the work of the stylists in the “Hair Department.” It takes a good deal of artifice to be quite this natural.

A variant of the noble savage surfaces in Mike Newell’s ludicrous Pushing Tin. He’s Russell Bell, the preternaturally calm flight controller played by Billy Bob Thornton. Unlike his chattering, stressed-out colleagues at the air traffic computer consoles, he’s all silent poise as he guides the wide-bodies—”pushes tin,” in the profession’s argot—through the rancid air over New York. He teaches the value of laid-back competence to a frenetic, stressed-out colleague who is in danger of losing his job. “Thought is your enemy,” Thornton counsels sententiously. “You have to let go.” Let go? Not while I’m in the air, pal.

Russell derives his peace of mind from his heritage. While his father was Irish, he was fortunate in having a Native American mother. This means he’s rooted, closer to nature than others, and much wiser. In the climactic scene, he’s shown seated at the controllers’ console with a feather over his left ear. I have to say I was offended. Why not a shamrock over his right ear? Is Newell saying we micks lack inner peace? Quick, call the multicultural police.

This nostalgia for primal balance is the one thread of coherence in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. We meet the wise Jedi warrior, Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson with a gravity some may mistake for somnolence. Against a background of computer-generated images, fission-powered spaceships, and numberless robots, he repeatedly intones this advice to his nine-year-old protege, Anakin Skywalker: “Stay in the moment. Feel. Trust your Instincts. Don’t think.” Feelings good, reason bad. Me Tarzan, you mentally frazzled nerd.

I must confess I’m under orders from my own nine-year-old Liam to say nice things about George Lucas’s movie. So let me doff my critic’s cap and admit that the movie is fun. No, it’s not the achievement the first installment was. Yes, its plot is a tortured mess, and the acting is perfunctory at best. But those special effects! They’re simply amazing. They cram the screen until you have no choice. You surrender, bedazzled into submission. As for what’s going on, it’s anybody’s guess. Here’s mine. The Federation, a supergalactic trade association under the sway of Darth Sidious, wants to impose a tax on commerce across the known universe. The Republic sends two Jedi knights to investigate, but they meet resistance from a villainous viceroy who, despite his green skin, speaks English with a sinister Chinese accent. Is Lucas expressing his displeasure with the IRS and Asian commercial practices? Well, why shouldn’t he? It’s his film.

As usual with Lucas, it’s the simple who are pure of heart. Remember the Ewoks? Here, the Jedi fight against laser guns and high-tech battle droids with nothing more than light sabers. We know their allies, the lizard-like Gungans, are a decent lot because they go to war armed with slingshots, catapults, and other labor-intensive weapons. I was surprised they weren’t equipped with bows and arrows. Perhaps Lucas isn’t that politically correct.

There have been complaints that Anakin is supposed to be the issue of a virgin birth. This, together with the film’s incessant invocation of the pantheistic Force, has led to speculation that Lucas may be cynically mining religious themes to give his romance an unearned mythic aura. This seems too harsh. Lucas is, after all, a fan of Joseph Campbell. And how many modern novels can you name that don’t weave references to myth and religion into their symbolic fabric? Let’s think positively. Although I teach at an officially Roman Catholic university, few of my students—I’d say about 20 percent—can explain what is meant by the doctrine of the Incarnation. Consolingly, those who can are, as often as not, Jewish or Asian. I think we should thank Lucas for providing us with an occasion to discuss the religious and cultural implications of the Virgin Birth.

I’ve been accusing the films under review with an anti-rational bias, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with trusting our Instincts now and again. It’s the paradox of the medium that interests me. Our most technically based, scientifically demanding art, film nevertheless registers on its audience with a far greater visceral impact than any other medium. It’s not like reading a book or looking at a painting. There’s no time to reflect on film as we experience it. It sweeps over us with a visual and aural immediacy that all too easily drowns intellectual distinctions. No wonder directors lean toward the sensational. It’s the medium’s distinctive difference. Then there’s the question of audience. To justify its huge expense, even a modest film must lure tens of millions into the theaters. It’s not likely that they will all be intellectually curious. Filmmakers know their audience, and they know it pays to flatter it. That’s why most movies strongly suggest that life is easy to understand and success doesn’t require that you ace your physics exam. Simple is better. The problem, obviously, is that such bias stifles the development of more thoughtful works.

That is why Alexander Payne’s Election is so welcome. For those who have tired of smarmy tributes to our natural goodness. Election‘s evident disgust with humanity will come as a positive tonic. This movie is that rare thing in our alternately sappy and sullen popular culture, a genuinely Swiftian satire, relentlessly determined to expose the folly and knavery of our species. No one is flattered, no one is spared.

You wouldn’t think a high-school student Election campaign would be promising material for a film, but Payne makes it a parable for our shamelessly me-first times. Tracy Flick—Reese Witherspoon in a career-making performance—is running for president, and she is splendidly qualified. Perfect grades, bottomless reserves of energy, politically correct on every issue, supremely organized, she reminds you of what Hillary Clinton must have been at the same age. But her flawless persona disguises another, far less enchanting, young lady—a manipulative cheat who seduces her math teacher, Dave, and calmly watches as both his career and marriage disintegrate in the aftermath. Although Dave’s reputation is ruined, Tracy emerges from the scandal untarnished and, more revealingly, untroubled. In a memorably chilly scene, the camera watches over her shoulder as she uses a computer graphics program to snip her former lover’s image from a photograph she’s preparing for the yearbook. She performs the amputation as calmly as a young Stalinist sending an inconvenient associate down the memory hole.

Tracy’s social studies teacher and Dave’s best friend, Jim McAllister, decides to intervene to everyone’s edifying discomfiture. Matthew Broderick plays McAllister as an unstable amalgam of slow-footed cunning, nearly desperate naïveté, and profound self-delusion. As he tells us in his ingenuous voice-over narration, he never wanted to be anything other than a teacher imparting knowledge and wisdom to young people. Unfortunately, he possesses precious little of either. While he takes pride in his sunny reasonableness, he is in thrall to his conflicted emotions. When we first meet him, he’s asking his civics class to distinguish between morals and ethics. He calls on several students who haltingly try to answer his question. Despite their reluctance, he studiously ignores Tracy’s eagerly raised hand. He knows she has the answer, but he doesn’t want to hear it from her. His sense of fair play bows to his grudge against this adolescent Circe. It’s bad enough she brought his colleague low. What’s worse is that, although he despises her (or perhaps because he does), he finds himself lusting after her.

McAllister’s ethical lapses are part of a pattern of moral deficiencies. After the erring Dave leaves his wife, Linda, and their infant, McAllister takes time away from his own wife to help the distraught woman. After clearing her bathroom drain one day, he turns to other plumbing needs. As he and Linda tumble to the living room floor in erotic urgency, the camera follows their descent at a discreet distance, finally shooting their writhing forms through the bars of the playpen in which Linda’s toddler is standing. It’s a disturbing image. On the sound track we hear McAllister, as reasonable as ever, explaining that their feelings took them by surprise. But we know better. We’ve already seen that they’ve been maneuvering in this direction for some time. “What had blossomed between Linda and me was too real” to be denied, McAllister rhapsodizes. Sure.

This sour counterpoint between narration and action runs through the film, creating intersections at which reason and impulse collide. In their voice-over commentaries, the characters give themselves away time and again, whether it’s Tracy praying to God to help her win the Election because she is the only one who deserves to, or McAllister assuring us he’s at peace with himself as he pummels vending machines or hurls a Pepsi at a passing car. Despite their reasonable discourse, these are people firmly in the grip of their destructively Instinctual selves. An image near the film’s conclusion makes the point. It’s a lingering shot of a mural in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, an artist’s rendering of what pre-humans might have looked like 1.8 million years ago. A man and a woman stand in the tall grass of an East African savannah, scavenging for food. Naked, bestial, brutal and brutalized, they look on with fear and anger as a jackal moves in on an antelope carcass they had intended for their own meal. They provide an all-too-vivid reminder of where we’ve come from: Two craven creatures on the prowl in a jackal-haunted world, both as ugly as the Yahoos with whom Gulliver desperately denied relation. Are these the beings Instinct‘s Ethan Powell had in mind when he spoke admiringly of those who knew how to live in the world?