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Rebirth and Metamorphosis in Film

January 1, 2015

Film + Entertainment | by James Joseph

Dying is a permanent unequivocal change for everyone. Film allows itself to circumvent this rule, especially in Fantasy and Science-fiction but I feel that film exists to put a mirror before our lives and open us up to something new, from a different angle. Of course film does not suggest you can bring back the dead, but it does frequently show a character changing and becoming someone new through metamorphosis, letting their old persona die. As a Hindu I’m aware of reincarnation and the second chances it brings. Rebirth is an opportunity to make things right, either in the world or on a personal level. The examples I’ve chosen to illustrate this frequent thematic thread in cinema are films that most of you will be familiar with. However, be aware that spoilers lay ahead…


In broad comedy Yes Man the main character is Carl (Jim Carrey), a man depressed over losing his girlfriend three years earlier to the point of no longer hanging out with his friends. The film revolves around Carl’s decision to stop saying “No” and start saying “Yes”, changing him to a happier, talented and more social person – a ‘Yes Man’. While Carl doesn’t die he does start to change his lifestyle after he has a dream where he is dead, and tells his friends “I’m just saying ‘Yes’ to life”. There is a big difference between being alive and living, especially choosing to live.


The Lord of the Rings‘ Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) does not choose to come back as Gandalf the White; he is merely sent back to help save Middle Earth and when it is saved, he sails with the elves and Frodo to the ‘Undying Lands’. Gandalf is reborn but he’s only brought back for the good of Middle Earth, he’s not reborn through personal choice. Although this is a fantasy, it does suggest that rebirth is nothing without a life to live – Carl looks forward to getting his life back, Gandalf had no plans to. It is arguable that Gandalf chooses to live his life out in peace when he sails to the ‘Undying Lands’ so this a more optimistic end and makes his rebirth less wasteful than if he were only to return to just help destroy the ring. Life is meant to be enjoyed and it’s something I see time and again in film.


Similar to Yes Man, the movie Garden State stars Zach Braff as the emotionally detached Andrew. He remains apathetic to the news that his mother is dead but comes out of his shell and feels happiness when he meets Natalie Portman’s character Sam. Andrew is detached from the world around him and admits he hasn’t made the most of life – “I’ve spent my whole life waiting for someone else to start” he later goes on to say, “Now I realise this is all there is, and I’m going to live my life like that.” Andrew – like Carl – makes a point about living his life, his change is small but he does overcome some deep issues he’s ignored for most of his life allowing him to live.


In contrast the sci-fi film The Matrix and its sequels have a protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), who inhabits both the real human world and a computer-generated one. Neo is a human but dies in the first film and when he comes back he is still human but less expressive, like “the program” Mr. Smith (whom he quickly kills in the first film), as his detachment from the world is at odds with his role as the saviour of mankind. Mr. Smith reveals to Neo in The Matrix Reloaded that they now have a connection “some part of you is imprinted on to me, something overwritten or copied”. Neo is brought back to save humanity to die again at a more crucial time hence his detachment from the world. His only emotional attachment is Trinity whom he loses, allowing him to die without resentment. This shows that apathy is akin to death, or at least mimics it in Andrew’s case.


It could be argued that fantasy characters Gandalf and Neo are brought back from the dead not just to finish their mission, but also to serve a purpose for humanity at large whereas Carl and Andrew are more interested in themselves. In their movies they do not go through metamorphosis for anyone but themselves, however in the film 127 Hours, Aron (James Franco) recognises that his near-death experience is caused specifically by his own “supreme selfishness”. Aron eventually has the resolve to escape when he has a dream of his unborn son and cuts off his arm not just for his own survival but for his future son. Aron shows he believes in fate when he accepts that the boulder that traps him has been “waiting for him his entire life” but moves on and in the credits we see the real-life Aron married with children.


This line of thought is identical to the cult movie Cloud Atlas, where reincarnation is used to tell 7 different stories with the same actors – best summed up in the line “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” For example Tom Hanks plays an attempted murderer in his first life but by his fifth life has become a hero and though he does not remember his past lives, he is influenced by decisions made in those lives. Cloud Atlas shows rebirth can be both good and bad depending on the choices made in this and previous lives, but 127 Hours applies this and shows us that our experiences can shape us into better people when given a second chance. Cinema poignantly reminds us that rebirth is achievable in reality without actually dying, that it is our own will to move forward and become better persons that enables us to shed our old lives.


Finally Good Will Hunting is such a film where Will (Matt Damon) is offered the chance to leave his life in New Jersey behind using his talents as a gifted Mathematician, something he’s denied for a long time. Before making his decision he has a conversation with his friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) who threatens him “If you’re still here in 20 years… I’ll kill ya” and explains to Will how he’s “sitting on a winning lottery ticket” and to not cash it in would be similar to death. Ignoring the second chance Will gets when his intellect attracts offers of a job and money would not only be insulting to himself but to his friend Chuckie as well. Metamorphosis for Will happens throughout the film but it’s in this scene that he acknowledges how the people around him want the best for him too.

All of the characters I’ve mentioned learn to cope with the troubles and hardships of their lives and aim to accomplish their goals by focusing on the future and themselves. Whether it is to save the world or be happy, in the end their motivation to change is fueled by love.

Sunny Ramgolam