A Robotic Christ?

irongiantp.jpgGreater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

I realize that there are numerous films that I should have seen by now but have not. I will not name the more severe cases for fear of ridicule; however, I will admit that I had never seen The Iron Giant (1999) until yesterday when I watched it at a fundraiser for Oakland’s Children’s Hospital. I will play the hypocrite here and tell you to do as I say and not as I did. If you have not seen this film yet, rent it.

The Iron Giant tells the story of a young boy, Hogarth Hughes, who befriends a 50-foot-tall robot that has mysteriously fallen from the sky late one night. The town “kook” has also seen the giant but, like Hogarth’s mother, no one believes him either. Yet as rumors begin to spread and large chunks of metal begin to disappear from cars and tractors, the “government” arrives in the form of Kent Mansley, a nasty interrogator who finally harrasses and spies on Hogarth enough to learn that the robot is indeed real. When Mansley calls in the military, Hogarth and his father-figure, Dean McCoppin, manage to hide the robot in Dean’s scrap yard. Shortly thereafter, Hogarth and Dean learn that the giant can be fatal when provoked, and in the ensuing commotion, the military returns to attack the robot. Despite Hogarth and Dean’s assertions that the robot is peaceful unless provoked, the military hastily launches a nuclear weapon to demolish it.

Aside from near perfect animation and voice-acting, much of The Iron Giant‘s success lies in its ability to work on several levels. First, the film is an obvious reflection on cold war paranoia: the film takes place in a small town in Maine in 1958, and Hogarth even reads a comic book entitled The Red Menace. Secondly, if the film is reflective, it is also quite prophetic. Released in 1999, the film’s portrayal of communal fear and hasty reaction mirrors the marketed fear that surrounds our war on terror. Finally, and most effectively, the film serves as an animated retelling of the Christ story. The parallels are simply unmistakable, and the divergences just as important.

First, the similarities. The iron giant arrives from the heavens and can only be “seen” by the pure of heart. Through his interaction with his friends, he shows them the way of peace over against violence. Finally, when the whole town is endangered by the nuclear weapon that the military launches to kill the robot, he flies into outer space to distract the bomb and detinate it away from the town. Thus, he sacrifices himself for the town’s safety. Yet this is not the end, because the film concludes with the pieces of the robot making their way back towards one another in a type of gradual resurrection.

While one cannot help but see the parallels to the Christ story in The Iron Giant, obvious differences do exist. However, I would also argue that even these speak to the Christ message. First, Hogarth teaches the robot about life…about the eternity of the soul and the sadness of death. He also helps the robot realize that he does not have to be a gun or live a revengeful life. Hogarth passes along a bit of advice that Dean gave him: “You are what you choose to be.” This makes a significant contribution to the discussion of Jesus’ divinity. Was Jesus simply set on a “divine rollercoaster” on which he rode without any personal control? Or did he make conscious decisions at crucial points in his life to become more Christ-like? The robot consciously chooses to launch himself into outerspace to a certain death, perhaps mirroring Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane moment in which he determined, “Yet not as I will….” Moreoever, when the robot decides to live for Hogarth, and the rest of the town, nothing can defeat it. General Rogard says, “Nothing can stop this thing. We’ve hit it with everything we got.” Even “the bomb” can’t stop it.

In the end, I return to a similarity between the robot and Christ that I find of the utmost importance to the violent society in which we live. The robot choses the way of nonviolence over violence, asserting, “I am not a gun.” I cannot help but hear Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Perhaps more relevant now than when it was released, The Iron Giant is sure to become a classic that will remain so for many years to come.