Robert Mixa reviews the recently released movie,
Prince of Persia, addressing how this film demonstrates our contemporary obsession with power.
Like the ancient gods, our movies are projections of our desires. So an analysis of their themes will help us to see ourselves more clearly. Prince of Persia does just that. It reveals our obsession with power and the belief that we will use it rightly if only we prevent others from obtaining it. This is the world of the zero-sum game where we believe that the will to power is the only rational option while telling ourselves that we are acting rightly if we heed the voice of our hearts. However, unlike this current blockbuster that elevates power as the supreme good, another story denies power this status, seeing it as a universal corruptor and something to be destroyed.
A striking example of this is the difference between the way Prince of Persia and The Lord of the Rings view instruments of power (viz. for the former, a dagger, and the later, a ring). In the Prince of Persia, the dagger can be used for the good by a select few (viz. those who are not corrupt in their “hearts”). It just so happens that Prince Dastan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, does what is right because he listens to his “heart” with the advantage of retrospect that the knife provides. He has been able to disembody himself from the limits of time and space, thus being able to foresee the future and in turn prevent any catastrophe from happening. But since Dastan is naturally good, he is not tempted to use this power for evil.
On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings presents a different portrayal of power and our relationship to it. In The Lord of the Rings, all of the characters, even the good ones, are tempted by the power of the Ring. They want to possess it exclusively. Consequently, they form a fellowship in which they watch and admonish each other not to give into this temptation. But the task of the fellowship is to destroy the Ring of power whereas in the Prince of Persia it is all about having that power in the right hands. It is not about destroying the dagger, but merely about making sure it is possessed by someone free from evil. This is very much like America’s situation and its perception of its relationship to the rest of the world.
In Prince of Persia, Persia seems intended to symbolize today’s America, the world’s cultural and economic superpower. All empires see themselves as rightly taking a powerful position for several reasons, some of them being the belief that they are not as prone to the abuse of power as others and self-interest. Behind this there is a self-justifying narrative of why one ought to be in power (viz. in the American context, we tell ourselves that we never conquered other lands, making colonies out of them, and we have justly brought democracy to the rest of the world). But the movie does acknowledge that not everyone on our side seeks the good (i.e. in a blatant analogy to the Iraq War, the Persians, out of fear of concealed weapons, conquer a city without a legitimate reason under the connivance of an evil one). Through the retrospection of the dagger, Dastan discovers a way to prevent this from happening, and he makes it so. Ultimately, with the dagger and the sands of time, there is nothing beyond his control. We are pleased to see Dastan as the übermensch because we believe him to be just: he listens to his pure “heart”.
This all shows the difference between Prince of Persia and The Lord of the Rings. In The Lord of the Rings, sin, which is fundamentally the temptation to power corrupted by the desire to dominate, is universal; no one is above or beyond it. In the Prince of Persia, only a few selfish people are tempted to use these powers in the wrong way. But the perspective that some might be trusted to use absolute power to achieve a greater good is the arrogant belief that power in our hands is for the good. We accept this understanding because we believe we are not prone to evil. But the Christian alternative is that all humans are naturally sinful, making power only good to the degree in which we participate in the Good (i.e. God). Thus, we must surrender ourselves to the One who rightly orders all power, for only he can use it rightly.
In this age we do not surrender ourselves to anything greater than us; rather, since we’re practical (if not professed) atheists, we eliminate anything that may be an obstacle to our wills. We justify this disposition as the byproduct of a renunciation of our feudal past. We refuse to surrender to anything “above” us in the belief that our freedom is the greatest thing to be valued. The belief that freedom is the greatest value fosters belief in egalitarianism. This means that there is no longer a “chain of being” by which everyone finds his or her proper place. The modern spirit is the antithesis of a “servile obedience rendered to an arbitrary power” (John Dewey). Rather, the pinnacle of the cosmos is my subjective will to which the cosmos must conform. In this framework, the self-reliant individual is sovereign. He is beyond corruption if only he disciplines himself to live according to his natural benevolence. Prince of Persia is Cartesian in that the self is portrayed as a disembodied subject capable of existing outside of the limits of space and time. But more so it’s Nietzschean, with an individual existing beyond these limits, capable of altering the course of reality itself and making it according to his will. This narrative should sound familiar, for it is the same narrative motivating the massive bloodshed of the twentieth century continuing into our time: the will to power. Ironically, this is the narrative behind most of the movies we take our kids to see.
Although many of our movies reflect our superior understanding of ourselves, it is better than actually acting out these illusions. Movies, such as Prince of Persia, may serve some cathartic purposes that may release the tension caused by our false philosophies instead of prompting us to release those tensions in reality. However, many of us continue to pursue power under the presumption that everything will be fine once we’re king. But will it?
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.