Monday, September 23, 2013

spiritualities of magic: theological film review of Now You See Me

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for September, of Now you see me and the place of magic in culture today.

Now you see
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Recent years have given us a thrilling world of wands, spells and castles. Think Harry Potter (and here), Snow White and the Huntsman, Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. All movies recently reviewed in Touchstone, all sprinkling our imagination with fairy dust. Movies seem ideally able to usher in the worlds of once upon a time make believe.

A friend recently told of encountering a six year old, who confided a belief in make believe. Followed by the shocking statement. Adults kill fairies.

The six year old had realised, painfully, that grown up logic would inevitably challenge the childlike world of once upon a time. Adult rationality was hard to work breaking the wands of childhood.

Which is certainly true of a second strand in the magic movie genre. A number of recent movies have sought to expose the magic of the magician. Sherlock Holmes uncovers the dark arts of Moriarty. The Illusionist showcases a magician using his craft to secure love above his station. Prestige pits magician against magician. Each focuses not only on magic, but on the magician, on this worldly pursuits in which logic and rationality triumph over make believe. For truth is surely explainable.

Which brings us to Now You See It. Directed by Louis Leterrier, like many a magic show, the plot relies on multiple suspensions of belief. Partial redemption comes through the lights of Hollywood, an A-list cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg as J Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson as Merritt McKinney, Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley and Michael Caine Arthur Tressler.

Now You See It straddles both magic and magician. We meet the fabled “Eye”, a mysterious collective of elite power, into which four struggling magicians, including J Daniel Atlas and Merritt McKinney, are mysteriously gathered. As the fame of the four grows, they begin to shower their audiences with money.

First, bank notes, robbed from a French Bank. Second, audience bank accounts, magically enhanced by routing dollars from a spendthrift insurance company. Third, the fortune of an investment company.

First, bank notes rain down, robbed from a French Bank. Second, audience bank accounts are magically enhanced by routing dollars from a spendthrift insurance company. Third, the fortune of an investment company, disappears as if by magic, from a guarded vault.

Is their magic real? Or is it simply a modern rehash of an ancient two card trick hiding a “truth is harsher than magic” world of crime?

It remains a challenge to the religious among us. How might one maintain a faith in angels and demons, miracles and resurrection, in a world with no Santa, wizard or wand?

For many, the six year old included, Christianity stands as yet another brand of fairy killer. We have found ourselves trading in a faith so rational that imagination has lost its magic and saints their sparkle.

The Christian tradition is no stranger to magic and magicians. In Acts 8, Philip performs miracles, which attract the attention of a local magician. Much like The Illusionist or Prestige, the complex motives by which power is sought and brought are sifted, if not spent.

Philip will have none of it. He walks a complex line, convinced that miracles are neither make believe nor for sale.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 08:53 AM

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