Last summer provided moviegoers two parables of contemporary life. Both parables recently came to video stores.
In the mindless-entertainment action-adventure category, Speed was one of the best of its genre. Theatrical release earned 300 million dollars world-wide, and video sales and rentals may surpass that figure.
Most people who haven't been living in monasteries know Speed focuses on a police officer (Keanu Reeves) trying to save passengers on a bus from a bomb planted by a vengeful man (Dennis Hopper). The bomb armed itself when the bus first traveled faster than 50 miles per hour, and the bomb is then set to explode when the bus slows to below 50. Because the bus can't slow down without dreadful results, the plucky driver (Sandra Bullock) must desperately careen around obstacles at a perilous pace.
Speed is a parable of many lives. Our frenetic routines encounter stomach-churning stresses and new hazards at every turn. Although life is over-accelerated, we're afraid to slow down. We feel our lives are rushing much too quickly, but can't stop because we fear the consequences of that even more.
Can we find an alternative? The star of Speed, Keanu Reeves, who was until last summer best known for portraying the dim-witted dude in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, also starred in Little Buddha, last summer's spiritual alternative to Speed.
Little Buddha is two movies in one. Present-day Tibetan Buddhist priests believe a spiritual teacher may have been reincarnated in a small boy living in Seattle. To describe the importance of this possibility to the boy and his skeptical parents they tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. In extended flashback scenes, Reeves plays the sixth-century B.C. Buddha born to a life of lavish comfort who renounces his kingly father's legacy, and becomes an anorexic ascetic until he finds the enlightenment of the "middle way between the extremes."
Spirituality, a human/divine interface, an immanent/transcendent essence, an inner apprehension of a small voice speaking in silence, has always been difficult to portray authentically in cinema, a medium that excels in sound, surfaces, and special effects. Only an exceptional movie can meet such a challenge, but Little Buddha is, unfortunately, only a mediocre movie. Little Buddha fails to make its message seem authentic or attractive.
The pace of the movie is meditative--but also detached and boring. The yin to Speed's yang, Little Buddha could be nicknamed Slow. Little Buddha was swift only in how quickly it arrived and departed theaters last summer. Many of those inclined to see it missed the opportunity. Now that Little Buddha is out in video, people get a second chance to see it--and be disappointed.
As parables, Speed and Little Buddha reflect many people's yearning for an alternative to frantic lifestyles, but they find organized religion boring and unsatisfactory. The cinematic portrayal of an authentic spiritual quest will have to wait for some other film.
Copyright 1994 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published in the February 14, 1995 issue of The Mennonite.