As I am a mom, I happen to watch a lot of movies nowadays. Some I enjoy more than others, but I watch a lot of them regardless. I’ve noticed that there are a few in particular that my daughter loves. At the time of my writing this, my daughter had been sick for about a week, so we had watched Raya and the Last Dragon at least two dozen times over one weekend. Somewhere around the sixth time, I started really digging into the story. I do this with most films my kids watch, but there were a few underlying themes that I kept coming back to in this one.
There are a lot of things I could write about Raya and the last Dragon. I could talk about their particular portrayals of the different tribes, or the curious creatures. I could talk about the need to know your history. I come back to this a lot when I watch movies, read books, or just observe the culture. In general, people do not know their history, so they lose information over time, as in Raya. The real reason that the world broke in the first place was from human discord, but by the time 500 years passed, they apparently forgot, and everyone is living in discord again, causing the second breaking. But I’m not going to talk about that. I’ve already addressed history in previous posts on other movies. Instead, I’m going to talk about two things. First, I will discuss how the narrative pushes the idea that mankind can achieve Heaven on Earth. Second, I want to talk about faith and the deeply religious nature of this movie and what that tells us about our own culture.
To begin, there is a deep desire in people to achieve peace and even perfection on earth. We long for goodness, and even harmony, though it constantly battles in our soul with selfishness. Consequently, that longing displays itself in both our literature and even our daily lies. Moreover, it often plays out in some people’s ideas for governmental systems. At the end of the day, we all think there is a way to achieve peace on earth by our own means and ideas. We want to return to the Garden, to that peace with…something. It’s really a someone, but for those devoid of the Gospel, it’s at least something we should be able to grasp. We seek Heaven on Earth, a utopia of our own making. Know now before you continue reading that if you haven’t watched the movie, both this post and the next will be full of spoilers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking when you see that early scene of what the world looked like before it broke. It’s wonderful. In a small way, we all want to live there. It’s lush and green and harmonious. People are working and serving together. It’s reminiscent of Eden. It’s a utopia. It’s Heaven on Earth. Then, out of nowhere, discord invades the world. And though those people all try, nothing can be done to stop the destruction of the monsters. So, their only hope, the dragons, sacrifice themselves to save the world. From then, life went on with less harmony as before, with borders drawn and constant fighting, until finally, they break it again! So what do the people do? They have to work together so that by using only their own strength, they fix the world. This time, they bring back not only the people but also the DRAGONS! Wow! And all on their own. Now everything is suddenly Kumandra, or Utopia, again. They have achieved Heaven on Earth.
Such is true of most dystopian fiction and whished for utopias. Or rather, it is not what the dystopian fiction is about exactly, but instead, it is what the world was contrived to be by the powers that be in the fiction. By the time the reader gets there, the world is unveiled for what it is: a nightmare. But to those who set up the system, it is what is was meant to be: the means by which mankind can be made perfect. The foundational idea is simple: Mankind is flawed, but perfectible. If we just work hard enough, if we just hold everything in common and share, if we shape things in the proper way, we can reach perfection, or Heaven on Earth.
Think of some of the dystopian literature you have read. In Brave New World, literature, knowledge, and even biology are controlled. A person is fashioned into the model of the controllers’ desire from conception to death. And why? To perfect mankind. Everyone is happy, everyone is in their place, everyone belongs to everybody else. No discord can arise in this system. The controllers of this world have perfected people. Fahrenheit 451 tries to make a perfect world by removing new ideas in the form of literature. They literally purify the culture by fire so that everyone thinks one way, the only way, the way of unity to achieve utopia. The leaders in 1984 try to create utopia by keeping everyone under heavy surveillance, rewriting history as it happens, and silencing anyone who says otherwise. Everyone is equal. Everyone holds everything in common. Every aspect of life is dictated by the overlords. A similar narrative is found in Animal Farm, where some are more equal than others, but all is perfected by central planning. Like every communist utopia, the classes (people) can be made equal by forcing the top down and the bottom “up” (although they never make it there). Central planning makes sure no one has more than anyone else, a harmony – sharing, even! – of sorts. And all without God to guide us. Mankind is perfect because there is no room for difference. Everything that falls outside of the dictated rules must be purged. Utopia is only found in unity, conformity. This is man’s own idea of what Heaven must be: a hell of our own making.
Finally, we have the utopia of The Giver. Here we have Sameness. Here, there is no sickness, no age, no defects, no difference, no death. Everyone has their proper roles. There is no fear or war. There is no color, no uniqueness. Of all the utopias discussed so far, this one seems the most perfect. Everyone seems content. And yet, they are broken. There is no true connection between people. There is no freedom to love, no joy. There is no growth, no real harmony. In their effort to perfect humanity, they have stripped them of everything that made them human.
And such it is in Raya. In Raya’s retelling of thier history, the world was perfect. A literal paradise, she says. There was no hate, or division, or discord. Only sharing and light and harmony. But the world in this film isn’t an actual dystopia. Instead, there are just the natural consequences of a failing world. That utopia that Raya describes at the beginning is not real. On their own, mankind cannot achieve perfect harmony. It never existed, even with the dragons. For why do the Druun arrive in the first place? They come from human discord. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, invading where they were not summoned. Instead, the Druun “were always there, waiting for a moment of weakness.” Despite this apparent utopia that Raya describes, it never actually existed. People never lived in harmony; they didn’t live in a paradise. This is further demonstrated by the fact that without the dragons, these people still didn’t find harmony. Instead, “people being people” started finding new ways for discord. And such will be true post-credits. We don’t see the ending, just as we didn’t see past the communal propaganda. For despite all the happy-go-lucky mantras, mankind cannot be perfected by people.
Can’t we all just get along?
Can’t we have “Kumandra” again, as it was in the Garden, or at all? Can’t we embrace this idea if we just trust each other? Maybe if we just prohibited possessions and made everyone share, we got rid of all the borders and religion, eliminated the disgusting parts of life, if we made everyone equal and unified, wouldn’t we find that Heaven on Earth? Couldn’t we unify the world? No. At least, not by our own reason or strength. Raya is correct. The division in the world is caused by human discord. We do fight, steal, lie, kill, and divide. That is sin. And we cannot overcome that by our own reason or strength. Like those consumed by the Druun, we are consumed by sin and turned to dust, or stone, in death.
The problem with all of these stories is that they are wrong. Furthermore, forcing people into one person’s idea of what is perfect, paradise, or utopia, will only result in more bloodshed. For who is to say which is the perfect way? Who claims to be all-knowing? Not only this, but in doing so, we would strip people of all that makes them human. You can strip people of their humanity, you can threaten them into conformity, but you cannot make them perfect. Mankind is not perfectible, and Heaven will only meet Earth when all is made new. And yet, we are not left in despair. While on this earth, life will be imperfect. Utopia cannot be achieved, not that we shouldn’t strive to live at peace will all men as far as it is possible for us.
But we still have hope! Perfecting ourselves or others is not dependent on us, as if we could achieve such a goal. God has already sent the One to make us new, to give us a new way of living, to show us the only way to peace and life and unity of spirit and body. The Kingdom of God is already at hand. And what a comfort! What a comfort it is that we do not need to work out our own salvation! We will never have a utopia on Earth. Mankind never will perfect itself. It cannot. But God has already made us new and is preserving us for a better home than any we could dream of creating ourselves on Earth.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig