On Fatalism in Hollywood Films Essay

In ancient time, fate is tantamount to agency. Thus fate, like some forms of spirituality more generally, involves the animation of the world, an endowment that involves plans and intentions as well as the natural causal order. Thus fate is often personified and treated as an agent, Fate. Thus the later Greeks and then the Romans referred to the fates (depicted as muses) by name. The earlier Greeks took fate to be a unified force, distinct from the gods. In Homer, for instance, not even the gods—not even mighty Zeus—could contravene fate. (Bernstein 1992)

There is, to be sure, something comforting in the idea that the world is controlled by anthropomorphic spirits. Even catastrophes are somehow more tolerable if they can be attributed to a jealous God or malevolent Mali. Misfortunes caused by the malicious whims and jealousies of the gods and goddesses are comprehensible, at least. Earthquakes and typhoons are understandable if they are brought about by angry divinities (Bernstein 1992). If the temple was crumbled down according to God’s will then such destruction is a meaningful transpiration of event since humanity has disappointed God.

For us scientifically sophisticated moderns, this quaint picture can comfortably be dismissed as so much superstition and nonsense. But the notion of fate need not be so simple-minded. Ancient philosophers were obsessed with the idea that our lives are not under our control (Doob 1988). To be sure, we make our daily decisions and seemingly “choose” to go this way or that, but in the larger vision of things those choices are, in one way or another, already determined or at the very least tightly circumscribed. Spinoza says in one of his letters that if a stone thrown through the air were conscious, it would believe that it was flying of its own free will (Doob 1988). In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut has his Trafalmadorians reveal to us (by way of the hero, Billy Pilgrim) that they had inventoried hundreds of civilizations on as many planets, and only on earth did they find creatures who believed in “free will” (Bernstein 1992). But even the most libertarian among us find ourselves believing in hands other than our own controlling our destinies. In romance, we find the idea of fate irresistible. Indeed, it seems built into our romantic conception of love. (“We were meant for each other”). In economics, we find it hard to get away from Adam Smith’s famous metaphor, from Wealth of Nations, of the “invisible hand” that assures prosperity despite the narrow self-interested focus of an entrepreneurial society (1994). In biology, all but the few consistent evolutionists still tend to adopt a vision of progress, of purposiveness, for example, when they explain the “function” of this or that adaptation for the survival of a species (Doob 1988).

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We have choices, true, and we may take responsibility for them. But we also sense some larger destiny, some feeling in which we cannot escape our fate. We are swept along by global forces, the world economy, international politics, the dynamic ecology of our planet, and by more easily identifiable local forces (department and university politics, the threat of crime and violence, the pervasiveness of popular culture, and the personalities of our neighbors). Hegel’s portrait of the Zeitgeist and his view of the relative unimportance of the individual capture this humbling picture so well, as does Tolstoy in War and Peace a few decades later. Our lives and fortunes are to a large extent the products not only of our own character but of the more embracing character of the culture and times we live in. Whatever one thinks of the celebrated free will issue, it is undeniable that we are hostages of fate in this larger but more modest sense. We are not the sole authors of our lives or of the circumstances of our lives, and, without denying the role of chance—and just plain luck (good or bad)—our futures are for the most part set out before us. Whatever our libertarian and existentialist pretenses, we find ourselves in them and grow into them rather than make them for ourselves.

Fatalism in Hollywood

Thinking about our own lives, it is hard not to contemplate the very personal question, how long do I have to live? It is not a statistical inquiry about life expectancy (“an average of 72.2 for healthy, nonsmoker males, five years more for comparable females”). Nor is it just a practical question (for instance, in calculating what kind of life insurance to buy, or whether or not to start a multivolume book project). The question, how long do I have to live? has special poignancy, of course, for those who have reason to think that their time is distinctively limited, patients with AIDS or cancer, for instance. Soldiers talk fatalistically of a “bullet with my name on it.” It is not so different from the heroes of the Iliad and their resignation to their fate (sometimes but by no means always foretold).

In Hollywood world, the precepts of fatalism have been very much depicted in all kinds of film genre.  The movie Final Destination embodies the concept of fatalism in the context of realizing the time of one’s own death. Final Destination foretells a story of group of teenagers who ‘cheated death’, and eventually haunts each of them in the end. The movie challenges the concept of fatalism in the sense that it posits the question of the possibility of overcoming fatalism, and in this context, if the protagonists can escape their predicted imminent death. Fate was written in the movie wherein those who have cheated death will die according to who goes first, which is the reason why the characters tried to unlock the code of who among them will die chronologically.

Moreover, sealing the fate of each character is shown through the execution of some graphic premonitions, which is also implies who will die and how that individual will die. The major characters used these premonitions in order to decode the logic of death’s design, and know exactly the chronology of their death. At the end of the movie, the possibility of overcoming fatalism is shown when Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) survived the predicament. But in the second installment of the movie, Rivers died implying that no one can really escape one’s own fate.

In the same vein, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machine story is founded on fatalism, in which it becomes the realization of its prequel prophecy of machine’s having their own consciousness, and eventually rebels against men. This is another face of fatalism that is commonly adapted in Hollywood movies, which foretells the end of humanity and the domination of humanized robots. The concept that robots will ruled the world was depicted in many Hollywood movies such as i-Robot, Artificial Intelligence, Animatrix, etc. Ghost in the Shell is an influential anime in this kind of fatalism, where robots started to own their consciousness and wage war among men. But it must be noted that Isaac Asimov’s Runaround is the major influence in this kind plotline in Hollywood, which introduces AI and the possibility of a robotic world.

In Terminator 3, fate was not overturned, thus when the characters failed to stop the activation of Skynet a nuclear apocalypse was realized, and the war between man and machines took its own course. Like in Final Destination, one can only conclude if fate is inevitable or not, if he/she watch the whole installment of the film. Terminator 3 shows that men resisted the domination of machines in the coming future, which leaves the audience to draw their own ending, if whether men succeed in pre-empting machines sovereignty, or if in end humanity was annihilated. The good point of the movie regarding fatalism is, the prophecy in Judgment Day is a foregone conclusion but the future is not yet written, its fate is still to be conceived.

On the other hand, Matrix Reloaded breaks away from this treatment of fatalism. It narrates the epic battle of freewill and determinism. It must be noted here that fatalism is not determinism, though both shares some qualities. The difference between the two is that in fatalism freewill can exist but in the end what has been predetermined will eventually happen. Matrix Reloaded both tackle the philosophic problem of fatalism, determinism and freewill. When Neo meets the Architect, he was given the choice of choosing between two doors, one leads to Trinity’s salvation, and the other door is the fulfillment of a predetermined happenstance. The Architect’s television screens show that he will choose the second door that leads to Zion’s deliverance since it is already determined. But Neo chooses the other door, which completely contradicts what has been prescribed by his fate. Thus this scene is considered as determinism because fate did not triumph over freewill.

But fate is insistent to what it has determined, Neo’s failure led to the actualization of another determined event, which is the possible fall of Zion because the Sentinels will wage war against them. Morpheus is frustrated to Neo’s decision but the latter claimed that the prophecy is a lie. But this all became futile when the Sentinels started attacking Zion because the prophecy of a waging war was finally realized. Fatalism is clearly shown here, in which it has been prophesied by the Oracle that Zion will be in great jeopardy, and that if Neo will not choose the door leading to Zion, then the latter will finally crumble down to pieces. In the end, Matrix Reloaded shows that fate is really lie, in its final installment Matrix Revolution Zion was saved from annihilation. Hollywood is starting to branch out from this kind of position where fate can be change. Like in the recent concluded NBC’s Heroes, where Peter Petrelli is about to explode, his brother took him up in the sky to avoid the prophecy of New York’s explosion. Peter exploded but the fate of New York exploding did not materialize.

We often expect things to work out in a certain way. This may be a residuum of our more or less secure upbringing, parents who made promises and protected us, who served us and made sure that everything came out all right, who soothed us when we were hurt, made excuses for us and consoled us for our failures with ready-made rationalizations. When we suffered from our own mistakes, the ready response was “I told you so,” and when we succeeded, praise was always embellished with “I knew you could do it.” The future seemed laid out for us, and to a certain extent assured. We came to expect a rational universe, and we never got over it. This, of course, was Freud’s thesis about religion in The Future of an Illusion, and Albert Camus’ view of the “Absurd.” But we all feel it, at least whenever something bad happens to us. We can’t help but ask, why me? as if the universe owes us some sort of an answer. We know that we ought to ask such questions when something extraordinarily good happens for us as well. That is why some sense of fate and fatalism are not only appealing, they are virtually inescapable as expressions of philosophical and humane sensitivity.

Thus the notion of fate gains respectability in our modern-day world, not as the expression of any mysterious agents or as an inexplicable necessity, but as an essential aspect of the narratives in which we live our lives. Naturalized spirituality, as I am conceiving of it, is just such a narrative, just such a broad-based conception of time.


Bernstein, Mark. Fatalism. University of Nebraska Press 1992.

Doob, Leonard W. Inevitability: Determinism, Fatalism, and Destiny (Contributions in Psychology). Greenwood Press, 1988.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. 2003. Moritz Borman.

The Matrix Reloaded. 2003. Bruce Berman, Grant Hill and Andrew Masoner.

Final Destination. 2000. Richard Brener.