Nostalgia needs no introduction, nor will I waste much time discussing it. Suffice to say, I just watched The NeverEnding Story (and yes, that’s the proper capitalization) and came to some funny conclusions that I’d never before noticed when watching the movie as a precocious child. My wife had never seen it before, and was mostly amused by the awful special effects and arbitrary narrative. Significantly, she thought Falcor (“the Luck Dragon”, let’s not forget) was mildly creepy.
As a quick recap of the movie’s overarching concept, the land of Fantasia is a place created in the dreams of humanity. When people cease to dream, Fantasia thus ceases to exist. The main character of the movie, Bastian, is a much picked-on child who seems to spend his days reading books and running from ruthless bullies. When attempting to escape from them one day, he enters an old, musty bookshop from which he absconds with a copy of The NeverEnding Story, a book which the shop-keep ambiguously warns him is “not safe”.
Thanks to a strange and arbitrary plot construction, which provides Bastian with a creepy attic atop his otherwise-normal public school in which to read, he spends the next two days cooped up, immersing himself in the tale.
Reading the old volume, he follows the travels and travails of Atreyu, a brave and yet curiously young “warrior of the plains”. A horse dies, a weird dog-faced Luck Dragon appears, the world is destroyed, and in the movie’s strangest twist, the Empress of Fantasia reaches out to Bastian, breaking what for him would be the Fourth Wall, asking for his help. I didn’t even realize as a child that the Empress goes so far as to implicate the movie audience in the fiction as well, referencing people who are watching Bastian read, ostensibly breaking through some heretofore unknown fifth wall. Which is just, like, meta.
This ‘wall-breaking scene’ is preceded by the most significant scene in the movie, in which Atreyu stumbles across a ruin. Emblazoned on the walls are images, which paint every step of the journey he has taken throughout the film. Watching him look over the images in confusion, I started to wonder if maybe the movie was trying to make some sort of statement in regards Free Will and Determinism. As far as we can tell, this ruin is ancient and these pictures have existed here for thousands of years, which is how long the ancient turtle he visits earlier in the film has been alive. If this is true, Atreyu has been nothing more than a pawn in a grand cycle through which the world of Fantasia endlessly creates and destroys itself. This would mean that the plot of The NeverEnding Story is almost identical in concept to that of the Matrix trilogy, oddly enough.
Allow me to elaborate further.
Back to the ‘wall-breaking scene’ with the Empress. In this climactic sequence, Atreyu learns that he has been used. The Empress informs him that he has suffered through a torturous quest so as to capture the attention of “the earthling child”; in this particular cycle of Fantasia’s destruction/re-construction, the earthling child is Bastian. Atreyu is furious with the Empress for having used him, describing the numerous tragedies that have befallen him (most memorably the drowning of his horse, Artax).
Up to this point, the film has been very clearly in league with Determinism. No one involved has had much choice in the matter. Everyone has been used, the Empress acting as some sort of mercurial ‘Director’, staging the destruction and subsequent re-construction of her beloved world, a world in which she apparently has control and power; by extension, a world in which she would have a vested interest in maintaining power. The dark forces trying to destroy Fantasia claim that they are attempting to gain control, presumably away from the Empress. They clearly state, “Those who have control have power.” As far as I can see, the only force of power and control in the whole story is the Empress, who as far as we can tell is just as twisted and domineering as anything or anyone else. Even if her motives place her in the camp of realistic pragmatism – like the Architect from the Matrix films – she is nonetheless the founder of the system of control which she openly claims to be fighting against.
Viewed through the lens of Determinism versus Free Will, even the film’s best-remembered element – Falcor the Luck Dragon – is utilized in a strange fashion, appearing as he does at the exact instant in which Atreyu is about to fail in his quest. Was he sent by the Empress, knowing as she does everything that has or will happen in Atreyu’s journey?
The Empress calls out to Bastian, asking for his help. By responding to her calls in this scene, Bastian seems to be acting out of Free Will, but what he’s really doing is playing into the Empress’ grand plans. She has already set up a role for him, and he is now acting it perfectly. He calls out to her from his reading space.
Suddenly, Bastian appears in a scene with the Empress; he has been transported into the world of Fantasia. She grants him a glowing grain of sand, explaining that this sand grants infinite wishes, wishes with which he can re-create Fantasia as he sees fit. In a sense, the film is now arguing in favour of Free Will. After all, while Bastian may have been a pawn of the Empress up to this point, she is basically handing him the opportunity to do whatever he wishes. Significantly, she tells him that he can re-create Fantasia “…exactly as it was before.” She’s ensuring that in the one place where she doesn’t technically have any power, she can still hold on to her deep-seated control.
With the magical infinite-wish sand in his palm, Bastian is being offered the opportunity to recreate the world with boundless scale and creativity. The possibilities open to him are quite literally endless.
Instead, he decides to simply recreate the world of Fantasia exactly as it was before, just as the Empress subtly suggested. The dead characters return, the land is restored. Presumably, significantly, the Empress is back in power. Weren’t we supposed to be making an argument in favour of Free Will right here? Is the world of Fantasia bound to suffer the same destructive cycle endlessly and for all time, with a brave new warrior chosen to suffer for all the denizens of Fantasia, and a real-world “earthling child” brought in for the sake of ensuring that the world remains identical every single time it’s re-made? Will the Empress always make sure to suggest that the earthling child remake the world “…exactly as it was before”?
The stated theme of the film is that we can only succeed if we believe in and follow our dreams. The implied and true theme, however, is that no matter what we do, we’ll all be pawns, bound to deterministic ends. Our collective dreams be damned.
I’ll only briefly mention the sad and strange climactic scene when Bastian rides Falcor – he of Luck Dragon fame – back into the real world, using his massive size to scare the bullies that picked on him earlier in the film. Naturally, this entire sequence is to be read as a dream, an imaginary construction that Bastian creates in his mind. What I find so strange about this whole thing is that instead of providing instructive and supportive strategies for coping with bullying, the movie seems to think that dreaming about chasing them on a dragon is a suitable tactic. The simple truth is, Bastian’s gonna walk out of that public school attic a few minutes later and get clobbered yet again for his lunch money, and no amount of dreaming can save him from that.
What this whole thing says about Bastians introverted and anti-social behavior throughout the film is overwhelmingly sad and speaks ill of his future ability to cope with others.
Then again, maybe I should just let the nostalgia wash over me…