Bright Lights Film Journal

“You’ve Gotta Do Something”: Cosmic Mobility and the Future of Mankind in <em>Rebel Without a Cause</em>

“Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence … The Earth will not be missed.” – Rebel Without a Cause

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The yellow dwarf star at the center of our solar system has a life span: 10 billion years, give or take. Born about five billion years ago, the Sun is now middle-aged. Rather than merely burn out and fade away – a dignified ending to be sure – it will, unfortunately for us, go out kicking and screaming in the form of a great expansion, then gigantic explosion. It seems that the expansion will be the frightening part, as the Sun’s radius will increase substantially enough to become a Red Giant star, large enough to engulf Mercury, Venus, and Earth. Oh, and then it will graciously explode. Or so we think.1

A romantic notion, though an unlikely possibility, might involve our sun becoming a supernova, exploding, then creating a black hole, the deformation of “spacetime” – undoubtedly one of the most enduring, most fascinating of all of Nature’s secrets. The actual and conceptual regions of spacetime and black holes carry with them names and terms that sound, to the untrained ear (and mind), like fragments of magic spells, a mysterious truth, distant and elite knowledge and power: The Kepler Problem, Pauli Exclusion, Schwarzschild Solution, Einstein-Rosen Bridge, Chandrasekhar Limit, Frame-Dragging, Minkowski Space, Gravitational Lensing, Geodetic Effect, Singularity, Event Horizon, etc. Although human beings have been around for the better part of a million years, these ideas are barely a century old. My grandmother lived through the development of most of them; my great-grandmother lived before we dreamed about such things.

Taking the telescopic, cosmic view of human life and history can be both exhilarating and depressing. One can’t help but feel some amount of pride considering how far we’ve come; yet there’s a sense of gloom hanging about the reality that our individual lives are small, trivial, naïve. Should we actually care if Dad (Jim Backus) can’t, won’t, just won’t stand up to Mom (Ann Doran)? That he refuses to regain his dignity, his pride, with a first step toward self-assertion by taking off his apron and lifting his head out and away from his trembling hands. Should we pay mind to Plato (Sal Mineo), the fatherless, confused, angry, and desperate young man (let’s not forget that when we first meet Plato, he’s in jail for shooting puppies! On his birthday!!)? And what about Judy (Natalie Wood)? Another fatherless child, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Inattentive, ineffectual, impotent, absent. The preoccupied or missing fathers in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) along with a cosmological timescale present human existence as a very lonely endeavor. At the film’s blinding center is James Dean (playing Jim Stark), whose acting and mannerisms, which seem a bit dated now, embody a youthful vulnerability that still manages to evoke feelings of sympathy in the viewer. Dean, as the Fates would have it, died in a violent car crash a month before the film was released. His posturing throughout the film seems to purposely mimic that of The Nihilist (1882) by Paul Merwart, a French-Polish artist (seen below, top).

In a weepy rage or a spineless supine sprawl, Dean continually affects a wilted, limp position that perfectly represents his frustration, exasperation, and ultimate withdrawal from an engagement with what Holden Caulfield would call the “phoniness” of the world.

But perhaps the film also suggests an alternative to withdrawal, one that stays with its cosmic perspective, by looking far into the future. A unique feature among mankind, evident in what surrounds us all, is our ability to shape our environment rather than merely respond to it. Our intellect and our desire to develop and perfect our own abilities demonstrate an astonishing level of unique advancement over even our closest biological relatives. This is not an evaluative mark of superiority as much as it is a dividing line that in its very severity casts a hanging doubt in our collective consciousness as to whether or not we are among or apart from Nature. Certainly we are natural creatures, in a strictly biological sense of the term. But where do we belong? Jim Stark puts it this way: “If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”

The search for home continues to remain a central subject and theme of much of our most advanced and appreciated art. Maybe there’s a reason this well won’t run dry. When we talk about “Nature,” we tend to think of it as outside of humanity, separate and distinct from it. We tend to exclude ourselves from Nature and think of ourselves as outside or “other” than Nature. We resist Nature. We attempt to impose our own rules upon it, “tame” it, remove its “wildness.” If we consider the opposite of Nature, concepts such as “nurture” (i.e., culture) and “man-made” come to mind – all things, in other words, that occur through human activity. Even our bodies are altered by our activities (drugs, eye glasses, clothes, grooming). Part of our social conditioning involves curbing natural impulses and modifying our behavior from a very early age.

In Politics, Aristotle contends that human beings are, by nature, political animals. Meaning, it is essential that human beings live according to social conventions. We need community; community demands convention. Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Morality as Anti-Nature” from his The Twilight of the Idols: Or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer (1888), attacks contemporary religious belief for stifling natural behavior, such as passion and love: “Anti-natural morality – that is, almost every morality which has so far been taught, revered, and preached – turns, conversely, against the instincts of life: it is condemnation of these instincts, now secret, now outspoken and impudent.” For Nietzsche, the most damaging form of social control comes from religion and what he calls “anti-natural” morality, a set of rules and restrictions that constrain and deform our most cherished compulsions and inclinations. When I look out at the New York City skyline, for example, I see what would not have been possible if we followed instinct alone as civilization – a word whose etymology, itself rooted in the notion of “city” (civis, civitas, cite), denotes a social body bound together by law and its subsequent responsibility – depends upon repression, control, and conformity. Sigmund Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) gets at the heart of the matter: social order requires us to suppress primal instincts. It’s a trade-off that offers communal stability and safety but fosters a tension between civilization and the individual.

Although the film’s title comes from psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath (1944), Ray’s Rebel concerns psychopathology not at all, and what became known as “juvenile delinquency” only marginally. However, large ideas such as existential nihilism are certainly flirted with. The film’s best depiction of existential angst, seen through the lives of L.A. teens, might be the exchange between Dean’s Jim Stark and Buzz Gunderson (played by Corey Allen). Before they enact the famous “chickie-run” in which Buzz will be killed, Stark asks Buzz, “Why do we do this?” Buzz’s reply: “You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?”

In his “Great Movies” review, Roger Ebert describes the film as one in which “characters with bizarre problems perform a charade of normal behavior.” Seen from a great distance, with the pessimistic facts of the universe at hand, can’t we survey all human history as a meaningless pageant, all human behavior as a charade? An inevitable “chickie-run” toward a distant cliff? The film’s torment and distress, its energetic core, points not toward the moral decay of American youth – but toward the absurdity of denying a terrible future. The human race, a juvenile race in a cosmological timescale, will ultimately decide between two choices: stay in the car or jump. The film, I would argue, suggests we jump.

In lieu of wilting and withering under the weight of existential nihilism, we may embrace an essential, natural characteristic of mankind: mobility. The film, I believe, urges that rather than follow the dark path of disbelief and cynicism, we collectively follow a perhaps darker (because more unknown) path of itinerant exploration. Couldn’t our natural tendency to see ourselves as independent from nature – an ancient tendency – point the way to a future in which we embrace self-mastery and the “artificial” development of human community? A “lost” feeling inherent in mankind might not, the film suggests, signal a tragic demise or punitive expulsion from “paradise,” but instead trigger a necessary action, namely space exploration and colonization, fitting a larger design that enables humanity to perpetuate, to survive, to evolve indefinitely.

Just as the Stark family is continually on the move, city to city, town to town, never fully settled, the family of Man wanders. Endlessly. According to Ebert, part of the film’s fascination lies in the way that “Like its hero, Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something and doesn’t know what it is.” Perhaps the film struggles this way because what it might say would, in 1955, sound quite ridiculous. At the time of the film’s release, human space flight was still six years away.

The field trip to the planetarium at Griffith Observatory presents not only the outlook of a doomsday scenario, but also a rarified peep at a world – outer space – then unknown, untouched, undiscovered. We might compare the students’ attraction and anxiety to images of deep space with the scene in which Jim and Buzz stare out over the Millertown bluff just before their “chickie-run.” The two boys interpret the precipice as a phenomenological fringe, what they call “the edge” and “the end,” an attitude striking a balance of excitement and fear not unlike that of two astronauts readying themselves for space flight.

The planetarium visits, I would argue, bookend the film in the way that the first visit introduces the students (and the audience) to what Douglas L. Rathgeb calls “cosmic possibilities,” while the second, which ends the film, responds with a deeper consideration by Jim and Plato. Not one steeped in awe and the shock of the new, but a response ripened through accelerated, compressed human experience. Consider the second trip to the planetarium, which follows the trio’s (Jim, Judy, Plato) escape from a makeshift “family” charade in the abandoned mansion Plato pointed out to Jim earlier in the film. Plato, having awoken to find himself alone (again!) while Jim and Judy do a bit of snogging elsewhere in the house, and surrounded by Buzz’s hoods, reacts immediately and violently to his sense of abandonment. His murderous rage extends not only to the hoods who would like to do him harm, but to his surrogate father, Jim, as well.

By the time Jim, Judy, and Plato return to the planetarium, they’ve lived as adults, even if merely pretending. Jim, in fact, attempts to console Plato (a surrogate “son,” who’s made very adult mistakes) in a manner similar to Jim’s own father – failing with Plato just as his father failed to console him. The crucial scene, however, involves Plato, hiding in the dark, posturing literally as “Man alone.” He asks Jim if he thinks the world will end at “nighttime” – a time of darkness, of metaphorical ignorance. Jim tells Plato that he believes the world will end “at dawn.” As it’s always dawn somewhere on the planet, this wonderful Q & A session makes sense only figuratively. Will we sleep through the end? Will we ignore the inevitable truth of our own obsolescence? Will we wake in panic, and thrash about impulsively, disastrously, selfishly? Or will we wake in the warming light of truth and knowledge and react “nobly” (one of Jim’s continuing concerns throughout the film), adhering to the brightest ideals and principles of Man?

The film, I would argue, challenges us to consider that a positive alternative to existential nihilism depends on the belief in an impulse as natural as a yawn, and one that just might be part of a grandiose objective impossible for us, even now, to comprehend – yet disastrous to deny. The curious feeling of not belonging, of being separate from Nature, perhaps this is our most fundamental hunch as it inspires us to seek and build a new home, away from Earth, away from an inevitable catastrophe. According to NASA, sometime during the next decade, astronauts will be sent on yearlong missions into deep space, verifying habitation, testing readiness for human missions to Mars with the ultimate goal by the early 2030s: becoming Earth Independent. This objective should be the beginning stages of the most important scientific and technological project for the future of the human race. The Earth, however, will surely be missed.


Aristotle. Politics. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1982. Print.

Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies III. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton, 1961. Print.

Lindner, Robert M. Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. New York: Waverly, 1944. Print.

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam, 1988. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Viking Portable Nietzsche. Edited by Walter A. Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1977. Print.

Rathgeb, Douglas L. Audio commentary. Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Warner, 2013. DVD.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.

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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.

  1. In his A Brief History of Time (1988), Stephen Hawking theorizes that energy loss from the Earth’s gravitational waves (which “carry energy away from the objects that emit them”) will result in the Earth tightening its orbit around the Sun, gradually nearing, then colliding with the Sun. Meaning, even if our Sun did not expand and envelop our planet, the Earth would still eventually be destroyed. The rate of energy loss is slow, however, so this would, theoretically, take “about a thousand million million million million years.” []