When was the last time you saw a film with advocacy of traditional religious values at its core? Suddenly theaters are offering a few choices…but are they any good?
In general, I’m not a fan of “message movies”, even if I agree with the message. Good drama is about people and the choices they must make. If the choices are easy and obvious, if there is no internal conflict…then there’s action but no true drama.
In that sense, religious themes often make a poor foundation for good drama. When the characters have a clear perception of God, of good and evil, then their choice is simple. To be dramatically interesting, a “spiritual” film must be firmly planted in our world of human frailty and doubt.
“Ben Hur” is a wonderful example of a powerful religious epic. It works because the titular Ben Hur is a good man driven by a dark urge, and he must resolve his conflicts with only a fleeting vision of Jesus. His struggle is one we can all relate to, and he finds no easy answers.
This is not to suggest that “God’s Not Dead” is in the class of “Ben Hur”, or anything like that! I’m just trying to explain an aspect of dramatic structure.
On March 21, “God’s Not Dead” went into theatrical release. I heard of it through the Duck Dynasty mailing list, since Willie and Korie Robertson have cameos (playing themselves). I snuck out to see for myself.
You know what? I actually enjoyed this. It’s a sweet film, both Christian and human, and not namby-pamby or cheesy. A central theme involves aggressive atheism at the university; the ending credits list a number of actual cases of similar conflict, and these were the inspiration for the movie. The actors are decent and the production values are high.
This is the latest release from Pure Flix, a studio devoted to inspirational Christian films. They seem to be setting a good tone, upbeat but not saccharine.
The success of “God’s Not Dead” will no doubt take Pure Flix up a notch in the industry: BoxOfficeMojo reports receipts of over $32 million so far, on a production budget of $2 million. For a small operation, this will be a wild success. (I think their previous films have mostly gone to video rather than theaters.)
The critics have mostly ignored this release, except for the few that savaged it. Metacritic lists 5 reviews, one of which was mediocre, and the rest were worse. “…ham-fisted and a spurious defense [of God]”…”…The pace is stumbling, the characters are broad, the performances uneven”. Yes, if you’re unsympathetic, you’ll see that, and you’re welcome to your opinion.
I’m not saying the Pure Flix films are the pinnacle of drama. But I applaud their efforts to fill a vacuum in our culture, to nourish that vital space where our souls should reside, and they’re doing it in a way I enjoy.
If you’re curious, here’s the map to your local theater.
I’ll close with a couple of quick notes about other “religious” films in play. But I haven’t seen these films, so I can’t say much.
“Son of God” is based on the History channel ten-hour “The Bible” miniseries. I watched the first “Bible” episode and found it mechanical and bombastic and uninspired, at least for my taste. It didn’t convey the passion of, say, “Ben Hur” or “The Passion of the Christ”. So I let this theatrical release pass me by.
I was wondering whether I should see “Noah”. Critics’ reviews have tilted positive, with some dissent. There have been charges of atheism, aggressive environmentalism, inaccuracy. But the real question is, does the film work?
I’ve watched previous films by Darren Aronofsky with some curiosity, but he’s never quite satisfied me. He’ll pick up a theme that I’d think should be interesting and thought-provoking, and then he beats it to death with a sledgehammer. I’d be more tempted by “Noah” if the reviews indicated Aronofsky has matured (it’s not clear exactly what I mean by that; it’s a broad and unspecified statement, but I think there’s something to it). Alas, it looks like Aronofsky is sticking to his (forgive the flood-unfriendly metaphor) scorched-Earth methodology, and I’m guessing I’d be unhappy. But maybe I’m being unfair.