Christian/faith-based movies are nothing new to the film world. But lately, much like the superhero genre, they seem to have gained in popularity, with movies like Facing the Giants, Miracles from Heaven and War Room premiering seemingly back to back.
This is by no means a bad thing. There’s obviously a very large group of people coming to see these films and enjoying the message that they’re trying to convey. But the reason I find these movies so frustrating, even though I agree with their messages, is that most of them, from a critical perspective, are nearly unwatchable. Whether it’s the bad acting, poor story, lazy jokes, or the relentless beating you over the head with the message they’re trying to get across, these movies are brutal to sit through. It’s sad that these movies are so awful that whatever good will is in them often gets drowned out by such awful material. It makes it even more frustrating when you say to fellow believers how awful these movies are, and they automatically think that you’re attacking their faith. They think that since you’re attacking the movie, you must think their religion is just as stupid as the movie you’re making fun of. At least for me, that’s not true at all. I’m just pointing out that the movie itself is bad.
The best comparison I have to this is the backlash critics received from fans for their reviews of Batman Vs. Superman. Any self-respecting critic can tell you that that movie is a complete mess, but the fanboys love their superheroes so much that whether or not the movie is bad, the fact that Batman and Superman are in it erases any flaws. So they say that the critics are idiots and don’t understand the characters or what the creators were going for. I’ve always felt this way with faith-based films.
Much like Batman and Superman, I think it’s awesome to see religion on screen, but that doesn’t take away from the bad movie it’s stuck in. So when I see a good message like placing your faith in God to get you through hard times, keeping your marriage strong, and keeping close ties with your family, I think it’s great. But this in itself doesn’t blind me from the horrible movie it’s in.
Its even more confusing when real studios take on the challenge to do Biblical epics. These never turn out great either. Exodus: Gods and Kings should have been powerful: it had great source material in Moses’ story and featured great acting from a strong cast. Instead it was long, boring, and showed God as a whiny little kid that threw a fit when He didn’t get His way. Noah, while better received critically, got a backlash from believers over its artistic license (the angels that helped build the ark were huge rock people??). Even when movies like Risen and Miracles From Heaven are released from big studios and get better reviews than average, they still never get great ratings. So it seems that no matter what you do, it’s rare that faith and films work well together.
But in the rare instances that they do work, the result can be quite moving. Take the movie Signs, for example. Let’s go way back to a time where M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a hack and actually made some pretty good movies. While this movie has a questionable way to deal with aliens in the likelihood of an invasion, it has a lot to say about faith and restoring it. In the first scene of the movie, the camera pans across Mel Gibson’s room, revealing a dusty outline of a where a cross used to hang on his wall. Through the course of the movie, we discover that Mel Gibson’s character used to be a preacher, but he has lost his faith after losing his wife in a car accident. But after his life is affected by the invasion throughout the film, culminating in his son’s rescue from an alien attack at the end, his faith is restored, the cross placed back in its original spot on the wall. This is so subtle and beautiful that it’s hard to believe that Shyamalan of all people came up with it.
Compare that with a scene from the recent film War Room, in which a wife becomes closer to God and tries to get her family on board with her. After many attempts fail, she breaks and goes to her last resort. This last resort features borderline psychotic behavior with her running around the house, waving her arms frantically and screaming at the devil to get out and never come back again. If you just winced at that sentence, imagine how I felt sitting in a theater while the crowd around me cheered the entire time. It’s a brutal and embarrassing scene and it hammers home that these movies don’t know how to convey faith without going way overboard.
There are many other movies and television shows with themes of faith and God that do a much better job at this . While it may be cheesy, the scene from Forrest Gump in which Lieutenant Dan finds his peace with God is always moving. It simply shows him swimming in calm waters with a smile on his face, watching the sunset after a terrible storm spent screaming his frustrations at God. Life of Pi depicts Pi praying for his survival while lost at sea and hoping to make it to safety. The show The Leftovers, features a preacher named Matt Jamison struggling with his faith after being left behind in the supposed Rapture. All these examples show characters that feel like real people with flaws and problems, making them easy to relate to and root for, allowing the audience to see their faith in a realistic (if cinematic) setting. These movies and shows aren’t preachy. They show faith through a progression of their characters and work very well thanks to that.
Many film lovers and nonbelievers would have no incentive to care for religious films anyway. But as someone for whom faith and film are important, it’s especially frustrating to see these turn out so horribly. Maybe one day there will be a good faith-based film that audiences and critics will agree on. Until then, there are great movies out there with similar themes to keep the film-loving believers satisfied, should they go looking for it.