Christian movies, artistic integrity and damning with faint praise

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I don’t really like “Christian” movies. I’ve tried really hard to watch some, believe me. I’ve even tried to like some of them. My wife asked me to go to Fireproof when our old church screened it. I did and did my best not to make fun too much. I saw Courageous during an advanced screening and found it okay, but super-cheese (and the end part was unintentionally creepy, with all the dudes thrusting their hands up at church—it reminded me why we need to study history more). God’s Not Dead looked like a Christian revenge fantasy, so I passed on that entirely. I couldn’t handle super-model Jesus from Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s series. Heaven is For Real is a fraud (because all heavenly tourism books and movies are)… Are you sensing a trend here?

The problem with most of these is, whenever I see them praised, an important qualifier is added—”Christian”:

“This is the finest Christian movie ever made,” or “The best Christian film of the year,” or my personal favorite, “It was really good… for a Christian movie.”

I really hate that. I hate it when we talk about movies, books and music with that particular qualifier. Not because I dislike the word Christian, obviously. But just imagine for a second that you replaced “Christian” with “golden retriever”, what would you think? Oh crap, it’s Air Bud 17![1. No offense to the Air Bud fans out there. All one of you. Air Bud himself.]

And that’s the thing: I hate when we say “it’s really good for a Christian movie” because we’re really saying it’s not very good at all or it was almost good. It’s damning with faint praise, friends.

Which brings me to a recent experience: Not too long ago, I received an invitation to an advanced screening of Beyond the Mask, a Christian action adventure film set in the opening days of the American revolution. The producers invited Christian influencers from my town (and probably yours, too), in the hopes of generating some buzz and showing the audience a “different” kind of Christian movie—one which they promised had great special effects and action, as well as a compelling story, romance, and the hope of the gospel weaved throughout. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the film and wondering what I should say about it, if anything. So here are a few things I’ll say, both positive and critical (hopefully constructively so):

1. The movie’s fight choreography, particularly in the early scenes was legitimately good. It was pretty tight and didn’t have that feel of dudes who don’t know how to throw a punch trying to hit one another:

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2. They had a number of actual professional actors among the cast.While I don’t mean to sound like being “pro” matters, it seems that the producers were actually trying to get talented and experienced people working on their film. They were clearly not trying to settle for the director’s friends from church or the guy who really loves to be in the drama on Sunday. Particularly worth noting is the always enjoyable John Rhys Davies as the villain, Charles Kemp, best known as Gimli from The Lord of the Rings, Sallah in Indiana Jones, and, of course, the beloved Maximilian Arturo from Sliders.

3. There were a couple of effects scenes that were actually impressive. These happened fairly early in the movie, unfortunately. I really wish they’d been able to save some budget for the end because the final FX scenes are really rough, such as the every end of the film when two characters are jumping away from an exploding windmill. But you could see that they wanted to make something that looked better than your average episode of Power Rangers, which is important.

4. The post-production on the end credits was top-notch. I know it sounds ridiculous to point this out, but seriously—they did a really nice job on the end credits sequence, which was clearly influenced by Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.

5. The gospel content was ham fisted, and the lack of chemistry was noticeable. When the lead character suddenly “gets” the gospel before the climactic battle, it just didn’t ring true. The same can be said of the romance storyline. I didn’t buy them as star-crossed courters.

6. The direction and editing was a bit muddled. About two thirds of the way through the film, it felt like the director had been replaced or had gotten bored and was trying to introduce some new elements that he’d seen elsewhere because they looked cool. This was particularly noticeable with scenes where the frame rate was altered, which come across as a choppy accident rather than an intentional stylistic decision (again in part because they don’t appear anywhere else). The climatic battle also has a rather abrupt edit that sees the hero surrounded by Davies’ minions, only in the very next shot to be in Davies’ lair, ready to defeat him. The cumulative effect of these issues left me with the impression that the director wasn’t terribly confident in what he was doing. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to the game, or because his reach exceeded his grasp. I’m not really sure.

7. The attention to little details was lacking. Killmer’s hair and make-up, for example, was just right for her—if the film were set in 2015. But she didn’t look like she belonged in  1776. The actor playing Benjamin Franklin’s make-up was noticeable (in the same way that the “aging” make-up on Star Trek was noticeable, and that’s not a good thing). The accents for the time period weren’t quite right for colonial America (I’m pretty sure no one spoke with a Tennessean twang in 1776 Philadelphia). The hero uses a modern bar dart to send a message to his lady love. And the historical revisionism to make everyone less racist stretched credulity…

There were a few other things I noticed but I think you get the idea. I mention these not to be nitpicky but because they take you out of the experience. You can’t be immersed in an experience when you’re constantly reminded that it’s all pretend by little hints of the present.

8. The script needed a serious polish. The story was trying to do too much, and the dialogue was serviceable but wasn’t great. The basic building blocks were all there, but the screen writers could have used a little extra help from a really strong script doctor.

Would I call this a good movie? I’d say it’s not bad. I’ve seen worse movies come out of major Hollywood studios than this, just as I’ve seen stronger indie films. There were even a few flashes of greatness in this movie, just not enough to make me say “wow.”

Mostly, the film reminded me that there is the potential for people to make legitimately good movies that are faith-based if they so choose, which is important. After all, Christians ought to be concerned with telling the best stories, making the best music, producing the best films… this is not an option for us as our God is the Creator, and we are imitators of him. God is excellent in all he does, and so we ought to pursue creative excellence.

It also reminds me, though, that “faith-based” or “family friendly” can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. Being “family friendly” can get in the way of telling a good story. And if you had any doubt, remember: the gospel isn’t safe. The story of redemption is quite bloody at times. But it’s also true. And it’s always true, regardless of the rating system. Every other story is echoing the one true Story. Every hero is a shadow of the true Hero. So let’s own that. Let’s tell great stories. Let’s try to have the best special effects when we need them.

Let’s make great films, not just great “Christian” ones.


photo credit: Marunouchi Piccadilly 1 via photopin (license)