Monday, April 7, 2014

Getting Biblical

One of the big trends this year is the return of the Bible epics and the rise of the grassroots Christian films. The former include Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which has been banned in several Muslim countries but is doing pretty well at the box office everywhere else, and Ridley Scott's upcoming Christmas release, "Exodus: Gods and Kings," which will star Christian Bale as Moses. I guess you could also count "Son of God," which is a theatrical film cobbled together out of footage from last year's hit "The Bible" miniseries that aired on the History Channel. On the other end of the spectrum we have "God's Not Dead," notable for generating $32 million so far after three weeks of release from a budget of $2 million, thanks mostly to the backing of several major Christian organizations. Somewhere in the middle you have the little indie drama "Heaven is for Real." There's also a reboot of the "Left Behind" series starring Nicholas Cage coming in October.

Now, faith-based and Bible-based films have a long history in Hollywood, despite the claims that the town is hostile to the faith community. Some of the biggest hits in movie history have been Christian-themed, including "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," and "The Passion of the Christ." There was a whole flourishing genre of Bible epics in the '50s and '60s that gave us titles like "The Robe," "Exodus," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "King of Kings." With the recent spate of historical epics and sword-and-sandals movies, it makes sense that Hollywood would revisit and update some of these stories for modern audiences. There are lots of opportunities for spectacle, and despite the controversy that seems to dog even the most innocuous religion-themed film, they can be extremely lucrative. With Easter coming up, there's been a lot of chatter going around about the possibility that this trend may stick around long-term.

However, there is the little matter of the current cultural divide. When you look at the religion-themed films, the first thing that you notice is that the studios are really only interested in putting money into the big Bible epics. Smaller, more contemporary stories about faith are very few and far between. Religious comedies like "Oh God!" and "Sister Act" are practically extinct, with the exception of the Tyler Perry movies, aimed at a very niche audience. Prestige pictures like "Philomena" rarely call attention to their religious themes. It's been a long time since we've seen anything really controversial like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Dogma" on the scene. The ruckus around "Noah" has been mostly limited to Islamic countries, where the screen portrayal of prophets, such as Noah, is not allowed. Christian conservatives have had mixed reactions to the film and some of the artistic license taken with the story, but there hasn't been much outright hostility. All in all, there's been a definite retreat from religious subject matter in recent years, particularly by any filmmaker who wants to examine religious questions seriously. As a result, even films that casually involve religion are scarce.

Those little, independently produced Christian movies we occasionally see popping up in the box office standings often claim to be filling the gap, purportedly serving a market that is perceived as being ignored by Hollywood. I don't find this to be true. These are better characterized as Evangelical films, because they're usually aimed toward reinforcing an Evangelical worldview and have very little crossover appeal, even with other religious audiences. "God's Not Dead," for instance, is premised on a scenario where Christians are persecuted in academia for their beliefs, which is a flimsy idea at best. It's biggest star, amusingly, is former "Hercules" actor, Kevin Sorbo. Like most of these films, the reviews were lackluster and awareness of the film outside of its intended audience is practically nonexistent. And for every "God's Not Dead" which attracts a fair amount of attention, there are dozens of others that flop, such as the notorious "Alone Yet Not Alone," which was involved in the recent Oscar scandal.

It'll be interesting to see if any of these movies do well enough to really make an impact on the commercial film landscape, but it seems doubtful that religious films of any real consequence will result from the the trend. We're looking at either studio blockbusters or didactic message movies, not that I mind the existence of either, but there's little middle ground. I don't see much room for the really interesting projects that have been percolating for a while, like Paul Verhoeven's historical Jesus biopic or Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's "Silence." "Noah" seemed promising because of Aronofsky's involvement, but seems to be far more spectacle than anything else. And if we are going to have a revival of the religious films, it would be a shame if we didn't get any that actually bothered to seriously address modern questions of faith and religion.

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