In the last two installments of “How to Watch a Movie,” we covered the nine elements of (nearly) every Hollywood movie and then applied those nine elements to two particular movies, Braveheart and Tommy Boy. In this post, I will choose six “themes” that are prevalent in Hollywood and list a couple of movies that express each theme. The first three themes are ones with which Christians will disagree; the second three themes are ones that resonate with our faith. I will provide a very brief response to the movies listed under each theme.
Questioning Traditional Morality
This category is a sort of catch-all for those movies that have themes such as “moral rules are enslaving,” “Judeo-Christian morality is bad,” and “crime is cool.”
The Ocean’s Trilogy: Three of the most worthless movies in the history of American cinema are Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13. Ironically, they are also three of the most popular. One of the themes of these movies is that when cool people commit crimes, crime is cool. The heroes (played by Brad Pitt and George Clooney, among others) are serial felons, yet viewers find themselves pulling for the heroes because, well, they have great clothes, hair, makeup, and one-liners. Film critic Brian Godawa puts it well, “I normally try to say what I like about a film, even if I don’t agree with it, but this one is so morally bankrupt, the immorality overshadows the good. It would be like trying to say what is good about a porn film. There is a point at which the bad overcomes the good and devalues anything that might have been good.” A brief response: Pitt and Clooney may be cool, but armed robbery is not.
Pleasantville: This film is an onslaught against Judeo-Christian morality, accomplishing its purpose by arguing that people do not come “fully alive” until they liberate themselves from the enslavement of Christian sexual morality. The movie begins in black and white, but at a crucial moment when the lead actress decides to commit adultery (by picking an apple off the tree), the screen transforms to full color. The implication is that traditional moral norms are oppressive. A brief response: God’s moral law is given to set us free, not to enslave us.
Questioning the Existence of God
Cast Away: This movie turns the Robinson Crusoe story on its head. Like Robinson Crusoe, the lead character (played by Tom Hanks) finds himself marooned on an island, but unlike Robinson Crusoe, he concludes that humanity is alone in the universe. There is no God. After Hanks buries the deceased pilot whose crashed plane had stranded Hanks on the island, he concludes by saying, “So that’s it,” implying that there is no after life. During the remainder of the movie, Hanks’ character relives the evolutionary stages of mankind by learning to find food, start a fire, build a shelter, and so forth, implying that the universe does not exhibit intelligent design. There is one spiritual symbol in the movie, a volleyball which the hero names “Wilson,” implying that the “gods” humans worship are constructed by humans to serve as emotional crutches. A brief response: The message of Cast Away is antithetical to the gospel.
Other movies promoting a naturalist view of the universe include Bicentennial Man, The Hannibal trilogy, and perhaps Forrest Gump.
The Da Vinci Code: In this film, the hero Langdon (Hanks) asserts that wherever the one true God has been preached, there has been killing in his name. The implication is that monotheism is inherently fanatical and violent. The author, Dan Brown, pens this book as a piece of fiction, but also claims that it is based on facts. In this way, Brown gives himself permission to say anything negative he wants to about Christianity, insinuating that those negative things are true, but when the smart viewer realizes his assertions are not based on historical fact, Brown can evade responsibility by claiming that it is merely a work of fiction. A brief response: This film conflates fact and falsehood.
Hannibal: This decadent and desensitizing movie tells the fictive history of Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins). As Brian Godawa points out, this movie is an intentional mockery of the Christian gospel. The hero of the movie is an agent of darkness and death (Hannibal the Cannibal) instead of Light and Life (Christ). The man who betrays Hannibal in the movie (Pazzi, a police officer) does so for $3 million, which is an allusion Judas’ pieces of silver. Pazzi is killed, like Judas Iscariot, by being hung upside down and his guts spilling to the ground. Hannibal, like Jesus, has a last supper, but Hannibal’s supper is one in which he kills and eats another man’s body. Unlike Jesus, who offered his own body that others might live, Hannibal sacrifices others so that he may devour them. The movie ends with an ascension with Hannibal seated in a jet as it ascends into the sky. Throughout the movie, the writer and director portray Hannibal as a likeable and winsome hero. He is smart, funny, cultured and likeable. A brief response: The theme of this movie is despicable.
Building up the Family
The Incredibles: One of the best films in recent memory. It’s incredible J. At the beginning of this animated children’s film, the family of five superheroes is weakened by internal irritations and arguments. But by the end of the movie, the family has realized that its real enemies are external. Their deep bond is revealed as each person uses his or her unique power (which reflects their individual personality traits) to strengthen the family. Along the way, The Incredibles criticizes the culture of entitlement, lawsuits, and blame shifting that has grown in the United States. A brief response: I agree with the several intertwined themes.
Other flicks with pro-family elements are Family Man, The Patriot, and Gladiator.
Exploring the Nature of True Love
The Notebook: One Hollywood’s best turn-of-the-century films, The Notebook, honors the institution of marriage. Its treatment of marital love is realistic, recognizing the many challenges involved in loving another person. Its treatment is also robust, treating marital love as a covenant that endures rather than a contract based on feelings. The film begins with a scene in which an old man reads a love story every day to an elderly woman (Allie). The viewer soon finds out that the elderly woman, Allie, has dementia and cannot remember her past. The old man, Noah, is her husband, who comes to her room daily to read her their love story until, at the end of the story each day, she realizes that the story is about her love story, and the man reading the story is her husband. The rest of the movie tells the tale of how they came to love one another and marry. The Notebook’s view of love is realistic and robust. It portrays marriage as difficult but worthwhile and that it is forever, and not just for a season. A brief response: The movie is very strongly pro-marriage and pro-family, but stops short of signaling the Divine love that undergirds marital love.
Exploring the Beauty of Christianity
There are more than a few movies that, in one way or another, are positive toward the gospel. Les Miserables is the story of a convicted prisoner whose life is transformed by the grace and mercy shown him by another man. The theme of grace and mercy runs throughout the story, making this a fine movie. The Green Mile is the story of a wrongly accused minority, John Coffey, who is able to heal infirmities by touch, by taking the disease into himself, suffering pain because of the disease, and later releasing the disease. In the end, not only does Coffee die in the place of the real killer, but the screenwriter informs us that the electric chair was never used again. This story intentionally parallels the gospel, as Jesus was a wrongly accused minority who heals us by taking our sin on his shoulders, dying in our place, and in dying, defeats death. Braveheart is a movie in which the hero’s death became the loss that won Scotland’s freedom, just as Jesus’ death is the loss that wins our freedom.
A brief response: These movies parallel the gospel in significant ways, but of course the movies themselves are not the gospel.