This week, television and film studios showed an admirable sense of reverence, appropriateness, and responsibility by postponing and canceling the release of violent, destruction-filled movies out of respect for the nation's wounded state. (Makes sense to me: When someone has broken bones, it's probably unwise to invite them to a playful bout of wrestling.) Meanwhile, 8x Entertainment went ahead and released the apocalyptic Christian movie Megiddo: The Omega Code 2. Some theatre owners refused to show the film, concerned that vivid imagery of stylized violence and war in the Middle East might be unsuitable entertainment for audiences in the wake of September 11. But in the places where it was shown, Megiddo, which was funded by Trinity Broadcasting, had the highest per-screen average of any movie released this week.

At the studio's official site, producer Matthew Crouch defended his decision to release the film

So as to be sensitive to a grieving nation, we have examined the possibility of delaying the release of Megiddo. After much staff prayer and consultation with pastors, we are convinced that we must stay on schedule to release Megiddo around the world. The overwhelming consensus is that we are releasing a movie containing an answer to the question that we did not even know would be asked. … Who could have foreseen that it would be a motion picture that rallies the resiliency and determination of the American people in the midst of catastrophe?

Critical responses failed to support Crouch's claim that Megiddo is rallying "the resiliency and determination of the American people." Mainstream critics almost ignored the film. John Monaghan's review at The Detroit Free Press and The Seattle Times writes, "While devoid of graphic violence and sex, Megiddo is just as pandering to its own demographic. It's an action movie by the numbers, though in this case the numbers are chapter and verse from the book of Revelations."

Megiddo introduces us to a boy named Stone (as in "a heart of … ") who is chosen by the devil to be the "vessel" of evil. He matures into an Antichrist and a strong candidate for Dictator of the World, drawing nations into his influence so he can conquer the world. There's a problem, though. His brother is the Vice-President of the U.S. and the leader of the opposition. So the brothers' political and spiritual face-off sets up Armageddon, which plays out as a spectacular conflict in the Middle East.

In spite of the film's emphasis on biblical prophecy, religious media reviewers were divided. Preview's John Evans concludes, "Audiences are likely to be mesmerized by this Biblical-themed action thriller. Megiddo proves that PG-13 films can be produced which are acceptable for teens and adults." Likewise, Holly McClure at The Dove Foundation raves, "While it may not compare (in some areas) to the bigger budgeted films, it still delivers a story with a convincing (and sometimes convicting) spiritual message. In light of the recent, tragic war on America, that message seems more plausible than ever before."

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But some conservative Christian media sites are a bit taken aback by the release. "One wonders … whether Christians should be releasing this kind of movie at this time," says a critic at Movieguide. "Do we really need to whip up fanatical support for ill-conceived American interference in Middle Eastern politics?" The reviewer spells out ways in which the film falls short: "The biggest problem … is with the script's mostly uninspiring dialogue and awkward, hurried dramatic structure. The amateurish script drags down the characterization and drama inherent in the basic story. Still, Megiddo plainly shows that victory over evil is best achieved when people turn to God. In fact, the scenes demonstrating the power of God in times of great need are among the best scenes in the movie."

Movie Parables' Michael Elliott found Megiddo better than its predecessor, The Omega Code, but faults an "unrealistic and unlearned view of how governments function. The actions of this particular president and his cabinet are beyond ridiculous … even for a film of the action/adventure genre to which Megiddo aspires." While Elliott finds the good-overcomes-evil resolution to be heartening in the middle of current events, he doubts the film will have much to say beyond the bounds of the faithful. "Megiddo appears to be made for those who already believe. It's a matter of preaching to the choir. And when all is said and done, what's wrong with that?"

Plenty, according to Doug Cummings, who hosts Chiaroscuro's film review and discussion board. In a recent chat about Megiddo, he remarks on the increasing number of church-funded movies. "I'd rather see Christians make meaningful films for everyone rather than forge movies within a subculture surrounding questionable interpretations of Scripture promoted within a network of churches. Think about it: Christians spent $17 million dollars on Left Behind. What else could have been done with that kind of money? How else might organized Christians have touched the needs of the world? I think we need to move away from marginalizing labels like 'Christian movies' and toward meaningful integration of spiritual values in art that reflects the world we all live and breathe in. It's not about budgets, it's not about labels—it's about making creative, meaningful art that can inspire and challenge everyone."

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Steve Lansingh of The Film Forum joined the conversation, "It seems to me that what Christians really want are a set of movies that they can feel 'safe' watching, just as you can get a set of CDs or listen to a station that has 'safe' Christian music. This is a horrible tendency. The Christian life is not about turning off your brain so you don't have to analyze anything or understand the world around you. This is the kind of approach to religion that allows it to be classified as the opiate of the masses."

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Will Die Hard escapism ever be the same after television's live broadcast of September 11? As a media-saturated nation, we have grown used to spectacular scenes of devastation. We have become too comfortable with imaginary disaster. Hollywood has trained us to watch mass devastation and walk away feeling fine as long as the hero blew up the bad guy before it was over. From The Towering Inferno to Star Wars, from Die Hard to Armageddon, audiences have lined up to see hundreds of fictional lives at risk and often lost in storytelling formulas that rarely acknowledge the importance of mourning. You could easily come away thinking that the only positive response to death by violence is the vowing of revenge.

Renny Harlin's Die Hard II should have been a clear warning sign that action movies were going too far. In the first film, directed by John McTiernan, we watched Bruce Willis single-handedly save a building full of civilians from terrorists bent on mass destruction. There was reason to be relieved at its conclusions. But Harlin's meaner sequel, which seemed merely preposterous popcorn escapism at the time, may be unwatchably traumatic for audiences now—the film audaciously dashed audiences' hopes as terrorists crashed a packed passenger plane into the ground. When Bruce Willis finally sent the bad guy to an equally fiery demise, the film's high-spirited happy ending, set to a jubilant rendition of "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," suggested there was now no need to acknowledge the catastrophic loss of life portrayed earlier in the film. Do American heroes know the meaning of grief?

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A fellow critic recently remarked that he always comes away from Star Wars thinking about the deaths of those brave X-wing pilots who died during the Rebellion's desperate attack on the Death Star; that says more about his compassion than it does about the movie, which doesn't pause even for a moment to reflect on the loss of lives. Terror and disaster have become our amusement park rides. The innocents die, we sip our Diet Cokes, and then cheer as the hero comes up with just the right sarcastic retort. Even those disaster films that claim to be "based on a true story" (Alive, Titanic) seem more interested in delivering special effects and shocks than asking us to think about the gravity of severe circumstances. (Last year's Thirteen Days was a rare, thought-provoking exception.)

In response to the postponement of the film Collateral Damage, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker writes:

That the destruction of the World Trade Center might mean goodbye and good riddance to the blockbuster would be among the most trivial of its many effects, and yet it would somehow hit a national nerve. If the disaster movie is indeed to be shamed by disaster, we would do well to remember the exact moment of its defeat. It came, I think, when the cameras began to pick up moving dots in the steel grid of the towers: people waving for help that would never arrive … the aesthetic habit had cracked, and there was no going back.

Lane may be right, but disaster movies are a national pastime, and I fear the habit won't break so easily. Some video stores have their own "Disaster Movies" section. It's a genre, like it or not, a subdivision of "Action," like "War." Black Sunday—big blimp crashes into sports arena. Deep Impact—big asteroid hits small planet. Atomic Train—nuclear locomotive crashes into town. How do you like your action movie? Would you like a side of hostages? Fireworks displays like these are probably on a reverent but short hiatus, and I expect that soon the nation will be lining up for another terrorist thriller. Can you imagine Paramount Pictures will shelve The Sum of All Fears, the latest Jack Ryan flick about a massive terrorist attack on the Super Bowl? It's a Tom Clancy bestseller! With Ben Affleck!

Perhaps the real life tragedies have taught us enough about loss that moviemakers will have to at leat be more honest from now on. And when artists are honest and responsible, movies can give us portrayals of disaster and destruction in a way that reveals meaning, truth, and beauty amidst the chaos. There are many who have ventured into terrifying chapters of history with an aim to find wisdom rather than merely to measure the fear factor.

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Disaster Movies that Do Some Good

Steven Spielberg found meaning and even inspiration in Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and my favorite, Empire of the Sun. This WWII "trilogy" shows humankind's evil nature from three very different perspectives: a wealthy German, an American soldier, and a daydreaming child in a concentration camp. These films, although debatably sentimental, powerfully illustrate how humility, servanthood, and sacrifice are the virtues of true heroes.

Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line finds profundity and poetry in the midst of the battle of Guadalcanal. Roland Joffe's The Mission, in which Portuguese aggressors threaten a Spanish Jesuit mission, offers alternate portrayals of how we can respond when filled with outrage and the desire for vengeance. Chariots of Fire might not seem like a movie about history's tragedies, but the shadow of anti-Semitism looms over the story of young Harold Abrahams, who runs to hold onto his pride. Each time, love can be found in the ruins, in exchanges between individuals, or between men and God.

A recent Indian film called The Terrorist was made for only $50,000 in only 16 days, but its poetic cinematography and the intensity of its lead actress make it a powerful story told from inside the camp of suicide-mission terrorists. Co-writer-director-cinematographer Santosh Sivan tells the story of a young woman training to be a suicide bomber who runs into a crisis of conscience. The movie puts a very sane, human face on a sort of person that Hollywood likes to portray as a raving lunatic; it's so close to the truth that it's unsettling, and yet its final moments offer its central character a chance to be redeemed. Will she take it?

Rich Kennedy of The Film Forum finds other models of films that draw meaning from tragedy: "Raid on Antebbe was a 1977 account of a hijacked Air France flight to Tel Aviv over which Israel would not negotiate. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) chronicles war's aftermath for three vets just home from World War II. This is 'The Good War', yes, but unique among films of this era, there is a dealing with the loss of the irreplaceable in everyday life. God provides no obvious solutions for these men and their loved ones. In The Dirty Dozen (1967), Rogue special forces major 'recruits' 12 army convicts under life or death sentences for pre-D Day covert action in France. This is intended as an action romp, but pulls nobility and honor from the dregs of humanity."

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J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth writes, "I am struck by movies that grasp essential truths and transcend the event they're ostensibly commemorating. Apocalypse Now is a fantastic example. It is a movie about the Vietnam War, but it is much more about the darkness that lies in all of our hearts. Admittedly, it's not a comforting film, but sometimes we need to be reminded of our sinful nature before we can understand God's redemptive work. Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped is a movie about a man attempting to escape from a prison during World War II. Told in a stark minimalist style, it has a tremendous amount to say about faith, suffering, and perseverance."

"Some of the truest filmic representations of history have used fictional characters placed in real historical contexts," says Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro). "Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is a japanimation feature about two orphaned children in Kobe attempting to survive after a WWII Allied bombing. The historical importance of the film lies in its commitment to the reality of the time and representing the general human experience rather than a direct 'retelling' of the lives of specific individuals. In that sense, its insight into those living in the wake of violence is tremendously true to history, especially in light of the usual flag-waving treatment the genre often receives."

It might not even be a hard-realism saga that preserves for our children the heights and the depths of today's tragedies. If you see The Fellowship of the Ring when it opens in theatres this December, I'd encourage you to remember that World War II was very much on the mind and heart of J.R.R. Tolkien as he wrote The Lord of the Rings and sent chapters to his son, who was in the military at the time.

The Ethics of Retaliation and Revenge

In the news, movie references are flying as commentators, journalists, celebrities, and politicians voice their opinions about proper military retaliation. Perhaps it is a good time to revisit art that explores the pros and cons of violent revenge.

There are countless action movies about the American ideal of revenge, from Dirty Harry to Braveheart. More recent films allow doubts and questions to enter the hero's mind, as in Memento. Even Ah-nold's recent End of Days portrays the cookie-cutter hero putting down his gun and handing the responsibility for vengeance over to the Lord. One film, Rob Roy, actually portrays a hero and a heroine who exhibit strength by refraining from the temptation to go out and seek violent revenge.

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And there are other films offering a different view of violent justice, some realistic, some pure fairy tale. These titles show cruel and murderous men learning, sometimes too late, that they should have put down their guns and walked a better path. In Unforgiven, a shootout-weary Clint Eastwood resists the call to wreak violent vengeance. In Pulp Fiction, vile, violent, and self-centered men each reach a moment of decision where they may or may not choose to give up "the life" and instead do good on the earth, even venturing to help their worst enemies. Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us a hero who learns that, even though he's talented with a pistol and a whip, sometimes it is best to hold still and let God take care of evil men. Even Star Wars reminds us that the worst villains may yet be capable of a change of heart.

And doesn't the redemption of a Darth Vader-ish villain echo stories found in Scripture? There are many examples of God pursuing murderous villains in hopes of changing their hearts rather than torching them to appease our appetites for justice. Look back through the Bible. Jonah wasn't very happy when God forgave the people that deserved brimstone. Wasn't our beloved Apostle Paul, who began as a sort of terrorist stalking early Christians, forgiven and welcomed by the church when he repented?

Whatever your view of proper U.S. response to the threat of the Taliban, and regardless of what "big screen revenge" has conditioned us to feel, we are exhorted to be praying for those that persecute us. That requires more guts than John McClane or Dirty Harry ever showed.

Next week: Christian teens on a road trip in Extreme Days, Ben Stiller on the fashion runway in Zoolander, Swedes in a commune in Together and Anthony Hopkins in a Stephen King adaptation called Hearts in Atlantis.

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Others, The Musketeer, Rush Hour 2, Rat Race, Rock Star, Jeepers Creepers, and American Pie 2.