Christian film critics say The Matrix Reloaded shoots itself in the foot

As Film Forum was being wrapped up this week, Christian film critics were just beginning to post their reviews of this weekend's surefire box office champion, The Matrix Reloaded. For moviegoers who want to hear early reports about Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and Agent Smith, the word is this: Don't set your expectations very high.

Reloaded is big on dazzling visual spectacle; it sets new standards for CGI-enhanced kung fu, digital animation, and car chases. But the plot meanders, stringing together redundant, even tedious action scenes that are short on new ideas. The intriguing philosophical questions that made the first film so compelling and relevant are reduced here to a marathon of dull and dizzying monologues. In the areas of character development and storytelling, the movie is running on fumes. Here are links to reviews by Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), and David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). My own review is at Looking Closer.

Filmmakers, critics, and Film Forum readers debate the definition, purpose, pros and cons of 'Christian movies"

Ask typical moviegoers to describe a "Christian movie" and you will hear a wide variety of adjectives. Some think Christian movies are safe, clean, a preferred alternative to popular cinema, and "movies with a message." Others will say they're poorly made, propagandistic, and preachy.

The answers will vary again if you ask them which titles spring to mind. Christian moviegoers may mention films shown only in churches, those that depict the lives of missionaries or Bible characters, or the widely used missions-oriented film Jesus. Others will settle on the recent resurgence of apocalypse-oriented titles that made it to multiplexes, like Left Behind and The Omega Code. Some will recall recent family films— The Prince of Egypt, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, or A Walk to Remember.

But for some, the term deserves a broader definition. They could argue for the inclusion of films that explore questions about God, ethics, or spirituality, like Dead Man Walking, The Apostle, Signs, or Chariots of Fire. Some will go so far as to include fantasies that lend themselves to allegory—The Lord of the Rings, E.T., The Matrix. Titles that illustrate the wages of sin or a character's redemption include Eyes Wide Shut, Levity, or About Schmidt. (Recently, several Christian writers, including columnist Terry Mattingly, pointed out Christian insights woven throughout the Disney family film Holes.)

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The differences between films that explictly evangelize, films that subtly explore spiritual questions, and films that quietly prod us toward a Christian worldview are large enough to cause a good deal of debate. There are enthusiastic supporters for all kinds. Many argue Christians should avoid mainstream films entirely, and focus on making and spreading Christian films. But other believers recommend paying attention to mainstream art and entertainment, for the purposes of highlighting often-overlooked truths evident in the storytelling. Further, they argue we should encounter, listen to, understand, and interact with popular culture. These tend to criticize the overt religiosity and preachy nature of the films some Christians call "alternatives." And they recommend that Christian filmmakers do their work in the mainstream, alongside others in the industry, like Ralph Winter, a Christian who co-produced the recent blockbuster X2: X-Men United, or actor Jim Caviezel, a devout Catholic who starred in Frequency and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Christian film critic Peter T. Chattaway recently argued in a Canadian Christian newspaper that he would rather not encourage the cultivation of a Christian movie industry. He argues that recent films bearing the label Christian suffer from pedestrian writing and production, and they amount to "sermonizing punctuated by lame plot contrivances and the occasional sinner's prayer."

Chattaway's editorial provoked some heated responses from Film Forum readers. Many then accepted the invitation to contribute their thoughts to the discussion: Should Christians be cultivating a separate Christian movie industry, to provide viewers a nourishing alternative, much as they have with books and music? If so, what should 'Christian movies' look like? Does such a distinction create problems, or increase the Church's influence in popular culture?

Christian movies: A competing industry?

"Christians are having little impact in Hollywood," says Barry Bowen, editor of Christian Film News/Christian Headlines. "Why not develop a strategy of competing with Hollywood by going the independent film production/distribution route?"

Bowen argues that Christian movies get good results. "More people respond to the gospel presentation after World Wide Pictures films airing on television than respond to Billy Graham's preaching. Films can teach Christians about important people and events in our history. For example there are films about Wycliffe and Huss—people that Christians rarely study in public schools. Christian filmmakers can address important issues like sexual purity, abortion, and religious persecution. Films about sexual purity include Going the Distance and Pamela's Prayer. Deadly Choice and One Day in May address the abortion issue. Bamboo in Winter and The Printing draw attention to religious persecution."

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But he adds a caution: "The Christian movie industry shouldn't copy Hollywood's habit of creating movie stars. This is at odds with Christ's call for us to die to self. We are not to seek after publicity for the sake of fame and fortune."

In response to Chattaway's editorial, Bowen claims the critic is "ignorant of the history of Christian films and should question his desire to be a movie critic." He argues that Christian critics should focus instead on reviewing Christian movies, instead of being "sidetracked with Hollywood entertainment." "Christian movie critics," he argues, "routinely watch pornographic films and sometimes endorse movies that take God's name in vain."

Similarly, producer and director Dave Christiano thinks Christians should tend to their own movies. "Why should only the devil's movies be shown in the mainstream theaters? Satan has reached the world and the church through movies and television very nicely. Most Christians are deceived by what Hollywood puts forth. Many Christians attend films that have nudity in them and curse the name of their Lord. This is not right and must change."

Should Christians then abandon mainstream films and invest in their own competing product?

He sees evangelical movies as a good answer: "Films are a powerful way to present the message of Jesus. There are so few Christian movies that actually have a real message for Jesus. Some filmmakers produce a film [and] call it Christian, but it does not have the person, presence, or even the name of Christ. How do you have anything Christian without Jesus? Can't be done."

Christian movies also appeal to reader Diane Kimbell. "Mainly, the work of having to deal with the multitude of critics, issues, and the like before I can go to see a movie will mostly be taken out of my hands and leave me time for more important things. Going to the movies today has been like looking for the one good apple in a barrel of bad ones. It takes too much time to find reviews for the ones that are out there today … and if I do find such a decent movie, I still have to make certain that the worm has left the apple!"

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Kimbell finds a good example in the established Christian music industry. "When I want good music, I go to a Christian store without worrying about being bombarded with ear-piercing lyrics in a secular store. I would appreciate the same with movies. I would appreciate having a Christian movie industry."

But Barry Werner, managing director of operations at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures argues, "There is no Christian movie industry. There are Christians that make films expressing their world view, but to label that as a separate industry immediately generates thoughts of two opposing teams: real movies and Christian movies." He argues that instead of taking an approach of competing with Hollywood, those making films from a Christian point of view should strive "to put a high quality, extremely entertaining, extremely persuasive, economically viable product on the screen."

Filmmaker Chris Hansen, senior media producer at The Center for Teaching and Learning at Regent University, shares the advice he gives to colleagues and aspiring moviemakers: "Christian filmmakers … shouldn't view ourselves as a separate industry. Just make excellent films that reflect the things we believe about people and the world. If your audience is other Christians, and if your purpose … is to reinforce the beliefs of other believers, then go ahead and make that inspirational movie. Please make it well, and please try not to be hokey. There is a place for films that are inspirational and that rally the soul and spirit." But he says creators of Christian films—especially apocalyptic ones—should realize that they "speak primarily to those who believe, and they do very little to communicate with those who don't share a Christian worldview. To paraphrase a professor I know at one Christian institution, Instead of being fishers of men we are closer to being keepers of the aquarium."

R. J. Perez argues, "Christian artists should have the courage to share their songs and stories with the entire culture. This was the example Jesus set." He adds, that if Christians turn their back on mainstream movies and create an alternative cinema, there will be two undesirable results: "1) Christians would be more likely to retreat to the comfort and familiarity of this genre, losing touch with the wealth of what 'secular' culture has to offer, and 2) Most non-Christians would steer clear entirely from music and movies labeled Christian."

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Scott Cripps, pastor of youth and young adults at Westview Baptist Church in Calgary, comes to the same conclusion: "To provide a separate genre of movie … would only continue to build walls between the church and our culture."

John Sexton spent the last eight years working in Hollywood. He answers the question "Should we have a Christian film industry?" with another question that puts things in a new light: "Should we have a Christian football league?"

Film critic Michael Elliott of Movie Parables is hesitant to close the door on the idea of a subdivision for Christian films. "Perhaps establishing a Christian genre within an artistic discipline is necessary in order to allow Christian artists to develop their abilities and craft within an understanding environment, but it should be a temporary thing. Ultimately, the goal must be to reach the world with the vision and truth woven within the art we are able to produce. In order to do that, we must reach beyond the walls of the Christian genre to demonstrate that our beliefs apply to all of life and to all men."

What makes a movie 'Christian'?

Is a Christian movie therefore one that contains explicitly Christian messages or focuses on being persuasive? Or is it one that is merely free of controversial content?

The question of definition troubles reader Matt Oquist. "The concept [of Christian movies] is absurd, or at least insufficiently definable," he writes. "Christianity is a religion that speaks to every area of life, every human struggle, and every ounce of joy and pain. Trying to distinguish Christian content from non-Christian content is like trying to tell the difference between Christian shoes and secular shoes."

To illustrate his point, he asks, "Could a five-minute short documenting a child's first bike-ride constitute Christian filmmaking? What if the child recited scripture while riding the bike? Could a two-hour documentary on WWII be considered a Christian film? What if the film included footage of soldiers praying? What if the film included footage of Hitler's speeches? Could a film based on the Song of Solomon be a Christian film if it depicted everything described by the book? Could the same content be Christian in literature and non-Christian in film?"

Christian journalist Mike Hertenstein wrestled with these issues in 2001 as he charted the course for Cornerstone's film festival Flickerings. He recalls a quote from C.S. Lewis: "Christian literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery might exist." Most people who prefer Christian films want religious propaganda, he says. "It seems safe to observe that no genius has yet arisen to redeem the genre from its own dubious history. And that [is why] Christian films have been Left Behind." (Click here to read Hertenstein's account on the Flickerings' panel discussions.)

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There is such a thing as Christian art, says Maryland graduate student David Habecker. But it's a mistake, he says, to see it as a monolithic category. He sees three distinct forms:

1) Cultural Christian art: Art produced by a Christian culture that deals explicitly with Christian themes. He suggests The Last Days of Disco, Babette's Feast, The Last Temptation of Christ, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Lord of the Rings as examples of such movies.

2) Devotional Christian art: Art specifically intended for Christians for the purpose of public or private worship. Music often lends itself to this category, he says, but he cannot think of any films that aim for this result. (If you can, let me know.)

3) Evangelistic/Escapist Christian art: Art which represents either (a) an attempt to evangelize the audience, to inspire them to want to become Christian, or (b) a conscious rebellion against what are perceived as secular movies and music; a safe escape allowing the viewer to be able to indulge in essentially the same sorts of movies that mainstream culture is watching, but with characters that are overtly Christian and that contain what is thought to be edifying moral behavior. Habecker lists Left Behind and the popular missions-oriented Jesus movie as examples.

While Habecker admits that none of these categories are watertight, he concludes that Evangelistic/Escapist films are less art than they are propaganda "cut from the same cloth as the Soviet socialist realism, which is almost universally derided as completely devoid of artistic merit."

Mitch Robbins, a producer and director, argues that what distinguishes a Christian movie is not what it contains, but the way it comes into being. "A movie is not a Christian movie because of what is shown or said in it. Rather … it is a movie that was led by the Spirit of God and reflects his heart and purpose. Just as God leads us to interact with people around us in different ways and on different levels, Christian movies need to be able to do the same."

Robbins's view suggests that it may be difficult for a moviegoer to recognize a Christian movie at first glance. It is a tricky thing to guess the origins and motivations of an artist. Could there be Christians making movies in the mainstream industry, guided by the Spirit? Could the Spirit lead an unbelieving artist unwittingly into revealing God's glory through even a Hollywood movie? If so, would that be a Christian movie? What if the movie contained potentially offensive elements, like violence?

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World Wide Pictures' Barry Werner defines Christian films by their content, not origin. Film are Christian if they "clearly display the Christian world view in at least one of the main characters' motives, actions, and ideals, and accurately portray the biblical values Christians hold as true as the character(s) comes to life in the film."

He agrees that Christian films aren't all alike—nor are they intended to be. "The films from the BGEA focus on evangelism because that is the only reason the BGEA exists," Werner says. "Films from other Christians in the industry tend to focus on other aspects of the Christian life that are needed to live their life true to biblical mandates. Ideas of gender and racial equality, loving you neighbor, fairness, salvation, the basis for the entire legal system in the USA, the great art of the Renaissance, a large portion of the classical music, and on and on were all generated because Christians expressed their worldview through their creativity in the currently relevant medium of choice in their culture."

However, Werner does have his complaints about the current state of Christian cinema. "Sometimes films with Christian content take a very narrow position that may not be defensible when all biblical truth is brought to bear on the issue," he says.

Do 'Christian' movies 'legitimize' mediocrity?

This week at Charles Colson's Breakpoint website, Mark Gauvreau Judge argues that Christian rock music is losing effectiveness and relevance as it has become "unmelodic, sonically brutish, and nauseatingly triumphalist." Many who responded to questions about Christian movies fear the same effects will come from evangelism-oriented movies. They see that mediocrity and pushy, preachy agendas are driving off the intended audience.

Film Forum reader Phil Wilson wants to avoid "a marginalized Christian studio ghetto, like we have in music. The only Christian music a lot of non-Christians listen to [comes from] groups … who don't trumpet and beat their listeners over the head with their Christianity. They skillfully weave their views into their works. I taught high school English … you would be amazed at how many Christian and non-Christian children weren't aware that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was a Christian allegory. They just thought it was a great story. That's what has to happen in the movies."

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Shari Lloyd, whose website The Phantom Tollbooth offers reviews of both contemporary Christian and mainstream art and entertainment, agrees that Christian filmmakers should "preach to the world, not the converted." She also testifies that, "for the most part [Christian divisions of art] legitimize shoddy substandard art rather than pushing [artists] to excel. If it's good, it shouldn't need a separate industry to get people to go see it or buy it."

Elizabeth Rambo, associate professor of English at Campbell University, is bothered by shoddy craftsmanship: "Almost every 'Christian' movie I've seen has been embarrassing, artistically. It may mean we aren't trying hard enough to integrate art and ardor. However, movies made by Christians, or movies that have Christian themes or metaphorical elements that may be interpreted from a Christian perspective—The Apostle, Chariots of Fire, Savior, Donnie Darko, Magnolia, Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings—are much more thought-provoking, more moving emotionally, and thus, it seems to me, more effective."

Reader Andrew Spitznas agrees: "The message and metaphor of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable and Sixth Sense, for instance, feed my spirit more satisfyingly than the script-by-numbers and cardboard characterizations of any evangelistic redemption saga. [And I don't] believe that the Christian film industry has the courage to tackle our society's tougher issues. It's inconceivable that any evangelical filmmaker would address our subculture's idolatry of patriotism in the fashion of Philip Noyce's The Quiet American. It's much safer to cater to the intellectual lowest common denominator … keeping the tales comfortable and uncontroversial."

Quality is also a concern of Randall Ajimine, who writes, "As an aspiring filmmaker, I do not want to be pigeonholed as a Christian filmmaker. Because I'm ashamed of Christ? No, because I'm ashamed of what Christians are known for producing."

Ajimine also objects to an industry that makes money by marketing art directly to Christians. "[This] is particularly troublesome to me because it turns Christians into a marketing demographic. Christian music is confined to Christian bookstores and the Gospel section of mass music stores. Thus, one might say that Christian music is of the world but not in the world."

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Artistic merit is on Barry Werner's mind as well: "Well-done movies with Christian content tend to be very fruitful, but bad movies portraying the Christian worldview tend to be just as unprofitable as bad movies with other worldviews. Fruitfulness has little to do with the Christian content and more to do with the quality of the film."

Questions for further discussion

Clearly there is a deep divide on this question of whether Christians should create and support their own film industry. But behind the question lie other issues:

  1. Does God speak only through 'Christian' media?

  2. If we come to focus solely on the work of a 'Christian' industry, do we cut ourselves off from God's revelation in the very lives and workmanship of the rest of the world?

  3. Do our responsibilities as Christian moviegoers differ from our responsibilities in interacting with other people?

  4. Are excellence, beauty, and truth immediately identifiable in a work of art?

Movies, like anything, whether they are Christian or otherwise, can reflect and reveal the Lord in different ways to different people. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell's father exhorted the ambitious runner, "You can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection." Artistic excellence is a worthwhile endeavor, and a specifically Christian responsibility, no matter what label is on it.

Next week: Religious press critics look at the finer points and the flaws of The Matrix Reloaded, and offer reviews of Daddy Day Care, The Shape of Things, and more.

Related Elsewhere:

For more on Christianity and popular culture, check out this intriguing essay by David K. Naugle at Findings Online.