Thursday Oct 30, 2014
Thursday Oct 30, 2014
Thursday Oct 30, 2014
As most people do, I receive a lot of spam in my email. One day, while attempting to clean out my inbox, I ran across this advertisement from New Release Tuesday, a Christian music website. As soon as I saw this it made me very angry. There is a lot a bad sentiment implied here; it is also misleading, and exploitative. A little harsh, you say? I shall explain why I think this is an exploitative film and why you should not go see Left Behind with Nicolas Cage. First, I shall describe the bad sentiment behind this ad.
There has been a long history of bad blood between Hollywood and conservative Christians. Robert K. Johnston gives a very good account of this in his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. It begins, strangely enough, with Cecil B. DeMille. Today, DeMille’s movie The Ten Commandments (1956) is generally held in high regard as the ultimate example of what a religious movie should be. It details the life of Moses, from growing up in the Egyptian royal house to leading the Israelites triumphantly into the Promised Land. It depicts God as a real entity and Moses coming to trust in the Lord after wrestling with Modern philosophical concerns about him. ABC still broadcasts the film on television every Easter (or Passover, depending on your point of view), and has done so for so long it has become an unbreakable tradition. Despite the fact that nearly the entire first half of the movie has no basis in the Biblical story, or that—in an opening sequence often deleted for time on television—DeMille comes out from behind the curtain to say this movie is an explicit metaphor of the Cold War, the general opinion amongst Christians is that this classic movie is a highly accurate representation of the Genesis tale. My pastor once told the story in one of his sermons how his parents, who were the conservative types that shunned all motion pictures, made the exception to see DeMille’s spectacle in the theater.
But what few people know is that this was DeMille’s second movie bearing the title The Ten Commandments. In 1923, he produced a film with that moniker, but it was not a sword and sandal epic. It was of the genre which he basically invented and was first famous, or more precisely, infamous.
Based on the rationalization that indiscretion could be presented on the screen as long as the sin was eventually corrected, his spectacles were little more than glorified melodramas that included an effective combination of debauchery and piety. They were, however, hits with the public. In The Ten Commandments (1923), which was produced for the then-astronomical figure of one-and-a-half million dollars, DeMille housed his portrayals of orgies within a larger moral framework of the giving of the Law (Johnston, 44).
It was objections to Demille’s graphic portrayal of sinful behavior which prompted groups like
The Catholic Church to form the Legion of Decency to start boycotting movies they felt were objectionable. In response, the film industry instituted the first Production Code in 1930. Our modern ratings system is the ideological descendant of this Code.
Boycotting films is a tactic which did not cease in the early part of the former century. More recently, films like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Kevin Smith’s Dogma have seen opening nights surrounded by picket signs. All of this goes to show that the relationship between Hollywood and the conservative church has always been uneasy at best.
Things have changed in the last ten years or so with the rise of the faith based family film. The unexpected and overwhelming success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ demonstrated that there is a demand for religious based fare in the movie marketplace. The website Box Office Mojo has compiled a list of the top 100 Christian movies released in the last twenty years, the majority of which have been release in the wake of Gibson’s Passion. The total gross of these movies is over $1.5 billion. Left Behind (2014) is the most recent addition to this genre, and is typical to most of those movies made in that time period in terms of its modest budget and independent production values. They are a far cry from the massive Biblical epics of the 50’s like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Quo Vadis. And here is where I take issue with what is implied in the advertisement for Left Behind.
It seems to me that when it is said, “Show your support for Christian based films and see the movie now,” the implied meaning is “Show Hollywood they need to make more Christian movies like this.” If that is the case and you, dear reader, run out to see Nicholas Cage in Left Behind in hopes that Hollywood executives in the major studios will start throwing big bucks at Christian morality tales, you will be sorely disappointed. It is very unlikely that we will see the return of the big Christian Biblical epic. On the contrary, the films we are seeing now are a new genre of exploitative movies, the Christploitation film, if you will.
How are films like Left Behind, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God exploitative? Let us look at the definition of exploitative. Webster’s dictionary identifies it:
ex·ploit·ative adjective ik-ˈsplȯi-tə-tiv,
ek-ˌsplȯi-: exploiting or tending
to exploit; especially : unfairly or
cynically using another person or group for profit or advantage<exploitative terms
Take notice of the last example in the definition. Exploitative films have been around so long that they are in the dictionary. There are many kinds of exploitative films, including various horror films, monster movies, and the Blaxploitation film. Even DeMille’s first The Ten Commandments (1923) can be classified as exploitation. Wikipedia puts it this way, “Exploitation film is an informal label which may be applied to any film which is generally considered to be low budget, and therefore apparently attempting to gain financial success by "exploiting" a current trend or a niche genre or a base desire for lurid subject matter.” An argument might be made that these faith based movies do not fit this definition because they are anything but lurid. In fact, their core audience wants to see sanitized fare that is safe for the whole family.
But fitting the definition, the Christian faith based movie (or Christploitation flick) is a niche genre and definitely a current trend. “Over the last five years, independent Christian movies—films with overt proselytizing—have been among the most profitable independent releases across all genres.” Also fitting the above definition, the majority of them are made on modest budgets to turn a quick profit. For example, let us look at the budgets of some Christploitation films released in the last year. Heaven is for Real was made for $12 million and grossed $91.4 million. Mom’s Night Out grossed over $10 million and was produced for half of that, while God’s Not Dead earned $60 million on a budget of only $2 million. So you see, studios are going to make these small movies with the intention of reaping huge dollars at the box office. Contrary to this trend, the recent Left Behind was made for a larger budget of $16 million, but in its third week of release it has only earned just over $13 million.
The reason this movie seems to be bucking the trend is because it is an awful movie. The filmmakers decided to take more of a gamble and throw a little more money at this movie expecting the same ratio of success the other movies enjoyed. It didn’t pay off this time. A 2012 article states, “But this year, Cloud Ten is quadrupling down on Left Behind. It plans to spend roughly $15 million to remake just the first of the series, nearly four times the budget of each of the original three.” It was the hope of the producers that this movie would cross over from the group of Christian movie goers to whom Christploitation flicks pander to the mainstream audience. This didn’t happen. A look at the professional reviews of Left Behind elucidate why.
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that compiles movie reviews in order to find a consensus on the general quality of a film. Looking at the overall positive or negative nature of the critiques, Left Behind earned a rating of 2% fresh, meaning just one out of 57 critical reviews was positive. If you are a Christian still deciding if you want to catch this remake, just don’t. Listen to some of the reviews compiled by Rotten Tomatoes. “Left Behind isn't a movie for progressive Christians any more than it's a movie for people who appreciate top production values, convincing acting or superlative dialogue.” Matt Brunsen. “The movie unravels in its own destruction. Every effort to milk the tragedy of the apocalypse is met with terrible music, acting and effects that soak (and drown) the pathos in camp fare.” Monica Castillo. “Not only is this an amateurish travesty combining fundamentalist Christian eschatology with disaster movie b.s., but it's plodding and tedious.” James Berardinelli. 
The last review makes a point that I would like to touch on, that this movie is based on bad theology. Like the literal, fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis leads to bad theology (which I discussed at length in several episodes of my podcast, which you can find here and here), taking the book of Revelation at face value can lead one to get lost trying to find meaning in the dreamlike, apocalyptic imagery of the tome and lose the real meaning behind it. Left Behind is an example of this, using the end of the world as the McGuffin for an action movie instead of offering hope to those who follow Jesus that are facing insurmountable persecution. A nice, short read which can help all people discover the long held, orthodox interpretation of both Genesis and Revelation is book The Beginning and the End by Michael W. Paul.
So whether you are hoping to see Left Behind because you are looking for a good action movie, or because you are looking for a faith based movie which displays orthodox Christian theology, then Left Behind will disappoint you on both accounts. As New York film reviewer Susan Granger says, “Faith-driven audiences deserve better.”
Does this mean we should avoid all Christploitation movies because we deserve to see better? By all means, no! Not all of these movies are as terrible as Left Behind. I personally liked God’s Not Dead. Kevin Sorbo is compelling as the atheist philosophy professor who demands that his students likewise deny God’s existence. The ensuing classroom debate harkens back to the drama in Inherit the Wind. Even though the rest of the acting is wooden (sorry Dean Cain), and there are too many plot threads trying to prove too many preachy points, this movie is pretty good overall.
That does not mean that Christian moviegoers should blindly throw their money at terrible movies solely because they are faith based. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. If we keep paying for garbage, the movie industry will keep serving up garbage. But is Left Behind really that bad? The ad above claims that Fandango fans gave it four stars, and the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 65% approval rating. A closer examination of the reviews on both websites belies these apparently favorable indicators. For every five-star rating with a simple “I liked it” review, there are several one-star diatribes describing every inferior aspect of the movie. In the end, the answer to the question just posed is: yes, Left Behind really is that bad.
So if you are a Christian and a fan of the movies, do not feel compelled to fall into the old way of thinking, the “us versus them” attitude conservatives copped towards Hollywood for so much of the twentieth century. Please do not drag your friends to Left Behind just to feed a desire to see more faith based movies in the theater. Do your research, look at the reviews, and spend your money on quality. If Left Behind fails to meet expectations (which I say it has, both in quality and financially) it does not mean the end of the world. The end of the world will come at a time no one expects and in a way no one can predict, just as Jesus said in Matthew 24. In the meantime, Christploitation films are, for the foreseeable future, going to keep premiering at the cineplex. Just because one falters, it will not dissuade any other movie producers from making money in the genre. That is my prediction.
Bennett, Cory. "Christian films find fans at multiplex." Akron Beacon Journal 3 May 2012: F21-F22. Newspaper.
Christian Movies at the Box Office. n.d. website. 27 Oct 2014.
Flesher, Paul V.M. and Robert Torry. Film & Religion: An Introduction. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.
Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.
Left Behind - Rotten Tomatoes. n.d. website. 27 Oct 2014.
Riley, Robin. Film, Faith, and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003.
 Flesher, Paul V.M. and Robert Torry. Film & Religion: An Introduction. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. Pg. 72
 Johnston, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Pg. 44
 Johnston , pg. 46
 Johnston, pg. 45
 Riley, Robin. Film, Faith, and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003
 Bennett, Cory. "Christian films find fans at multiplex." Akron Beacon Journal 3 May 2012: F21-F22. Newspaper. Pg. F21
 Bennett, pg. F21