Saturday, June 19, 2010

Film + Theology - 2012

Last night we launched a new event with our college ministry CRAVE. Inspired by Mars Hill Church's Cinemagogue, we started our own version of Film and Theology.

Film + Theology: What are we doing here?
Since this is officially our first Film + Theology event I want to take a few minutes at the beginning to answer the question: What is Film + Theology? What are we doing here? Film and Theology is a forum where we can (1) appreciate and enjoy the artistic impulse God has given to humans as expressed in film; and (2) critically engage culture. Here at Christ Community Church we believe that humanity is created in the image of God. God’s image in humans is multifaceted, but one particular aspect of it is our creative impulse. God has given humanity the ability to be artistic and create and tell stories. Film and story telling in our view should be enjoyed and celebrated as a gift.

Today, however, there is no more powerful vehicle for cultural propaganda than the movie theater. Films present ideas in the form of stories or worldviews. I heard some say recently that today’s local multiplexes are modern day pulpits where thousands flock weekly and let film directors and screen writers influence the way they think, feel and live. Films are one way modern culture artistically expresses itself. But films also shape culture. Films should be enjoyed then, but they should also be thoughtfully consumed. 

Film and Theology seeks to provide a space in which to engage the cultural messages that films communicate and put them into dialogue with a Gospel-centric Christian worldview.

2012 – Orientation to the movie
2012 was co-written and directed by German-born filmmaker Roland Emmerich. Emmerich has distinguished himself as a premier filmmaker in the disaster genre with movies such as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to his credit. Emmerich’s films have grossed more than $3 billion worldwide making him the country’s 14th highest grossing director of all time. Emmerich has the reputation of being one of “the few directors capable of consistently making critically-derided movies that nonetheless [make] enormous amounts of money”.

His film 2012 is no different. While critics of the film were generally negative (apparently only 40% gave a positive review according to Rotten Tomatoes), its first weekend at the box office earned a total of $290 million worldwide and ultimately grossed nearly $768 million making it the 5th-highest grossing film in 2009. Some film critics as expected lambast it, while others—the likes of Roger Ebert, called it the “mother of all disaster movies” concluding that the movie “gives you your money’s worth” and asserting that the movie is “as good as a disaster movie can be”. In other words, if you like disaster movies, you’ll love this one. What these box office receipts say is that Emmerich’s movie 2012 was consumed by a worldwide audience no matter what the critics said. This film is representative of the power of a movie in that (1) it reaches the many and not just the few, and (2) it is revolutionary in that it invades diverse cultures creating a common.

2012 – Spiritual themes
2012 is a popcorn film and although the film has significant weaknesses at the level of script and plot it does raise several interesting spiritual themes.

You may assume that the primary theme of the movie is the end of the world. The title of the film leads to the belief that the central idea of the movie relates to the Mayan myth of the world coming to an end in 2012. This myth has been made popular in recent years when it was noted that the Mayan calendar only has 5,125 years with the last year ending on 12/12/2012. However this is in fact a mistaken notion. As Emmerich himself explains in an interview, the Mayan element came after the initial seed idea for the movie was being developed. For the movie the contribution of the Mayan myth is simply that the “fact that the Mayan calendar ends”. “This gave us the year”, Emmerich says. The Mayan myth provided the day that the global flood was to take place. On that day, as well see in the film, a solar storm leads to changes in the Earth’s core with the result that the earth’s crust is displaced creating super-tsunamis that flood the earth. So what was the seed-idea for the movie? The film’s seed-idea actually was a “global flood”, a “modern retelling” of the Noah’s ark story. “We came up with this idea that maybe a global flood would be a great movie because we could do a retelling of Noah’s Ark in a modern way”. In Emmerich’s words, “the whole third act is more a different kind of movie [than a disaster movie]. It’s about who will survive in the arks”. In fact, for Emmerich the movie is “about” decisions about who is gets on the arks and who gets left behind.

At its simplest, 2012’s story is about people who know the world is coming to an end by a global flood and people who do not. The people who know secretly build ships they call “arks”. So Emmerich’s “Noah” is a US led coalition of countries who secretly build ships and don’t tell anyone. The governments realize that the disaster is coming much sooner than they had anticipated and it becomes a race to get to the ships which were constructed in Tibet in the Himalayas.

When the catastrophe begins worldwide disaster is experienced illustrated onscreen by the destruction of recognizable landmarks with a notable emphasis on the demolition of Christian-Catholic sites. One Catholic reviewer pointed out that while the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s basilica and Rio de Janerio’s Christ the Redeemer statue are destroyed, Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site isn’t, at least on screen. He wryly commented, “because, you know Christians, don’t do fatwas”.

In Emmerich’s flood story, interestingly, God is absent. If there is a god figure in the film it is science or better nature. Emmerich attempts to strip humanity down to the point where faith makes little-to-no difference. He says, “Yes, it’s good to be spiritual, but praying in the face of disaster will not stop the disaster. Fate, luck and coincidence might help you survive, but not prayer”. “When you destroy the Vatican or the Jesus in Rio, you tell people, even God can’t help you”. For Emmerich the film becomes a question of morality, what is right and wrong, absent of God: “It comes down to what should people do in a situation like that, what is morally right to do”.

Within this large frame there are characters typical of the disaster drama. For example John Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis, is the cliché of the average guy; he’s a deadbeat divorced father of two. In addition to being less than successful at family life, Curtis is a fledging science-fiction writer whose writing career is at bottom when we first meet him on screen. Through the disaster, however, Curtis finds redemption through heroic acts. Courageously he sets out on a perilous journey to get his family to the arks and in the end finding his marriage and family relationships are restored.

Another character is the eccentric Charlie Frost (played by Woody Harrelson) a radio talk show host-cum-apocalyptic preacher (a John the Baptist type) who lives in his Winnebago in Yellowstone National Park awaiting the end of the world. He promulgates over the airwaves a conspiracy theory that few if any believe. It seems, however, ironically he is the only other person beside the government that knows what’s going on. 

While this kind of movie does not reward careful character analysis, it does raise several spiritual themes worth engaging. I suggest that following as representative.

1. End of the world - What should a Christian’s response be to doomsday predictions? And what is the appeal of disaster films? Why are they so wildly popular worldwide in spite of the severe criticism by reviewers?

2. Faith in the midst and in the face of disaster - What can faith do in the midst of and in the face of disaster?

3. Morality absent of God - What is morality without God? On what bases did the characters in the film determine right and wrong absent of God?

4. Global flood - How do the global floods of the Bible (Gen 6—9) and 2012 compare?