It’s the penultimate Weekly Geeky Question, where my friend Rod asks me some geeky question that I have to answer. We’re now up to Week #51, so only one more to go. This week’s question is quite a bit different than any other we’ve had this year:
How would I create an openly evangelistic Christian film…and make it awesome and popular?
The heart of Rod’s question is whether it’s even possible to make an openly Christian film and make artistically great and also appealing to the masses. And not just a film which has a Christian character or has some Christian themes, but a movie which actively shares the Christian message, so that people who don’t know this message or don’t understand it could have a clear view of what it is and also have an opportunity to think about whether it’s a message they can accept, believe and agree with.
For context, both Rod and I are Christians, both Rod and I enjoy movies, and both Rod and I have seen our fair share of Christian films and in some cases been startled by their lack of quality. Sometimes these weaknesses are due to a lack of resources (eg. high production values or expensive actors). But sometimes its due to something else, which might be termed an overeagerness in conveying the message of the piece. This is where the desire to be clear with the “point” of the story ends up making the storytelling experience feel artificial or forced.
It’s a very tricky line to walk, and it’s not a problem that is exclusive to Christian filmmakers. Anyone who wants to make “a point” in their story can fall victim to going too far. But there are various reasons why so much Christian filmmaking falls struggles with this.
One is that Christianity is in its nature evangelistic. That means that part of its tenets is that believers in its message are called to share its message, and to invite or challenge others to believe it. So filmmaking that adopt this goal isn’t usually there just to explain something, or create a conversation around something, but to actively challenge people to make a response, and indeed a particular response.
This makes sense from a spiritual point of view. Of course if there something I think is tremendously important, that I think is for your well-being and that of the world, than I’m going to want to tell you and I’m going to hope you’d agree with me. Even magician Penn Jillette, who is pretty famously an athiest, once asked how much you’d have to hate someone to believe their choices were leading them to hell but to not tell them. So the maker of the Christian film is going to want to communicate in a way that will help to cut off objections and help make the point stronger.
But, when a storyteller has a clear external goal like this, outside of the story itself, it can lead to compromises of narrative integrity, where events play out in a certain way simply because they have to to make the point. And so it’s easy for people to feel pushed or forced into a point of view, and when they feel this way they often object. And indeed if the point of view is one they already don’t like, they will reject it.
As I said, this is in no way something limited to Christian storytellers. A quick review of the last season of Doctor Who reveals a number of episodes which do pretty much the same thing–but usually with messages that are generally accepted by people on a surface level (eg. “racism is bad”, “caring about money over people is bad”).
The Christian message is in itself quite confrontational. It exposes evil, selfishness and greed in the human heart, and calls us to change our thinking and change our behavior. For that reason, there are many who simply don’t like it. And there are many more who object because of what they see judgmentalism or hypocrisy in the members of the Church–in some cases, these perceptions are justified, while in others they are not. There are also those who see Christianity as grounded in fanciful or even dangerous nonsense, with no basis in fact. So for these and other reasons, a Christian film might be already doomed (or damned) simply because it espouses this “Christian” position.
And then all this hostility (perceived or otherwise) may lead some film makers to make Christian movies primarily for a Christian audience. This is not necessarily a problem but it can result in material that is too simple in its approach. And it can have the unfortunate side effect of leading a bunch of people within Christian circles to proclaim that the movie is really great–maybe in part because they are seeing something that shares the same spiritual values and perspectives they have–while overlooking all of its filmmaking problems.
Again again, this is not a problem limited to this single category. For years I’ve been facing conversations and reviews in which people love movies like Transfomers or Divergent or Black Panther or Jurassic Park, while blithely forgiving all their painfully obvious flaws. And I’m sure I do the same thing as well (hello there, Summer Time Machine Blues).
So, back to the question…is it possible to make a genuinely great Christian film?
Well, I think it must be. Just look at Ben-Hur, by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, from 1959. Here’s a film which is in part about a man whose life is utterly transformed by several brief encounters with Jesus of Nazareth, and accepts his resurrection and miraculous healing as a narrative fact. It’s a classic which tells a powerful story of slavery, revenge, redemption and forgiveness, with one of the most celebrated action sequences of all time.
But it’s also made over 50 years ago when a pro-Christian message was more publicly accepted by “Hollywood” culture (a society which is loud but smaller than it thinks on a global level). Could such a film be made today? Well, obviously somebody thought so because in 2016 someone made another adaptation of Ben-Hur. I haven’t seen it, but it certainly was not been received as well. I wonder if the original were released today for the first time, it wouldn’t do as well either, and not just because of dated special effects.
But, after all of that…the question remains: What would I do to make a great Christian film, if I had no limits in budget or actors or talent or anything else which often limits movies of all sorts? It feel arrogant to put forward a suggestion, as I imagine my project could be fraught with the same problems that so many other movies have (and which I have openly criticized). But this is what this series is all about, so here goes.
Basically, I think I’d make a big budget but thoughtful science fiction movie, along the lines of Arrival or Interstellar. It’s working title is…
In the near future, possible evidence of intelligent life has surfaced on Dwarf Planet that has just been discovered, in the outer edges of our solar system. It has strange properties, including mysterious energy emissions. Unmanned probes are sent to investigate, partly spearheaded by the brilliant technological genius and multi-billionaire Robert Duncan (Denzel Washington) and his wife.
When the probes arrive, there is a shocking burst of energy which destroys them, and which seems to cause many people on earth to have crises of faith. This comes to be known as the “Awareness”–a telepathic episode in which people everywhere are suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of the divine, or with a deep fear, or with a bizarre peace, or with a terrifying sense of hopelessness. The experience differs from person to person, but everything points to the fact that something was caused by something on the Dwarf Planet.
In response, Robert Duncan finances a private, manned expedition to get there and find out what is there. Duncan seems greatly changed by the Awareness–previously he made his fortune developing weapons and computer technology, but now all his efforts are shifted into this new direction. He promotes himself as an Apostle of Truth, and is seen by many as a hero.
When his ship is ready, it takes off. His team includes Louisa Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson), who is an historian and comparative religions expert. An idea has emerged where some wonder if whatever is on the Dwarf Planet might actually be the source of religious belief on earth (under the assumption that it may have come close enough to earth centuries ago to have caused a previous “Awareness”) or even if the Planet might contain “God” himself. Louisa is present on the mission in part to determine if what they discover lines up with historical and religious understanding on earth.
It has become common amongst people to ask about each other’s experience during the Awareness. During the long journey, the crew trade stories. Weatherley affirms that she believes in God–she was raised as a Christian–but that during the Awakening she felt a profound sense of loneliness. Duncan, on the other hand, does not discuss his experience, except to say that it was profound, as evidenced by the billions of dollars he has spent financing this expedition.
Part of the tension of the situation is that there are at least two other rival organizations attempting to get to the Dwarf Planet before Duncan does. One is funded by the Chinese government, while the other comes from South Africa, and comes from a private business effort, a rival of Duncan’s. The journey to the Dwarf Planet goes awry when it turns out that this rival group is attempting to sabotage Duncan’s mission. One crew member, Fitzwallace (Miles Teller), turns out to be an industrial spy. When he is about to be caught he panics and causes more damage than he intends, endangering everyone’s life. The ship’s captain, Daniels (Naveen Andrews), dies saving everyone else, and keeping the ship going, even as it enters the vicinity of the Dwarf Planet.
The crew tries to figure out what to do with Fitzwallace when there is another incident, a shock wave that destabilizes their ship. Thanks to Fitzwallace’s actions, the rival group has reached the Dwarf Planet first. However, in doing so they lost control and crashed on the planet, somehow triggering the shock wave.
The crew (including Fitzwallace) must work together to land their ship safely, but this is made more difficult by the bizarre screams emerging from another part of the ship. Lousia and missions specialist Gail Whyatt (Sonequa Martin-Green) go to find out where it came from and find Daniels, apparently alive and in massive pain. The two women are terrified and confused, but before they can do anything the ship has a controlled crash landing, but survives intact thanks to skill of the pilot, Soren (Sam Rockwell). At the same time, Daniels collapses again, dead like before.
The survivors are skeptical about what the women claim to have seen Daniels do, and overall everyone is too busy making sure the ship is still salvageable to focus on it. Duncan insists on exploring, and everyone accompanies him except for Soren, who remains behind to keep an eye on the ship. Even Fitzwallace goes, who has managed to convince the others that his mission was simply to stop Duncan’s ship from landing. Now that it has, he has failed, and he has nothing to gain from causing more trouble.
Exploring the world in space suits, Duncan, Weatherley, Whyatt, Fitzwallace and Chandra (Ignacio Serricchio) find they have landed in a strangely warm area, on the outskirts of what appears to be alien ruins. There, they uncover evidence of an extinct civilization whose history has been left behind, which proves to be consistent with the speculations that have taken place on earth. It turns out that Duncan’s people managed to interpret some of the data that came through during the Awakening, and that Whyatt’s role on the team is decipher as best as possible the alien language. All indications from the history in the ruins point to the idea that a powerful but ancient life form which was believed to reside in some sort of temple, may be responsible not just for religious belief, but life itself on earth.
This provokes a variety of responses from our characters. Fitzwallace finds the idea of God being real and alive on an alien world to be fascinating, and begins to have a somewhat religious approach to the whole thing. Weatherley finds it unsettling: this idea that her beliefs may be some sort of result of alien interference. Duncan, for his part, remains quiet about his motives, expressing simply an interest in learning more.
Back on the ship, Soren is shocked to realize that somehow, Daniels body is now completely missing.
The exploring group enter the Temple. They gain more understanding and learn that according to the evidence, this Being (as they refer to it) not only existed at the time of these ancient historical writings, but still exists. They speculate if that’s true, the being itself could still be exerting an influence upon the earth, as attested to by the Awareness.
This idea, that this “god-like” being not only created humanity but is also still involving itself with humanity affairs creates a big shift for our characters. Whyatt, who had been interested in the whole idea, becomes offended at the idea of such ongoing interference. Meanwhile, Chandra, who had been skeptical, beings to wonder if this could explain why things are they way they are in the universe.
Survivors from the other expedition show up. These are the guys who hired Fitzwallace, and they are angry and also looking for another ship (as there’s was destroyed). Open hostilities are about to break out when suddenly Daniels shows, lurching like a zombie. The rival expedition members attempt to shoot him but the light in the temple (from glowing rocks) suddenly dims and something in the darkness attacks them. Two of their members are killed, while others escape. Duncan’s expedition flee in all directions, and get lost in the temple.
Duncan himself suddenly comes face to face with Daniels, who does not wear a space suit and seems to even be recovering from his injuries. He grabs Duncan–still moving with awkward, lurching movements–and rips off his helmet. Amazingly, Duncan finds he can breathe. He attempts to communicate with Daniels, but Daniels speaks only in unintelligible mumblings.
Eventually, all of Duncan’s people are brought back together, now all realizing they can breathe in the temple, and removing their helmets. Whyatt attempts to communicate with Daniels, who begins to speak in some English words. When they ask who he is (realizing that he’s not Daniels any longer), he continues to mumble but with his speech gradually making more sense. They realize he’s talking about “God.”
This goes on for some time. Duncan privately signals Soren and tells him to remain at the ship for now. Weatherley is quite shaken by everything that is happening. She is a scientist and an historian, but also a devout woman of faith, and the idea that her God might actually just be a distorted understanding of this alien intelligence is deeply unsettling.
As communication with the Being (via Daniels’ body) continues, the final expedition arrives (the team from China). The South African survivors also make plans.
The Being seems to grow angry. It is immensely powerful and is in complete control of its environment. It separates Duncan’s group and frighteningly “interrogates” each person, wanting to know how they view their purpose in life.
Chandra insists that his confidence is in himself, and he is just trying to do his job and enjoy things on the way.
Fitzwallace actually pledges his loyalty to the Being–he never believed in God before, but now he’s ready to sign up and serve it.
Whyatt is defiant–even if the Being thinks its God, it’s going to discover that human beings don’t have much interest in it anymore.
Louisa is broken down by the ordeal–she believes that if the Being is God, then her life has suddenly lost purpose. The Being is intrigued–why would she say this? Louisa ends up sharing something of the reasons for her faith–experiences she had throughout her life that convinced her God is real, and not just real, but active and involved in a loving and holy way. The Being repeats some of her words, but the communication is still confused. Louisa understands that the Being is claiming to be the God she believed in, an idea terrifies her. Because as powerful as the Being is, it is not the same as the God she always believed in, which would mean that her faith was a delusion.
Duncan overhears this conversation, and makes a decision. He contacts Soren to tell him to prepare something.
But at the same time, the members of Chinese expedition, plus the South African team, are entering the Temple again. Fitzwallace has decided that to serve the Being, he will kill these “infidels” who want to use the Being’s power and knowledge for selfish reasons. He provokes a full-on open battle takes place. Whyatt is injured, and Fitzwallace himself is killed.
Members of the other expeditions are also killed as the environment itself seems to turn against them. Eventually, Weatherley realizes that the Being is actually the ruins of the civilization that they have found: it exists in the form of the dead city, the historical writings, and the temple itself. (To be clear, all that stuff isn’t an illusion, it’s actually the form that this amorphous thing has taken).
In the midst of this, Louisa and Duncan find each other, and then find the Being again, still talking “through” Daniels, moaning deeply. Louisa thinks that this is because Daniels has taken several gunshot wounds, but she realizes that this isn’t the case when those wounds are healed right in front of her. Eventually, she realizes that the Being is weeping (but just not doing it like a human being would). She reaches out to it, to try to comfort it, and in doing so she makes a mental connection with it, and realizes that it’s loneliness is the thing that she felt during the Awakening all that time ago. Duncan, however, talks sternly to the Being–mocking it for being lonely, for being sad. He turns to walk away, but Louisa catches up with him.
At this point Duncan reveals his true plan: he financed this expedition so he could get into space and find God, if he’s out there, so he can kill him. During the Awareness, Duncan became aware of a power out there so much greater than his own, and that idea is so deeply offensive to him that he could not allow it to exist. He and Louisa have a fierce argument. Louisa has realized that the Being is not God–indeed, all of their evidence about the Being claiming to be God is not what they thought. Rather than claims to be God, the historical writings are the Being’s questions about God. She has realized that the Being is on the same sort of search for meaning and purpose that she has–that they all have.
But Duncan’s not having any of it. He’s not on a quest for self-discovery. He’s on a mission to destroy his greatest rival. Duncan intends to use a doomsday device he has hidden within a disposable part of his ship to destroy the Dwarf Planet. Only Soren and Daniels himself knew of this plan. When Louisa refuses to go along with this, Duncan attempts to kill her, but she escapes. Duncan, however, puts on his space suit, and destroys all the others, and leaves.
Louisa finds Chandra and Whyatt. Chandra has administered first aid to Whyatt to keep her alive for the moment. They discover their space helmets are sabotaged, and they have know way of leaving. Louisa returns to Daniels, and finds him still broken and weeping. She asks him for help, but he is unresponsive. She pleads with him, and in doing so shares about her faith in Jesus and about how that gives her hope in darkness.
Just then, some of the Chinese expedition find them, still prepared for battle. The Being is galvanized into action. He disarms them long enough for Louisa to convince them they are not the enemy. All of the enemies are either dead (Fitzwallace and the members of the rival expedition) or escaping (Duncan).
Duncan is making his way across the dwarf planet toward his ship, but the ground starts shaking. He is nearly killed when Soren appears, rescuing him and helping him return to the ship. Once on board, they prepare to lift off, intending to release the Doomsday Device immediately after.
Meanwhile, the Chinese crew have found enough spare space suits (from the various dead people) for Chandra and Whyatt, but there’s not enough for Louisa. She volunteers to wait for the other to get to the Chinese ship, and then return for her with a space suit. After the others leave, she and the Being continue to communicate, and grow deeper in their understanding of each other, their mutual searches for meaning, and how Louisa found peace. They also learn that the Being is not responsible for life or even religious belief on earth. What it did do was sense life like itself on earth–beings with questions like it has–and thus starting making its way toward them.
Duncan and Soren lift off, and then launch the Doomsday Device. It goes off, beginning a chain reaction that will destroy the Dwarf Planet. But they have not understood the true nature of the Being. It wasn’t just the ruins or the temple…it is the entire planet itself. As the ship is pulling away, the writhing planet itself reaches up and destroys their ship, killing both men.
The Doomsday Device is destroying the Being, but it remains alive long enough to help Louisa. He literally moves part of the temple and its air across the landscape for her, keeping her alive and allowing her to get to the Chinese space ship. The ship takes off, with Louisa safely on board, just as the planet is destroyed.
In that moment, all the survivors experience an overwhelming mental awareness of the Being’s whole existence–immensely old but still not infinite, forever searching for meaning and purpose to its long life, in its desperate attempt to know its creator. In its last moments, it makes one final attempt to reach out with its consciousness, not just to other people but into the spirit of the universe–wondering if there a Being Above All who knows him and calls him? Somehow, Louisa knows that before it died, the Being came to see something in the midst of true eternity, and understood that it was not alone, that it had purposeless, that it was indeed loved.
As they return to earth, they begin to see news reports of Duncan’s wife, making a hero and a martyr of her husband. Whyatt are enraged by this, and Louisa agrees that it is wrong. But she also knows that in the long run, the Duncans are just a little dot in history. Eternity is so much bigger than that.