Taking God to the Movies (5): What Ocean’s 11, The Incredibles, The Notebook, Cast Away, Hannibal, The Gladiator, The Green Mile, and Other Movies Have to Say about God, the Gospel, & Life

Taking God to the Movies (5): What Ocean’s 11, The Incredibles, The Notebook, Cast Away, Hannibal, The Gladiator, The Green Mile, and Other Movies Have to Say about God, the Gospel, & Life

Bruce Riley Ashford

In the last two installments of “Taking God to the Movies,” we covered the nine elements of (nearly) every movie and then applied those nine elements to two particular movies, Braveheart and Tommy Boy. In this post, I will choose six “themes” that are prevalent in Hollywood and list a movie or two that I think express each theme. Several of the themes are ones with which I agree, and several of the themes are ones with which I disagree. I will provide a very brief response to each movie.

1. Rules are Bad:

This category is a sort of catch-all for those movies that have themes such as “moral rules are enslaving,” “Judeo-Christian morality is bad,” and “crime is cool.”

The Ocean’s Trilogy: Three of the most worthless movies in the history of American cinema are Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13. Ironically, they are also three of the most popular. One of the themes of these movies is that when cool people commit crimes, crime is cool. The viewer finds himself pulling for the heroes (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, etc.) because they have great clothes, hair, makeup, and one-liners, even though the heroes are serial felons. Film critic Brian Godawa puts it well, “I normally try to say what I like about a film, even if I don’t agree with it, but this one is so morally bankrupt, the immorality overshadows the good. It would be like trying to say what is good about a porn film. There is a point at which the bad overcomes the good and devalues anything that might have been good.” A brief response: Brad Pitt may be cool, but felony robbery is not.

Pleasantville: This film is an onslaught against Judeo-Christian morality, and accomplished its purpose by arguing that people really “come alive” when they make choices against societal norms such as marriage. At the beginning, the film is set in black and white, but at the moment that the actress decides to commit adultery (by picking an apple off the tree), the screen turns to color. The implication is that traditional moral norms are oppressive. A brief response: God’s moral law is given to set us free, not to enslave us.

2. Family is Good:

The Incredibles: One of the best films in recent memory. Its incredible J. At the beginning of this animated children’s film, the family of five superheroes is weakened by internal irritations and arguments. But by the end of the movie, the family has realized that its real enemies are external. Their deep bond is revealed as each person uses his or her unique power (which reflects their individual personality traits) to strengthen the family. Along the way, The Incredibles criticizes the culture of entitlement, lawsuits, and blameshifting that has grown in the United States. A brief response: I agree with the several intertwined themes.

Other flicks with pro-family elements are Family Man, The Patriot, and The Gladiator.

3. Love is a serious commitment:

The Notebook: OK, I know I’m going to take a beating from the male species for this one. I’m going to say that one of the best Hollywood movies of the past several decades is The Notebook. It is one of the few movies that presents a realistic and robust view of love and marriage. It refuses to paint a simplistic or superficial picture of love and marriage. The movie begins with a scene in which an old man reads a love story every day to an elderly woman (Allie). The viewer soon finds out that the elderly woman, Allie, has dementia and cannot remember her past. The old man, Noah, is her husband, who comes to her room daily to read her their loves story until, at the end of the story each day, she realizes that the story is about her love story, and the man reading the story is her husband. The rest of the movie tells the tale of how they came to love one another and marry. The Notebook’s view of love is realistic and robust. It portrays marriage as difficult but worthwhile and that it is forever, and not just for a season. A brief response: The movies is very strongly pro-marriage and pro-family, but does not make clear that human love is not ultimate.

4. God does not exist:

Cast Away: This movie turns Robinson Crusoe on its head. The lead character, played by Tom Hanks, is alone on an island, but unlike Robinson Crusoe the point of the story is that we are alone in the universe. There is no God. Hanks buries the deceased pilot, and after the funeral says, simply, “so that’s it,” implying that there is no after life. Hanks relives the evolutionary stages of mankind by finding shelter, building fire, etc., implying that there is no Creator. There is one spiritual symbol in the movie, a volleyball which Hanks names “Wilson,” but Wilson is a human construction who serves merely as an emotional crutch, implying that there is no God other than human projections. A brief response: The message of Cast Away is antithetical to the gospel.

Other movies promoting a naturalist view of the universe include Bicentennial Man, The Hannibal trilogy, and perhaps Forrest Gump.

5. The Christian gospel is false and harmful:

The Da Vinci Code: Tom Hanks has chosen to star in quite a few films that are blatantly antithetical to the gospel, and this is yet another. In the movie, Langdon (Hanks) asserts that wherever the one true God has been preached, there has been killing in his name. The implication is the monotheism is a murderous worldview. The author, Dan Brown, pens this book as a piece of fiction, but also claims that it is based on facts. This is his way of saying anything negative he wants to about Christianity, implying that those things are true, and when the smart viewer realizes his assertions are not based on historical fact, he throws up his hands and claims, “But its just a work of fiction.” A brief response: A hypocritical and deceptive move.

Hannibal: This decadent and desensitizing movie tells the fictive history of Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins). As Brian Godawa points out, this movie is an intentional mockery of the Christian gospel. The hero of the movie is an agent of darkness and death (Hannibal the Cannibal) instead of Light and Life (Christ). The man who betrays Hannibal in the movie (Pazzi, a police officer) does so for $3 million, which is a play off of Judas’ pieces of silver. Pazzi is killed, like Judas Iscariot, by being hung upside down and his guts spilling to the ground. Hannibal, like Jesus, has a last supper, but Hannibal’s supper is one in which he kills and eats another man’s body. Unlike Jesus, who offered his own body that others might live, Hannibal sacrifices others so that he may devour them. The movie ends with an ascension with Hannibal seated in a jet as it ascends into the sky. Throughout the movie, the writer and director portray Hannibal as a likeable and winsome hero. He is smart, funny, cultured and likeable. A brief response: The theme of this movie is despicable.

6. The Christian gospel is true and good:

There are more than a few movies that, in one way or another, are positive toward the gospel. Les Miserables is the story of a convicted prisoner whose life is transformed by the grace and mercy shown him by another man. The theme of grace and mercy runs throughout the story, making this a fine movie. The Green Mile is the story of a wrongly accused minority, John Coffey, who is able to heal infirmities by touch, by taking the disease into himself, suffering pain because of the disease, and later releasing the disease. In the end, not only does Coffee die in the place of the real killer, but the screenwriter informs us that the electric chair was never used again. This story intentionally parallels the gospel, as Jesus was a wrongly accused minority who heals us by taking our sin on his shoulders, dying in our place, and in dying defeating death. Braveheart is a movie in which the hero’s death became the loss that won Scotland’s freedom, just as Jesus’ death is the loss that wins our freedom.

A brief response: These movies parallel the gospel in significant ways, but of course the movies themselves are not the gospel.

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  1. Jason Lewis   •  

    I am a male and I liked the Notebook. But then again, I am just smoove like that. :)

  2. Squatdude   •  

    I agree that The Incredibles is one of the best movies in recent memory but I am not sure you have rightly discerned its main theme. Surely, the family aspects you noted are key themes and tie the other sub-themes together. But Bob is not an insurance jockey. He is a super hero. Dash is not a normal kid. He is a really fast kid. When his mom says, “Everyone is special,” he is correct to respond, “That means no one is.” This thought is echoed later in the movie by Syndrome who realizes the same thing. Of course, he applies it differently.

    The main theme of the movie is politically incorrect but it is the fact that some people are special. This is true in every area of human endeavor. Einstein was special in physics. Luther and Calvin were special in theology. George Washington was special in statesmanship. It doesn’t mean they are of more value as human beings than the lowliest of us. But it does mean they contribute more to society.

    People with “superpowers” need to be unleashed if they use their powers for good, like Mr. Incredible. They need to be reined in if they are using their “powers” for evil, like Syndrome. When these powers are used together for good, as you point out, there is an even greater synergy. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But it begins with unleashing the power in the individual.

  3. Kevin Jones   •  

    These are well done-good read and informative. Thanks for sharing your insights here.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, you are indeed smoove.

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Squatdude, thank you for your insights.

  6. James   •  

    I’m actually teaching a class soon on a similar topic. I found some of your examples interesting, however, I find many of the generalizations to be presumptuous.

    To state that The Oceans movies are worthless is a bit harsh. Sure, the tacked on sequels were nothing more than an excuse for Clooney, Pitt, Damon and the crew to have a little fun together, but Ocean’s 11 is a very smart, well crafted film. One could even argue that Ocean’s 12 delves into the good vs. evil. And it’s easy to cheer for the “criminals” when the “good guy” is a grade A jerk (Andy Carcia aka Terry Benedict). My favorite of the “cheering for the bad guys” has to be Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Why exactly do we want them to escape time and time again? Because love conquers all. You don’t want them to commit crimes, but you also don’t want them to meet their demise. That, I believe, to be in our nature…that we want to see the best in others.

    That having been said, can’t vibe with a lot of your inference in some of these films. You failed to mention that Tom Hanks character found hope in the symbolism of angel wings in Castaway–the wings that he painted on the sail of his raft–the raft that set him free from the island. That he found his hope in such a symbol at the end of the film. I’m merely suggesting that it’s more complex and gray than black and white…perhaps a struggle with doubt as opposed to a declaration of any sort. I certainly don’t see how it could be definitively declared antithetical to the gospel.

    And while I love The Notebook (greatest romance ever put on screen as far as i’m concerned–Gosling and McAdams were fearless) it’s not as if Noah and Allie had a “wholesome” relationship. Again. Love conquers all, right?

    Enough counterpoint. Interesting food for thought, though my perspective is certainly from a different angle.

    I know you may have to knock the dust off this post being that my comment is two years down the line, but I’d love to suggest the film “A Life Less Ordinary,” as well as “Slumdog Millionaire,” both of which were directed by Danny Boyle.

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