Monday, March 13, 2017

The Top Christian Critic

At the fellowship hour after church, one of my congregants came up to me to chat.  She's a delightful, creative soul, and her question for me arose from her knowledge that I love both film as a medium and literature.

Had I seen, she wondered, The Shack?  It's the number three movie in America, as of last week, one that explicitly explores themes of faith and loss and recovery from a more-or-less Christian perspective.

I told her that I had not, nor had I in my reading managed to get around to reading the book upon which it is based.

She told me she'd seen the film that prior week, and that not only was the theater in which she saw it packed to capacity, but that at the end of the movie everyone applauded.

What struck me, as she told me this, was that I'd already gone to to see what the reviewer consensus on the film might be.  I do this regularly, and particularly for films with Christian themes.

I'm not interested in the reviews of the moviegoing masses, not generally.  Nor do I tend to align with the reviews of the broader group of experts.  As a film buff, my aesthetic usually...enough to be a reflected in the perspectives of the "top critics."  Meaning, the folks who know the history of film, who've studied film as a discipline, who understand the dynamics of cinema as an art form.

The top critic score for The Shack?  A perfect goose-egg.  Zero percent of them gave a positive review to The Shack.  It was uniformly and without variance negative.

This did not surprise me.  The trailers for The Shack were mostly cast in oversaturated pastel hues, rich with intense color.  That tends to signal a film that is Hollywood-spiritual, redolent with the psilocybin visuals of films like What Dreams May Come.  The screenwriting was intentionally familiar, offering up soul-advice that we've likely heard many times before.  The film's trailer promises an experience that would be deeply earnest and ultimately positive.  And earnestly positive?  That doesn't fly with critics.  It's just not...critical.

So the critics universally panned it.

But then I looked at the "audience score," meaning the ratings of those who had gone to the movie.  Their assessment:  88% of them liked it.  Meaning, the significant supermajority of those who saw the trailer and chose to go to the film liked it.  It pleased them.  It met or exceeded their expectations.  By that standard, it was "Certified Fresh," meaning it'll give you a good moviegoing experience.

And herein, a conundrum.

The Shack, as a book, sold 20 million copies.  The movie may not be a roaring blockbuster, but it's easily one of the most successful explicitly Christian films in years.

Sure, its theology is squishy, as it couldn't care less about presenting darkness and subtlety, or describing the Trinity in a way that would satisfy the Aristotelian leanings of a Cappadocian Father.  It smacks of a personalized neo-Praxean Modalism, one might grump, with assumption that this is 1) meaningful and 2) a deal-breaker for most human beings.  And sure, it has a whiff of universalism about it, which of course bugs the bejabbers out of Pure Strain Christians.

Honestly, though, I think the dissonance between the critique and the response is worth considering.  If one is telling a good story, how important is it to tell that story so that people can engage with it?

How important is it to be accessible?