Am I the only one who notices the odd amount of Christian-themed films coming out from major directors and studios lately? When I went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty this Christmas, I saw no less than three trailers for religiously-themed cinema. Among those trailers were Darren Aronofsky's Noah (starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson), Randall Wallace's Heaven is for Real (based on the acclaimed best-seller and starring Greg Kinnear), and the upcoming film about the life of Christ, titled Son of God, which doesn't feature any prominent names except for Hans Zimmer, but seems to boast a pretty strong budget. And, on top of that, Ridley Scott is coming out with a biblical epic about the life of the prophet Moses, entitled Exodus, which will star Christian Bale in the leading role.
Now while you could argue that Aronofsky's Noah could turn out to be weird and sacreligious, given his previous work, or maybe that Heaven is for Real could turn out to be just some corny sobfest, there is still no denying that this is kind of an anomaly, four religious films being released by major studios in one year. Is it just that, an anomaly? Or is it the continuation of a dormant trend?
I've noticed a rise in the number of religious films (Christian films in particular) in the past few years. Take a look at 2012, which saw the release of Les Miserables, a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic piece of Christian historical fiction. With lyrics such as "We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord," "To love another person is to see the face of God," or "God on high, hear my prayer," you'd have to be in some crazy kind of denial to say that the film wasn't religious. And this film scored eight Oscar nominations and a sizable box office gross. In the same year, we saw the release of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, another well-received film which, though its view of Christianity was a little more off-beat, presented a faith-affirming story about the grace of God. Look into 2011, and you see Soul Surfer, which tells a human story while asking questions about the nature of God's plan for us. Heck, even The Conjuring, which was only released last year, gave a rare example of a straight-up horror film that presented a positive view of faith and religion.
So the question I'm asking is this: are we seeing a return for the biblical epic, or maybe just a resurgence of Christian cinema as a legitimate cinematic genre?
One time my dad was talking to Michael Medved at a Federalist's society meeting in Seattle, I think this was in 2004. During the conversation, Medved said something to the effect of, "If someone in Hollywood would release a truly well-made religious film, it would be like printing money." And, sure enough, later that year, the world saw the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which, though extremely controversial, is the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time to this date. It will be interesting to see what perspective this year's Son of God brings to the table.
I am of Medved's opinion. Look at the past, especially in the golden years of Hollywood, with films like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur coming out left and right. You saw a bit of it in the 70's and 80's with films like The Last Temptation of Christ, which often veered toward being more intentionally controversial. But in the mid-90's to the 2000's, the trend seemed to be that if you made a film on the topic of religion, it went straight to DVD or made a mockery of its subjects, with the rare Prince of Egypt breaking the mold. I think this year will be interesting. With Noah and Exodus coming up, we're seeing two masters of the craft and a host of well-known actors and actresses releasing biblical epics akin to those of old. Now, whether they're going to be as well-made or have the same staying power as those of the DeMille era, that remains to be seen. But it seems to me that there is a definite market for well-made religious cinema in the world of today's movies, and I think that if filmmakers in the industry were smart they would try and tap into that.
Whether this represents a return to form for a particular genre or simply a trend that will pass in a few years, I'm excited to see where this goes, because the world needs a return to old Hollywood, and this may very well represent a step in that direction.