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Oh My God: Modern Cinematic Depictions of the Almighty…

Religion is understandably one of the great cinematic themes.

After all, religion provides a way of making sense of a seemingly chaotic world, of imposing order upon the universe. More than that, it connects into any number of other rich themes, from man’s place in the grand scheme of things to the art of creation. However, religion is understandably a subject that needs to be treated with some delicacy, joining sex and politics on topics to be avoided in dinner table conversation. Of course, there has always been a market for religious subject matter in cinema.

Classic Hollywood produced any number of broad religious epics for public consumption, films like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. These stories blended familiar biblical narratives with large-scale spectacle, offering reassuring tales of conventional heroics often anchored in Christian iconography. These biblical epics faded from view towards the end of the sixties; perhaps tellingly, they faded out of view around the same time as that other American creation myth, the western.

However, there remains a market for religious entertainment. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of smaller Christian-based movie studios producing wholesome narratives couched in religious language and imagery. Films like Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead are clearly calibrated to appeal to a very particular market instead of a broader audience, akin to specialty cinema like Bollywood. However, entire studios exist to feed this market and provide a solid return on a reasonable budget; just look at Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage.

Nic Cage doesn’t get raptured. It turns out God has seen the remake of The Wicker Man.

While these specialty studios are offering a much more conventional and old-school depiction of divinity and religion, there is something interesting happening in more mainstream cinema. The twenty-first century has seen a number of high-profile creators grappling with strong religious themes in explicitly Christian terms, and – in doing so – offering a number of provocative and subversive interpretations of God.

Note: the post will include spoilers for mother! If you have not seen the film yet, proceed at your own peril.

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The X-Files – The Truth (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

It is interesting how the popular memory of a thing can differ from the actual thing itself.

Memory was always a key theme of The X-Files, particularly in the early years of the show. Although the aliens and the conspirators were plucked from the demented imaginations of the most paranoid tinfoil hat enthusiasts, a surprising amount of the show was rooted in real history that had been allowed to slip by under the radar: the genocide of the Native Americans; the resettlement of German and Japanese war criminals after the Second World War; radiation experiments upon prisoners; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Daddy's home.

Daddy’s home.

The truth is contained in the gap between memory and history. In a way, then, it feels entirely appropriate that the popular memory of The X-Files should remain quite distinct from the show itself. The popular memory of The X-Files tends to suggest that the mythology makes no sense, that it does not fit together in any tangible form. This is an opinion repeated so often that it has become a critical shorthand when discussing the end of the show; much like the assertion “they were dead all along” tends to come when discussing Lost.

The truth is that the mythology of The X-Files largely made sense. Sure, there were lacunas and contradictions, inconsistencies and illogicalities, but the vast majority of the mythology was fairly linear and straightforward. It had been fairly straightforward for quite some time. The show had been decidedly ambiguous in its first few seasons, only confirming that colonisation was the conspiracy’s end game in Talitha Cumi at the end of the third season. Elements like the black oil and the bees tended to cloud matters, but the internal logic was clear.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Significant portions of both The X-Files: Fight the Future and Two Fathers and One Son had been dedicated to spelling out the finer details of the mythology in great detail. Mankind were not the original inhabitants of Earth; the former occupants had returned and were making a rightful claim; the conspirators had agreed to help them, selling out mankind for a chance to extend their own lives. Everything else was window dressing. The production team had laid everything out during the fifth and sixth seasons.

Still, the general consensus of The X-Files was that it was a show driven by mysteries that was always more interested in questions than answers. This was certainly true, but it was somewhat exaggerated. When the cancellation was announced, the media immediately demanded answers. A month before The Truth was broadcast, Tim Goodman complained about how the show offered “precious few answers to Carter’s riddles.” Two days before the broadcast, Aaron Kinney wondered of the conspirators, “Who are these people and what is their agenda?”

The Truth on trial...

The Truth on trial…

It does not matter that these answers have mostly been provided and that the truth is mostly know. This was the context of the conversation unfolding around The Truth, and it likely explains a number of the creative decisions taken during the production of the episode. The Truth plays as an extended video essay dedicated to providing answers that were offered three or four seasons earlier in relation to mysteries that are no longer part of the show. The Truth is a passionate and intense argument that the mythology of The X-Files does make sense.

For viewers tuning back into the show for the first time in years, this means long expository monologues and skilfully edited montages that do not tie into the plot of the episode in any significant way. For those who stuck with the show for these past few seasons, it means rehashing everything that the show has taken for granted since the fifth or sixth season. While it feels like The Truth is desperately longing for vindication, to the extent where the show puts itself on trial in the person of Fox Mulder, this does not make for compelling viewing.

Happy ending.

Happy ending.

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The X-Files – Improbable (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

So I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study to any degree of perfection either mathematics, arithmetic or algebra without being a deist, if not an atheist.

– John Wesley, The Use of Money

Dio ti ama.”

God loves you. A nice though. An ordering principle.

Three simple words.

There are worse Gods to believe in.

There are worse Gods to believe in.

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The X-Files – Orison (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The X-Files has generally avoided sequels.

There are exceptions, of course. Eugene Victor Tooms appeared twice in the first season, bookending the show’s first year in Squeeze and Tooms. The character of Robert Patrick Modell resurfaced in Kitsunegari, two years after his debut in Pusher. In a way, the mythology could be read as a series of sequels and inter-related plots, with the show lacking the sort of truly overarching design that would identify it as a single story that had been serialised. Still, The X-Files has been reluctant to resurrect old monsters, perhaps acknowledging the law of diminishing returns.

Here's Donnie!

Here’s Donnie!

So Orison is something of an oddity. It marks the second and final appearance of Donnie Pfaster, the demonic Ted Bundy type who made such an impression in Irresistible. Much like Robert Patick Modell or Eugene Victor Tooms, Donnie Pfaster was popular enough the bringing him back made a certain amount of sense; if the show had to do a “sequel” episode, Donnie was as good a candidate as any. Meanwhile, Flukeman waits by the phone. However, the question remains: why?

What is the point of bringing back Donnie? What didn’t the show do last time that it would do this time? It’s a very basic, very fundamental question. Unfortunately, Orison does not have much of an answer.

Finger food...

Finger food…

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The X-Files – All Souls (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

There are a lot of aspects of The X-Files that mark it as an artifact of the nineties.

It is easy to point to all the visual cues and indicators – the mobile phones, the suits, the cars. The political elements are all in play as well – the unquestioned assumption that the United States is the global superpower, the indulgence in a paranoia that exists in sharp contrast to the material prosperity surrounding it. There are even any number of pop cultural references buried within episodes themselves – from Byers and Frohike joking about Bill Clinton’s haircut in Fearful Symmetry to Scully quoting Babe in Home.

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

However, perhaps the most obvious indicator of the nineties is the way that The X-Files seems to fetishise absolute and unquestioning faith. Through episodes like Miracle Man, RevelationsAll Souls and Signs and Wonders, there is the recurring sense that giving oneself over absolutely and completely to religious faith is a sign of strength and certainty. At times, it seems like the writers are almost envious of those who have unwavering conviction in their beliefs amid the wry cynicism of the nineties.

The X-Files finds something romantic in such pure and uncompromised faith. After all, Gethsemane had proved that even Mulder has his doubts. This fixation on unquestioning religious belief made a great deal of sense against the backdrop of nineties disillusionment, but it a lot more uncomfortable when examined in hindsight through the prism of the early twenty-first century.

Scully has seen the light...

Scully has seen the light…

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The X-Files – Patient X (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

This should not work.

There are lots of reasons why Patient X and The Red and the Black should simply implode under their own weight. Most obviously, they are scripts that are rather blatantly just piling more and more back story and convolution onto a framework that is already overloaded and over-stretched. They are introducing new characters at a late stage of the game. They rely on contrivance and sketchy character development. They seem to exist at odds with the script for The X-Files: Fight the Future, which had been written and shot, but was awaiting release.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

However, despite all this, Patient X and The Red and the Black work very well together. They are the strongest story-driven mythology two-parter since Nisei and 731 at the start of the third season. There is an energy and drive to Patient X and The Red and the Black that has been largely absent from the show’s big blockbuster two-parters since Herrenvolk at the start of the fourth season. After a year-and-a-half treading water as the release date of the movie draws ever closer, it is nice to see Chris Carter cut completely loose.

Patient X and The Red and the Black form a story which doesn’t seem at all worried about what any of this means for the summer realise of Fight the Future. Parts of it become quite difficult to reconcile with the film as released. However, the two-parter is all the stronger for it.

Fog of war...

Fog of war…

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The X-Files – Gethsemane (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Agent Mulder died late last night from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

– Agent Dana Scully, 22nd October 1997

xfiles-gethsemane27 Continue reading