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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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Non-Review Review: Exodus – Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings might be more traditional in structure and execution than the year’s other big biblical epic, but it shares a lot of the same core sentiments of Noah. Both films posit the Old Testament God as a primordial and almost unfathomable force, transforming biblical parables in epic horror stories. Both accept the divine as inhuman, almost by definition; both offer harrowing and unsettling depictions of stories that many viewers will know from childhood or have heard dozens of times before.

Exodus: Gods and Kings suffers a bit with its pacing, trying to boil the core Moses stories down into a single two-and-a-half hour narrative. The film runs through a check list of iconic moments, struggling to squeeze so much in that the story of the reed basket is mentioned only in passing. Instead, the film moves from Moses’ relationship with Ramses II through to his exile through to his epiphany through to his military rebellion through to the plagues through to the exodus.

"Well, I got back to Gotham in six days, I think I can get us to the Promised Land."

“Well, I got back to Gotham in six days, I think I can get us to the Promised Land.”

It is an epic story in almost every sense of the word, and Exodus: Gods and Kings struggles to contain it all. Often key elements are only present for moments before the film has to hurry along – the burning bush lingers in the background; the golden calf is glimpsed only from the distance. So much ground is covered that it is occasionally difficult to maintain focus, as Moses seems to lose and gain families with each passing act break. Exodus: Gods and Kings holds itself together under the pressure, but the strain can be felt.

Nevertheless, Exodus: Gods and Kings largely works. Feeling more like Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator, the movie does a wonderful job of building a massive and sprawling (and foreign) world. Exodus: Gods and Kings looks and feels like a more traditional biblical epic than Noah, and Scott’s efforts to ground the film in a tangible reality only serves to enhance the awe-inspiring scale of the horror on display here. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an exploration of faith and devotion, asking uncomfortable questions and leaving the answers to the audience.

"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”

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Non-Review Review: Noah

Noah is very hard to process. It’s very much an adaptation of its source material – very clearly a biblical epic that draws from The Book of Genesis in terms of tone and mood and imagery. It’s a story that is harrowing and horrifying, couched in allegory and metaphor and built around an idea of divinity that is difficult to comprehend.

At points, Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic seems to move in dream-time; the imagery is abstract, the scope almost impossible to comprehend; time and scale are conveyed through disjointed slideshows that invite the viewer to composite them together, creating a sense that this is more abstract than conventional storytelling.

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Like The Fountain before its, Noah is a story that seems to exist without place and time. Witnessing the devastation that mankind has done to the world around it, it seems like our protagonists have stumbled into a post-apocalyptic wasteland with burnt trolleys and abandoned pipes scattered across scorched Earth.

Past, present and future co-mingle, creating a sense that this is a world without time as we might conventionally understand it. After all, this isn’t the real world. This is a story. The internal logic is prone to shift like uncertain ground, the viewer never quite sure if they’ve properly found their footing. Aronofsky’s vision is at times frustratingly oblique, but more than occasionally brilliant.

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It captures a lot more of The Book of Genesis than most of its critics would concede – in mood and tone as much as literal interpretation. At the same time, it makes a pretty compelling example of why big crowd-pleasing biblical epics don’t tend to draw from The Book of Genesis, favouring later – less difficult and polarising – biblical material.

It’s very hard to imagine Noah as a commercial exercise – to recognise a group that will respond to a story that is willing to be so bold in tackling its subject material. And yet, at the same time, it is an absolutely intriguing piece of cinema.

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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Arc in Space originally aired in 1975.

I’ll have to link in my own cerebral cortex. That’s the only thing.

That is highly dangerous.

I know. Two more leads, Rogin.

The power could burn out a living brain!

I agree. An ordinary brain. But mine is exceptional.

– the Doctor demonstrates his tremendous ego to Vira

It really is amazing how quickly Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes established their mark on Doctor Who. Barry Letts finished up his time as producer working on Tom Baker’s first serial, Robot. The Ark in Space was the second adventure to star the Fourth Doctor, and certainly a lot more indicative of the shape of things to come. While you could argue that Holmes and Hinchcliffe did improved over the following years – for one thing, this first season still has the odd pothole – it is clear that they immediately knew what they were doing.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes would cast a tremendous shadow over Doctor Who, and it’s no coincidence that so much of that influence can be traced back to The Ark in Space, the first indication of their plan for Doctor Who.

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor...

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor…

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