Article Jun 3, 2016

4 questions for summer blockbusters

Memorial Day weekend indicated one thing (among others): The summer movie season is here.

Summer has meant blockbuster movies ever since Steven Spielberg sent a man-eating shark into the water and George Lucas sent the Death Star plans to a desert planet. School is out, vacations are on, and Hollywood studios that have saved their most crowd-pleasing efforts until now.

The chances are that you’ll be visiting at least a couple of these summer movies. Here are four questions you can take with you into the cinema that will help you contemplate and savor what you see:

1. Is this movie well-made?

The summer blockbuster is often an action-packed, thrill-a-minute crowd pleaser with plenty to keep your attention. But many times, it will also be a quickly made, unimaginatively written spectacle. Because major movie studios know that people are looking for some quick entertainment from summer movies, it’s common to see an entire season’s worth of predictable “formula films” (let’s face it: The Lone Ranger was basically Pirates of the Caribbean 5) or tired, umpteenth sequels.

While it’s easy to be content with something that merely keeps our attention for two hours, there are deeper joys to be had at the movies. As Francis Schaeffer reminds us, Christians should care about the excellence of art. We should care whether a film script shows creativity and intelligence or is too busy blowing things up to say anything. We should care whether a story is compelling or is something we’ve seen a hundred times before. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask a movie to be well-made. 

2. Does this story resonate with truth? 

Sometimes Christians will exhort one another to test a movie’s worldview and examine it in light of revealed truth. This can be a helpful and often revealing exercise. But the problem is that art, such as film, is not created to be subjected to a rigorous intellectual exercise. Film, like music, is meant to be experienced in an emotional and spiritual sense. It is, as James K.A. Smith says, a “pedagogy of desire,” rather than a purely propositional lesson in worldview.

Instead of plotting a movie on a purely theological grid, a better approach is to ask: “Does this film resonate with truth? Do the arc of the story and the moral journeys of the characters awaken a sense of, ‘Yes, the Scriptures say this,’ or a sense of confusion and doubt?” This kind of questioning requires a well-formed moral imagination and is usually not as black and white as simple worldview tests. But it is exactly the kind of imaginative reflection that art demands.

3. Does this film offer humor or flippancy?

To be honest, I find most new comedy films fairly worthless. Bawdy and off-color humor is one reason, of course; many comedies seem to imagine that raunch is its own reward. But there’s a deeper reason as well: Many comedy movies don’t offer humor; they offer flippancy.

In The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon advises his junior, Wormwood, on the difference between humor and flippancy. Jokes, Screwtape writes, are a species of joy, and joy resides in the orbit of God, not of Satan. Humor is part of the life that humans are given by God, and thus, not in itself useful to the demons. 

Flippancy, on the other hand, is precisely where Screwtape tells Wormwood to keep his patient:

Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it . . . It is a thousand miles away from joy. It deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

Flippancy is, in other words, a prideful dismissal of life as meaningless, a latent assumption that whatever happens to us should be laughed at for no reason at all, because there is no reason to it in the first place. I’ve seen many “comedies” that make no interesting or warm observations about life but merely guffaw at people and truth because there’s nothing better to do. These are not films that inspire the kind of laughter that leads to joy. 

4. Is this film something you want to exult in with others? 

Whenever we see a great piece of art, our first instinct is to invite others to share our joy. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I saw the latest Captain America film, which I found to be a thrilling and profound summer flick. As we left the cinema, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends to go see it. There’s something about the joy we take in things that isn’t completed until we’ve opened it up to others to exult in.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen movies that I didn’t want to share with others. Perhaps I was surprised by something in the film and was embarrassed to recommend it. There have been times when I’ve thought about what I would tell a friend about a movie, and have realized that I would have so many warnings and caveats that I couldn’t actually recommend it at all. This isn’t a foolproof test, of course; you may have different tastes and expectations than those around you. But it is a useful exercise to ask yourself, “Is this film a pleasure I can share with joy, or is it something I’d rather not talk about with people that I love and trust?” 

Summer is a wonderful season for movie lovers. Make time to catch a flick or two (or 3!) this season, and use these questions to help you not just passively experience a film, but take it captive to the mind of Christ. 

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