While summertime is generally the season of blockbuster hits, it seems this summer’s films have been particularly intriguing and highly anticipated, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, from WALL-E to The Incredible Hulk. Aside from the pure entertainment value, what spiritual value can be gleaned from these movies—and from film in general? We speak with Craig Detweiler on his new book, Into the Dark; his opinion on this summer’s films; and how faith and film connect.
In your book, Into the Dark, you talk about 45 films that have a theological message. How did you select these?
Actually, I used the Internet Movie Database. It’s compiled by millions of movie viewers around the world, and I looked at what they thought were the top films of the 21st century. I took it straight off their list of the top 150 films of all time, and just thought, What does the next generation think are the most important movies? I went from there—I watched the movie and said, “What’s this movie about? What does it say?” The films included Donny Darko, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so I tried to look for the themes. There were a lot of themes of darkness. There Will be Blood, The Departed and last year’s Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men—they deal with the human condition and all its brokenness. With Memento, I was surprised to find the theme of deceiving ourselves. We have an endless capacity to make ourselves feel like we’re doing the right thing even when we might be a murderer. I looked at that as an example of original sin. I kept going down the list and saw that Christopher Nolan also had films on the list like The Prestige—he directed Batman Begins and the new The Dark Knight, so Christopher Nolan is probably the most important director of the 21st century.
What would you say to Christians who will stay away from a movie simply because there might be some darker, unsavory themes, such as violence, sexual content, etc.?
I think they’re missing the point of the film. Maybe they’re missing the whole Bible. The Bible is a book about sinners in need of redemption. It’s about a society that doesn’t work—the things we do to each other, and our need for restoration and hope.
The second theme I found were films about community, particularly communities in crisis, like Crash, Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby—films that had these messy, epic issues. Hotel Rwanda—should we care about those in Africa? I thought about it in terms of the Bible—where did we get that question? Well, that’s the oldest question in the Bible, where God says to Cain, “Where is your brother?” What does Cain say? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, according to God, is, “Yes, you are.” The oldest question in the Bible is about learning to empathize with others, caring for others, intervening in other people’s lives. A film like American Beauty, I think, is presenting both the tragedy of the human condition and the possibility of a benevolent force—like it says in the film, with the plastic bag blowing in the wind. It gives us hope. It tells us there’s a reason why we should live, why we should care, why we should risk and why we should love. It’s a very hopeful film wrapped in a very dark package, and that’s the whole point of the book Into the Dark. You’ve got to go into the dark to come out on the other side and have that hard-earned hope, the R-rated truth that emerges at the end of a daunting journey.
The third group of films I found over and over were fantasy films. On the same list as all of these dark films, there are Pixar films that look relentlessly bright. People just love these movies about friendship, companionship and love. WALL-E is already in the top 10 list of all time. In some ways you could say it’s a dark film about Earth and how we’ve destroyed the planet, but in the midst of that, there’s a flower that’s still blooming. I see the next generation as understanding the darkness of our situation, but still being drawn to these hopeful stories, whether it’s a Pixar film or a big epic like Lord of the Rings.
Are there other films this summer you’ve seen that you feel have redemptive value?
It’s been the summer of the superhero. Iron Man is a great example of someone who’s wasting his life away—a rich industrialist creating weapons of destruction. He says, “What am I doing? I’ve got to help people, not hurt people.” He puts on the suit and becomes a hero. That’s the challenge for all of us. Are we going to contribute to society and make a difference, or destroy each other? Sex and the City was all about forgiveness. It was about friendship and getting over the past and learning to forgive, reconcile for one another. It’s wrapped in an R-rated, highly sexualized package, but the message is very redemptive if you have the eyes to look closer and not be turned off by the surface.
Do you think the world will perceive or receive The Dark Knight in a different light, with the passing of Heath Ledger?
It’s certainly a standout performance that I think people will remember for years and years. It’s a film about being two-faced, so the fact that you have this tragedy off-screen reflects the story on-screen. Batman’s a very conflicted character. He’s a guy who’s secret. He has things he likes to hide, and evidently, that was the case with Heath Ledger. He was struggling just to sleep at night. The Dark Knight is my most anticipated movie of the summer. I think it does a great job of showing us both the darkness that resides in our soul, and how [much] we have overcome to resist that.
What do you think it is about movies that connects so strongly with people and is able to convey such compelling messages?
Movies tell us the truth about the human condition and about our greatest aspiration; they’re about these huge hopes, heroism and terrible disappointment. In some cases, like with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, the disappointment is too great. A film about mass suicide isn’t exactly summer popcorn. Then you always have a film like The X-Files with the subtitle, “I want to believe.” The whole thing was about how the truth was out there. It was a grand spiritual search. Six years after the series, they still want to believe—they’re still going after it.
For you personally, how do film and your faith connect?
My spiritual search is intensely rooted in film. When I saw the film Raging Bull as a senior in high school, it was like this wake-up call. It showed me the destructive path I was on. It showed me what kind of blindness and self-destruction I was capable of. At the end of the film, it says “All I know is this. Once I was blind, but now I can see.” There it was—the Gospel of John was communicated to me through this pretty rough, profane, R-rated movie. It sparked me to want to know more about God: “Who is Jesus?” “What does it mean to ‘see’?” “Where do I find light?” I think the same thing happens today. There’s a film called Choke coming out this year about a sex addict who thinks that he might be a distant half-clone of Jesus. It’s completely crazy and totally absurd, and yet in the middle of the film there’s a quote from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which just popped out as an answer to all of his problems, about the freedom that he seeks from his addiction. This is not a healthy film for those who have a problem, but for those who need a serious wake-up call, I think Choke is an important film.
What generally causes you to take interest in a film?
There are certain films that you know are just fun; they’re just kind of a wild ride. Then there are other films that you know actually have some deeper substance behind them. A film like Donny Darko is trying to explore the entire meaning of life and how the universe works together. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about relationship and risk, and is the possibility of pain worth it to find love? The Lives of Others is a beautiful film about a spy listening in on this couple who are artists, and as he listens to their life, he starts weeping at the beauty of how they love each other and care for each other. As a Christian, that’s a huge challenge. If somebody was spying on my life, would my life be so beautiful that it would cause people to change? If they knew my secret, would they weep at how I live? Or would they be horrified? I love things like that. These films speak to my soul. They challenge me in a way scripture challenges me. They help me understand hidden parts of scripture.
What would you say is your top film?
Casablanca. It showed me what it means to be a man and how to have a code of honor. I saw the film before I made the decision to follow Jesus, and so I thought of Jesus in terms of Humphrey Bogart because he had this loyal code, he protected his friends and he would never cooperate with the authorities. That’s the same way I see Jesus operating with the Romans.