- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2002 1 Jan
Director M. Night Shyamalan may be moviegoers' last hope for a meaningful blockbuster this summer. The rising star has directed two films that rose above the standards of their genre to become powerful and haunting dramas. The Sixth Sense looked like a ghost story, but it became a movie about overcoming our personal fears. Likewise, the underrated Unbreakable transcended its comic book style to become a powerful parable about using one's gifts responsibly.
According to advance reviews of Shyamalan 's new film
In a review posted today, Douglas LeBlanc (
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is also very impressed. "Besides being a suspense thriller,
"It is in the second act of the film, where the influence of other filmmakers takes a back seat to Shyamalan 's truly original style and story," says Dan Buck (critic for
In the mainstream press, Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) takes note of this emphasis on spirituality. "After three major studio films—and four if you count his second feature,
We'll offer more responses next week.from Film Forum, 08/08/02
This week, Donna Britt of
Britt then claims that
Film critic Christian Hamaker reminded me that
Alfred Hitchcock. Steven Spielberg. M. Night Shyamalan?
With the release of Shyamalan's third film,
But most critics are more interested in discussing what makes
Mel Gibson stars in the film as Graham Hess, a former Episcopalian minister who has turned against his former faith after a traumatic event. (I will be purposefully vague here. The film is a richer experience if you know very little about it ahead of time.) He lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), raises a small crop of corn, and tries to go on without God. But when strange things start rustling the cornstalks at night, and a crop circle appears on his property, he searches for rational explanations and resists his children's imaginative theories. He also refuses to pray. When television newscasts connect the strange occurrence to a broader problem that could indeed be bad news for Planet Earth, fear hits Hess hard. As he prepares to protect his family from some mysterious threat, he is forced to wrestle with his decision to live without God, without a refuge beyond his own resources and rationality.
Critics applaud Shyamalan's boldness in addressing faith, and many comment that, in spite of some illogical plot holes, the film "rings true" in the wake of September 11. It wasn't that long ago when we sat, eyes wide, flipping through news channels in hopes of finding some explanation, some good news, in spite of the devastation in New York and Washington, D.C. I remember the comfort of God's presence, but also the fear of having no answers and seeing no available solutions to the problem. It was a chilling reminder of how fragile we are, and how much of the world lives with similar fears on a daily basis. Shyamalan's film does not exploit such emotions. Nor does he paint as bleak a picture of family panic as David Fincher did earlier this year in
Other religious media critics offer the film varying degrees of praise, but beware. If you link to some of these full reviews, you may stumble onto spoilers.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "I was tense from the first frame to the last and spent hours afterward discussing the many layers of the story with my teenage boys. Don't go expecting all the pieces to fit into place and the questions to be answered in the end." Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) also finds it challenging, calling it "a double-edged sword of a movie: One side cuts with sci-fi and thrills, the other with spiritual questions and quandaries. The latter will surprise those expecting the former."
"In my years as a film-lover and critic, there have been only three films that I consider near perfect. Now I've seen four," says Dan Buck (Relevant Magazine). "This film somehow manages to be the most frightening film I've ever seen and yet have moments of joy, humor, and sorrow alongside the terror. Yet it is not emotional manipulation. It is just the realistic intermingling of the sacred with the profane, the tragic with the euphoric and despair with hope."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) also uses the word perfect and puts the film on a level with
Others offered mixed responses. Plot problems, according to Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "increasingly sap the movie's plausibility, until eventually suspension of disbelief becomes possible only by not thinking about it."
Paul Bicking (Preview) has a different complaint, withholding a full endorsement due to "a few obscenities."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says
A critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Shyamalan is certainly a fine storyteller … He understands that what the audience doesn't see is a lot scarier than what it does." But the writer calls Shyamalan's treatment of faith "superficial" and concludes that "the tale slips into stock scary-movie mode." Similarly, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) complains of "ambiguous spirituality." He explains that Hess's faith is "a windblown faith based less on God's remarkable and unchanging character than on how smoothly life is going at the moment."
But there's a clear enough resolution for Ken James (Christian Spotlight). "Fun, engaging, and sympathetic to the Christian faith, it's a film that teens and their parents can enjoy together, even sparking great discussions on chance vs. providence, God's will, why do bad things happen to good people, and other stimulating topics."
That's not enough for Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder (Movieguide). They claim viewers should not be surprised that Hess's faith collapsed—after all, he was Episcopalian. Baehr says, "Having gone to Episcopal seminary myself, Graham's faith seems as flimsy as many of the ordained members of that denomination." They also conclude that, because one character has dreams about the future,
But it seems Baehr and Snyder are asking for Shyamalan to be more specific, to offer a clear sermon about the gospel as the answer to our fears. This betrays a misunderstanding of the difference between preaching and art. It is the responsibility of the preacher to deliver a message. Artists ask us to use our imagination, and they allow us to interpret their work in a personal way. One tells, the other shows. We need both.
Shyamalan's story avoids preaching about a specific faith. Instead, it suggests a compelling possibility—that there is a God, that he is sovereign, that he cares about you and your family, and that, even if the bad guys do strike, we are in good hands. In a secular cinema that avoids religious themes, should we not be grateful for this? Very few blockbuster summer movies invite discussion of such themes.
Film critic David Shepherd (Chiaroscuro) concludes, "Shyamalan has crafted a work of strong metaphor and insight. The physical realities embody the battle taking place in Hess' soul as he wavers between faith and unbelief." He adds, "In retrospect, all of Shyamalan's films have been very much about relationship and human interaction, and the struggle to find one's purpose and meaning."
Mainstream critics are applauding the director's boldness, but some (like A.O. Scott of The New York Times) are troubled by the emphasis on faith. Others, like Andrew O'Hehir (Salon.com) and Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) find the conclusion too convenient and contrived. But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) raves: "
This month, Roy Anker (Books & Culture) offers an exploration of M. Night Shyamalan's work, including the recent blockbuster
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.