The release of Cinderella Man in mid-2005 was a box office disappointment despite featuring big-name stars Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. The true story about Depression era boxer Jim Braddock's fight to keep his family together through difficult times failed to capture the public's imagination and received mixed reviews.
A few months later, Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys involved in a homosexual affair, earned three Golden Globe awards, including best drama, and eight Oscar nominations amid much critical acclaim.
The cinematography of Brokeback Mountain features beautiful scenes of the American West while Cinderella Man captures the mean city streets of the 1930s. Both films deal with deeply felt emotions and the human need for love. Yet comparing the subject matter of these films encapsulates the difficulties Christians face as moviegoers.
An alternative reality
Movies create an alternative reality in the minds of the viewers. Most of us have been emotionally stirred by a movie that made us angry, sad or happy. You can probably name a film hero or heroine that inspires you. Research shows that exposure to cinema's graphic violence and sex can have a profound effect on a person's thoughts, emotions and actions.
What is a movie? It is a collection of images reflecting scripted actors pretending to be someone else.
Sigourney Weaver hasn't really killed alien monsters, although she has pretended to do it in several movies. Anakin really didn't become Darth Vader. There really isn't someone named Napoleon Dynamite, and when a person wears a Vote for Pedro T-shirt, most of us know that there really isn't a Pedro to get elected.
A film made a number of years ago attempted to show how television affects people's perception of reality. In Wag the Dog (1998), filmmakers created a battle scene on a set with actors and released it as news from a third-world country. The story line is that the fake news story affects world politics. Talk about alternative reality. This was a movie with a group of actors pretending to be filmmakers, who were pretending to report news to affect society, who were actually making a movie designed to affect society.
Not all fantasy is bad—human beings are designed to be creative.
But we live in a world of alternative reality overload. Movies can warp time and space so that medieval peasants sing rock music as in the 2001 A Knight's Tale or so viewers can "visit" the fictional Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003).
Movies can have a positive effect on moviegoers. Or they can reflect values that are harmful to a person's thoughts and emotions.
If this sounds overreactive, just think of a movie scene you found disturbing, frightful or immoral that haunts your memory.
Getting those powerful images out of your head is a whole lot harder than the passive watching that puts them there.
Pointers for selecting movies
1. Select movies carefully.
It is easy to get movie information and reviews in a newspaper or on the Internet. Two good Internet resources are www.movieguide.org and www.pluggedinonline.com, which evaluate movies from a moral perspective. DVD rentals make it easy to turn a movie off if it becomes objectionable.
2. Does the movie reflect biblical values?
Sometimes a movie is a springboard for discussions with friends and family about moral issues. For two generations the good-versus-evil theme in the Star Wars movies has launched discussions on morality. It is also important to realize that many of the themes in Star Wars reflect the values of the moviemaker, not biblical teachings. The criterion for measuring any value is the Bible.
Does the movie reflect the reality of good and evil? Does evil result in bad consequences? Is evil glorified? A dilemma of the slick, star-studded Ocean's Eleven (2001) and Ocean's Twelve (2004) movies is that professional thieves are portrayed as the "good guys." These are feel-good buddy movies with cool characters, but you have to ask yourself, should Christians emulate these characters?
Be careful not to get so caught up in the story that biblically unacceptable actions and lifestyles become permissible in your mind. The blockbuster Titanic (1997) was a moving story of doomed people sailing toward a fateful wreck. It is easy to get caught up in the romance and passion of the young lovers. It is also easy to glorify the story's romantic relationship and forget what the Bible teaches about sex before marriage.
Definitely avoid movies about demon possession and satanic influences or any movie that glorifies evil. How many powerful images of evil do you want stored in your memory and manipulating your emotions? Think about it. Since movies are not real, any emotional response we have is manipulated.
So why allow your mind to be manipulated by evil? Furthermore God warns us about having anything to do with the dark spirit side. Don't dabble in it and don't watch it!
3. What is the storyteller's agenda?
When watching a movie, ask yourself if the storyteller has an agenda. Is this just a good yarn or is there a particular viewpoint or value system the moviemaker is trying to sell you? Brokeback Mountain may make viewers feel sympathetic to the emotional trauma of two homosexuals, but in reality homosexuality is a lifestyle God forbids, and the sex scenes would not be ones you want burned into your memory.
4. Is the material age appropriate?
Some movies may contain themes or violence that would be disturbing to younger children but might be appropriate for older teens. Cinderella Man ( PG-13 ) contains some bad language (including the taking of God's name in vain) and graphic boxing scenes that would be too intense for younger children, but the lessons of character, commitment and love could override these scenes for some older teens.
The 1998 war epic Saving Private Ryan was rated R for graphic scenes of war violence that smaller children should be protected from seeing. On the other hand, some young adults found the horrors of what the older generation faced in World War II to be sobering.
Of course, many movies made today are not appropriate for any age!
5. What emotional effects does the film have on the viewers?
A popular genre is the horror film—cheap to make, showing lots of blood and gore and containing no redeeming value to the viewer. In these slasher movies an evil entity runs rampant killing unsuspecting teens. Exposure to these kinds of images creates an adrenaline rush that some young people want to experience over and over in the belief that it is harmless fantasy.
But remember, the brain is experiencing an alternative reality. That's why you feel the fear. The images are being processed, felt and stored as memory.
The same is true of sex scenes. Your brain stores those images and recalls them through association. Repeated sexual images create a false sense of what real sex is like.
Some people, especially men, can become addicted to sexual images to the point that they are unable to experience a loving sexual relationship with a real person.
Radio (2003), starring Cuba Gooding Jr., is an example of a movie with positive emotional impact. Based on a true story, it follows the relationship between a coach and a mentally handicapped man who helps unite an entire community. Seabiscuit (2003) is another movie that creates positive emotions based on real-life experiences.
6. Expand your movie experiences.
It's hard to beat the special effects of Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), but the character development of older movies can be worth the concentration. The plot development of Casablanca (1942), the 1959 epic Ben-Hur (the chariot race in Ben-Hur was done with no computerized special effects) or an Alfred Hitchcock mystery can be rewarding. And don't pass up some great animation that may entertain children but contains adult-level humor like Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Shrek (2001) and Shrek 2 (2004).
It is important to remember that movie images will be stored in your memory for a lifetime. Many movies contain both good themes and unbiblical themes. Many will contain bad language or scenes that you must recognize as wrong. It is important to analyze those scenes even in good films. There are many movies Christians need to avoid because they are spiritually and emotionally damaging.
Movies are one of the most remarkable expressions of creativity.
Things have come a long way from the 1933 King Kong to the special effects of the newest version.
Movies will always be a powerful force in creating mental and emotional responses to well-crafted (and, many times, not so wellcrafted) stories recorded in images and mixed with music.
King David wrote, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes" (Psalm 101:3). Life involves choices, and all choices involve good and bad consequences. Choose your movies carefully. VT
Editor's note: References to movies in this article are not endorsements by the author or Vertical Thought.