On last week’s episode of Sounds of Cinema I reviewed War Room, a faith based movie from the filmmakers of Courageous and Fireproof. The picture is one in a surge of religiously-themed titles released over the past few years which include independently produced pictures like God’s Not Dead and Mom’s Night Out as well as studio films such as Noah and Heaven is For Real. A lot of these films have been terrible, especially those from faith-based production houses, and I concluded that War Room was “trite, thoughtless, and sentimental garbage.”
As with most theatrical releases, I finished my segment on War Room with a sample of reviews gleaned from Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film criticism. But what I was surprised to find is that only twenty-six reviews of War Room had been logged with only eight reviews coming from so-called “top critics” (that is, critics associated with a major media outlet). War Room was not screened for critics but the film had been in theaters for two weeks at that point, plenty of time for critics to see it and publish a review.
The critical neglect of War Room is indicative of a broader pattern. For whatever reason, film critics and especially professional critics have largely ignored these religious films, especially if the picture comes from a faith-based production company.
The statistics from Rotten Tomatoes bear this out. Studio tent pole movies play in about 4000 theaters and generally receive hundreds of reviews. For instance:
- Avengers: Age of Ultron was reviewed by 283 critics, including forty-seven top critics.
- Jurassic World was reviewed by 263 critics, including forty-five top critics.
- Inside Out was reviewed by 269 critics, including forty-seven professional critics.
- Fantastic Four was reviewed by 194 critics, including thirty-eight top critics.
An art house picture may play nationally in less than a thousand show houses and still get at least half of the critical attention of a big budget release. Looking to the Rotten Tomatoes pages of art house films released over the past few months:
- Mr. Holmes was reviewed by 144 critics, including thirty-four top critics.
- Love & Mercy was reviewed by 158 critics, including thirty-nine top critics.
A low budget film opening nationally but unscreened for critics can still expect about a third of the attention of a tent pole release. Again looking at films released recently:
- Sinister 2 was reviewed by sixty-eight critics, including thirteen top critics.
- The Transporter Refueled was reviewed by eighty-five critics, including twenty-one top critics.
But when it comes to faith-based movies, the number of reviews falls off a cliff. According to Rotten Tomatoes:
- 90 Minutes in Heaven has nineteen reviews, with five from top critics.
- Do You Believe? has seventeen reviews with four reviews from top critics.
- God’s Not Dead has nineteen reviews, with four from top critics.
- Heaven is for Real has eighty reviews with twenty-four from top critics.
- Left Behind has sixty-two reviews, with twenty from top critics.
- Little Boy has forty-five reviews, with twenty from top critics.
- Mom’s Night Out has thirty-eight reviews, with sixteen from top critics.
- Saving Christmas has twelve reviews, with six from top critics.
- Son of God has sixty-seven reviews, with twenty five from top critics.
- When the Game Stands Tall has sixty-two reviews, with twenty from top critics.
There appears to be a partiality by critics toward studio-backed religious projects, even if a Hollywood studio only acted as a distributor. Son of God (distributed by 20th Century Fox), Heaven is for Real (produced by TriStar Pictures), and When the Game Stands Tall (distributed by Sony Pictures) were all backed by a major studio and received the level of attention generally given to a low budget unscreened release while Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, which were produced by Hollywood studios, helmed by major directors, and featured movie stars in the lead roles, got tent pole treatment by critics.
But religiously themed films produced and distributed independently are all but ignored by critics. It’s unclear why. It may be the release strategy. In addition to not screening the movies for critics, these titles tend to open incrementally and have their distribution guided by grassroots demand in which viewers and churches request that the film be shown in their community. But in their widest release these faith-based movies are playing in an equivalent number of theaters as a wide art house release and they are not getting the same level of critical attention.
It may be that these faith-based movies are regarded as niche titles but God’s Not Dead and War Room have each made more at the domestic box office than Mr. Holmes and Love & Mercy combined and those faith-based titles have made about as much domestically as the comic book disaster Fantastic Four. They may not be making Jurassic World money but these independently produced religion-themed films are opening wide enough and earning enough at the box office that critics ought to review them.
One thing that has been consistent about the productions from companies like Cloud Ten Pictures and Pure Flix Entertainment is that the movies are usually terrible, although not so because of the religious convictions of their makers. The filmmaking is typically shoddy, the acting is hammy, the stories rely on sentimentality, and the films bludgeon the audience with their message. In that respect I empathize with critics who have ignored these movies. Every time a faith based film opens critics can anticipate two things: first, it will in all likelihood be awful and second, the intended audience doesn’t care about critics’ opinions and may even lash out against a negative review with accusations of religious prejudice. Be that as it may, critics have an obligation to review as many films as they can and to see movies that they may not be excited about watching. And they especially have an obligation to review movies that are popular and that go to the top of the box office charts.
The job of the movie critic has multiple functions and one of the most important is to start critical conversations about motion pictures. It is not the critic’s job to torpedo a film’s box office performance (and in fact negative reviews rarely accomplish that) but it is a critic’s job to offer a frame for audiences to think about what we’ve seen at the movie theater. Those who control the means of production would rather the audience didn’t think about the content of their products. They would much prefer that the audience shut up, eat their popcorn, and passively consume whatever is on the screen. Film critics raise the audience’s consciousness and even if viewers reject the critic’s position on a movie they at least have been forced to think about it.
Movie critics can also educate the audience by talking about the filmmaking craft and how the combination of sound and moving image creates meaning. That improves the critical faculties of the audience and a savvy viewership demands better movies, which filmmakers are then obligated to satisfy, thus elevating the whole enterprise.
There is another role of the critic, one that is very important but rarely discussed. Even though critics are maligned as elitist snobs, the fact is that they can be populist voices. Whether it is speaking out against gimmicks like 3-D or calling out racism and sexism in the movies, critics have an important role of acting on behalf of the viewers. They can attack lazy work by cynical studios and hack filmmakers as well as celebrate a job well done.
This is where the critical blackballing of these faith-based movies is really detrimental to everyone. In my review of War Room I noted that the faith-based audience is underserved by Hollywood. That’s why movies like War Room and God’s Not Dead have done so well. People of faith want to see their values and stories expressed on the screen. The only movies doing that are these awful soppy dramas that appeal to the lowest common denominator but they are the only game in town and so they do well because the audience is desperate.
But the faith based audience deserves better. Religion and spirituality are serious issues and there is a tradition of great religiously inspired art from Handel’s The Messiah to Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But filmmakers of a lot of today’s faith-based movies are not taking matters seriously. More often than not they sentimentalize and trivialize matters of faith, appeal to the ugliest aspects of religious culture including anti-intellectualism, and deflect criticism by playing into religious tribalism.
When critics ignore these movies, they let us all down. They fail the religiously motivated viewers but they also fail the rest of us by allowing shoddy filmmaking and in some cases insidious ideas to flow unimpeded throughout the culture. Like it not, this genre of faith-based movies is an important fixture of today’s movie going scene and critics have an obligation to suffer through these movies and critique them earnestly and thoroughly. That’s what it is to be a critic, especially those working at a level where they are given access to moviemakers, large platforms, and specially arranged screenings.
Critics need to be on top of these films, not to quash them necessarily, but to raise the consciousness of the viewers and to demand better movies. There is no good reason why critics have ignored these pictures and it’s time that they started paying attention.