Mar 30, 2016

From ‘Exodus’ to ‘God’s Not Dead 2’: The new wave of religious movies, explained

Stephanie Merry
The Washington Post
March 30, 2016

If there were a family tree for modern religious movies, the forefather would be Mel Gibson's 2004 phenomenon "The Passion of the Christ." Made for $30 million, the R-rated drama went on to gross more than $600 million worldwide. Then it spawned a huge brood of descendants, including the recent release "Miracles From Heaven" and "God's Not Dead 2," which comes out Friday.

Hollywood observers tend to group these movies together as part of a faith-based trend that earned 2014 the nickname "the Year of the Bible Film." But, like any family, the offspring aren't all alike. In fact, the movies tend to fall into a handful of different camps. Some are most interested in spreading the Gospel, while others seem preoccupied with raking in returns. Here's a look at how the groups break down.

Attempted proselytizers

Examples: "God's Not Dead," "War Room"

If actor Kevin Sorbo or "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron is involved, you're most likely watching a movie with the explicit goal of evangelizing. That objective is more important than production values or plot, which explains why these movies fare so poorly with critics.

Not that bad reviews are stopping ticket buyers. Just look at "War Room," a ham-fisted 2015 movie about a caddish jerk and thief who almost loses everything before he's saved by prayer. The drama made $68 million on a budget of $3 million. That's a similar return on investment to "God's Not Dead," which came out the year before and starred Sorbo as a philosophy professor who forces his students to renounce God but gets a religious reawakening instead.

That isn't to say that all such movies do well. For every "Fireproof" (faith saves a man's marriage), a 2008 film that made 67 times more money than it cost to make, there are a few bombs like 2014's "A Long Way Off" (a modern-day prodigal-son parable), which pulled in just $30,000 at the box office despite an endorsement from Fox News host Sean Hannity.

The religious-ish blockbusters

Examples: "Noah," "Exodus: Gods and Kings," "Left Behind"

Sure, the titles sound like something from Sunday school, but the stories aren't too concerned with biblical accuracy. The approach (so far) doesn't delight the devout or the secular crowd.

Ridley Scott directed "Exodus" (2014), which starred Christian Bale as Moses and never had a hope of making back its $140 million budget. It pulled in $60 million domestically after terrible reviews. "Noah" (2014), directed by Darren Aronofsky, fared slightly better. The biblical epic with Russell Crowe as the ark builder brought in $101 million domestically on a budget of $125 million. It was supposed to be a success for Aronofsky, in his first foray into mainstream moviemaking after a series of art-house accomplishments.

That success didn't quite happen. Maybe it was because the director told the New Yorker that "Noah" was "the least Biblical Biblical film ever made." And it really did feel that way. The disaster movie seemed like a pretty typical action drama, but one that the studio probably greenlighted to lure the faithful by using nothing more than a biblical title.

Sorbo thinks Hollywood learned its lesson about using self-described atheists, such as Scott.

"You don't get atheist directors to direct movies that deal with the Bible," he told Fox News. "It's ridiculous — at least get an agnostic!"

The starrier, subtler crossover attempts

Examples: "Miracles From Heaven," "Heaven Is for Real," "90 Minutes in Heaven," "Captive"

Because so many faith-based movies tend to inelegantly pontificate, the genre can be a non-starter for some. But what if a faith-based movie had a little more star power and a little less sermonizing? That's the balance some studios are trying to find. And it's working.

"Miracles From Heaven" stars Jennifer Garner as the mother of a sick girl who's suddenly cured. The movie has made $34 million, on a budget of $13 million, since its March 16 opening, and the turnout may be thanks to a slightly less religion-centric approach.

Director Patricia Riggen told the Associated Press, "I wanted to make the movie have a wide appeal and be able to be seen and enjoyed by people of any faith or no faith at all."

Like "Heaven Is for Real" (2014), which starred Greg Kinnear as the father of a boy who meets his dead relatives during a near-death experience, the movie succeeds as a sappy, optimistic tear-jerker with or without the God element.

The formula isn't foolproof, though, which explains the lackluster returns of another near-death trip to paradise, "90 Minutes in Heaven" (2015), starring Kate Bosworth and Hayden Christensen, and "Captive" (2015), with David Oyelowo and Kate Mara as an escaped convict and the woman he holds hostage.

The art-house approach

Examples: "Calvary," "Last Days in the Desert"

"Calvary" (2014) follows a priest who, during confession, is told he has seven days before he'll be murdered. The movie contained violence, strong language and drug use, among other sins, but it also captured the complexities of religion in a nuanced and meaningful way. Is that why the small-budget film made $17 million at the box office? Or was it the humdinger of a plot?

These movies tend to approach religion with a light touch, but that doesn't make them any less faith-driven. The priest in "Calvary," played by Brendan Gleeson, was more pious and less self-important than any character Cameron has played. (That is, when Gleeson's character wasn't drinking.)

(Stephanie Merry/The Washington Post)

Next up is the May release of "Last Days in the Desert," starring Ewan McGregor as Jesus — and the Devil. The movie has gotten solid reviews since its debut during the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, and the just-released trailer looks a little trippy. It also has serious film credentials, with cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki. That said, director Rodrigo García is hardly a Bible beater.

"Some people who have seen the movie ask me, 'Does the movie say that Jesus is the Son of God, or is not the Son of God?' " he told the Atlantic magazine last year. "And I say, you know what? I don't care. Jesus — the historical Jesus, the faith Jesus, and the literary Jesus, because Jesus is also a character of fiction — they're all interesting to me. They all face an incredibly huge human conundrum."

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies and pop culture for the Post.

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