A year in film: the Christian themes in 2015's biggest movies – Part One


What a cinematic year it's been. Arguably, 2015 has been one of the most exciting ever for film fans, as masterpieces have been unveiled, blockbuster series have been rebooted, and someone finally made a decent new Star Wars film. It's a great moment to reflect not only on what we've enjoyed on the big screen, but also on some of the Christian or religious themes that the big releases have incorporated. As a self-confessed Mr Mainstream, I'm not going to present you with comprehensive coverage of the great indie and arthouse movies of the year here. But if, like me, you love nothing more than two hours in the dark of a popcorn-scented multiplex, read on and remember...

January - Oscar season

As is so often the case, the start of the year was dominated by 'important' films looking to win big awards. So we had Michael Keaton's stunningly complex performance as a declining actor in Birdman, Eddie Redmayne's acclaimed but controversial portrayal of Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the brutal student-teacher story Whiplash, and Disney's under-rated Big Hero 6. A bigger film in the US than the UK, American Sniper was of interest to a church audience because its real-life subject Chris Kyle was a committed Christian. However, Kyle's faith doesn't play a major part in the movie; much like 2014's Unbroken, which omitted its main character's religious conversion, God was obviously too uncomfortable for the producers...

February - Controversy reigns

Oscar month saw three significant cinematic controversies, but only one of them involved the actual ceremony. The first was the release, at last, of The Interview, the Seth Rogen comedy which Sony had pulled from launch in 2014 in the wake of threats from hackers, reportedly in North Korea (which is the comedic subject of a fairly inconsequential film). The embarrassing email leaks surrounding the aborted launch were a huge embarrassment to Sony. Valentine's Day then saw the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, the sexually-explicit adaptation of EL James' novel which got Christians around the world hot under the collar (it turned out to be a lot less graphic and abusive than we might have expected - read my Christian Today review here). Finally, the Oscar ceremony itself arrived with one shocking omission - that of Christian actor David Oyelowo from the Best Actor category. Oyelowo's performance as Rev Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, was nothing short of breathtaking, but the Oscars overlooked him; some have speculated that the cast's involvement in the politically charged #BlackLivesMatter campaign around the time of release spiked their chances.

March - Sin and Spongebob

After the early glut of big movies, there was always going to be a dip, and despite Julianne Moore's moving performance in Still Alice and Neill Blomkamp's interesting sci-fi Chappie, March duly provided it. A surprisingly interesting film from a theological perspective was the Liam Neeson action vehicle Run All Night, a blisteringly-paced mafia revenge movie which turned out to be about the cyclical nature of sin without forgiveness. The less about Spongebob Squarepants though, the better.

April - Battle of the blockbusters

There's no-point criticising Fast and Furious 7 because about a gazillion people went to see it, but there's also little point analysing it for theological, or indeed any intellectual content. The same cannot be said however of the the sixth-biggest grossing film of all time (Furious 7 is fifth on that list), Avengers: Age of Ultron. Despite being overloaded with complex subplots, the central story involves a robotic monster who wants to judge and destroy humanity because of its 'sin', and a messianic saviour who announces himself with the words 'I am'. While director Joss Whedon wasn't trying to create a Christian allegory, he seemingly couldn't help himself from defaulting to the Great Story.

May - Hope in hell

After a slow start which included the hugely disappointing Spooks: The Greater Good, May burst into life with the high-octane thrill-ride that was Mad Max: Fury Road. A post-apocalyptic story about an unlikely saviour liberating people from a kind of Hell-on-earth, it was both the most visually-stunning film of 2015, and one of the most theological. As I wrote in my original review: "The closing moments are evocative of that great passage in Revelation 21, where John writes in v4: 'he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'" As Blockbuster season got into full swing, the month concluded with the so-bad-it's-good San Andreas, a dumb but all-action movie in which much of California is reduced to rubble.

June - Enter Indominus Rex

After Insidious 3 had proved, disappointingly, that there's plenty of life in the brainless horror genre yet, another film breathed surprising new life into the previously-tired escaped dinosaur genre. Jurassic World was a gigantic worldwide hit (it currently sits at no.3 in the all-time grossing list) and made a household name of its Christian star, Chris Pratt. Some creationist Christians expressed concerns that the film promoted an evolutionary worldview, but considering it's about cross-breeding the DNA of two extinct species, I think it's safe to say we were in fantasy land. The month concluded with the release of Minions which, while not quite as clever or funny as the two Despicable Me movies from which it has spun off, still had children like mine (and adults like me) in stitches. Ba-na-na.

That's it for part one. But after a traditional theatrical-style interval (help yourself to ice-cream) I'll be back tomorrow with a rundown of the second half of the cinematic year (including you-know-what), and I'll even stick my neck out and pronounce my personal top five.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders