Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: The Case for Christ

Disclaimer: This review will contain spoilers. Don't read it unless you've already watched the movie or unless you don't care about being spoiled. I like to analyze movies, and I can't really do that unless I spoil the movie. You have been warned.

The Case for Christ is based on the true story of modern Christian apologist Lee Strobel and based on his best-selling book of the same name. After a Christian nurse, Alfie, saves their daughter from choking, Lee's wife, Leslie, forms a friendship with her. Alfie invites Leslie to church which results in Leslie becoming convinced of the truth of Christianity and getting baptized. Lee, a staunch atheist, doesn't approve and this jeopardizes their marriage. Wanting to fight for his marriage, Lee sets out on the biggest story of his career: to talk to experts in various fields with the purpose of disproving the claims of Christianity and saving Leslie from what he deems a delusion.

When I got out of high school, I went through a questioning phase. Is Christianity actually true? Are there actual non-Biblical reasons for believing in Christianity? I could easily have been another statistic of a believer who loses his faith in college if I hadn't stumbled upon the right books at my local Christian bookstore. The Case for Christ was the first apologetic book I ever read (C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity was the second). That made the anticipation for this film even greater for me, seeing as it was the first exposure I ever had to Christian apologetics.

I'll just say right up front that this movie is quite excellent. I'm always a bit reticent when a new faith-based film comes out, as so many are cheesy, poorly acted and poorly written, etc. But this film is quite the opposite: the acting was good, the writing was good, and no real "Christianese." You really got the sense of urgency between Lee's and Leslie's deteriorating marriage, and the conversations between Lee and the various experts felt authentic (not to mention, it was great fun seeing Lee's conversations, necessarily condensed for the film format, reenacted on the screen). There are good faith-based films out there (Time Changer has long been my favorite Christian film), but they are few and far between. This is a film that any believer can confidently hold up as an example of a faith-based film done right.

As one would expect, in the months leading up to the film's release, there was no shortage of angry diatribes written by atheists about Lee Strobel, and calling him all sorts of things like charlatan, etc. One thing you don't see, from these alleged "purveyors of reason and evidence," is any sort of evidence that Strobel is a charlatan or a faker. At best, they could argue that Strobel was convinced based on bad evidence, but they have absolutely no evidence that Strobel's journey did not happen as he says that it did. However, this is a movie review blog, not an apologetics blog, so I won't be responding to any of the claims by atheists here. You can find responses to their claims in scholarly works by Christian thinkers.

Themes

A great thing about this movie is how brutally honest it is about Lee's behavior after his wife converts to Christianity. As you get a lot with Christian films and songs, there are no vague struggles here. You really get the sense that the Strobels' marriage is on rocky ground based on Leslie's conversion. The actors in this film were excellent, which was crucial to really give you that sense of drama that the film needs. The film is based on Lee's book, in which he details his discussions with these experts. The elements of drama in the film tell the untold story, of sorts -- what went on behind-the-scenes that spurred Lee's determination to talk to these experts. I was legitimately moved to tears in at least two parts.

As I mentioned earlier, the conversations between experts were condensed for the film format because of everything else the story needed in order to be told well. Of course, one can draw comparisons to 2014's God's Not Dead, which told a different story but still grounded it in apologetics. The apologetics used in God's Not Dead weren't terrible -- in fact, the lead character in that film used good arguments. But the problem is the format of the film didn't allow the arguments he did use to be properly expounded. In this film, the apologetic arguments are presented much better, probably because rather than trying to prove Christianity with a cumulative case of arguments, Lee was setting out to disprove one specific element of Christianity -- the Resurrection -- because that's the event that the truth of Christianity hinges on. This more specific focus allowed a better case to be made than in God's Not Dead.

The atheists in this movie are also presented well. They are presented as actual people who are only trying to do what they believe is right (Lee doesn't hate Leslie after her conversion, but he does believe she's been taken in by a delusion and wants to set her straight to save their marriage), and his skeptical mentor was portrayed as intelligent and compassionate.

Conclusion

The Case for Christ is one of the best faith-based films ever made. The only real nitpick I have is that while Alfie was certain sincere, she took a verse of Scripture out of context (a promise made to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36 that God will replace his heart of stone with a heart of flesh) and told Leslie that the same promised applied to her and Lee. It is, of course, poor exegesis to take a promise made by God to an individual in Scripture and apply it universally. Lee could just as easily have not converted, as many people don't convert to Christianity. That's only a minor nitpick. There really wasn't much else I didn't like about the film. If you haven't seen it yet, go see it. We need more good faith-based films being made, and the only way to do that is to talk with your wallet.

So what do you think? Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Are ambivalent about it? Were you convinced by the arguments and evidence presented in the film? Let me know in the comments.

Grade: A+

Reason for grade: The film is extremely well done. It's the best faith-based film ever made, which really isn't saying too much, but I'll add to that comment that this movie may end up being my favorite movie of the year. It's certainly my favorite movie I've seen so far. It will have stiff competition with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 coming out in a couple of weeks, so we'll see. But it's extremely well-acted and well-written, you feel everything, and the movie never feels like it drags at all. This is simply a great film.

The Case for Christ
Directed by: Jon Gunn
Written by: Brian Bird
Starring:
Mike Vogel as Lee Strobel
Erika Christensen as Leslie Strobel
L. Scott Caldwell as Alfie Davis
Kevin Sizemore as Dr. Gary Habermas
Faye Dunaway as Dr. Roberta Waters
Tom Nowicki as Dr. Alexander Metherell
Rus Blackwell as Dr. William Lane Craig
Jordan Cox as Bill Hybels

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review: Life

Disclaimer: This review will contain spoilers. Don't read it unless you've already watched the movie or unless you don't care about being spoiled. I like to analyze movies, and I can't really do that unless I spoil the movie. You have been warned.

Life is a new science fiction movie about the discovery of life on Mars. A six-person crew on the International Space Station (ISS) retrieves a space probe returning from Mars with soil samples in it. Among the samples brought in is a single-celled organism, the first evidence of life on Mars. Hugh Derry, the biologist, begins studying it and it soon starts to grow. An atmospheric accident in the lab causes the growing organism (now named Calvin by school children in America) to become hostile, attacking Derry by latching onto his hand. This begins a chain of events which results in Calvin freeing itself from the containment cube, terrorizing the crew and killing them one by one.

I've read (and watched) a number of reviews of this movie, and there seems to be a lot of hate because this movie is seen as a blatant rip-off of Alien. Of course, any movie that results in an isolated crew being hunted down by an alien life form would draw that comparison. In this day and age, there truly are no original ideas (as Solomon once declared, there is nothing new under the sun). All movies are based on some prior movie(s) that came before it (or books, or plays, or some other kind of media). As far as I'm concerned, Life was a competently-made movie, and well acted. It was a good movie for what it was, even if it can draw comparisons to Alien. I consider these complaints to be unfounded and simply unfair to the movie, itself. The movie was very suspenseful, and while the death scenes were pretty gruesome, they were done well in a way that made you sympathetic with the character who was being killed. The movie never felt like it dragged. It was really well paced and ended without making me bored at all. So even though I've seen Alien, and the parallels could be mentioned, this movie is made well and there is enough different from Alien to make it a movie worth seeing. I don't regret paying to see it in the theater.

One of the most jarring things, however, was how they handled the wonder of discovering new life and the anxiety that comes with not knowing whether the new life form is friendly or hostile. They were in a scene in which Derry was using the gloves in the containment booth to examine the alien, and the crew was filled with wonder (with incidental music to match), then in the very next scene the accident comes out of nowhere and Adams was yelling at Derry because they didn't know whether the alien wanted to be friends or to kill them all. Of course, it's good to be cautious when dealing with new life, but there was no prior set-up to Adams' anxiety over this alien life. Nor was there any prior set-up to this accident. We didn't see Derry's negligence that lead to it, or even got a set-up that showed us he might have a problem with carelessness. That was the only real issue I had with the pacing. Those things just came out of left field.

One reviewer pointed out elsewhere that Calvin was supposed to be an intelligent life form, yet it was all alone there in the space station and hunting down the crew. So apparently it wasn't quite so intelligent to realize that it needed the crew alive. If it killed the crew, there would be no one to set it free. This point originally sounded good to me, but after thinking about it, it could also be seen as needing to consume the crew for food. If it didn't eat, it may have starved. So its natural need for sustenance may have won out over its intelligence in that regard. Plus, at the end we see the alien using its intelligence to keep Dr. Jordan alive, rather than consuming him, so it could make it down to the surface of Earth.

Themes

One of the themes the movie deals with is that Calvin may not be a malevolent life form, but is merely acting out its natural compulsion to consume food to survive. This led Dr. North, later in the movie, to proclaim that it doesn't make rational sense but she actually hates Calvin for what he is doing to the crew. This raised a question for me as I was watching: If this is an intelligent species that requires consuming the crew for food, did they have a right to defend themselves? Ordinarily I would say yes, of course they do, because the alien is threatening their life. But this is complicated by the fact that the crew were responsible for bringing Calvin on board. So they would have essentially been responsible for murdering an intelligent extraterrestrial being if they either killed it or allowed it to starve. Either way, they were responsible for the death of this being. So in the future, instead of trying to bring alien life to us, which may or may not be hostile, should we go exploring and look for alien life in their own environments? If not, we may be responsible for moral crimes against intelligent extraterrestrials, even if it's unintentional (and of course, this is all assuming that intelligent life really does exist elsewhere in the universe).

Something that didn't sit well with me at the beginning of the film was when Derry, while examining this new life form, explained that this new life from Mars could mean an end to stem cell research because it could turn out to be a better source for repairing human cells. This is due to the cell being a myocyte, neuron, and photoreceptor all at the same time (Dr. North explains, for the biologically uninitiated, that this means the cell is "all muscle, all brain, and all eye"). This strikes me as troubling. My first thought, when Derry was talking about this, is that he is essentially talking about killing this organism for its cells when he didn't even try to figure out if this alien belongs to an intelligent species. If it does, then it would be immoral to use them for stem cells. Of course, if Derry is referring to embryonic stem cell research, then in order to support that you have to ignore the fact that the unborn are biological members of the human species anyway, so it could be that Derry wouldn't have cared if it belonged to an intelligent species, as long as he killed it before it became what he would consider to be a valuable life form.

Conclusion

All in all, this was an enjoyable film, even if it's not exactly ground-breaking. Then again, we've also had so many films, books, television shows, and radio shows about mankind discovering alien life exists that a movie that deals with that is already going where so many science fiction stories have gone before.

So what do you think? Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Are ambivalent about it? Let me know in the comments.

Grade: B+

Reason for grade: It was a well-made movie, though it wasn't ground breaking or terribly original. It had an A-list cast, so you know the acting was good. So its lack of creativity kept me from giving it an A, but despite its lack of originality, it was still very suspenseful and an enjoyable movie to sit through. It didn't feel like it dragged at all, despite the one pacing flaw I mentioned above.

Life
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring:
Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams (pilot of the ISS)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. David Jordan (senior medical officer)
Rebecca Ferguson as Dr. Miranda North (quarantine officer)
Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami (system engineer)
Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry (biologist)
Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina (commander of the ISS crew).