With Book of Eli currently doing well at the box office (in a solid, January-defying $30+ million second place) and this week’s Legion about to let loose the forces of heaven and hell on screens across the country, attention has once again been given to Christian themes and mythology present in modern genre films. But is this a wise idea? Can R-rated films about faith put coin in the Hollywood collection plate? Or will audiences be turned off by the religious nature of the films in question?
Religious themed genre films are far from new. In the '70s, Catholic horror was HOT. The Exorcist -- still widely considered to be the greatest horror movie ever made -- scared the pants off of the country with the story of a Catholic priest doing battle with a demon-possessed little girl. Hot on the heels of that came another evil youngster, this time in the form of Damien, the son of the Devil, in Richard Donner’s brilliant The Omen. Both films did incredibly well and went on to spawn three sequels apiece (and one remake.) The idea of the Catholic exorcism soon became a staple of the genre but never quite captured the same box office as its forbearers. While often becoming cult favorites, films like the Christopher Walken-led The Prophecy and the Heath Ledger/Shannyn Sossamon-starring The Order, instead found themselves at studios unsure of how to market them and ultimately became neglected cautionary tales about tackling material the suits couldn’t get a grasp of.
On the flip side, religion and science fiction have never quite mixed. For some reason, audiences prefer their films to either exist in a godless vacuum, so devoid of religion that its believers are often the butt of some cinematic punch line, or to be absolutely dripping in religion, so much so that the presence of God finds itself materialized in some tangible form. One need not listen long to the complaints about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before you hear a number of people lament the inclusion of aliens into the religious-themed adventure films. These same complaints harried Alex Proyas’ Knowing, as interesting ideas about a religious Armageddon slowly turned into solar flares and angels proved instead to be time-travelling aliens. Even the recent Avatar -- which functionally exists in a sci-fi universe free from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God -- ultimately saw Pandora’s goddess (or planetary consciousness) Awa manifest itself by marshalling the beasts of the planet into a single, primal force, and escaped the God question by describing Awa as a large, self-aware, organic computer.
But as we head into a new decade, we find a new environment taking root. After years of what many feel has included force-fed proselytizing from an aggressive evangelical movement, the Christian faith is waning (still a mammoth 78 percent, but down from 84 percent 10 years ago -- that's roughly 18 million less Christians) and a fed up, marginalized agnostic/atheist population turned off by anything religion related. One friend opined recently that while he had been excited about the new Denzel Washington post-apocalyptic film, his opinion changed when he realized that the "book" in the title was in fact the Bible. “F*** that movie” was his ultimate, prerelease conclusion.
And while a film like Passion of the Christ made an astounding $600 million worldwide, R-rated films aren’t the usual fare for a Christian base that might be excited about seeing a film about a man protecting a Bible or an angel staving off the end of the world; it is incongruous to many of their beliefs. So how will the new crop fare? If they fail, will that failure be blamed on their January placement or on their religious content?