In the beginning…of 2014…was the promise of Bible movies.
And was it good?
As 2014 dawned, it looked like the year the Hollywood seas would part for Bible and religious movie offerings.
Three Bible epics were in development for nationwide release by major studios: Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s “Son of God,” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Moreover, none other than superstar Angelina Jolie was directing a biopic of an evangelical lion and war hero Louis Zamperini.
A slew of smaller films aimed at the faith-based market promised to bring God out of the theatrical wilderness. Everywhere movie-goers turned, there was a film friendly to faith: Christian apologetic “God’s Not Dead,” Christian comedy “Mom’s Night Out,” apocalyptic thriller “Left Behind,” Song of Solomon-inspired “The Song,” and the list goes on. In the artsy circuit, Irish “Calvary” and Polish “Ida” both explore faith in all its nuance and are holding their own in the awards races.
So how did it turn out? Did Heaven invade the theaters?
The results are mixed.
Religious Movie Offerings Score and Strike Out
“Son of God” fared decently at the box office. “Noah” opened to controversy from evangelicals who took issue with its reinterpretation of a cherished Sunday School story. It barely made back its production budget, although with overseas ticket sales it still turned a profit for the Paramount Pictures.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by self-proclaimed agnostic Ridley Scott, took a different direction. The film, based on the Biblical story of Moses and the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, plays like an atheist manifesto. Moses, a modern skeptic in sheepherder’s clothes, squares off against God, portrayed as a petulant, vengeful, irrational child. The film at time takes the part of the Egyptians, blaming God for devastating plagues striking the populace as Moses takes God to task for His incomprehensible ways. Key details in the Biblical account are changed to match Scott’s vision and the nature of Moses’s relationship with God is totally transformed. The film opens December 12.
Faith-based audiences are more likely to flock to “Unbroken,” a story infused with faith and courage opening Christmas day. When former Olympian Louis Zamperini and his WWII bomber crew crash in the ocean and are set adrift, the faith of his best buddy is treated with respect. Picked up by the enemy Japanese, both men need every bit of strength and courage available to survive the brutality of a POW camp with their humanity intact. The story ends before Zamperini’s eventual conversion at a Billy Graham crusade and career as a Christian minister, but its message of forgiveness and faith is promoted in the epilogue.
The Faithful’s Movie Preferences Are Mysterious
So what makes a divine hit? Arguably the most profitable faith-friendly movies of the 2014 are, so far, “Heaven Is For Real,” with a domestic take of $91.4 million (budget: $12 million), “God’s Not Dead” at $60.7 million (budget $2 million), and “Son of God” at $59.7 million. “Son of God” cost nearly nothing, since the footage was shot during the filming of the wildly successful History Channel miniseries “The Bible.” Those are hefty returns on investment, outpacing even blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
But for every “God’s Not Dead,” there’s a “The Song” that grossed just over $1 million before slinking out of theaters for good.
“Unbroken,” “Heaven is For Real,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “Son of God” respect the faith told in their stories. Beyond that, they vary widely. A universal tale of courage, a test of faith, a rhetorical defense of faith, and a church-friendly Bible tale have little in common to emulate. “Calvary,” which boasts world-class acting and a gritty but uplifting faith story, has won the respect of critics if not mass audiences.
There is no clear-cut formula. The faith-based audience, like its God, apparently moves in mysterious ways.