culture

3 Movie Trends — and What They Tell Us About Our Culture Right Now

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By Travis Roberts

It’s almost the end of August,and blockbuster season is winding down. A few big trends have emerged in this huge summer for Hollywood. Let’s take a look at some of these themes and see what they say about the people consuming and creating them, and what they say about the Author of Creation.

1. “Avengers: Endgame” – It’s All Connected

The world around us seems more chaotic by the day. We’re constantly forced to contend with a non-stop barrage of data, and in the era of deep fakes and dishonesty, distinguishing truth from fiction is harder then ever. While life may seem more chaotic than usual, the primal craving for order isn’t new. Ever since Babel, humanity has been contending against confusion, trying to craft a semblance of structure in a universe apparently characterized by entropy.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t surprise us that “Avengers: Endgame” is the most successful film in history. By weaving 20-odd films of different genres, tones and styles into a single, coherent, opus, “Endgame” tells us that even the most convoluted story can have a consistent throughline – excellent news for those of us with a passion for teaching the Bible.

Christians see a unified story being told through songs, epics, genealogies, eyewitness accounts and a collection of letters. At times, single characters are extolled and examined in minute detail (Ruth, Esther, Philemon; Iron Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel). Sometimes the focus is on a much broader epic (see Kings, Exodus or Revelation; “Age of Ultron” or “Infinity War”). Sometimes the saga can feel like a slog (1 Chronicles 1 comes to mind, as does Thor: The Dark World). When we realize it’s all connected, we can begin to draw the line between the apparently mundane and the monumental.

When we realize it’s all connected, we can begin to draw the line between the apparently mundane and the monumental.

2. “Midsommar” – Fear’s Firm Lessons

In recent years, horror has become a reliable way for studios to make big on small budgets. This year’s newest addition to the fray was “Midsommar,” a grueling and grisly folk story about the value of community and the dangers of losing control. With its depictions of violence and suffering, it’s definitely not the kind of movie everyone can – or should – watch.

Even so, “Midsommar” pulled in 28 million dollars on a budget a third of the size. Some people might say it’s just fun to be scared, but films like “Get Out,” “The Quiet Place” and “The VVitch” suggest there’s more to the story. These kinds of movies don’t just offer cheap thrills, like the shock jock horror of the 80s and 90s. Instead, these movies expose our fears – and as the Bible teaches, properly oriented fear is the beginning of all wisdom. 

Perhaps we’re attracted to fear because we instinctively recognize that the things that scare us the most also have the most to teach us. Knowing the dangers of distracted driving can help keep us off our phones behind the wheel. The threat of hell makes us cry out for a Savior. The thought we might be counted among the goats encourages us to persist in the faith.

In a similar way, horror (when handled with intentionality) can teach important lessons. In “Midsommar,” for example, the main character doesn’t have much to connect to – her family is fragmented, her relationship is rocky and her traveling buddies can hardly wait to get rid of her. That loneliness drives her to connect with a dark and dangerous community. As viewers grow more horrified with the commune of Harga, Dani grows more enamored. The film challenges viewers to be careful of who and what they put our trust in.

By taking common and elemental fears and extrapolating them into the obscene and absurd, horror serves as a kind of microscope. Our miniscule fears are blown up to a scale where we can analyze and address them. It’s not unlike exposure therapy, as we imagine how we might engage in the worst-case scenario of our everyday fears. In other words, viewers are attracted to horror because they’re scared anyways – and maybe seeing those fears on screen can help them conquer them.        

Nostalgia has distorted the past and led to a negligence of the future.

3. “The Lion King” – Nothing But Nostalgia

Almost every major film this summer has been part of a current franchise, a reboot of an old franchise or a long-delayed sequel to a franchise. “The Lion King” is a perfect example. I may have loved it, but the general consensus was that it’s a pale imitation of the original. Ecclesiastes tells us not to ask why the old days are better than these. So why do we act so surprised when these rehashes disappoint us?

All sin follows a familiar pattern. God tells us something true, Satan asks us if God’s sharing the whole story, man steps in to fill the gaps. Often times, that tendency manifests itself in us trying to remake Eden rather than pushing forward to heaven. Maybe you tell yourself that an ex was a better match than your current spouse. Maybe longing for the church you were raised in leads you to create divisions in the church you find yourself in. Maybe you think back fondly on the days before you were saved, leading you back to your proverbial vomit. In any of these cases, nostalgia has distorted the past and led to a negligence of the future.

Many of the remakes, rehashes and sequels come across as a little hollow, precisely for this reason. They don’t scratch the itch we want them to, as we realize we weren’t just missing the story: we were missing the intersection of a film with a particular time in our lives. Like someone moving back to their hometown after 10 years gone, we find things familiar but disconcerting. Everything’s just a little bit off, and nothing’s quite where it’s supposed to be. “Toy Story 4” taught this lesson well. It wasn’t afraid to radically change the status quo of the franchise. Instead of rehashing the same familiar ground, it managed to build off the framework of the past to create something unexpected and exciting. The moral of the story? You can’t go back – and sometimes you shouldn’t even try.

Sparking Gospel Conversations

Film is a fruit of the common grace of God, an exercising of the creative muscles our Creator gave us when he created us in his image. These quick takes don’t tell us everything we can derive from the stories of Hollywood, nor should we try to sanctify every major film. But it’s fair to say that we can learn something — about ourselves or about our culture — from everything we create.

Creation teaches us about its creator. The skies pour forth knowledge about God, and movies tell us what their makers value and how they think about the world around them and God above them. Put that lens on the next time you walk into the theater, and you might find something edifying in some very surprising places. Use those lessons to spark gospel conversations with your film-loving friends, and you might find avenues into evangelism you never expected. 

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Travis Roberts

Travis Roberts is a writer and public health social worker, and a citizen of the Manitoba Metis Federation. He has written for Relevant Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, and an educational video game featuring Indigenous stories, When Rivers Were Trails. Travis lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Megan and is a member of Restoration Church.

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