There has been a notable rise in the number of Christian films being produced as more believers seem to be catching on to the impact that movies have on the culture of society.
Among the most talked about this year within Christian circles is “Fireproof,” the independent movie produced on a $0.5 million budget by pastors at a Baptist church in Georgia. Since its Sept. 26 theatrical release, the movie has made over $32 million.
Less obvious, however, are films not formally labeled as Christian ones, but that present a Christian worldview. The latest – though perhaps not the most obvious initially – is “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which stars mainstream celebrities Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly.
Though it is a Hollywood film and a remake of a 1951 sci-fi classic, Scott Derrickson’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is laced with biblical themes and allusions, including references to the story of Noah, a child knelt before the cross, and a Christ figure, who is presented in the movie as an alien visitor named Klaatu.
“For me, the Christ story of Klaatu is so embedded in the narrative, it’s inescapable,” Derrickson told Christian press earlier this month. “And I tried to put things in there that I thought would be elegant enough for a modern audience to appreciate and enjoy.”
“I thought the Christ analogy was pretty strong,” he added.
Despite its Christian undertones (or perhaps because of them), the movie has reaped notable success, debuting this past weekend as the top movie and raking in over $31 million. Derrickson’s last movie, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” generated similar success, making $30 million in its opening weekend three years ago and eventually over $144 million worldwide ($75 million in the United States).
Though the budgets for both films were by far larger than the budget for “Fireproof,” Derrickson’s successes have been recognized and celebrated among Christian entertainment pundits. Last year, Derrickson was tapped as one of the most powerful Christians in Hollywood (No. 12) by the multi-faith site Beliefnet.com.
The Christian director has also been making a direct impact in the Christian film industry, having taught young Christian filmmakers for some time at Biola University, his alma mater, and Azusa Pacific University.
"I taught … because I wanted to help facilitate that passion (for movies), and nurture it,” explained Derrickson, who has degrees in humanities, communications and theological studies from Biola and earned his masters in film production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Though Derrickson’s films may not have the label “Christian,” they frequently contain Christian elements, which most believers can pick out and some may not see at first glance. And it’s this subtlety that Derrickson prefers, as opposed to what “message movies” tend to do.
“I don’t like message movies,” he said. “I don’t like movies that tell me how to think, that tell me how I’m supposed to vote. Even if I agree with them, I don’t like that.”
Many Christian film experts tend to agree with Derrickson when it comes to “preachy” flicks, including Dr. Phil Cooke, who heads Cooke Pictures, a faith-based media consultant and production company.
“From my perspective, many Christians are bound by the need to be too explicit in their films,” says Cooke, a producer and media strategist with a Ph.D. in Theology. “We somehow think that it's not a Christian film if Christ isn't in the movie. So we push too hard on shoving the gospel into stories, and forget that people go to movies to be entertained.”
But Cooke says Christians need to be far more subtle in their story telling.
“After all, Jesus didn't tell ‘Christian’ stories; he told stories about people's lives, and they were powerful and compelling,” contends Cooke.
Furthermore, according to evangelical writer, director and producer Dan Merchant, explicit messages can ruin or “cheese out” a film.
“The story needs to be honest and the film must survive on its own merits,” says the regional Emmy Award winner. “If the story loses the audience, they lose the message.”
So far, director Derrickson has been successful in drawing an audience, though many who have seen his latest film may view it as a Green movie as it plays on the consequences of mankind’s destructiveness on the planet.
To those who do, Derrickson is quick to point out that the movie goes deeper and is no more a Green movie than the original 1951 film is a Cold War movie.
“I think both the original film and this film are still, hands down, films that are much more about human nature than the social issues,” he said. “It's about how our human nature has this propensity towards self destruction, and whether or not we have the capacity to avoid that.”
That’s not to say that Derrickson doesn’t believe that the earth itself is not important. The director says he believes humans are the stewards of God’s creation.
“I believe God made the world and made it good and parted responsibility to us to tend to it and tend to it well," he said, weighing in on a debate that has sharply divided the evangelical community.
“Whatever position you take about eschatology and where civilization is going, I think either way you have to treat the environment with the same respect that you treat your body,” he added.
Even so, Derrickson said when he was making the movie, he was not trying to inject an environmental message into it.
“When I was making the movie, I just basically wanted to not think about any of the specific politics – certainly not the politics of environmentalism,” the director said.
What Derrickson said he tried to do with the movie was capture the present moment in history – a time when people ”are uniquely recognizing that sometimes you have to get yourself in a bind before you find the strength to rise above that and change and become better than you were in the first place.”
“Adversity has purpose,” Derrickson said before highlighting the Bible’s affirmation of the statement.
“Sometimes you have to make mistakes. Sometimes those are used to become motivators and the very thing that forces growth. And I feel that is where the world is right now,” he continued, adding how he feels America is there uniquely.
“And, as a Christian, I can’t look at that any other way than that’s God at work in America,” he said. “That’s God at work in the world. And that’s the way He does it.”
With this in mind, Derrickson contends that the way to get out of those difficult situations is by making sacrifices – “by doing the hard thing.”
“For me, if I can have any substance of that in a movie that is a big matinee popcorn movie that families can see, that was the goal,” he said.
Derrickson is currently attached to direct a big screen adaptation of John Milton's “Paradise Lost” for Legendary Pictures and also attached to direct an adaptation of “Devil's Knot” by Mara Leveritt for Dimension Films. “Paradise Lost,” which is scheduled to release next year, is currently in production while “Devil’s Knot” was only recently announced.
Other movies Derrickson has had a hand in include “Hellraiser: Inferno” (2000) and “Love in the Ruins” (1995).