Are Christian Filmmakers Being Tapped To Direct Future Star Wars Stand-Alone Films?

A long time ago in galaxy close, close by…

The church had abandoned Hollywood. Then, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST struck box office gold, studios created FAITH-BASED DIVISIONS, and little Christian films made BUCKETS OF MONEY. Now Christian films have earned over a BILLION DOLLARS for investors and studios over the past thirteen years.

With the recent successes of Dr. Strange, directed by Christian filmmaker SCOTT DERRICKSON and Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone film, are the forces behind Star Wars hopping on the faith-based bandwagon? Are budding Christian filmmakers being considered as the new hope for the venerable space-based franchise?

Only time will tell….

“The Erwin brothers, Harold Cronk, Kirk Cameron, they’ve all been discussed, especially for a movie about Yoda, which would involve all kinds of spiritual mumbo-jumbo,” an anonymous source told us. But this source, who met with us in a nearby Starbucks dressed in a stormtrooper costume and calling himself “TR-3R”, went on to say that the Christian filmmakers who have risen to the top are veteran brother team, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, creators of the Christian film hits Facing the Giants, Courageous, Fireproof, and 2015’s War Room.

tr3r“The big dogs at Lucasfilm like the Kendrick’s grass-roots style of filmmaking, as well as their overt handling of spiritual issues,” TR-3R said. “They think the Kendricks could take a Yoda standalone to some really interesting places, exploring the spiritual aspects of the Force, maybe telling about how Yoda became converted to the light side in the first place. Me? I imagine it happening in a golden field with lots of sunlight. The Kendricks like to do that. It’s their lens flare.”

Considering the Kendrick’s focus on family issues such as parenting and marriage, we asked the source the odds that a Kendrick-directed standalone film would also explore something of Yoda’s homelife.

“They never tell me the odds, but this is something fans have been clamoring for,” TR-3R said enthusiastically, trying unsuccessfully to sip his coffee through his stormtrooper helmet. “They’ve seen Yoda living as a crotchety old single dude, but was he a good husband? A good dad? He helped train all those force-sensitive kids, but what about his own kids? The big dogs think that the Kendricks could really explore a domestic side of Yoda that we haven’t seen before.”

The source went on to say that a successful Kendrick-directed Star Wars film would also open the door for other filmmakers of faith to step in, as the studio hopes to release a new Star Wars film every year from now until the apocalypse.

When we pressed TR-3R for more details, he grew noticeably agitated and began muttering something about seeing the new VT-16. Then, saying he had to get back to the office, TR-3R quickly slid a folded piece of paper across the table and bolted outside without another word. He jumped into a black 1976 Corvette and drove away.

Incidentally, the Corvette’s license plate read THX-1138.

Unfolding the paper, the first thing we noticed was that it was written on Lucasfilm stationary. It had been stamped multiple times with “TOP SECRET” in bright red letters, and the paper had the heading: “Potential Future Faith-Based Star Wars Projects.”

Then, the following items were listed:

forceThe Force’s Not Dead – set between Episode 3 and 4, a young Luke Skywalker attends Mos Eisley Agricultural College only to find that his moisture farming professor doesn’t believe in the Force. Luke stands up to him, determined to prove that the Force is real. The film ends with an extended Figrin D’an and the Modal Newsboys concert in the cantina while the professor gets run over and killed by a landspeeder outside. Potential director: Harold Cronk. Potential producer: David A.R. White. Release date: December 2019.

Ben Hutt – set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, Ben Kenobi, masquerading as a Hutt prince, is falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother (a clone soldier in the Republic Clone Army). After spending years exiled in space, Ben returns to Tatooine to seek revenge, but ultimately finds redemption. Possible roles for Ewan MacGregor and Morgan Freeman. Potential producers: Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Release date: May 2020.

I’ve Got A Bad Feeling I’ve Been Left Behind – also set in the time between Episodes 3 and 4, this film would explore the chaos and mayhem resulting when the Jedi vanish in an instant, leaving behind smoking piles of clothes and lightsabers. Possible starring role for Nicolas Cage as a force-sensitive sceptic. Potential director: Paul LaLonde. Release date May 2021.

Droid’s Night Out – set in the time between Episodes 4 and 5, R2D2 decides to take C3PO out on a night on the town, leaving Luke, Han, and Chewie to take on all of the etiquette and protocol responsibilities at the rebel base. Of course, mistaken identities and disastrously hilarious mayhem results. Potential director: The Erwin Brothers. Release Date: December 2022.

Lumpawarrump’s Saving Life Day – set in the time between Episodes 5 and 6, Lumpawarrump is enjoying the annual Life Day extravaganza thrown by his sister until he realizes he needs to help out his visiting father, Chewbacca, who blames himself for Han Solo’s abduction by Boba Fett. Lumpy’s fresh look at Life Day provides Chewbacca the chance to see that the universe is bigger than his little problems, and that he needs to pull up his Wookie panties and go save his friend from the clutches of the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt. The film ends with an extended wookie dance-off. Potential director: Kirk Cameron. Release Date: Life Day 2023, or perhaps Festivus.

star-war-roomStar War Room – set in the time between Episodes 6 and 7, Han Solo and Princess Leia’s marriage is in trouble, and it will take the efforts of the strange, wizened old Miss Maz to help Leia learn to tap into the force and save her marriage. The film ends with an extended force-enabled jump rope competition. Possible roles for Sadie Robertson as a young Leia and Alden Ehrenreich to continue playing young Han. Potential director: The Kendrick Brothers (if the Yoda movie is a success). Release Date: December 2024.

 

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Thimblerig’s Review • Ben Hur

ben-hur-final-posterI need to begin this review with a confession: I am not a fan of the 1959 Academy Award winning version of Ben Hur. I saw the film on television when I was a kid, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or the other. I respect that the movie won so many awards, and I appreciate the influence the film had on a generation of film lovers, but even with all of that in mind, I simply don’t get the hostility aimed at filmmakers who would dare remake a movie that came out over fifty years ago.

While I appreciate that people like the old film, is anyone really so invested in that particular story that they’re willing to be upset that it’s been remade for the modern age? Especially considering that the 1959 film was a remake of a remake itself?

Maybe there are. And if so, then obviously nobody will make these people see Ben Hur, and they can live their lives as if it never happened.

However, I think the more relevant question is this: is Ben Hur (2016) any good?

My answer? Yes, it is good. And at the same time… no, it isn’t.

But I’ll get to all that in a moment. First, a bit of voiceover narration to set the scene.

The latest incarnation of Ben Hur is an unusual animal: a wide-release $100 million dollar secular film that has been promoted strongly to the faith-based audience. It’s understandable that Hollywood would do this, because the faith-based audience has proven that it will show up for the right project. But finding that right project has not proven easy.

To help shepherd the faithful to Ben Hur, Paramount and MGM brought in Hollywood’s premiere faith-based power couple, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, as executive producers early in the film’s development. This was an unprecedented move, and presented a huge opportunity for faith-based films to enter the mainstream. Unfortunately, opening weekend box office returns do not bode well for the film, or for the experiment. As of this writing, the film has made about $20 million combined domestic and international, and films typically don’t gain momentum after that opening weekend.

[Insert chariot joke here]

It really is a pity that it’s gone this way, because – Rotten Tomato score notwithstanding – Ben Hur is actually an enjoyable movie. It is not going to repeat the awards success of the 1959 movie, and it was far from a perfect film, but it did what a big summer flick is supposed to do: it entertained.

What I liked about Ben Hur (minor spoiler alert):

1. That the leads were not big names.

It’s been argued that the film has not attracted the audience it could have attracted because the main actors are not household names. I can see this, as audiences crave familiarity, and there’s a reason why certain actors command huge salaries. Ben Hur’s only well-known actor was Morgan Freeman, and he plays a supporting role.

In this case, I actually appreciated that I didn’t know the actors who were playing Judah and Mesalla because they seemed real to me. I wasn’t distracted by having Bradley Cooper or Tom Hiddleston (he considered the role) looking back at me every time they were onscreen. It allowed me to be more immersed in the film.

2. It was not a white-washed Bible movie.

Considering the criticism Hollywood has received recently for white-washing films, it’s pretty stunning that Ben Hur’s filmmakers largely avoided this trap. For example, Jack Huston (Ben Hur) has Jewish roots, Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian, Nazanin Boniadi (Esther) is Iranian-born, Ayelet Zurer (Naomi Ben Hur) is Israeli, Morgan Freeman (Ildirim) is African-American, and the list goes on. This diversity in casting gave the film increased authenticity, and the filmmakers should be applauded for this. Strangely, I’ve seen very little celebrating of Ben Hur‘s diversity from the folks who typically love to point out this issue.

Of course, now people are calling Ben Hur an example of “straight-washing“, so… I guess you can’t win.

3. Timur Bekmambetov

WACVNS_D005_04477I love that this big budget Hollywood Bible epic was directed by Kazakhstan’s most famous film director. This is showing some bias on my part, as I lived in Kazakhstan for fourteen years, and my wife is Kazakh. But Bekmambetov is famous for a reason: he has a unique style and voice as a director that he’s shown over and over, and he was able to bring a lot of that unique vision to this film.

Bekmambetov’s style worked especially well in Ben Hur’s big action set pieces. The sea battle was amazing, because it was so claustrophobic. Bekmambetov kept you locked in the galleys with Ben Hur, with only quick tantalizing glimpses at the battle that was raging outside. It was a stunning visual example of the power of showing less, and it was incredibly effective. The same could be said about the infamous chariot race, where fast cuts, thumping sound effects, and unexpected camera placement put you right into the heart of the race.

In short, thanks to Bekmenbetov’s direction, I was never bored with Ben Hur. Unlike most films that are categorized “faith-based”, the film kept my attention from the beginning.

4. There wasn’t much Jesus in this faith-based film

I’ll also be talking about this in my negatives section, but I was so glad that this faith-based Bible period film didn’t show very much Jesus. In fact, the most effective scene involving Jesus didn’t show him at all. In this scene, Judah was talking to Esther while she’s going with a group, palm fronds in hand. It’s pretty obvious that they’re heading to Jesus’ Triumphant Entry, but there’s no mention of it, and no follow up. It’s like an Easter Egg (pun intended), and it worked. I wish they had used this sort of subtlety more.

5. It felt like a real movie.

This point is huge for a faith-based film, and hopefully reflects a new age for these sorts of films. Most faith-based movies have a distinct “made-for-TV” feel. When you watch them you realize that you really wouldn’t have missed anything if you’d waited and watched the film on Netflix (or one of the Christian versions of Netflix). Ben Hur is not this sort of film, and seeing the big set pieces on the big screen definitely enriched the experience for me (although 3D is not necessary). The film also has a distinctively epic feel to it, and it is firmly and distinctly grounded in the right era, with great attention apparently paid to detail.

If you don’t get to see it in the theater, at least make sure you watch it on a worthy home theater system.

6. Giving away ministry resources

This doesn’t have to do with the movie per se, but more with the marketing of the movie and recognizing the difference between ministry and commercialism.

It’s become common for Christian movies to develop ministry resources for their films, with the hopes that pastors and Bible study groups will purchase copies of the movie for viewing, and purchase study materials to go along with it. It’s actually a pretty big money-making component of faith-based films, and an unfortunate part of the development of a “Christian film industry” that often seems more enamored by profit than outreach.

And almost all of the big faith-based filmmakers do this.

But Ben Hur is an exception. Yes, the filmmakers developed ministry resources, but somehow they were able to convince the bean counters that ministry resources should be free.

Look what happens when you search for Ben Hur on Lifeway, the big Christian retailer.

Now, look what happens when you search for War Room.

And God’s Not Dead.

And look what happens when you go the Ben Hur official ministry resource page. Everything is free.

I have nothing but respect for the fact that Downey and Burnett have decided to give away all of their ministry resources. Kendricks, Pure Flix, everyone else – this is how it should be, especially if you are making big money off your movies and can already afford to pay your writers.

You can read more about my thoughts on this subject here, How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industryif you are interested.

What could have been better about Ben Hur:

The movie was good, and I enjoyed it, but there were also some big problems. They weren’t big enough that they soured the movie for me, but they were still problems.

1. Use of Voiceover

jack-huston-stars-as-judah-ben-hur-and-morgan-freeman-is-ilderim-in-ben-hur._V1_SX1024_CR001024575_AL_The film starts and ends with voiceover narration. I understand that you’d probably be a fool not to use Morgan Freeman’s voice if you have it, but even so, it was not necessary. In fact, it is rarely necessary. Don’t waste time telling me what you want me to know, jump right into showing me what you want me to know.

Not a fan of the voiceover, even with Morgan Freeman’s glorious pipes providing it.

If Mr. Bekmambetov had asked my opinion, I would have suggested that they start the film with Judah and Messala racing the horses as kids – establish that they are close from a young age – maybe even have a moment where their race is interrupted by the sight of Roman soldiers to establish how much Messala admires the Romans, then they start racing again. Do a “ten years later” thing and drop us into the race as young adults that they show us and pick it up from there. Forget the initial glimpse of the chariot race, forget the Morgan Freeman voiceover, just drop us right into the action.

And by the way, what happens at the end of Judah and Messala’s initial horseback race was wonderfully unexpected. The lady beside me literally shrieked and nearly fell out of her chair. It was delightful.

2. There was too much Jesus in this faith-based film

ben-hur-movie-clip-screenshot-jesus-the-carpenter_largeNow, I know that above I mentioned that it was good that the film had so little of Jesus, but to be honest, they could have done with much less. I’ve heard the term “shoehorned” used to describe Jesus’ part in this film, and I would agree wholeheartedly. It was like the filmmakers stopped Ben Hur several times to interject a scene from an entirely different Jesus movie. I wish they’d gone more subtle – as the original did. Faith-based audience needs to learn to embrace subtlety and not have to have things so in-the-face, a lesson that I hope Burnett and Downey learn from this experience.

By the way, I do recognize that the filmmakers could have gone nuts and done a whole lot more with Jesus in this movie, and I’m glad that they didn’t. I just wish they had done less with him.

3. Ben Hur’s Redemption

This one has taken me a while to process, and it’s a big one. I liked Huston in the role of Judah Ben Hur. He carried the film well, and he demonstrated that he is a very good actor. But as I thought about the movie afterwards, it occurred to me that the character ultimately didn’t work – and it came down to Ben Hur’s redemption.

The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t get it. Why would hearing Jesus say that he was willing to die by his own free will matter? Why would seeing Jesus crucified change him? Why would Jesus looking at him while he says, “Father forgive them” cause him to fall to his knees in repentence? Yes, knowing what I know about Jesus, I get it. But in the context of the story, I didn’t.

Ultimately, I didn’t buy Ben Hur’s descent into hatred and unforgiveness that needed to be redeemed in the first place. Judah, as played by Huston, seemed like a fairly nice guy through the entire film. He didn’t seem consumed by a thirst for revenge, just a desire to see his family.  And when Messala came to meet him in the abandoned Hur house, I didn’t get the sense that Ben Hur wanted to do anything more than punch him in the face, which he did. Where was the rage? Where was the hatred? It would have helped if Ben Hur had really let loose on Messala, so that the troops breaking in actually stopped him from murdering his brother.

5. The healing of the sisters

Benhur-13Healed by the rain of the crucifixion? Please. Yes, I know this happens in the 1959 movie, too, but it was just so convenient and contrived and typical faith-based “trust God and he’ll solve all your problems” theological nonsense.

Considering how Biblically accurate Downey and Burnett have wanted this film to be, why go so far off The Book? Jesus heals the women himself in the original novel, and I wish the new movie had gone that route. Or, they could have gone an even riskier route and had the sisters not be healed at all.

6. The ending

Which leads me to the ending. Really? They’re all back, happy, like nothing ever happened? I know that reconciliation and forgiveness were the themes of this movie, but what about consequences? What about dealing with loss? In the original novel, Ben Hur and Messala do not reconcile. In the 1959 movie, they reconcile as Messala dies after the chariot race. In this version? They’re all happy, back together, and going off to live with Morgan Freeman.

This detail sets this incarnation of Ben Hur apart from any earlier versions, and not in a good way. Unfortunately, it’s what we’ve come to expect from faith-based films.

7. The pop song in the end credits

I really don’t have anything more to say about it except this: what a terrible, terrible idea, to freeze frame the boys on their horses and turn on this pop song, the name of which I don’t recall. I’m sure the song is probably fine as far as pop songs go, but it was completely jarring and unfitting to the rest of the movie. A bad decision.

8. The shaky cam

My last criticism is a small one, but it’s worth mentioning. While I do like Bekmambetov, I so, so, so dislike the shaky cam. I know that it’s supposed to create a sense of being “in the moment” and urgency, but to me it just makes the action hard to follow and gives me a headache. I was so glad I wasn’t watching this in 3D.

And so, there you have it. My thoughts on the 2016 redo of Ben Hur. My final prognosis is that the movie is pretty good, is brilliant in parts, and is well worth the price of admission as a big summer movie.

And while I don’t typically subscribe to this point of view, if you are a Christian who wants Hollywood to make more fare that recognizes and respects your faith, you really should go see this movie, and convince your friends to go as well.

Remember, Ben Hur is a big experiment being conducted by the studios. They want to see if they can make a big budget film that you will enjoy, that you will pay to see. If the film ultimately fails, it will quite possibly be a long time before we see another like it. We’ll be relegated to nothing but the little micro-budget movies like the Kendricks and Pure Flix make. Given, those movies have their place, but it would be a shame if they continued to be our only option.

Not to mention that non-Christians who would never go see a low budget Christian-made film will possibly go see Ben Hur, partly because it’s a big budget summer movie, and partly because they saw the 1959 movie and are curious what the updated version will do. This non-Christian viewer will possibly be affected by Ben Hur’s redemption in a way that I wasn’t, and it might be an important point on their own journey of faith.

And that would be worth the price of admission.

By the way, if Ben Hur fails, it might not be the end of big budget faith based films.

As Yoda tells Obi-Wan at the end of Empire, “There is another…”

And his name is Mel.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 24 • 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Filmmaking

24-Logo.svgIt’s been a very interesting day 24.

First, I started the day by wading into the American culture wars, and losing a Facebook friend over the gay wedding cake baking issue.  My point?  As Christians, we should consider responding to people the way Jesus responded to people, with more concern about the people we’re interacting with than our rights as Americans.  I was disappointed that my Facebook friend – who identified as a conservative Christian – was so adamant, obstinate, and even insulting (which is what ultimately led to his de-friending me).

Conversely, I’ve been encouraged by the numbers of Christian friends who have chimed in since, recognizing that living as Christians in 21st Century America is not simple, and acknowledging that our role as followers of Jesus might take us to some uncomfortable places.

We 21st century American Christians have a really hard time divorcing our Christian faith – which should be paramount – from our American citizenship.  Over the past few years, it seems like God may have been working pretty hard to demonstrate to us that our hope should not be in our wealth, in our security, in our political party, in the president that we would prefer to win, or even being the dominant cultural force.  At the end of the day, most faithful Christians in history have lived under difficult circumstances, and we shouldn’t be surprised if our experience is anything else.

In fact, we might even find that we’re growing stronger in our faith when our lives are watered with difficulties, rather than stagnating in the pools of comfort and ease, which is what most of us really want, at the end of day.

MV5BMTc1NDU0MzgyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjQ3MDg1MzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Second, I ended the day by watching the first episode of A.D. The Bible Continues, the brainchild of Roma Downey (how did she ever go from playing an angel to being the Mother of Christian Filmmaking?) and Mark Burnett (and how did he go from Survivor to being the Papa?).

I have mixed feelings about the start of this mini-series.  On the one hand, I’m glad to see that someone with some clout in Hollywood has the courage and the vision to tackle this project.  Nobody has really ever done what the dynamic duo is doing, and so kudos to them for the ambition.  I’m really curious to see where they take this series, and what they do with the early church.

On the other hand, the first episode didn’t really grab me.  It seemed rushed, in a hurry to get through the crucifixion, which hit me as odd.  Also, I disliked the way that it was written, as if everyone really knew who Jesus really was.  Nearly every line seemed to be filled with the truth of Jesus’ importance, even though it hadn’t been proven yet, which made me feel like many of the lines weren’t earned.

For example, when Pontious Pilate questioned the guard who was responsible for expediting Jesus’ death, it seemed especially pointed that the filmmakers were trying to prove to the audience that Jesus was dead.  It was – as they say – a lot of telling, rather than showing.

It seems like we Christians just really have trouble with writing with subtlety, don’t we?

I am going to stick with the mini-series, because I am curious where they’re heading and how they’ll get there.  I’m expecting a lot of on-the-nose dialogue (which should please the majority of my Christian brothers and sisters, unfortunately), and I don’t expect many surprises, and at the end of the day, I’m guessing that the mini-series will just be alright, but nothing special.

But it does give me something to watch, and for that I’m grateful.

But why – again – do people in the Bible have to speak with British accents?  I just don’t get it.  But at least they had some diversity in the casting!

Day 24 in the bag.

By the way… a Christian-made film I’m looking forward to?

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