Are You There, God? It’s Nicolas Cage and the Year in Cinematically Pimped Religion

From biblical epics like Noah and Exodus to Kirk Cameron and sexy Jesus, 2014 witnessed a crop of films unashamedly adulterated with faith-driven narratives and godlyish themes.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

We knew this year was going to be a religiously charged year for Hollywood, one that would feature a well known bible story directed by Darren Aronofsky, a truly unbelievable “true story” starring Greg Kinnear, and another film about Jesus as a white man hanging out with lots of other white people, including Roma Downey.

This was the Year of Our Lord for movies, one unlike any in recent memory, a year that offered us a wide array of cinematically-pimped religiosity, a crop of films that seemed unashamedly adulterated with faith-driven narratives and godlyish themes. It’s as if a Hollywood host of execs all of made the same resolution for 2014: cash in on God and people who believe in God.

The onslaught of God at the theater began in February when the married production team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey released Son of God, a movie featuring a hot white European actor as Jesus. Edited out of Burnett and Downey’s massive History Channel hit miniseries—The Bible—the couple perfected their Christlike tale with the help of numerous screenings in front of conservative evangelical audiences of pastors and conservative theologians, ultimately creating The Whitest Story Ever Told. But despite Son of God being the kind of “Passion” made by Christians for Christians and starring Downey as the noticeably Botoxed mother of Christ, the film didn’t do bad, grossing nearly $60 million at the box office.

Though a large number of Christians flocked to see Son of God, many of them flogged the year’s most anticipated religious offering, director Aronofsky’s Noah starring Russell Crowe as the “Creator’s” protagonist. Unlike Son of God, which mostly remained close to the narrative detail of Jesus found in the four Gospels, Aronofsky’s retelling of the story of Noah used the Genesis storyline as sort of a jumping off point for his biblical saga. The director’s biggest diversion was perhaps his inclusion of mythical rock creatures—the Watchers—Middle Earth-type characters who sacrificed their future to aid Noah in his desperate attempt to defeat the evil Tubal-cain and his followers.

While critics and audiences were mixed on Noah, unlike most Bible stories that get turned into movies, Aronofsky packed his story about the Ark with action—sometimes violent action—grandiose special effects, and moments of creative license that quite often brought a mostly well-known story some much-needed life. Sure, Noah and his family appeared to shop at Anthropology and those rock monsters took some getting used to, but ultimately Noah was fun, not because it was biblically perfect but because it wasn’t and it didn’t pretend to be.

But Aronofsky’s God flick begs the question: are big budgeted biblical epics really worth making? Sure, Noah pulled in $100 million at the box office, but that’s hardly an inspired showing for an expensive film. The same is true for Ridley Scott’s extremely Ridley Scottish retelling of the story of Moses, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Though it’s only been in theaters a few weeks, the elaborate Exodus starring Christian Bale as the Hebrew hero has only brought in a little more than $40 million and its box office momentum has slowed to a crawl.

Though audiences seem tired and/or bored of seeing actual Bible stories at the theaters, one of the year’s biggest surprise hits ($92 million) was the very non-biblical but inspirational “true story,” Heaven is for Real. Based on the fantastical real life story of Colton Burpo, a 4-year-old kid from Nebraska who, during an emergency surgery on his appendix, visits heaven and hangs out with Jesus. Greg Kinnear plays Colton’s father, a pastor, who, in the beginning, grapples with his son’s crazy story but ultimately believes him because the kid knows things about his dead grandfather that he shouldn’t and because all of his descriptions about heaven just so happen to agree with his father’s biblical theology.

Despite being one of those unbelievable “true stories” that may not be true at all, audiences, especially Christian audiences, turned the film into a huge financial win. While some people of faith consider the very idea of Heaven is for Real heretical and even spiritually dangerous, the low budget portrayal of the bestselling book found a faith-centric audience in spite of its “controversial” narrative.

The other God-focused surprise hit this year among Christian moviegoers was the God vs. atheist drama, Gods Not Dead. This Christian film (made for only $2 million) included no movie stars—heck, it barely included real acting—and yet, despite its ridiculous storyline about a Christian college student that takes on a professor who forces the members of his class to declare that “God is dead,” it earned a whopping $60 million at the box office and has already inspired its makers to start working on Gods Not Dead 2.

Some fans of this horrendous film suggest that its success was miraculous, which I might believe if the film had not come with an unmissable religious agenda. If feel-good inspiration caused Christians to ignore the faith-based critics and watch Heaven is for Real, then it was the blatant evangelical motives entrenched into the script of Gods Not Dead that allowed them to ignore the terrible acting, the terrible writing, and the terrible clichés and turn the film into a massive hit.

But inspiration and faith-based agenda in movies does not guarantee box office success. Holy inspiration didn’t work for The Song, a decent Christian-made film about a struggling singer/songwriter who almost loses everything after becoming famous for a song he wrote about his wife. Even though The Song is one of the better Christian-themed movies I’ve seen in a long time and was rich in God-celebrated inspiration, its showing at the theater was dead on arrival. The same was true for this summer’s Persecuted, an agenda-laced film about what happens when a society unleashes harsh persecution onto America’s Christians. Despite its fear-and-faith-based intentions, Persecuted failed to spark interest, even from the Christian audience it was made to entertain. And Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas saved nothing, that despite Cameron packing his unfunny comedy with the kind of farfetched evangelical agenda that many Christians enjoy.

And we can’t forget the tragic remake of Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage. This second coming of the movie about the Second Coming of Christ—the Rapture!—might be the worst faith-based film ever made. Despite its marketing campaign including video pleas from Duck Dynasty stars, the terrible reviews kept even the saints home on opening weekend, leaving the makers of Christ’s comeback film a less-than-rapturous return on their investment.

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Despite God’s mostly poor showing at this year’s box office, the Most High will once again be on full cinematic display in 2015, including a Christly production starring Ewan McGregor as Jesus in Last Days in the Desert and Mary, a devout film about the mother of Christ featuring the acting talent of Ben Kinsley and Julia Ormond.

But what has this year’s wide range of religious films taught us about God and the movies? For starters, that religious-themed movies are difficult to make and even more difficult to make successful. But it’s also taught us that we—believers and non-believers alike—are rather hard on movies that attempt to portray the stories and themes of God. But considering religion is such a celebrated and divisive part of our culture, something that divides as often as it unites, maybe that’s exactly how it should be.