by Lucas Roebuck
I don’t mind Hollywood executives trying to make money by making movies that appeal to my religious sensibilities. However, when I pay $ 7. 50 to see a flick, I expect the movie to live up to how it bills itself.
For example, if I go to see a movie that bills itself as a comedy, I expect to come out of the theater laughing and feeling good. If a movie has “ Star Wars” in the title, I expect to see light sabers. Lots of light sabers. And if a movie claims to be a big budget epic drama portraying the single most influential birth in human history, I expect the film to move me to intellectual and emotional places I have never been before.
From that perspective, New Line Cinema’s “ The Nativity Story” fails as a movie. Unlike Mel Gibson’s masterpiece “ The Passion of the Christ, ” “ Nativity” seems less like the product of an artist’s passion for his or her faith, and more like a paint-by-number formula intended to patronize people like me.
Watching the “ Nativity ” made me realize the genius of Gibson when he had his actors use ancient languages instead of speaking in English. The “ Nativity, ” perhaps in an attempt to be more accessible, has actors speaking English with a Middle Eastern accent that is inconsistently applied from actor to actor. The result has the cheesy effect of constantly reminding the viewer that they are watching a movie.
Speaking in a foreign tongue avoids the bad delivery of lines, and more importantly, allows the actors to focus on delivering emotion instead of exacting lines. In the “ Passion, ” the unfamiliar language serves to authenticate the film, making the dramatic portrayal seem more real, and thus allowing the viewer to become more immersed and forget they are sitting in a movie theater.
Some may say that comparing the “ Passion” to the “ Nativity” is unfair — but New Line Cinema executives set the standard by cloning the marketing of the “ Passion” as they attempted to sell the “ Nativity. ” Churches were used to help market the film, as pastors used clips from the film in Advent sermons, and “ Nativity” posters were made available to post in church lobbies. No doubt New Line was hopeful using the same marketing playbook would help clone the box office take of the “ Passion. ”
As of this writing, the “ Nativity” had grossed a paltry $ 23 million, compared to the $ 370 million take of the “ Passion. ” Even if the “ Nativity” has an upsurge in Christmas week viewings, the likelihood of the film breaking the $ 100 million mark is nil. The movie cost New Line around $ 35 million to make, so the film should turn a modest profit once DVD sales and rentals are factored in.
The market failure of the “ Nativity” proved a few things about the success of the “ Passion” and the elusive Christian market moviemakers are trying to capitalize on. Firstly, even when pastors are preaching a film from the pulpit, parishioners can’t be counted on to “ follow orders ” and head to theaters. Secondly, Christian message or not, Christian moviegoers tend to be like other moviegoers — they reward great films because they were great, not because they pandered to a particular demographic.
That being said, I do recommend that Christians go and see the movie. I know that in the context of my own deeply held beliefs about who Jesus is, I was moved when I saw the film. But where the film took me spiritually had more to do with my predetermined ideas and knowledge of Christ than anything to do with the cinematic quality of the film.
I suppose I should qualify my recommendation for Christians to see the film. Instead, I say go see any presentation of the Nativity, as the Nativity reminds us what Christmas is all about. By that measure, watching “ The Nativity Story” is an excellent way to reinforce why we are celebrating Christmas in the first place.