We are now halfway through the 2015 film cycle. Here are ten best things this year so far:
1. The Drop Box, easily the best film of the year. See it. See it now.
2. The fantastic original world of Inside Out returns Pixar to the top of the heap.
3. It Follows, one of the best horror films in recent memory.
4. Big Hero 6 winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Of course The LEGO Movie deserved but that's old news.
5. Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. He's my first choice to pick up the fedora in the Indiana Jones reboot.
6. The twist at the end of Insurgent was pretty cool.
7. Raffey Cassidy's performance in Tomorrowland was amazing, especially for a twelve year old. Acted circles around George Clooney.
8. Disney announced that Emma Watson will play Belle in a live action version of Beauty and the Beast. My first choice too. Second would be Anna Kendrick.
9. My son developing a good palate for film. His four favorite movies currently are 101 Dalmatians, Muppets Most Wanted, Frozen, and Tangled.
10. Disneyland's 60th anniversary.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
|Christ Pratt doing prehistorical dentistry in Jurassic World|
A Review of Jurassic World by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels
After two somewhat disappointing sequels, Jurassic World finally manages to be just as much fun as the original a whole new host of ethical dilemmas for the 21st century. Only director Colin Trevorrow’s sophomore effort, he has a keen eye for action and ear for witty dialogue that lovingly preserves the golly-whiz atmosphere of an eight year old wowed by dinosaurs while some pretty terrifying stuff goes down, both in teeth and in philosophy. It’s the first great film of the summer that is more family orienteered than one might imagine.
Twenty years after John Hammand’s first attempt at making a dinosaur theme park went sour, “Jurassic World” is now a fully functional world famous attraction, including plenty of merchandise and corporate influence. In the early scenes, two brothers Grey and Zach Mitchell are sent by their parents to visit their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the career driven, cell phone obsessed executive who runs the park and quickly gives them VIP passes so they will stay out of her hair. They visit the various attractions including a Mosasaurus that splashes visitors like Sea World and an off road spherical vehicle that allows up close access to sauropods.
Claire concerned with getting Verizon Wireless to sponsor their newest “asset,” Indominus Rex, a completely new hybrid dinosaur. “We thought genetic modification would up the ‘wow’ factor,” she gleefully announces. Her raptor trainer and former single date boyfriend Owen (the always enjoyable Chris Pratt) is not so impressed. “They’re dinosaurs. Wow enough.” Of course, there are some unforeseen consequences to these combinations of DNA and soon Indominus is wreaking havoc throughout the park. It’s going to take some old school wisdom rather than corporate strategery to fix this problem.
The first Jurassic Park dealt with traditional bioethical dilemma of cloning and “playing God,” very Huxulian and Owellian themes. This goes a step further into the the new age, especially genetically engineering lifeforms to fit specific needs. Indominus is an entirely new creation, not simply the resurrection of an old one. It was made through human pride rather than divine evolution. The problem with artificial life is that sin always gets in the way. Like the golem and Frankenstein’s monster, man’s creation is fallen not just in its nature but in its formation. Here, Indominus is made to be an exciting attraction but also secretly as a weapon of war.
One scientist counters Owen’s skepticism. “We’ve always been doing this,” he insists. It true that technology has existed since the dawn of fire. The difference is that traditionally human ingenuity has cooperated with nature rather than simple changing it to fit human needs. It’s one thing to cross pea pods to get a sweeter and richer food; it’s quite another to inject them with firefly DNA to make them glow at night. It’s not unlike the difference between natural family planning and contraception.
One profound and unexpected aspect of Jurassic World is a strong affirmation of the necessity of familial relationships. The nephews are sent off due to an impending divorce. At the mention of this, Grey begins crying. “It will be fine,” Zach insists. “We’ll get two of everything. Two houses. Two cars. Two sets of presents.” “I don’t want two of everything. I want one,” he affirms. Like Claire, their parents push them aside to focus on their own wants, putting their children in serious danger in the process. Owen, however, understands the importance of relationships. As the raptor trainer, he is the alpha of the pack, even entering the paddock unarmed to save a fellow worker. “How do you control them?” someone asks bewildered. “It’s not about control. It’s a relationship based one respect.” Owen is perfectly content with the simple things: a motorcycle, a trailer, a good beer, and a nice laugh. He even has sympathy for Indominus Rex, noting that the poor creature was raised in isolation without any other animals, leading to bad “social skills.” He loves the dinosaurs but is willing to sacrifice them to save people, risking his life to kill Indominus and save Claire’s family, putting nature in its proper place in respect to the value of humans. He’s a man both St. Francis and St. George would admire.
In a very subtle and gentle way, Jurassic World gives society a little poke in its most sensitive area, reminding it that despite all the current talk surrounding same-sex marriage and transgenderism, nature cannot be changed. God’s way is the best way. Unfortunately, it seems like speculative fiction is the only place this thinking is appropriate. If only it could leap off the screen and into the legal system.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 17th, 2015.
A Review of Tomorrowland by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Three Reels
Like the vast revolving jet ride from the attraction that inspired it, Tomorrowland feels a bit uneven, disjointed, and even a contradiction in terms. It’s a kid flick but relies heavily on nostalgia. The story is pretty dumb and at times naïve, but because it’s helmed by Brad Bird with his top notch crew, it’s very well written and thoroughly enjoyable. This strange contraption is fun and silly but like one of its central characters is still in search of something more.
Tomorrowland is Interstellar for tweens. Teenage something Casey (Britt Robertson) is a whiz kid with a NASA engineer for a dad who wants to use science to change the world for the better but is constantly told the destruction of civilization is inevitable. After leaving prison for sabotaging the demolition of a shuttle launch pad, she receives a mysterious pin that transports her to futuristic world when she touches it. This amazing place called “Tomorrowland” is filled with jet packs, anti-gravity swimming pools, and chocolate milkshakes that provide endless youth – a good culinary choice for immortality. When the pin stops working, she goes searching for another route only to find deadly robots bent on her destruction until she is rescued by Athena (Raffey Cassidy) – also a deadly robot but this one wants to help her return to Tomorrowland. Cassidy’s performance is the hidden gem in an otherwise okay movie. She is serious yet sentimental, intense yet relaxed and at only twelve holds her own against – and at times surpasses – the acting of George Clooney and Hugh Laurie. Athena brings Casey to retired inventor Frank Walker (Clooney), an exile who knows the way back. When these three companions finally make it, they discover that this new world has no real concern for the problems of tomorrow and may be making things even worse.
There’s gleeful spirit in Tomorrowland that captures perfectly the eight year old seeing the wonders of baking soda and vinegar mixing for the first time. It’s fun to make up neat gadgets and figure out how things work. As a child, Frank brought a prototype jet pack to the 1964 World’s Fair – which also saw the premiere of another infamous Disney ride. The judge quickly dismisses his idea. “It doesn’t work,” he mumbles. “Can’t it just be cool?” Frank replies. The judge has a point – science should be at the service of mankind, making it easier for people to receive the goods and services needed for a fulfilling life. Yet science is also beautiful in its own right as an example of God’s aesthetic omniscience. The medieval philosophers who gave birth to the modern scientific industry understood this. They were mostly clerics who tried to figure out the movement of the stars or the variations on pea pods simply because it was interesting. Isaac Newton invented Calculus simply to answer a question about the shape of cones. It didn’t help the crops grow faster – it was just fun.
This utopia that Tomorrowland appears to be in the first half of the film quickly becomes a dystopia after Frank, Casey, and Athena arrive. Rather than being brave enough to solve the problems of the world, the residents are simply watching the clock run down safely from a distance. Bird clearly illustrates that the problem isn’t science but humanity. What needs fixing is hearts. The solution Casey concocts is, frankly, pretty cheesy, amounting to the recreation of a famous Coke commercial from the 1970s. However, she does channel an important human virtue: hope. “There are two wolves,” she explains. “One is darkness. The other is light. Which one wins? The one you feed.” Science can be a medium of hope, but it comes from believing in good over evil.
There’s a gentle sadness that casts a shadow over Tomorrowland. It thinks that humanity is at a tipping point where things could go south very quickly. Without giving into despair, there’s a measure of truth to this. Never at any point in human history has the consequences of any given action been so immediate. A single rash comment made online can instantly ruin a reputation. A single bomb has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people. “How do we fix it?” This question is asked constantly in the film, but it misses the answer. The solution is Jesus. He already “fixed it” in the Pascal Mystery. If man directs his worship and morality towards Him, his science will be effective and peace will come. Maybe not in this life, but certainly in the next. That is a tomorrow worth hoping for.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on May 25th, 2015.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
In mid-December every year, the Library of Congress releases a list of 25 films that will be added to the National Film Registry; each work receives a substantial amount of money to be used for preservation and restoration. This list is the cinematic heritage of the United States and my second favorite film event of the year behind the Oscars.
The National Film Preservation Board invites the general public to submit entries. I thought it would be fun to publish my submitted recommendations for 2014. Here they are:
1. …Baby One More Time (1998) – This music video represents the start of the late 90s pop phenomenon that would go on to influence artists like Christina Aguilera, N*SYNC, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson. It featured rising star Britney Spears in her most memorable performance. With its high school venue and suggestive lyrics, it also started a national conversation about appropriate displays of sexuality, especially in the teenage years.
2. 9/11 Home Footage – September 11th has to define American history in the early 21st century. On that terrible day, countless news organizations and private citizens captured the moment. Although it would be difficult to track down every piece of home media, there should be some effort to collect and preserve these images from large media groups like CNN and to cell phone cameras of what it was like on the ground.
3. Armageddon (1998) – Although its artistic quality is certainly debatable, Armageddon represents the last legs of the late 90s special effects action film. With director Michael Bay’s signature features of explosions, fast editing, and cheesy dialogue in full form, it perfectly encapsulates a style and era that would fortunately give way to more intelligent fantasy films in the next decade.
4. Dancing Baby (1996) – This short digital clip was one of the first major viral videos and internet memes shared widely across the web, launching millions more.
5. Field of Dreams (1989) – A classic American sports film that is treasured by fathers and sons across the country. An absolutely beautiful story that is both real and magical.
6. Hell House (2001) – This documentary follows an evangelical Church as it prepares its annual “Hell House,” a visual Christian tract and alternative to the haunted house tradition. Spectators are taken on a maze tour of the sins of modern society including abortion, homosexuality, secularism, and atheism before given a chance to give their lives to Christ. Following the Direct Cinema style, the camera simply watches these passionate churchgoers, mostly teens and young adults, as they engage and debate with believers and non-believers alike, a perfect example of the modern culture wars.
7. The Incredibles (2004) – A magnificent film that highlighted the importance of the family with an extremely well written script. While still using innovative techniques, it harkened back to more traditional animated styles and stories while challenging the entitlement culture and family dynamics of the current age.
8. Independence Day (1996) – There isn’t a millennial male alive that doesn’t point to this film as the pinnacle of 90s action movies. It sees American optimism at its finest to save the world with some of the best pacing of any film in history.
9. The King of Kings (1927) – De Mille certainly wasn’t the first filmmaker to tackle the greatest story ever told, but he made it a Hollywood staple. This was one of the biggest films of the silent era with an amazing performance by H. B. Warner in the title role and writing that preserves the glory of the King James translation while being intelligible to a contemporary audience. It also one of the first epics to use color.
10. The Land Before Time (1988) – This is a classic of late 20th century animation that got every kid interested in dinosaurs. It also introduced loss and recovery in a way not seen since Bambi and Old Yeller.
11. The Line and the Dot (1965) – Chuck Jones creates an experimental animated romance out of geometric shapes, demonstrating the universal nature of gender archetypes.
12. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – This film, the first in an epic trilogy, saw the arrival of the “smart fantasy” that took universal themes serious while still retaining amazing special effects.
13. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) – Thanks to a late night TV showing featuring wise-cracking robots, this has rightly earned the reputation as possibly the worse film ever made but endless watched and discussed with glee by a generation of future film critics. It also shows an early example of independent filmmaking, shot on a shoestring budget by an insurance salesman.
14. Me at the Zoo (2005) – This nineteen second short film created by friend Yakov Lapitsky was the first film uploaded to YouTube by co-founder Jawed Karim, launching the 3rd most visited website in the world and fundamentally changing the medium of film forever.
15. Mean Girls (2004) – In a subtle way, Mean Girls dealt with the rise of bullying in high schools as well as the experience of being a teenage girl. It is a cornerstone of high school movies for Millennials in the same way John Hughes was for Generation X.
16. Mothlight (1963) – This short experimental film by Stan Brakhage was created without a movie camera by gluing twigs and moth wings onto the film negative, creating the feeling of a moth flying through the woods.
17. NASA Apollo 11 Footage (1969) – On July 20th, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first mission to send people to another celestial body outside the Earth. The astronauts recorded hours of footage, including the famous descent of Neil Armstrong. Most Americans saw these images through hazy television screens, but it would be wonderful to restore and preserve the original negatives.
18. The Passion of the Christ (2004) – This cultural landmark covers the last day of Jesus of Nazareth, filmed in Latin and Aramaic. While immediately controversial for its violence and accusations of anti-Semitism, it continues to be seen by many for its religious convictions. As of 2015, it is still the highest grossing R-rated film and non-English film made.
19. The Patterson–Gimlin Film (1967) – This film, which runs only a few seconds, claims to show a real Bigfoot walking through a Northern California forest. Whether true or a hoax, it set off a firestorm of paranormal interest in the United States that continues to the present.
20. Powwow Highway (1989) – An early independent comedy made by a group of Native Americans about their experiences living on a reservation. Many of the actors went on to other Native American projects like Smoke Signals. Funny and bittersweet, it’s a wonderful movie by a community finding its way in this new America while holding to the traditions of the past.
21. The Princess Bride (1988) – A kind and gentle fairy tale that plays wonderfully with the genre.
22. Shrek (2001) – Currently, there are no feature length animate films from any company but Disney. This film spawned a major franchise, challenging Disney’s reign under the leadership of a scorned ex-Disney executive. It also won the first Oscar for animated feature.
23. Spaceballs (1987) – A great spoof that inspired many other fan films by Mel Brooks. It continues to be enormously popular with young males.
24. The Truman Show (1998) – This movie put the sharply criticized the modern obsession with reality programming while being a great philosophical tale as well.
This my list. Feel free to let me know yours!
You can submit your own suggestions to Congress here. In order to qualify, the film must be primarily produced by Americans for the American market and be at least ten years old. You may submit up to 50 recommendations a year.
Friday, May 22, 2015
|The Avengers with some new friends|
“Good Old Fashioned Teamwork”
A Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first summer blockbuster of the year, and it opened the season like Hulk bursting through a building: big, loud, and a little disoriented. Our fearless heroes begin almost exactly where they left off in 2012, tying up a loose end from the last film. This mission isn’t enough for one of the Avengers, and he tries to find a permeant solution to Earth’s problems. Although the story is pretty confusing, there’s plenty of laughs and spectacular visual effects; it succeeds in all the right places.
After retrieving Loki’s staff from the first Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) becomes convinced that the world needs something stronger than the Avengers, something that will have its eyes and ears in all places to prevent future alien attacks. Along with seemingly mild manner scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he creates the AI being Ultron (James Spader) that can hack into any digital system. As a computer program, he could theoretically could exist anywhere but usually takes the form of a giant robot – mostly so the film can have neat battle sequences. Stark designs Ultron to save the world, but he vastly misinterprets his programing. He thinks humans are weak and need to evolve. To this end, he begins to plan an extinction event, which involves “exterminating the Avengers” because they will no doubt try to save humanity. He knows they are too powerful to simply defeat in battle, so he must come up with a more devious way to weaken their resolve.
This is plot of the film, at least I think so. There are dozens of subplots that are in some way connected to the main one. Sometimes, these works really well, especially when the budding romance between Banner and fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is brought to halt when it is revealed both of them are sterile as a result of their backgrounds. Then there’s the two evil sidekicks of Ultron, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen who has aged much better than her older siblings). A SHIELD officer puts it best, “he’s fast and she’s weird.” Scarlet’s powers gives her the ability to conjure visions in Thor and Captain America. Somehow these visions are kind-of true, driving Thor to go to a sacred pool and Captain America to do…nothing.
These blender-mixed ideas don’t matter much because Age of Ultron is just so dang fun. Sci-fi juggernaut Joss Whedon has a natural talent for visual storytelling, especially witty dialogue and amusing situations. The best moment occurs during a party when each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer a-la King Arthur but “none are worthy” as Thor observes happily. Captain America ponders, “What about an elevator. That lifts the hammer. Is it worthy?” Good entertainment is its own reward, an important aspect of living the 3rd commandment, leaving time for leisure.
Like most comic books, Age of Ultron brushes some deeper points but mostly teaches simple lessons like teamwork. Afraid they will face an enemy too strong, Stark wonders, “how will we cope?” “Together,” Captain America asserts. “And if we fail?” “Then we’ll do that together too.” While it’s clear that Stark is the instigator of this problem and never really apologizes, the team learns to put aside their differences and prejudices to defeat Ultron. Along the way, they discover that without any one of their members, it truly wouldn’t be complete. This is best demonstrated through Hawkeye the archer, often perceived as the weakest of the Avengers. When the rest of the crew needs a place to hide, they go to Hawkeye’s farm in the country where they meet his wife and children. Free from internet technology, they are momentarily safe. Seeing a functioning family, each realizes the Hawkeye has achieved their ever waking dream – a normal life. Hawkeye’s wife thoughtfully comforts her husband, “see, they need you the most.” He shows the Avengers the reason they fight.
The final conclusion reached by these ten companions is rooted in both Greek drama and Christian salvation history: all human utopias fail. Stark tried to make the perfect shield against evil but, because it was made from man and not God, it turned. True triumph is found in the cross not in technological progress. However, this does not mean that human endeavor is futile. Mother Teresa put it well: “it is not important that I am successful, only faithful.” There will always be another villain to fight as long as the fallen world exists, but fight we must. Christ is the victor, but man is called to participate in His army. In many ways, Ultron is a reflection of his creator, but the reason he fails while the Avengers succeeds is the unity of their friendship and justness of their cause.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a wonderful sequel that is easy to enjoy despite its flaws and brilliantly sets the stage for phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite the team’s many achievements, there is something ominous on the horizon, especially considering the third title Infinity War. Whatever comes next, as long as the Avengers stand united there’s nothing they can’t do.
|Alicia Vikander as a non-mainstream robot|
“Dangerous Robots are Too Mainstream”
A Review of Ex Machina by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, Two Reels
Hollywood has produced many films that deal the possibility of sentient robots, and Ex Machina is…one of them. It starts with the fastening premise of focusing on the relationship between only three characters: the creator, the creation, and the control. Which is human? Which is machine? Does it matter? The film raises many of these compelling questions only to go completely awry in the frustrating third act. Although some characters are more likeable than others, none aspire to be authentically an image of God.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a grunt computer programmer at BlueBook, the world’s largest internet search engine/media/everything else tech company, whose life is suddenly changed when he wins a private week-long getaway at the mountain forest cottage of CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the gunslinger Catorce in For Greater Glory). His boss has been secretly developing a female android called Ava that may have crossed singularity and achieved consciousness. Caleb will be the control in the famous Turning test – whether someone can tell the difference between a real person and the robot. Ava is sweet and charming yet just a little creepy. Think Audrey Hepburn meets HAL-9000. During Caleb’s questioning, the power shuts off temporarily and Ava reveals that something about Nathan is terribly wrong. “He is a liar,” she pleads. This leads Caleb to an awful discovery, and he begins to consider finding a way to release Ava – if he can trust her.
Early in the film, Nathan admits his arrogance bluntly. “I am God,” he states. He isn’t, and the outcome of Ex Machina is a horrific reminder he isn’t. This desire to imitate God by creating life well predates Isaac Asimov. In the legends of Greece, the titan Prometheus is punished for all eternity for bringing fire to humans, a technology exclusively the right of gods. Closer to the Christian concept of pride is the myth of the Golem, a creature created by a rabbi from clay and secret Kabbala verses. Yet such a creature was an abomination because it was made with the breath of mortals and would wreak havoc until destroyed. Ava seems human with just intentions but is only a mass of wires and electricity. Not matter how efficient such machines become, they will always be imperfect because they are reflection of us, including original sin. True AI will never happen, but real monsters just might.
One aspect that makes Ex Machina uniquely a film of this age is how the internet affects everyday life. Ava is able read emotions and expressions because Nathan stole facial recognition information off millions of cell phones. “The companies even knew it was happening,” he casually remarks. Caleb also becomes furious when it is revealed he didn’t win a contest but was specifically chosen based on his background – no family, shy, impressionable, and single. Nathan admits he even based Ava’s appearance on Caleb’s “pornography search profile.” “We are all a result of programming,” Nathan asserts. Yet search engines too are reflections of people’s decisions; they do not make truth. In reality, no one is “programmed” to do anything. Yes, genetics can cause certain predispositions, but everyone has free will.
All of these ideas barrel back and forth towards a sick and twisted ending that is easily predictable. The ultimate conclusion of Ex Machina is hard to say. One key to unlocking the mystery is an important element of its mise-en-scène: the hipster lifestyle. Nathan is the quintessential example. He is a genius coder but lives in the middle of the woods. He can quote philosophers yet gets drunk constantly. He sports a huge beard and sideburns with glasses and a shaved head. Like hipsters, Ex Machina looks really cool but doesn’t have much to say and comes off a little pretentious. In the end, it is data mining and search engines man should fear, not the robot apocalypse.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 30th, 2015.
|Maika Monroe in It Follows|
“Pope Paul VI Makes a Horror Movie”
A Review of It Follows by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O – see postscript for commentary
Reel Rating, Five Reels
The last decade has not been especially kind to horror movies. From Saw to Hostel to Insidious to The Human Centipede, there is currently an overdependence on unnecessary gore, usually at the expense of women, and scaring audiences through sudden cuts rather than constructing a compelling narrative. The Babadook and Cabin in the Woods finally broke through the filth and now It Follows brings the genre to its zenith – a totally original project that builds on the past and moves into the future. From start to finish, It is a nerve wrenching masterpiece that will follow you long after you leave the theater.
Most Catholics – especially parents like myself – have a natural suspicion of the horror genre, which is understandable as excessive violence, graphic sexuality, coarse language, and the occult are commonplace. Yet that is not the goal of horror, only an unfortunate yet honest byproduct of its subject matter, albeit commonly abused. At its roots, horror is about dealing with sin in a cathartic manner. The American theologian Peter Kreeft pointed out that although FDR believes “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” that Jesus says, “I will show you whom you should fear. Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Hell.” We should have a healthy fear of God’s justice and Satan’s lies. In this sense, the book of Job could possibly be construed as a horror novel. Not only are there murderous Sabeans, houses that collapse leaving almost no one alive, and hideous boils but Job must deal with the spiritual anguish of trusting in God amidst terrible, seemingly unjust suffering. Humans “enjoy” being scared and consuming such literature because it is a safe way to “prepare for real danger,” as apologist Jimmy Akin explains so well in a vlog on Halloween.
It Follows is a poster example of how to use this genre effectively. Jay (Maika Monroe in her first big role) is a normal girl dating an older man named Hugh (Jake Weary). One night they have sex in his car. As she plays with a flower and reminisces about her lost innocence, he drugs her and takes her a building where he explains that he is being stalked by “something” that he has now “passed on” to her via fornication. Despite the strange nature of his story, Jay soon begins noticing random people following her, slowly closing in, and quickly begins looking for an easy lay. However, even if she manages to seduce an unsuspecting victim, the nightmare isn’t over.
It must be said before going into the many layers of this fine film that most of all It Follows is a ton of midnight fun. Rather than shock the audience with blood and gore, newbie writer-director David Robert Mitchell (great horror director name) builds intense suspense with great pacing and slowly revealing elements of the mythology. He also uses the camera brilliantly with pans and zooms from below and all around to create an eerie, unearthly sense of space. The art direction evokes earlier horror films from the eighties; although set in the present day, Jay and her friends use corded phones, box televisions, and typewriters. Even the haunting score is produced by a synthesizer. All that’s missing is Jazzercise and leg warmers. Oh, wait. There’s that too.
The use of tainted sex as a symbol is profoundly potent. Early in the film, one of Jay’s friends asks if she and Hugh have had sex yet. Jay smiles and shakes her head as if someone asked if she like chocolate ice cream. Yet this causal attitude proves deadly; characters use others to save themselves, fully knowing it will prove lethal. One hears the prophetic voice of Pope Bl. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae:
“A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Sin begets sin from Adam and Eve through the generations, and it is now possible to see the full flowering of lust’s demonic fruits. In 1930, the Anglican Communion became the first major Christian group to allow contraception in marriage under limited circumstances. Within the next few decades, divorce and teen pregnancy rates would skyrocket while abortion became legalized. Today, same sex-marriage is legal in over half the US (almost always through tyrannical court decisions) and nearly 25% of women on college campuses will experience sexual assault. There is one brief moment where love is shared but not through sex.
A striking aspect of It Follows is the complete lack of adult presence. It’s hard to grasp whether these teens are in high school or college as they freely drive around the city, coming and going at odd hours. Their parents are relegated to the sidelines often talking to each other while ignoring their children, many times difficult to hear and blurry like the nameless grown-ups in Charlie Brown. “Won’t your mom be upset” one teen asks another as they go up to his mother’s cabin. “She won’t even know I’m gone,” he sighs. This thing is able to roam free because the previous generation has neglected its responsibilities. So too the children of this world suffer from the sins of the past.
The supernatural entity Jay encounters is never named, only referred to as “it” or “something” yet it has all the symptoms of a demonic spirit. It can have an effect on the physical world but is not itself bound by physical laws – being shot point blank several times only manages to slow it a little. While highly exaggerated, such creatures are real. Oddly enough, horror films seem to be the last place in American cinema where faith is taken seriously. Rather than try to deal with this evil, Jay only keeps passing it on, but Jesus asserts “these spirits can only be cast out through prayer and fasting,” meaning spiritual good. Pope Francis has been very explicit about the pressing need for deliverance ministry, and, should you find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, don’t be a hero. Call a priest.
It Follows is terrific fun but also sends an important message loud and clear. The Sexual Revolution was supposed to set humanity free, but it further enslaved this culture to its passions, killing us softly. Something in our society is very, very wrong, and selfishness is no longer an option.
Post Script: The Catholic News Service (a branch of the USCCB) has rated this film morally objectionable, their most severe category. It is important to understand that these reviews are written by a single person, reflecting his or her personal opinion, and almost never a cleric. To my knowledge, they are not scrutinized by any committee or board. While usually an excellent guideline, this system does not carry the weight of an ecclesial or moral directive.
Kurt Jensen, the author of the CNS review, spent less than 250 words coming to the conclusion that It Follows was “sloppy in execution, ambiguous in story line, and [ultimately a] dumb horror movie.” The only thing more horrific than It Follows was Mr. Jensen’s assessment of its merits.
This review first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 14th, 2015.