For most of my life, going to the movies at Christmastime has been an experience of enchantment I’ve ranked just below Christmas Mass. The late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski said in an interview in the mid 1990s, “Television means solitude while cinema means community. In the cinema, the tension is between the screen and the whole audience and not only between the screen and you. It makes an enormous difference.” Lately, the world has been lacking these most precious of communal experiences, and so this December, it has therefore been an incomparable delight to be worshiping in a full church and relaxing in relatively full movie theaters.
Here’s a brief roundup with some basic theological commentary of the four new films I’ve seen on the big screen in just the last two weeks.
Spider-Man: No Way Home. It is no big secret that I am just about exhausted with the Marvel cinematic universe. This new installment of live-action Spider-Man films is replete with callbacks to the pre-Disney eras of Sam Raimi and Marc Webb; and yet, while I agree with Ross Douthat that the endless barrage of sequels and reboots is a symptom of a decadent culture, I liked this film more than I can remember having liked a Marvel movie in some time. Two themes particularly interested me. First, No Way Home deals admirably with the question of the hero’s identity. The virtuous person pursues the good with no expectation of notoriety, or even love; and he makes many of his choices from a place of loneliness and grief. Second, the depiction of good versus evil was both frustrating and refreshing—at any rate, it kept my attention. Disney movies have gone hard in the direction of redeeming bad guys in recent years—a message that syncs with the Gospel in certain ways, while at the same time undermining the moralistic value of fairy tales, which emphasize basic biblical ethics. No Way Home straddles the always-delicate balance between mercy and justice, which gives us a sense of enchantment and keeps us chewing on it longer than such a confection usually would; it’s a most enjoyable outing with the family, and Tom Holland is just terrific.
The King’s Man. In this long-delayed prequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, all written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, we find a different variety of a decadent, campy action film. In fact, it is my favorite kind of cloak-and-dagger tale, with a touching father-son story and some supernatural intrigue to boot. Starring Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Oxford, a duty-bound aristocrat who attempts to pull the levers of power from behind the scenes—and often against the selfish ruling elite—The King’s Man is set during World War I, at a time that appears today as one of the major turning points in world history. Amid scenes of cartoonish violence, the film is unabashed in its appreciation—albeit laced with valid criticisms—of a world that was better off before modern revolutions. And one of the most interesting things from that period, which is captured well in the film, is the role of enchantment in the face of statesmanship and technological progress. It was the age of Our Lady’s appearance at Fatima; but it was also the era of the Russian monk and imperial advisor, Rasputin, played in The King’s Man by Rhys Ifans. One balletic fight scene featuring the sinister mystic is just about worth the price of admission (again, lots of outlandish violence here that may not be for everyone). Like Spider-Man, The King’s Man reminds us that truly heroic virtue is necessarily unnoticed, and the struggles in our world have as much to do with the powers of heaven and hell as with power-hungry human beings. And The King’s Man, like the previous installments, is a particular treat to fans of classic men’s fashion.
The Matrix Resurrections. Neo and Trinity are mysteriously alive again, but they have no memory of leading a revolution against tyrannical machines hell-bent on keeping humans enslaved and ignorant. Not all the machines are bad now, even though the promised land of Zion proved temporary, and the same dilemma from the original trilogy remains. Do people want to be free, or will they choose an inhumane existence for fear of losing what comforts them? In Resurrections, we find that even the select few who have been liberated from unreality are more interested in their own agricultural experiments than in pulling more enslaved souls out of their pods. “The sheeple aren’t going anywhere,” says one character. Resurrections is not a good film—I had no idea who most of the characters were, and I was bored to tears and confused during showers of bullets. The end is ludicrous; but I was content at various points in the dialogue as Resurrections made light of the now decades-long discussions about what the Matrix really means. And I was pleasantly surprised to find a critique of the mental health profession’s role in keeping humanity immured to enchantment by endless self-examination. But more importantly, the film prompted me to continue talking about Christ and the Church as reality, and everyone and everything in the world as participating in the life of the one real world to lesser or greater degrees, and in different times and places. The choice before us is not quite the all-or-nothing narrative of docility vs. empowerment, darkness vs. enlightenment, or indeed bigotry vs. wokeness. We’re all “pilled” and not “pilled”—red, black, white . . . whatever—in all kinds of unpredictable ways.
Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro recaptures the mood of his underrated 2015 film Crimson Peak, but in the context of a late Depression-era carnival community and high society spiritualism. Del Toro, famous for monsters, shows us the monster in everyone, and the dark spiritual consequences of the greatest act of all—our self-construction. In this way, Nightmare Alley is a welcome opposite to Del Toro’s Academy Award–winning misfire The Shape of Water, a relativistic mess. Nightmare Alley may also offer the strongest part of the thread connecting the other three films in this review: enchantment. As we see in The X-Files, which Del Toro clearly has in mind here, the “real” world is often much more mysterious than our otherworldly fantasies. Many scenes in Nightmare Alley are set in Buffalo, New York, making use of a striking yet unfamiliar environment, paired with snowy weather, to capture a throwback film noir feel. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both terrific, and while Bradley Cooper is fine, I could only imagine how much better the film would have been if Leonardo DiCaprio had been the star, as originally intended.
If the previews I saw at the cinema this month are any indication, some quality films may be coming back to us at the movie theaters in 2022. And at any rate, we await more enchantment as there will be something to go out and see, and we all should. Happy New Year for film, and long live the movies!