SAMSON (2018)

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SAMSON (2018)

Directed by: Bruce Macdonald, Gabriel Sabloff

Starring: Jackson Rathbone, Billy Zane, Taylor James, Rutger Hauer, Caitlin Leahy

Rated: PG13

Running Time: 1h 50m

TMM Score: 1 star out of 5

STRENGTHS: Rathbone's Muscles

WEAKNESSES: Everything Else

Summary

This film interpretation of the Old Testament story follows Samson, a supernaturally strong man, as he learns to accept his role as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that he would lead a rebellion against the Philistines, and occupying force in Israel.

My Plea To The Reader

How do you start a review of a garbage movie? Do we attack its terrible pacing, story, acting, production design, or the pandering of the director to the expected audience who will see this movie?

Suffice it to say that they are all horrible, but in such a profoundly unique way, that I want to really take my time unfolding why it is so bad, on almost every level and every way possible for a film to be bad in. If you read those words and think to yourself, “Look, I don’t need you to ruin what is a harmless bible story that entertained me enough and I wouldn’t even mind adding to my collection next to “Fireproof” and “The Passion,” then I beg you to read on.

You are my target audience, not because I think you are dumb or simple or I look down my nose at you, but because I desperately want Christian film to be regarded by the entire world as the best there is. I don’t expect the secular world to create a film which communicates and stays faithful to God’s work in our lives in the same way that I demand from Christian Filmmakers. From them I demand more. 

In order for that to happen, the audience for those films must grow, and the audience for films like Samson must shrink. Please allow me to walk you through why this film is bad, and what the more entertaining, more artistic version of this film might have looked like so that when companies like PureFlix insult your intelligence again, you will refuse to buy in and demand better.

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Modern Theme

The first place this film compromises is in its theme. The story of Samson is one of the most loved stories of the Old Testament for little boys. It’s about a super hero, for goodness sakes, so you know I read it and and its myriad of comic book, cartoon, and storybook adaptations as a young child. 

In this story we see the story cycle of Israel repeated yet again. A person is raised to to free Israel from the tyranny and idolatry of the Philistines but they compromise and eventually fail. This individual story is mirrored by the country of Israel’s story in which they turn from God to idols, return to him in an hour of despair and then turn their backs again when peace returns.

This push and pull on a man’s soul, wanting to serve God but also being torn by his base desires is inherently interesting and relatable, and a microcosm of every Christians struggle. What could make for a better film than that.

Apparently the makers of this film disagree, because they dismiss this conflict out of hand, opting instead for a vision of Samson who is given great strength by God but has no desire to fight the philistines at all except when his people beg him to. In fact, it seems he loves the Philistines, marrying one and well on his way toward marrying another. In fact the movie paints those who tell Samson that they do not approve of his marriage or his peaceful lifestyle as the villains.

What could be more backwards from the biblical account? It is more a picture of what the makers of this film think the Bible if written today by progressive Christians would say instead. While I may be seen by many of my Baptist Sunday School Teachers as a liberal today, I’m not liberal enough to think that a movie about Samson should try to show his relationships with Philistine women as anything other than a compromise of his calling.

I don’t get it. This is an ancient story. What’s wrong with giving it the same ancient theme it has always had.

Poor Storytelling

I’ve already touched a little on story but while I’m there let’s really get into the less theme oriented ways the story fails.

One of these is the monolithic nature of every character except one in the film, and we’ll get to her later. Every other character is really, just one thing. They have no nuance at all. Many times, Biblical or mythic films will have this problem because they were written in an age where nuance was not prized in storytelling. But today it is, and this movie fails hard. Samson, while acting bit like he is torn between ways of living is only ever really on board with one outlook and doesn’t change that view till the very end of the film. Maybe if the actor was better we’d buy the struggle more and Samson would feel like more of a real person but as he is, he just seems dull.

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This trend doesn’t stop with Samson. His Father, brother, wife, the prince, and the king: all simply one note, one motivation, cardboard cutouts. They really are flannel graph brought to life. The only character not this way is Delilah, who they seem determined to make the only interesting character in the film by giving inner conflict in the form emotional, moral, and political angst. Why they choose this one character for that instead of the main protagonist of the film, I will never understand.

Another element of the story that doesn’t work is the pacing. The biblical account is very much a series of short episodes from Samson’s life and this film tries to weave them into a coherent whole by creating characters like the prince and king of the Philistines who dog the Israelites throughout. This is a good move on the part of the writers but once again, it is so poorly executed that for a moment I was wondering why they were even in the movie. The main problem with this plot line failing, along with all their other attempts to create a through line plot, is that the movie seems to be full of 10-15 minute segments that work ok on their own, but have no connection to each other and are punctuated by mini plots meant to tie things together but are actually quite boring. It makes for a very dull viewing.

Use Of Dialogue

One of my least favorite parts of this film, and many films, not just Christian ones, is the way it uses dialogue, primarily, to tell the story. There are times in this film where you could close your eyes for twenty minutes and not miss a plot point. The fights are uninteresting and boring, the special effects laughable, and to look at Samson and his brother Caleb, you would never believe for a second that they were brothers. So why watch this film at all when all you really need is the audio?

I’m not sure why Christian films are this way, I have theories, but it seems like they rely almost exclusively on dialogue, and bad dialogue at that, to relate their plots.

Rather than taking time to set up beautiful cinematic shots with subtle acting that communicate Samson’s inner desires, we give him a scene where he just says, ‘I want this and I want that,’ like some sort of neanderthal. Ug-me Samson- me want peace. Simply clumsy, phoned-in, bad writing.

Another example of the bad dialogue is the first scene with Samson and Caleb. As they run away from some Philistine guards, they weave through the city, shouting, for some reason, riddles as they go. It’s like the director is saying, “See. They are a unloving brotherhood that uses riddle games to hone their intellect and deepen their bond.” Or maybe the writer knew that later a riddle would figure prominently in the story so they felt like they needed to seed the idea of a contest of riddles early in the film. But why shoehorn it into and action sequence? Probably because the action sequence is boring.

Seriously though, why not have Samson and his family sitting around the fire sharing riddles together where that sort of thing would have normally happened? It would be a nice family moment and deepen the sense of identity they all share. Instead there’s this weird three-stooges-esque hackney riddle and run scene at the very beginning of the film.

Acting

As bad as the dialogue and the writing are, they sure aren’t helped by the acting. Samson was clearly hired for his muscles and his shirtless but girded loins look. His acting is deadpan and the only time he is believable is when he is yelling to kill people. It seems strange to have to say this but acting is a skill which is different than weightlifting. You may think that all you would need to make it believable that Samson is carrying a really heavy gate would be a guy who can lift really heavy stuff, but you forget that the gate won’t really be heavy and he will have to ACT like it is heavy. Sadly, this actor was not up to the heavy lifting of acting.

Another example of terrible acting comes from the king and the prince. The king is played by Billy Zane and it looks like he was on set for 2 days, 3 tops, so that tells you how much he invested in the believability of his character. The prince overacts and chews the scenery so extravagantly I struggle to find words for it. He glares and mugs at the camera, practically addressing the audience to say, “See how evil I am. Mwa ha ha!” Gary Oldman’s character from “The 5th Element” saw this performance and thought it was a bit over the top.

Lots of films have bad acting, I just don’t understand why Christians seem so ok with it. These performances would never pass muster in a secular movie, why do they in Christian films?

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Poor Visuals

I hate to beat the movie up for this one because there are for the most part, the things being shown in the film look pretty good. The foxes in the fields, the lion wasn’t bad, the gates themselves look good, and the markets and houses all look pretty authentic. But there are a couple of moments in the film that really bug me because of how poor they are.

The first is the soldiers that Samson fights. Their weapons in this film are obviously rubber. You can see them waggling as the soldiers run. Also, soldiers seem to appear out of thin air. Samson is supposed to kill a ton of guys but we only have so many stunt guys and extras and no money for cgi extras, so rather than seeing Samson facing down a huge army, we see him kill, like, 40 guys, and then reinforcements get called from over the hill. What were those guys waiting for? This is the leader of the Israelites resistance who is about to be executed and there are soldiers just hanging out just out of sight but within earshot to be called in if necessary? Seems far fetched and pulls you out of the movie.

The other visual I couldn’t handle was the temple of Dagon. It is so small as to be utterly unimpressive but there is a huge statue outside of it that seems like it is many many times bigger than the temple itself. This such a weird choice. My home church looks bigger than the Philistine temple to Dagon. Scripture says 3,000 Philistines were gathered there the day Samson collapsed the temple but in the film it looks like about fifty and if 250 people could fit in that temple then I’ll take a Nazarite vow.

It makes the climax of this film feel so hollow. We see this terribly rendered huge statue fall and it crushes a couple dozen people. Hardly the climactic moment the filmmakers were going for, I am sure.

Pandering To The Choir

So you might be asking yourself why would I, if I disliked this film so much, spend hours watching it and reviewing it for True Myth Media?

It’s because it tells us some things about the Christian film audience and the Christian filmmaking industry.

Movies have a weird cyclical life. Production Companies put out movies. Audiences see, or don’t see those movies. Production Companies learn what gets seen and doesn’t. Production Companies make more of what audiences want to see.

By this, we know that PureFlix and its affiliates believe THIS movie is what Christian audiences want to watch. That disheartens me. 

They think that what Christians want are movies that essentially preach Progressive American Ideals (accepting love wherever it finds you, proclaiming you are peaceful even though you are waging wars, and revenge on those who have wronged you) rather than Christian ideals (being a member of a God first community, repenting of sins, the consequences of being distracted by the world.) They also believe that Christians don’t care if their main actor can act as long as he’s a hunk. The only people they think are wicked are cartoonishly evil kings and rulers that have no nuance. They think Christians want their heroes to be basically blameless so Samson never does anything very wrong. His mistakes are all just mistakes. of trusting too much or being dumb, not being sinful or weak. They believe Christians only want to see movies starring white people as middle easterners. They believe that Christians will overlook terrible writing as long as there are no swears or boobies.

You know what is even more disheartening that the fact that Production Companies think this is the fare of their Christian audience? 

It’s that all indications are that they are right. When Christians proudly proclaim their love of “God Is Not Dead,” and “Fireproof,” but refuse to even try watching films like “The Mission (1986),” Ben Hur (1959),” or “Silence (2016)” what they are doing is casting a vote, with their dollar, for bad art.

Is God glorified by bad art? I believe he loves the voice of even his most unskilled servants brokenly singing at the top of their lungs, but I believe he is also glorified by the carefully arranged and written crescendo of “Worthy The Lamb,” by Handel, sung by a myriad of individuals who have spent their entire lives honing their voices to all come together in a transcended sound of worship. 

Surely we as Christians must start demanding more from our films. They cost millions of dollars and look like trash. How can we accept this any longer. It’s one thing to say God accepts the most poorly performed offers of praise from his people. It’s another to give millions to someone who is tone deaf and asking them to sing special music at the pope’s inauguration.

Verdict

Well, I suppose I’ve ranted enough for one day. I think it’s pretty clear that for me this Samson film which seems more concerned with painting Delilah as one of the good guys and Samson as a peace loving farm boy, is to be avoided. It’s not the worst movie you can see, but supporting it sends a bad message to the Christian Film industry and contributes to the stupification of American Christianity.

PS- I truly hope you will share this article with others and leave comments as to how you feel about the things I wrote here. I believe a dialogue on this subject is vital and valuable not just for those who disagree with me, but for me as well. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Review Written By:

Michael McDonald