The following is a special guest post by my good friend Brian Collins. Brian has a graduate degree in film studies and currently teaches as an adjunct faculty member in the University of Central Oklahoma’s Department of English.
The Unstoppable Coolness of Kirk Cameron: An Analytical Review of the film Unstoppable
The film Unstoppable is the latest installment of Kirk Cameron’s many video and film projects that attempt to appeal to Christian youth and to much broader popular tastes in film. Before getting to the content, however, any serious consideration of the film must include its unique mode of theatrical presentation: reportedly simulcast live from Liberty University to over 700 theaters nationwide, the film was preceded by a live show of religious speakers, musical performers, testimonials, and Cameron himself as an introductory element to the film. Such a unique approach follows an increasingly popular form of theater-going experience one can find in many larger theater chains today. Performances of operas, sporting events, election results, and other such live happenings are becoming more and more frequent since the industry’s move to digital projection earlier this year.
Contained within the prelude to Unstoppable’s screening were popular Christian musical artists such as Mandisa and Warren Barfield who performed songs with rousing titles like “Overcomer” and “The Time is Now” to the delight of the over 10,000 people who attended the premier. In addition, there was, in what has become almost a requisite combative element within such Christian rallies, a disabled Vietnam veteran-turned-pastor who testified to how his near death experience on the battlefield was all but avoided through the power of his family’s prayer. Following this testimonial was the father of a fallen Iraq War hero who described how his son’s death was the equivalent of a Christian “sacrifice” for those he saved.
Thus, the entire Unstoppable experience included not just the viewing of the film, but also the showcasing of a variety of preliminary acts before the “main event”. Its form resembles much more a boxing pay-per-view event than a serious philosophical discussion of the nature of God and the existence of Evil. This continued to be the case throughout the actual film as well.
The film’s trailer also serves to further underscore such combative rhetoric through its inclusion of Barfield’s soulful voice and uncompromising lyrics (“You can’t buy my silence/ you can’t steal my voice/ you can’t keep me quiet/ I will bring the noise/ Try to beat me down/ tell me to shut my mouth/ but there’s a time to speak and the time is now”) while Cameron’s own pugilistic challenges are reinforced through his face, which is rendered in black and white and blown up to large and aggressive proportions through the use of a close up. He states:
Join me on September 24th for a one night only live event broadcast from Liberty University in theaters all across this nation because I want to settle once and for all that life is stronger than death, good is stronger than evil, and faith is stronger than doubt.
The overall message is unmistakable: those involved in the film’s production and promotion have come prepared to fight the secular world and its insistence that Christians keep quiet about their religious beliefs. The call-to-arms that went out to the Liberty University students and those Christians watching in theaters was one of complete conviction in the unstoppable nature of their mission and the power of God.
Liberty University, known for being the largest private Christian college in the world, has a film and video production program (Cinematic Arts) that includes faculty members with impressive commercial resumes, notable visiting speakers, and state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. All of these resources, according to the Program’s own description, have the purpose of training “the next generation of filmmakers in a Christian-focused environment.”
In a statement about the film, Liberty’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr. echoed a similar strategy of controlling the world’s future by heavily influencing the religious beliefs of the next generation:
In Unstoppable Kirk does what Liberty University was founded to train its students how to do — go out into every profession, and regardless of what line of work they choose, to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world in their everyday lives.
Partnerships between filmmakers such as Cameron and institutions like Liberty are something the actor sees as an important step forward for faith-based, Christian media organizations that desire to attract more mainstream audiences as well as proselytize its Christian beliefs. “A big goal of mine through press and social media sites is telling people the future of our world is in the hands of the next generation and in the institutions educating them with the worldview that is going to bring victory for the Gospel — and that is Liberty University,” stated Cameron during an interview with Liberty’s student paper.
Many more projects like Unstoppable are likely to come given both Cameron and Falwell’s expressed desire and enthusiasm for future projects between both the actor and the university, as well as the reported 150,000 viewers nationwide for it’s premiere.
In some ways, Unstoppable is as much an overt challenge to Hollywood’s traditionally lukewarm attitude and outright aversion towards faith-based fare as a theological discussion. However, similar to immensely popular and profitable films like The Passion of the Christ, Cameron sees Unstoppable as a potential industry game changer:
“It does change the name of the game when [Hollywood] sees what we are doing right now. Not only is it a win for me personally, and for Liberty’s film school, but also it does affect the way Hollywood looks at the way films can be made and distributed,” he said. “As we move into the future, there are even more game-changing moves we are willing to make that ‘Unstoppable’ has paved the way for.”
If the film is an example of such a change, one can only assume the challenge is largely based upon creating more socially relevant, visually appealing, and financially successful products with smaller, independent budgets. Such corporate insider moves are what famous religious activist such as Cameron and institutions like Liberty are counting on to help change the way Christianity and Christians are portrayed in popular media. No longer are such groups content with being stigmatized as the stodgy, kill joys incapable of having fun. As a corrective, their mission is to represent Christianity as an authentic life-style choice in which one need not sacrifice one’s “coolness” in order to participate. This type of Christian re-booting is underpinned by the rhetoric of empowerment and combativeness that permeates the entire film and its live-event component, both of which ask the question, “What’s cool?” and emphatically answers with, “Kicking ass, that’s what!”
For those of us unsure of how these two characteristics mesh together, Cameron is quick to answer in the film itself, which re-imagines the variety of ways the wrath-filled, God of the Old Testament serves as just such an example of edgy aggression and soft spoken sophistication. Cameron’s re-presented God punishes Eve for her rebellion and Adam for being a pussy. He marks Cain for his fratricide not as punishment, but for protection. His decision to flood the world is not characterized as cruel, but as a chance to start anew. In short, God doesn’t act upon humanity as much as reacts to its bad choices. In Cameron’s version of the Greatest Biblical Moments, God is much less the old, white-bearded, temperamental curmudgeon as he is the black, leather-jacket-donning Arthur Fonzarelli, leaning against the jukebox of creation with crossed arms, a perfectly quaffed pompadour, waiting quietly for someone to fuck up and challenge his turf.
Hollywood figures as the foil of Cameron’s narrative as he takes the viewer through reenacted scenes that portray the underdog actor as selling the Genesis story to a cabal of overly cynical marketing experts who attempt to reformulate the narrative to fit with contemporary, secular tastes. Cameron’s sincere appeals that the story’s events “can’t change” are met with suggested alterations such as the retooling of the Flood Story to focus on Noah, his family, the Ark, and the now “talking animals” in a cheap attempt to pander to viewers who prefer spectacle and farce over content and realism.
As if to answer such Hollywood indulgence, Cameron recruits director/editor, Darren Doane who is a veteran of music videos (producing them for the rock bands Blink 182, Shinedown, AFI, and more), and the film’s style and rhythm suggest as much. In one of the more visually striking and effective uses of montage within the film, Doane combines unsteady, blurred camera work with blurred imagery and slick editing techniques to suggest the inhumanness of Cain’s act of murdering his brother, Abel. The score is extremely aggressive, grungy, and fast-paced as Cain, donned in a snake-skinned head covering (that eerily, yet unsurprisingly, resembles a Taliban-like spectral figure) hunts down and kills the unsuspecting sibling in a creek bed by smashing his head open with a rock. Quick edits and close ups then force the viewer to confront images of pools of blood “crying out from the earth” and dripping from Cain’s marked and hidden face. Thus, Doane’s cinematography represents the type of unflinching and realistic examination of Evil that serves to underscore Cameron’s vision of placing the problem of Evil squarely on the shoulders of humanity, rather than the God who made them “in his own image”.
Such an attempt to foreground the film’s profound content while simultaneously utilizing such a slick, MTV music video style is bereft with contradictions given that films like Unstoppable must inevitably embody the very characteristics they wish to criticize. Thus, the film’s documentary look and edgy music video style captured by Doane become the draw for younger viewers to embrace such a film that touts its own substantive content. And the importance of Unstoppable’s story is no less than the ever-evading answer to the problem of Evil. Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s claims at answering to these questions are over-hipped, and he fails to deliver any original or satisfactory answers for most viewers by the film’s end.
However, to take Cameron’s claims as sincere is to mistake the film’s actual intentions. Rather than serving as an in-depth look at the problem of Evil, at its center, Unstoppable is merely a re-casting of familiar Biblical stories with an amped-up visual and aural appeal whose sole intention is helping young Christians feel edgy and cool. Nevertheless, the increased push by artistic, financial, and educational institutions into the popular market place should not be scoffed at, nor should the unique presentation of these new-found live, pay-per-view events, which can turn national theater chains into extensions of a religious service that has the capacity to reach audiences dwarfing even the largest of mega-churches. As studio-quality equipment becomes more affordable and staunch activists like Cameron are able to pull the ever-increasing production dollars, values, and talent for their religious projects, such films and events will continue to create a much stronger appeal to younger viewers—those already affiliated with Christianity and, more importantly, those who are not.
For another review, check out Damion’s take over at Background Probability.