I just got "Soul Surfer" tonight and I suppose the previews ought to have clued me in–previews of movies by the makers of the Christian marriage film "Fireproof," among others. Then I noticed that Carrie Underwood is in it (who confuses me–is she country, or is she Christian, or should there be a new genre of music called "Christian Country?") Underwood plays a church leader of some sort—just what kind is not made clear, and the opening scenes show Bethany running from the surf being late for church. The film in the beginning toys with the idea that Bethany is lukewarm about her religious faith–she skips a mission trip to Mexico in order to train for surfing competitions and feels terrible about missing the mission trip, especially after a teen sermon delivered by Underwood about gaining perspective.
The shark delivers that "perspective." Losing her arm forces her to confront what she really does believe, and the rest of the film is a predictible plot full of tension about how Bethany comes to deeper faith after the loss of her arm. The film has received lukewarm reviews (49% on Rotten Tomatoes), and one reviewer, Jonathan Kim, seemed confused in his review on the Huffington Post:
Despite mediocre reviews and a predictable triumph-over-adversity biopic structure, Soul Surfer should have no problem making its money back and more.
But studio heads are no doubt keeping a close eye on Soul Surfer because of its overt Christian references, which are consistent with the religious tone of the book the film is based on as well as the religious beliefs of the devout Hamilton family.
For years, filmmakers and studios have been experimenting with ways to cater to Christian audiences without alienating non-Christian moviegoers, and Soul Surfer might be proof that a family-friendly Christian film can achieve crossover appeal on a modest budget.
But what if you're an atheist like me, who is critical of religion generally, and Christianity specifically? Is Soul Surfer simply an uplifting family film about a determined surfer girl who happens to be a Christian, or is it an attempt to indoctrinate kids through the movie theater? And, most importantly, is Soul Surfer any good?
Would the film have been the same "uplifting" flick if Bethany had been atheist and overcome adversity to surf again? I think so. It might have been more convincing and less cheesy as well.
I think the film hopes to appeal to everyone regardless of religious persuasion (or not), but even as a spiritual person I felt the film was a bit cheesy in its religiosity, particularly since one would expect a Christian "star" like Kirk Cameron to play the dad, not Dennis Quaid, who, to my knowledge, has never made such an overt Christian film. Helen Hunt was not convincing to me either–both seemed as if they were not quite comfortable in their roles as Christian parents (or Christian actors). Quaid has a memorable scene in which he's reading a Bible in the hospital as Bethany is recovering–he flips the Bible shut when Bethany wakes and sort of just dumps it in a chair. He is not seen with a Bible in the rest of the film. Neither is Hunt. The treatment of the actors in a Christian role seems unbalanced through the whole film–as if the filmmakers don't quite know whether they are making a Christian film targeted towards Christians, or a film in which the main character is Christian. Don't get me wrong–I respect people of faith–but there are movies out there which make you want to believe in something greater than ourselves without preaching every third scene–K-Pax, Contact, Signs, Everything is Illuminated, Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind just to name a few.
If you can deal with the tenuous nature of the overt and shiny Christian themes, "Soul Surfer" delivers what it promises–a Hollywood remake of somebody's life. We all know what happened to Bethany Hamilton. We all know she surfed again. Everybody I know was really happy for her and thought her courageous for overcoming a handicap to do what she loves–surfing. Of course Bethany goes on a mission to tsunami ravaged Thailand–after the shark bite. It makes you wonder if the filmmakers wanted you to believe that God sent the shark to rearrange Bethany's priorities or something.
For me, though, watching this film is like watching Titanic where everybody knows what will ultimately happen, but watches it because disaster attracts us, and mystifies us, and causes us to not be able to stop watching, and because something in us wants to believe that we'd overcome adversity as well. I was attracted to the film because of the story, and because I like Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and Annasophia Robb. I just didn't care for hypereligious Carrie Underwood preaching to me through the whole film. The film never got to the meat or any real insights into the Hamiltons or why religion was so important to the Hamiltons–they just spewed Bible verses (particularly I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me), and motivational hyperbole. This is a disservice to the Hamilton's faith, and I have seen religious films done much better than this.