Home / Books and Entertainment / Reviews / "Soul Surfer" drowns in waves of overt Christian themes where "faith triumphs over adversity"
"Soul Surfer" drowns in waves of overt Christian themes where "faith triumphs over adversity"

"Soul Surfer" drowns in waves of overt Christian themes where "faith triumphs over adversity"

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.

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • http://www.goddiscussion.com admin

    I'm not sure that a film that contains a bunch of preaching is going to appeal to a secular audience. After reading this review, I'm going to go with my gut feeling and just not bother to rent this one.

    I loved your list of alternative and more inspiring movies, such as K-Pax, Contact, Signs, Everything is Illuminated,and A Beautiful Mind. Contact is one of my most favorite movies. And I really think that if people are looking for a spiritual theme done in an intriguing, entertaining story, Steven King's "The Stand" leaves a lot of room for thought (I don't know if that's a movie; I only read the book).

    For me, I find that good science fiction generally raises fantastic questions about morality, meaning and spirituality.

    Great review. Thanks!

    Deborah

  • Rose

    I'm Christian and I don't like the preachy movies. I much prefer movies like those mentioned in the review, or movies in which faith is simply a part of one or some of the characters. The dreadful movie Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones, had one scene that surprised me – some of the characters were attempting to rescue people in a trapped subway car while the lava was flowing closer. The rescuer in the car was trapped with the last unconscious man and couldn't throw him. He could have jumped and saved himself, but chose to walk through the lava to save the man. And he recited the 23rd Psalm while he did so (or maybe it was the Lord's Prayer – it's been years since I saw it). He died, of course, but the man was saved. While I doubt anyone could actually walk through the lava like that (!), having a regular person pray like that in a highly dangerous and stressful situation is, I think, the only realistic part of the movie. It was simply part of who that character was. That's what I would like to see more of in movies and TV shows. And not just Christians – characters of other faiths as well.

  • http://bradpitt-workout.info/ Rigg

    Good Post

  • http://www.justfilm.co.uk ChrisP

    I agree with these comments. What faith often does is give people a line over which they will not cross. We may not agree with the principle in question but we admire the courage shown. Two films not already mentioned with this quality are A Man For All Seasons and Chariots Of Fire.

    • http://www.goddiscussion.com admin

      Definitely great films, Chris! Thanks for the reminder.

      Deborah

  • http://www.addvalue.com.au Patricia

    I like this movie! Also, I so like cast! Soul surfer is one of the best christian movies I've seen this year.

  • http://www.mydecogift.ro Cadouri Femei

    I have heard more things about this movie than any other christian movie, but it doesn't appear in my country until now . From what i see on your commentary is a good christian movie that worth seen .

  • http://yourbellyfatfree.com Kurt

    I love contact, signs and a beautiful mind as well. A beautiful Mind has always been a favorite of mine ever since the first time that I saw it. thanks for the article!!

  • http://accuratepsychicreadingsnow.com Elizabeth Holloway

    Thanks for this review!! It was thorough and insightful. The phrase "bit cheesy in its religiosity" helped cement my decision to just go ahead and by-pass this one :)

  • Celiah Blaire

    that's rediculous. It's not convincing? It's a true story. Christians don't walk around with bibles in their back pocket, just because Dennis' character is only seen once with one doesn't mean he isn't christian. You're review is complete blasphemy

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