What Makes a Film "Good"?

Movieguide.org editor, Tom Snyder writes:

“Here, in these stats, we are not only judging production and aesthetic quality plus entertainment values, but actual content and worldview. Thus, SEPTEMBER DAWN, THE LAST SIN EATER and BEYOND THE GATES did not make the cut of the Top 20 movies for families or mature audiences, which is content driven and age appropriate driven first, then quality second (for instance, I am personally not a fan of BELLA quality wise and thought other movies made similar points in a more compelling fashion and believe that LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD was more entertaining and aesthetically pleasing than TRANSFORMERS and PRIDE, but I do not look at most of the movies a second and third time on DVD as Dr. Baehr does).”

What makes a film (or art in general) good? The directing? The screenplay? The acting? The answer, of course, is yes. All of these things vastly improve a film’s quality. This is what Movieguide views as secondary. For Movieguide, content is king.

The driving misconception here is the idea that content and quality are two entirely different and separable concepts. In fact, they are not. A film’s quality is directly tied not only to its form, but its overall message and consistency. For instance, Roger Ebert’s primary problem with the recently released critical bomb, The Bucket List is that it “thinks dying of cancer is a laff riot followed by a dime-store epiphany.” Notice how closely the message and the form are tied together: It’s a comedy (form) about cancer (content). Once it treats cancer as a “laff riot”, the feel-good message at the end is disingenuous and forced.

Here’s the danger: A film can purport to proclaim a certain message (i.e. “violence is bad”) while completely subverting that message and feeding our sinful desires in the process (i.e. Rambo). As Christians, we can feel great about watching a film which supposedly corresponds with a Christian world view, and yet at the same time we can do so thoughtlessly, with help from the film.

Thus, the real problem with movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Transformers, and Live Free or Die Hard is that they’re just “safe” enough that we’re encouraged to let our guard down. Transformers managed to dodge the taboos Christians typically look to avoid, such as excessive profanity and explicit anti-Christian ideas, but it was not honorable. Technically, there wasn’t anything obviously “bad” in the film. But the themes, the manipulation of the audience, and the complete disregard for true excellence undermines some of the more crucial aspects of the Christian faith.

But let’s be careful. Let’s not jump at the chance to declare every movie we see either “good” or “bad.” A movie is not either for us or against us. A movie can be both masterful and immoral. This doesn’t mean we must race to label it. Instead it means we must interact with it. As Christian, one of the most important things we can do is to praise what is good in a film and to interact with everything else, whether it’s individually or with others.

As Christians, we will not like the same films in the same way as the world. I was severely disappointed by Sweeney Todd, simply because it thrived over constant and blatant violence, and did violence to the concept of man being made in the image of God. When I read the reviews, I found that I was in the minority, though I agreed with the reviewers about almost every other aspect of the film. Because I am a Christian, I am inherently disturbed by the constant slaughter of human beings, made in the image of God. This violence, so blatantly portrayed, distracted me and took me out of the film. I was not invested in the story because I wanted out of the theater.

But we can’t let ourselves be distracted so much by what is wrong in a film that we forget to focus on whatever is excellent.

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  • I’d love to hear what “themes” in Transformers that you found offensive to Christian faith. As a fan of the toys and the old cartoons, I found the film to be a great summer action movie with amazing special effects and the sense not to take itself seriously.

  • Really, the real problem with Transformers was that it was made. Well, maybe not that it was made, but more that I actually watched it.

    As for offensive themes present in the movie?
    • Promotion of sexism. Megan Fox’s character’s entire purpose in the film was to drape herself about the scenery to the end of being sweaty eye-candy for the junior high boys (and junior-high-mentality thirty-five-year-olds) the film was aimed at. Oh, and to drive a tow truck backwards with no means of seeing behind her.

    • Promotion of irresponsibility for the sake of coolness. Megan Fox’s character drives a tow truck backwards with no ability to see what is in her way (her rear-window and mirrors are entirely obscured by Bublebee’s near-carcas). And she dares to command him to shoot? Shoot what? How does she know what he should be shooting. She could be running down injured grandmothers and all she cares about is feeling the hot recoil of his cannons.

    • Promotion of indestructibility. When Sergeant McMilitary lays down that motorcycle and goes sliding on his back to shoot a grenade or something into the tanky Decepticon, he gets up afterwards.

    • Promotion of U.S. military solutions for everything. Despite the fact that Prime has made clear that he needs the cube so he can destroy it, Sam takes the cube to the military. Even though Prime is right there next to him for a good twenty-minute drive into the city.

    • Promotion of rebellion. Sam, despite Prime’s explicit orders, decides to thrust the cube into Megatron’s chest, not knowing whether it will destroy him or give him the power of Unicron. After all, Prime didn’t know what would happen and we had ample evidence that the cube takes innocuous machines and turns them into psychotic killers. Why on earth wouldn’t Sam guess that maybe thrusting the cube into a psychotic killer machine wouldn’t turn it into a psychoticer killerer machine?

    • Promotion of poor value judgment. Despite Prime’s honest assestment of human beings as a violent, depraved race, he reverses without apparent cause and decides there’s some good in them and they are more than meets the eye (ar ar ar).

    • Promotion of ignorance. Sam is an idiot. And yet, celebrated for his idiocy.

    • Promotion of blissful ignorance. Prime believes that now that the cube is destroyed there is no longer any Decepticon threat. Prime has never heard of vengeance or vindictiveness or Plan B. After all, there are at least three Decepticons still on the loose (Soundwave, Barricade, and Starscream). That isn’t even counting any off-planet threat.

    • Promotion of lies. The character Jazz listens to hip hop, but calls himself Jazz.

    • Promotion of dirty lies. It made you think the hacker characters had anything to do with the story.

    • Promotion of damned dirty lies. The Kuwaiti people living in that village (?) would be all palsy-walsy with that company of soldiers after they robot-scorpion-death to their front doors, and let the soldiers use their phone.

    • Promotion of fantasy over reality. Sam’s mom would ever say the words: “Sam’s happy time.”

    And perhaps the worst offense of all…

    • Promotion of poor stewardship. Megan Fox’s character gets knocked off her pristine, late-model Vespa and never once considers going back for it.

  • Rich Clark

    The Dane, you are my hero for the day.

  • The Dane,

    “all she cares about is feeling the hot recoil of his cannons.” Please sir, there are innocents reading this blog; try to keep the language PG.

    Besides that, nothing boiled my blood in the movie Transformers like this piece of evil you nailed on the head: “The character Jazz listens to hip hop, but calls himself Jazz.” The nerve!

  • @Johnny T – I know, huh. The devil’s work.

  • Great, we’re all set for the Nitpicker’s Guide to the Transformers. How about some real criticism Rich?

  • Rich Clark

    Johnny, I’m going to defer to the Dane again here. I don’t think all of those bullet points were that nitpicky. In particular:

    -Promotion of sexism
    -Promotion of irresponsibility
    -Promotion of rebellion

    You know, etc.

  • Ax

    Walk in a large shopping center. It promotes sexism.
    Teenagers want to rebel. Fact. I am one. All the people I know (whether I hate them or not) rebels against their parents.
    People don’t want to take responsibility. Deal with it.

  • Ax: So what’s your point? That we should be OK with sin because it exists? I’m sorry, I’m just having a hard time understanding what you’re getting at here.

  • C.M.

    “Because I am a Christian, I am inherently disturbed by the constant slaughter of human beings, made in the image of God”

    Please explain the logic here.


    “Sweeney Todd . . . thrived over constant and blatant violence, and did violence to the concept of man being made in the image of God.”

    How did you arrive at this interpretation?

  • David Dunham

    @ C.M.

    Why don’t you begin by explaining why you’re having problems with those quotes. They seem fairly self-explanatory to me.

  • C.M.

    “Because I am a Christian, I am inherently disturbed by the constant slaughter of human beings, made in the image of God”

    I am concerned with the logic here because I am also a Christian, and was not “inherently disturbed” by the faux violence in the film. Your comment suggests that “Because I am a Christian”, I should be. Can you please explain this discrepancy in either my reaction or your philosophy?


    “Sweeney Todd . . . thrived over constant and blatant violence, and did violence to the concept of man being made in the image of God.”

    I asked how you arrived at this interpretation, which is certainly not self-explanatory within your claim. In other words, how did violence bring Sweeney to be “made in the image of God”?

  • Ah, I see the problem with the first part quoted. “Because I am a Christian, I am inherently disturbed by the constant slaughter of human beings, made in the image of God. This violence, so blatantly portrayed, distracted me and took me out of the film.”

    In between these two sentences, we’re meant to read an intervening idea. Something like: The slaughter of fictional characters within the scope of the film’s story was so forceful that it very much brought to my mind the slaughter of actual human beings.

    With a sentence like that dropped in between everything makes sense and you don’t have to worry that your not being affected by the faux-violence says anything necessary about your own state. This is great because the author obviously never intended to make the necessary correlation between fictional murder and real murder; instead, he only sought to show how the two tied, in his mind, via association. You just misread him here.

    As for the second quotation, I’ll let someone else massage that one, since I don’t think it bears up particularly well to scrutiny myself.