Samson: An Evangelical Hero in the Era of Trump

If you’ve never heard of Pure Flix Entertainment then you’re really missing out. It’s the Christian alternative to Netflix, and it is an unintentionally hilarious attempt at offering a poor quality substitute for the “worldly” entertainment you find on that other channel.

Besides offering straight-to-laptop streaming films for home viewing, sometimes Pure Flix sponsors full-length feature films for limited release in theaters where they expect church attendance is high enough to provide a stable supply of ticket buying customers. Back in 2014 they released God’s Not Dead, which by all non-Christian standards was a cinematic train wreck, but sold out four weekends in a row in my particular Southern town. I wrote a response to it the first week I started writing for Patheos and quickly discovered my sentiments were shared by an awful lot of people.

Read: “What I Learned about Atheists from God’s Not Dead

This past week I was looking for a diversion after a long workday and decided to check out their newest cinematic release, Samson, and I have to say I was not disappointed. I laughed through the entire movie because it was so incredibly terrible. Samson represents Pure Flix‘s effort to capitalize on the commercial success of all these superhero movies produced by Marvel and DC, only in this case the superhero has to pray for his super strength every time or else he is a complete weakling despite his chiseled Schwarzeneggerian physique.

 

At first I checked myself and tried to give grace to the production company founded by David A.R. White (akathe Jesus Man“) for having a comparatively lower budget than most big shot movie production companies have to work with. White et al will be working with closer to $4 million (it’s hard to say exactly how much because they won’t tell us how much it cost) to produce a competitor to films boasting over a hundred million dollars in operating budgets, so I figure it’s only fitting that I lower my cinematic expectations.

But I don’t think that’s what’s really behind how terrible this movie was. I suspect there are peculiar cultural pressures (combined with inescapably implausible source material) forcing these movies into a mold that guarantees they will be terrible no matter how much money they throw at these projects. Faithful church members will dutifully flock to these films multiple times to support their own tribe in the ongoing culture wars, almost guaranteeing that these flicks will at least break even no matter how bad the resulting movies turn out to be.

With storylines like this, it’s almost impossible to make an emotionally believable film. But throw in a target audience this accustomed to bad acting and paper-thin character development, and you’ve got a recipe for chronically bad movies that will never be appreciated by anyone other than the very narrow target audience for whom these movies are really made.

Incidentally, in reviewing this film I’m ironically going to do something I learned in seminary: I’m going to use the “text” of this film as an image from which I will extrapolate back to the other side of the conversation which this movie represents. Just as theologians use Paul’s extant epistles to reason backwards to reconstruct his original ecclesiastical audience, so I will use this movie to reason backwards to reconstruct the target audience for whom this latest iteration of Pure Flix Entertainment was underwritten.

What we discover from this experiment should prove fascinating to say the least.

I thought about “live tweeting” my way through this film the same way I did for the sequel to God’s Not Dead, but I just didn’t want any distractions. This way you can read the unfolding stream of consciousness in a place where I could have the space to flesh out what I discovered from watching this intellectually insulting storyline without the ADHD distractions of a Twitter feed taking away from what I wanted to say.

What follows are my thoughts shared moment-by-moment as the movie progressed. When my notes are finished, you will find my final thoughts about the film at the end of the post. If you’d rather not experience the movie the way I experienced it, you can simply cut to the chase and read my reactions at the end.

Notes from the Film in Real Time

Ah. How nice. Instead of the usual pop music playing before the commercials start, patrons of this film get treated to a song by Britt Nicole. You can’t dislike the sound of this young woman’s voice. You just can’t. She always sounds so damned HAPPY. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that they thought through the details of their releases so thoroughly. They’re getting this marketing thing down to a fine science, aren’t they?

I probably should use the previews slot to make my pre-show trip to the men’s room. (You didn’t expect me to endure this without downing a beer or two in the parking lot, did you? Do you even know me?)

Oh my god, religious movies are so very bad. They always have these paper-thin characters. Onion-skin thin, in fact :)

Wait, Rutger Hauer is in this? And is that…the Bionic Woman? I suppose it makes sense the parents of a biblical action hero would be a replicant and a half-woman, half robot. But surely that was unintentional.

Who the hell is this brother character who keeps preaching at Samson? I don’t recall anyone like him in the original story. He looks absolutely nothing like him, either. And where did they buy his awful wig? Party City? What is with this guy? Is he even in the story? Or did they invent him to serve some role they wished this story had? Which would be…?

Oh, good. The bad guy wears guyliner and sports a standard evil man goatee. I should have seen that one coming.

Billy Zane is in this? Has he fallen so far? Or did they just pay him that well? And why does it feel like he’s only half caring about reading his lines with any feeling at all? Maybe they should have tried paying him a little bit more.

Holy crap, these wigs are cheap. And the BEARDS. Must have bought them in bulk.

Ah, I see. The bad girl is a secular humanist who thinks you should determine your own destiny. But kudos for picking a Delilah that’s actually enjoyable to watch. Caitlin Leahy is definitely easy on the eyes, and she appears to be the only person in this entire cast who’s capable of acting like a three dimensional human being.

Something about the rest of these characters is sooo…cartooney, though. Even Samson’s face…it’s too…I don’t know. Something in this guy’s face makes me think it’s not the way his face has always looked. He looks like Taylor Lautner from Twilight but after like ten years of shooting ‘roids and working out with Conan the Barbarian.

Also I just realized the bad guy is Jackson Rathbone, who’s an actual Twilight alum. I’m starting to pick up a pattern, here…

This script does have one cool line. “Out of the eater something to eat. Out of the eater something sweet.” That’s actually quite poetic. But then they went and ruined it by turning it into a high school brawl kind of interchange between the metrosexual villain and the macho hero. The point of which was ultimately about showing up this overeducated uppity pansy in a battle of wits.

I guess I can’t blame evangelicals for providing that particular vicarious vengeance on their behalf.

Crikey, this direction is bad. I swear the director must have learned his craft in a…well, I guess in church.

I feel the shirtless scene coming on. It’s got to be in this segment somewhere.

Incidentally, I can’t help but notice the good guys are all macho and manly in the traditional kind of way while the bad guys are all effeminate.

Ah, there it is. He actually just ripped his shirt off, Hulk Hogan style. And I’m gonna give it to the guy, he’s cut as hell. Props to his trainer.

Good grief. All these Philistine soldiers look like they’re wearing stuff they got from a discount costume shop. And I’m pretty sure it’s all Roman style, and also plastic. But I guess their budget’s just too low for anything else. You’d think they’d at least consider coming at him all at once instead of taking turns the way they’re doing. Guess they couldn’t afford the special effects chops it would take to make such an implausible story look realistic.

Loooots of gratuitous abs shots. That was generous of them. I see all the writers and directors were men, too. Which prompts all kinds of questions about the orientation of the people behind productions at Pure Flix

Oh, and that’s nice, too. Samson seems morally bothered by the fact that he just killed a hundred guys. But then he also lost his father so maybe it’s not actually about that. I did notice in this sanitized version he didn’t actually murder any women or children. I guess that wouldn’t translate well into church targeted cinema.

Oh yeah. Zane is in this. I forgot for a while, there. The promotional poster made me think he was actually going to be on the screen for more than a few seconds. I should have known better.

They’re anointing Samson with oil. Good thing they included that. I would imagine the charismatic churches appreciate little gifts like this.

Oh good. Evil Prince Rallah has a bad guy scar now. I knew something was missing. Now his look is complete.

Oh my god these beards. Stop I can’t breathe.

That is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not very often you get to walk into a movie theater and see men wearing strapped on beards that it looks like they raided a local church storage room to collect.

Interesting. The good guys here are the oppressed ones, fighting against the unfair dictates of a government hostile to their interests. Somehow that feels like a familiar narrative.

Ahhh. I see where this is going. The hero in this story is powerful but morally weak. He’s capable of doing great things, but he’s got a weakness for chasing skirts. I can’t imagine why someone would choose this particular story to recreate and celebrate at this particular moment.

Oh good, another fight scene. I needed to pee anyway. Those beers I chugged in the parking lot to get me through this shot through me in typical fashion.

Another prayer before getting his strength. They threw that in just in case you were starting to forget his power isn’t genetically engineered into him or something. We wouldn’t want you leaving this theater thinking this hulky body builder is actually strong on his own.

As a side note, it’s interesting that Delilah seems like she has a soul. She’s actually relatable. She even manages to make these stupid lines sound almost believable. She almost makes me forget for a second find how bad this writing is. But unfortunately she doesn’t get the screen as much as the paper-thin characters do.

Prayer warriors? Check.

Morally vacuous leaders helped only by spiritually gifted preacher types who provide them with the necessary guidance to accomplish what God put them there to accomplish? Check.

Emphasis on the availability of forgiveness? Check. Good thing for these folks, to be sure.

To whom is this movie directed? People with low emotional intelligence and a massive sense of guilt. Maybe people with a weakness for beautiful women and a whooole lot of pent up insecurities about their own manliness.

Rawr. Samson asked to be tied up. This is like Fifty Shades but in reverse. A biblically endorsed excuse for indulging a lot of pent-up kink under the guise of just re-enacting what the Bible says. I wonder if they’ll release a Director’s cut later on? Unrated

Oooh, I see. The bad woman in this is the one who uses her sexy charms to manipulate the bad guy into becoming vulnerable. I must say, that is indeed what the story says. But omygod is that predictable. If I were to extrapolate backwards, I would guess the target audience of those who picked this story, of all stories, to provide an ancient validation of the standard narrative which says that whenever a powerful man uses a woman to slake his lusts, it is her fault and not his. I mean what good is a man’s feeble will apart from god’s supernatural intervention, amirite?

Damn these actors are bad. Not Delilah. But just about all the others. At least they gave her some complexity. Everyone else has only one or two dimensions, tops.

Damn. They just KILLED Billy Zane. WTF. Is THAT even in the Bible? Wait, are ANY of these other key people in the original story? Why did they conjure these characters in particular, I wonder? What were they trying to get at, exactly?

The Metrosexual finally takes his place as the ultimate Bad Guy. Those damn skinny jeans wearing, latte sipping, wine tasting wusses that think they’re so smart with all their book learning. I’m guessing it’ll be really satisfying to see them get what’s coming to them.

So now Samson could have gone free but sacrificed himself in the place of his preacher brother? Now he gets to die a moral hero after all. That’s quite generous. And of course a significant departure from the actual text on which they based this story.

And the bad guy finally becomes a pure instrument only after he can’t see anymore. I guess that would certainly eliminate his weakness for eye candy. Interesting detail I’ve never noticed before.

And now they’re whipping the nearly nude messiah just before he kills himself. Where was it again I read that story before? It’s feels so familiar…

I remember being impressed with this. With how well Samson foreshadowed Jesus. It impressed me deeply. I mean if not for divine provenance, how else would you account for the way this story perfectly foretold how Jesus would die?

Of course I know now there is another way to think about all this.

“God is with us!” A theocratic battle cry is the last line in the movie? Uttered by the preacher? How interesting. Isn’t that what the Nazis had engraved on their belts?

Ah, a quick nod to a sequel. David is next? That certainly would allow for another installment featuring a gifted but morally wayward leader of a nation. Plus more battles and sex, but without any actual sex.

Now the final credits…and I swear the music sounds like something I would hear as the “special music” just before the preacher gets up to preach, to get everyone in the right mood. I’m guessing they’re hoping this will end up in that slot for some portion of their audience.

Well, that was fun. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would. I’m just not sure they intended for any of it to be as funny as I found it.

For Whom Was This Movie Made?

In retrospect, this movie seems quite obviously written to justify a certain perspective about national leadership in which powerful people can be used by God despite being absolute moral disasters. Samson in particular is the biblical story most easily used to validate letting a short-sighted, knuckle-headed, power-hungry womanizer lead your country. Extra points for making him a germaphobe obsessed with his own hair.

I mean, sure, he couldn’t tell the difference between a good decision and a bad one if his life depended on it (and I suppose ultimately it did). But hey, if God can use an immoral oaf like this guy, then he could lead through almost anybody, right?

It’s not that difficult to imagine why an evangelical entertainment outlet would spend more money than ever before on a film designed to persuade people that, as my old pastor used to say, God can shoot straight licks with crooked sticks.

And yes, I’ll admit this seems quite obviously made to mimic the beefcake-studded visual cornucopia that the Marvel Comic movies have become. Clearly this was their foray into the current action flick genre, hoping to grab a small slice of the pie that the rest of the entertainment industry is enjoying. Call it Captain Israel, if you please.

You’d think a guy whose strength comes from on high, a supernatural gift gained only through desperate prayer just seconds before each battle begins, would be more physically average. I mean, that’s the way I would do it if I were trying to stick as closely to the Bible as possible. But they weren’t about to pass up this opportunity to cause a few women to stumble in their “walk with the Lord.”

Actually, it’s funny how Delilah never showed any skin at all, while Samson flexed shirtless in slow motion, glistening in the sun for extended periods of time. Because only men are visually stimulated, you see. So it was okay to use that double standard. And if you believe that, you may enjoy reading a list of 24 other lies we heard about sexuality while growing up in church.

Read:Lies the Church Told Us About Sex

If I were to extrapolate backwards from this movie to its target audience, I would have to say that their ideal viewer possesses some or all of the following traits:

  • Insecure men prone to embracing toxic masculinity.
  • Women with eyes.
  • Preachers longing for a place at the table of civic power.
  • WWE and UFC fans, and anyone else who loves watching people get beaten to a pulp.
  • Audiences accustomed to the production quality of a typical church musical.
  • Anti-intellectual conservatives who think advanced degrees are for sissies.
  • Republicans. But I repeat myself.

Despite their efforts at pandering to their intended audience’s most reliable appetites, it appears they didn’t make back their production costs in the opening weekend, as their worldly counterparts so often do.

But if you know anything about the way these movies work, the real money will come in over time as churches continue to send their congregants back to see it again and again if for no other reason than to send a message to Hollywood that Christians watch movies, too. And of course they’ll also do well in DVD sales and streaming subscriptions to Pure Flix no matter how poor the quality of their writing, directing, and acting. In the end, they’ll be just fine. Like I said, they’ve got this down to a science.

Now we can wait another year or two to find out just how far they will go to sanitize the story of David, who likewise had a weakness for chasing skirts. As long as he subscribes to the right religion, he will get a mulligan, you see, while everyone else who does anything remotely similar becomes a persona non grata. The double standards are pretty glaring.

We’ve come to expect this from them, however, in the era of Donald Trump.

Related:

[Image Source: Pure Flix]

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