This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
In the book of Exodus, we read about how Moses confronted Pharaoh, who was persecuting the Israelite slaves, and demanded, “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh stubbornly refused, even as the wrath of God brought ten plagues to ravage his land.
There are also ten plagues in The Reaping, Warner Brothers’ new horror thriller. But you don’t have to suffer through all of them, or wait for a deliverer. You are not a slave to Hollywood’s clever marketing campaigns. You don’t have to wait for an usher to yell, “Let my people go!” You can get up out of your theater seat and go free at any time. Or, better yet—you can avoid this movie altogether.
As written by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, The Reaping has an intriguing premise—those famous Old Testament plagues are recurring in Haven, Louisiana. Or are they? Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for all of this.
That’s what Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) proposes. Winter may as well be Indiana Jones’ granddaughter—one day, she’s lecturing about the scientific explanations behind reportedly paranormal phenomena. (Doesn’t your local university have a miracle-debunker?) The next day, she’s an adventurer, investigating so-called “miracles” so she can debunk all of this hocus-pocus.
The pattern worked for Indy, but Winter could stand to learn a thing or two about adventuring. She seems strangely compelled to wade deeper and deeper into trouble equipped with little more than fancy scientific jargon. Whether she’s headed into a dark attic, a dark cellar, a dark abandoned house, or dark woods, Winter seems averse to using common-sense tools like flashlights. Shouldn’t she be wearing more than a flimsy tank top as she deals with boil-covered corpses and blood-polluted rivers?
And why is she so driven to disprove miracles? The film has an impressive explanation: She’s lost her faith in God, and she’s bitter about a deep, personal loss.
Nevertheless, God protects Winter and her sidekick Ben (Idris Elba) from the deadly effects of these amazing disasters. They seem immune to the corruption rampant in Haven, but don’t worry—there are plenty of locals and CGI-generated cattle to give the plagues something to afflict.
For a few moments, viewers may wonder if this is going to become a cautionary tale about global warming. Or perhaps it’s a commentary on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, suggesting, like some televangelists, that sin brought devastation on New Orleans. (It’s no surprise that FEMA remains absent from the scene of the plagues, but where’s the national media? When swamps start turning to blood, shouldn’t Anderson Cooper be standing in the muck with a live report?)
AnnaSophia Robb as Loren McConnell—a long way from Terabithia
But no, The Reaping is far too excited about unleashing special-effects mayhem to bother with any serious thought. The plagues provide enough paranormal activity for several movies, but they’re just the beginning. Winter’s old friend Father Costigan, a priest she’s trying to ignore, is suffering vivid hallucinations about the angel of death, and all of his photographs of Winter are catching fire. Meanwhile, Dakota Fanning’s evil twin (AnnaSophia Robb of Bridge to Terabithia) is lurking in the Haven swamp. When she’s around, Winter suffers freaky psychic flashes. These fragmented revelations may not be of much practical use, but they sure make viewers jump in their seats.
You don’t need to be a psychic to guess how it will all turn out. We’re sure that a villain will be revealed. Is it the girl, or her zombie-like mother? Is it Costigan? Is it the local Christian loudmouth who sneers at Winter’s crisis of faith? (“Some people just don’t want to go to heaven.”) With so few possibilities, viewers who are familiar with the genre will be able to place smart bets on the outcome.
In fact, with a few winks at the audience, this could have become a campy classic, a spoof of noisy horror flicks. But director Stephen Hopkins (TV’s Tales from the Crypt) takes this preposterous storyline so seriously that it’s just no fun. You may find yourself wishing that boils or locusts would come and put you out of your misery.
For all of its God-talk, The Reaping is just the kind of “faith-based film” we don’t need. What hathThe Passion of The Christ wrought? With only a few notable exceptions, it hath wrought a plague of exploitative, superficial, theologically confused, audience-abusing movies like Constantineand this big-budget howler.
The Reaping was originally pitched to the Christian market as being “biblically based.” If that meant there are ten plagues in the book of Exodus and ten plagues in this film, well, OK, that’s correct. But shouldn’t we ask for something better? There is nothing here worthy of praise, save for some frightfully convincing effects. (The bloody river has more detail and personality than the characters. Locusts buzz up a perfect storm. And Winter ascends a stairway of David Lynchian proportions.)
Christian moviegoers hungry for challenging movies can support more thought-provoking efforts like Amazing Grace. Horror movies can offer substantial explorations of spiritual questions. Scott Derrickson had the right idea with The Exorcism of Emily Rose—a film in which horror-flick conventions helped coax mainstream audiences toward serious questions about the reality of spiritual warfare.
But The Reaping is shameless in the way it exploits real-world realities for cheap entertainment. They even stoop so low as to bring the current crisis in Sudan into the picture—not to make us more aware of the atrocities happening there, but so we can feel bad for some Americans who learned their lesson about intervening. (This repeats the prime offense of The Last King of Scotland: a movie about Idi Amin’s cruelty, in which the audience is not so much concerned about mass-murder as they are about whether or not the white guy can get away with an extramarital affair.)
But wait—this movie stars two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. Doesn’t that make it worth seeing? Swank doesn’t embarrass herself—she doesn’t have a chance. The frantic editing eliminates anything resembling a performance. The characters enjoy moments more than scenes. This style has become common in the horror genre, perhaps to help distract audiences from gaping plot holes.
Swank’s supporting cast fares even worse. As a handsome Haven widower, David Morrissey sounds impressively like a young Liam Neeson—but this feature won’t improve his resume. (His last project was Basic Instinct 2.) Idris Elba’s character doesn’t get much chance to demonstrate his Christian faith—but aren’t his cross jewelry and his cross tattoos impressive? Poor Stephen Rea is trapped in the loneliest, most ridiculous role of his career, spouting “ancient prophecies” that make The DaVinci Code sound plausible by comparison.
AnnaSophia Robb is the film’s most memorable presence. She was creepy enough to distract me with visions of a franchise in which she and the hordes of creepy kids from other horror movies join forces and become a team of tiny crime-fighters who, focusing their menacing gazes and sinister whispers, scare the bad guys to death.
What does it all mean? Besides the obvious lessons of “Satanic cults are bad,” “faith is good,” and “It’s wrong to murder small children,” it’s hard to say. Those determined to justify the film may argue that it’s a story about a culture that devalues children; or find profundity in Winter’s crisis of faith. But Hopkins’ style disrupts any coherent thought.
And we aren’t led to fear the wrath of God; the spectacle of one plague inclines us to lean forward in anticipation of the next, so that the finale is like the climax of a Fourth of July display. When frogs fell from the sky in Magnolia, we cared because the film was filled with interesting characters. Here, they’re just another juicy jolt—and by that point, the plagues have become wearying. When Ben exclaims, “There’s still three plagues to go! We gotta get outta here!”, most viewers will have already come to that same conclusion, and much earlier.