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December 05, 2022

Constantine: The Good, The Bad, and The-ology

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie and Sand take off for the movies again, this time to see the controversial quasi-religious superhero flick Constantine.


Sand comments: Early in the fourth century A.D. the Emperor Constantine conquered his enemy Maxentius, crediting his victory to Jesus Christ. According to the chronicler Lactantius, Constantine received a holy vision in which the Greek letters chi and rho (which stood for Christ) were to be emblazoned on the soldiers' shields. Eusebius, writing mid-fourth century A.D. or so, recounted that Constantine told him of seeing a luminous cross in the sky in full daylight, with the message, "Conquer by this." Constantine, victorious, ended the persecution of Christians in his empire.

A powerful name, Constantine. Supernatural visions. Heavenly interventions. Put them in a blender, add angels and demons and religious artifacts with special powers, paste them all over a thin wallpaper of Roman Catholic theology. Now add to the story a pretty girl cop, a stoic, cynical warrior/detective, and glitzy computer generated effects -- and you get a movie called Constantine, about a spiritual enforcer who sends errant demons back to Hell to protect the world, even while he himself lacks faith in God's love.

I went to see this film solely for the CGI angel wings that I saw in the movie trailer. I fully expected to have my theological sensibilities insulted utterly, and be bored senseless by Keanu Reeves. However, Reeves' trademark deadpan face and monotone delivery must be growing on me. I found I liked him playing himself, just as I've liked Clint Eastwood, Peter Lorre, and Bruce Willis. Reeves was a fine choice to play John Constantine, who has seen the horror of Hell, the power of God, and who carries Death with him at every step. Seems to me, that if a character has experienced all that, being moved to fits of the giggles or dance mania would be far from apropos.

There were dumb theological bits: assembling a supernatural shotgun from holy articles; using a near-death experience to visit Hell; suggesting that an archangel was half-human, half angel. But there were also some sound statements: that you can't receive forgiveness unless you ask for it; that demons and angels in our dimension can't force us to act, but only suggest; and that our experience of the world is only a veneer on Heaven and Hell, that they are as close at hand as the choices we make.

I've never read the comic book on which this movie was based, so I can't judge how well the adaptation was done. I do know that on various online fora, discussion of the movie has gone far past analyzing plot or critiquing acting and has plummeted headlong into attacks upon Christianity by unbelievers and attacks upon those who enjoyed the movie by unbelievers and Christians alike.

Taking my chances with the mobs, overall, I liked it. But there really weren't enough CGI angel wings.


Bernie comments: I had a day off, and Sand and I decided we wanted to see a movie. After checking what was playing at the theater, I told Sand that it boiled down to Constantine or The Aviator.

"Do you want to be offended by faulty theology, or do want to be offended by DiCaprio's acting?" I am not above judging a book by its cover (or a movie by its trailer), especially given DiCaprio's track record, and considering that Hollywood's treatment of religion tends to be shallow. In support of my position, I offer for your consideration the pre-gubernatorial 1999 Schwarzenegger egg The Last Days, and any movie with DiCaprio (think back to 2000's The Beach if you need specifics, but don't say I didn't warn you).

"I know that the Aviator is up for Best Picture," Sand said. "But you know that we really want CGI." That's right. If we're gonna leave the trailer park to see somethin' at the movie house, it better have things that blow up real good, and things that are even uglier than our neighbor Mabel with her muu muu pulled up over her head. So off to Constantine we went.

In a nutshell, John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a kind of freelance exorcist, who having once committed suicide and been to hell and back, finds himself working for a God that he does not trust. He helps keep the balance of good and evil by exorcizing and sending back to hell demons who get out of line. He works not for the love of God, but in the hope that his efforts will gain him a reprieve from his own sentence to hell, the result of his suicide. He finds himself in an uneasy partnership with a policewoman (Rachel Weisz), who while investigating the death of her twin sister, finds herself the object of demonic desire as the unwitting conduit to be used for the birth of Satan's son into the world.

Do things blow up real good? You betcha. No groundbreaking special effects here, just good state of the art stuff with lots of monsters, bugs and great scenes of L.A. being consumed by fire.

Are there things uglier than Mabel? Sure are! The demons (and there are scads of them) are rotting, drooling, butt-ugly beings who, conveniently, blow up real good when shot with gold bullets.

Bad theology? Not as bad as you might think. There are definitely liberties taken with traditional Christian theology, but God is presented as good, the devil as bad (and as sleazy as hell), the Church (the Catholic one) as the hub of the spiritual defense network, a kind of religious equivalent to the Pentagon in Washington, salvation as infinitely better than and more desirable than damnation, and that there are consequences to choices we make. And man was portrayed as needing God. For a lot of kids, and for probably many adults, this movie will be the closest thing they get to a religious education. It could be worse.

If you are looking for a religious education, try some place better. But if you are looking for a good, scary, Saturday matinee monster movie, try Constantine. And God bless you.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-02-27
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