Tuesday, May 08, 2018

'Samson' Pulls Punches

PureFlix – the studio known for making faith-based films like God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ – is seemingly attempting to make its own “cinematic universe” featuring Bible characters, and the first movie is apparently Samson.

If you are unfamiliar with your Bible, here’s a spoiler-y summary: Samson lived during the era of the Judges of Israel (hence, his story is found in Judges chapters 13 to 16).  Whenever the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, he manifested superhuman strength – basically, he was a real-life Hercules or Hulk.  With this power, he was able to single-handedly slaughter many Philistines (the Israelites’ enemies) and served as his people’s leader for 20 years.  His downfall came at the hands of Delilah the prostitute, whose seduction, nagging, and trickery compelled him to divulge the secret source of his super strength: his hair, which he vowed not to cut (technically, his power comes from God).  While Samson was sleeping, Delilah let his enemies in to shave his head and subdue him.  The Spirit of the Lord left Samson, and he was left powerless as the Philistines gouge out his eyes and bound him.  He was sent to prison where he was put to work as a grinder.  But as time passed, his hair began to grow back.  One day, he was called to entertain the Philistines who were celebrating their god Dagon.  He asked to be put where the pillars were so he could lean on them.  But after praying for help from God, his super strength returned and he broke the pillars, causing the temple to crumble down on himself and all the people there.  The amount of Philistines that was killed that day was more than the total amount that he had ever killed in his lifetime.
So did the movie faithfully follow this story?  Well, for the most part.  It does have to make a couple of creative liberties here and there.  Some were necessary.  If the script just exclusively relied on what Judges 13 to 16 provides, then it would have been a short film.  I’m generally okay with Bible-based movies exercising some artistic license as long as it doesn’t contradict or dilute its Scriptural source material.  Example, it’s okay to give made-up names or backstories to side characters, or even add completely fictional characters exclusive to that adaptation, as long as they fit logically to the narrative and don’t clash with the information established by Scripture.  In the movie, there’s a character named Caleb, Samson’s brother.  Now, there’s no mention of a Caleb in the Bible story of Samson, but Judges 16:31 does mention he had brothers (though the word “brothers” there could also translate to relatives).  Such creative liberty is acceptable, in my opinion.

However, the movie also makes a couple of unnecessary and awkward creative liberties, like letting an evil prince character be the one to give Samson’s wife away to a new husband (or was it, if I remember correctly, that evil prince himself married her) when, in the Bible, it is clear that it was the father who gave her away.  Though this doesn’t radically alter the story, changing a particular detail that is blatantly stated in the Bible is very off-putting.  And considering that this is the Word of God we’re talking about, even such small change could possibly be sacrilegious.

The creative liberties in this movie also play a part in the watered down characterization of Samson.  The movie portrays him as a “good person” – like he’s this well-meaning, honorable pacifist.  He’s often asking God to give him strength, and at one point, he prays that God will send him a sign to know His will.  However, in the Bible, he wasn’t exactly the “faithful hero”-type.  He was more of a vain, hedonistic, hot-tempered rogue.  He didn’t really seek God’s will.  He was impulsive with his actions, doing whatever he pleased.  I guess the filmmakers “reimagined” him so that he could be a legitimate hero that the audience can cheer for.  But by doing so, it actually ruined the beauty and layers of Samson’s story.  For isn’t the real main character of his story, as well as other Bible stories, God himself?
Amid Samson’s unfaithfulness, God remained faithful.  And even when Samson did what was right in his eyes instead of what was right in God’s eyes (Judges 14:13), God was nevertheless in control (Judges 14:14).  After all, even over sin, God is sovereign.  What He purposes will never be thwarted (Isaiah 14:27).  He purposed Samson’s strength to be used against His people’s enemies, the Philistines.  But even though Samson never sought out God’s will and instead pursued whatever he wished, God’s decree was nevertheless carried out.  That was the story of Samson – God’s stunning, absolute sovereignty displayed.

Nevertheless, though it’s not explicitly stated in the Bible, I think Samson nevertheless gained redemption.  After all, wasn’t he one of the Old Testament heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11?  I like to imagine that Samson’s arc is similar to those of King Manasseh (read 2 Chronicles 33:1-20) and King Nebuchadnezzar (read Daniel 4:28-37).  So, maybe, the blindness, imprisonment, and servitude humbled Samson.  And by the grace of God, through this humiliating circumstance, he got to repent, reflect, and realize the truth stated in the previous paragraph.  Thus, in that final moment of his life at Dagon’s temple, for the first time ever, he desired to finally honor God by consciously acting in accordance to what God had set him apart for.  Even though God’s decree had always been carried out (i.e. destruction of the Philistines) through him, it was only the first time he would be part of its implementation out of obedience and love for God.  This theory further holds water when we consider that this moment was actually the first time the Bible recorded Samson praying to God for strength, addressing Him as “Sovereign Lord” in the process.

So, yeah, I wish the movie went this route.  If that had been the case, the result would have been a more compelling, profound narrative.  What it has instead is some unremarkable, standard storytelling – nothing that can make an impact.
Aside from that, particular events in Samson’s life would make for some really exciting cinematic spectacles.  This is, after all, the Bible character that killed a thousand Philistine soldiers in battle armed with just a donkey’s jawbone.  That should be a ten-minute 300-style set piece right there.  Unfortunately, this is PureFlix’s movie.  It doesn’t want to have an “R” rating even though Biblical Samson is pretty much an “R” story.  Thus, its show of violence is pretty restrained, and the fight scenes are unimaginative and amateurish.

As for the technical aspects, Samson’s laughably fake beard notwithstanding, it looked decent enough.  I didn’t expect much in the first place since I know it’s a low-budget production.

The performances are okay – either because they are serviceable (Taylor James as Samson, a total beefcake) or are so hammy that they’re entertaining (Billy Zane as King Balek, and Jackson Rathbone as Prince Rallah).

In the end, this movie is quite bland.  And its failing can be boiled down to one thing:  it lacks boldness.  It’s more concerned of being “family friendly” than making a movie that will give Samson justice.  Thus, it loses much of the thoughtfulness and thrill that can be mined from the Biblical account.  But, again, this can’t be helped since it’s under the PureFlix brand.  And that ideal Samson film?  It can only be done if the filmmakers are willing to go full Game of Thrones with it.

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