In “The Discovery,” released on Netflix March 31, there’s a lot of talk about people “trying to get there,” where “there” is the newly-discovered afterlife and the “trying to” part means suicide. “Trying to get there” also describes the experience of waiting for the ending of “The Discovery,” which starts off with an intriguing premise but tepidly moves toward a convoluted ending.
In this sci-fi drama/pseudo-romance from Charlie McDowell (“The One I Love”), neurologist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford, doing some of his best work within the first five minutes of the film) has discovered that there is indeed an afterlife, some other plane of existence. However, just where that afterlife is remains a mystery, one that Harbor dedicates his life to solving.
After learning of the afterlife, millions of people “try to get there” through various suicidal means. In the two years since The Discovery, the suicide rate rises by the millions. This fact doesn’t sit well with Harbor’s son Will (Jason Segel, moping more than when Lindsay Weir’s mom accidentally broke up with Nick Andopolis), also a neurologist.
Will resents Thomas for the loss of life his research has caused. He’s on his way to visit Thomas when he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a woman who wants nothing more than to be left alone as she tries to drown herself. Will saves her and eventually takes her in at Thomas’ isolated Gothic mansion that also houses a cult-like group of people who have been affected by suicide and help Thomas with his experiments. When Thomas finds a way to record the afterlife, Will and Isla go sleuthing to prove that the research is a fraud, and end up discovering something bigger than Thomas ever imagined.
Along the way, we meet Thomas’ other son Toby (Jesse Plemons), who seems to be having the most fun out of the entire cast, turning a minor part into a scene-stealer every chance he gets. We’re treated to a convoluted romance between Will and Isla. Tiny bits of the post-Discovery world are built by some terse dialogue exchanges (“I once gave a kid a cancer diagnosis, and she reacted like I’d given her a winning lottery ticket”; “I’d rather stick my [penis] in a wood chipper than go to another funeral”) and tight camerawork (a lingering shot of Will sitting in front of a hospital board with a suicide death ticker and a sign that says “Suicide is not the answer, stay in this life”; a sad overhead shot of an empty hospital parking lot). Speaking of the post-Discovery world, it’s foggy and dimly lit, muted shades of gray enhancing the film’s dreadful mood.
However, not much attention is given to the impact of The Discovery on other people, and even less attention is paid to the question of morality in life as it relates to belief in death. Not much examination is given to the question of whether life intrinsically means something even when faced with a possible afterlife. And while the promise of life after death has been the crux of many world religions, “The Discovery” skirts that issue with a handy bit of dialogue from Thomas: “Show me someone who relies on faith and I’ll show you someone who’s given up control over whatever it is they believe.” There could have been an interesting commentary here about the way many religions (some sects of Christianity chief among them) view this world as nothing more than a holding place until we are reunited with a Creator or punished alongside its adversary once we kick the bucket. Here, there’s no mention of religion or god because “The Discovery” isn’t about those questions. Once you see the ending, it’s actually about regrets and how we live (and die) with them.
Minor spoilers follow for the ending of “The Discovery”:
All of the lofty questions above are cast aside in favor of the bigger mystery of what exactly Thomas is recording when he records the afterlife. When a person is put under and hooked up to the glorified MRI machine that Thomas uses, the afterlife they experience is indeed another plane of existence. It’s an alternate reality to their own life, one in which they can turn the tide on the biggest regret in their life on earth before moving on into their life in death. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory, at least not in the traditionally understood sense. Just a way to make amends and move on.
Later, when one last final twist is revealed, it feels cheap and unearned after the intentionally muddy and plodding plot. By the time the film ends, it arrives at what feels like a slower, more self-important afterlife of “Black Mirror,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and McDowell’s better, similarly high-concept “The One I Love.” By that point, you just want “The Discovery” to “get there” and be over.
Starring: Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Mary Steenburgen, Riley Keough
Rating: Not rated; probably would be rated “R” for language, violence, thematic material
And now, on the heels of a Q&A session with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings last week where Hastings declared that distribution in the movie business hadn’t innovated in the last 30 years (“Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it”), League is taking another stand to defend the “business of cinema” in an editorial for IndieWire.
Here are five things we learned from League’s editorial:
Netflix’s business model doesn’t concern League one bit.
“It seems like every other interview I give asks me about the “threat” of Netflix. I’ll be blunt. Netflix doesn’t concern me, and I think it is obvious after last week that the cinema industry is of no concern to Netflix either. We are in very different businesses…Netflix is in the business of growing a global customer base by being the best value proposition subscription content platform…But here’s my business: Cinema.”
But he still respects Netflix’s ability to innovate.
“They are doing a great job. Their portal is stable, intuitive, cheap and delivers plenty of great, new content every month. They also provide a fantastic financial opportunity for both emerging and veteran storytellers. I stand in awe of the audience they have built and the wealth they have amassed in such a short time.”
He doesn’t think films should be viewed on phones, but rather, in a theater, where they belong.
“Our best and most talented, passionate filmmakers vehemently do not want their films to be viewed first and foremost on a phone, on the train to work, while checking email, while chopping vegetables for the evening meal, on mute with subtitles while rocking a baby to sleep, or while dozing off before bed…Great filmmakers create content to share their fully realized creations in a cinema with full, rich sound; bright, crisp picture and a respectful audience whose full attention is on the screen.”
He does think that Netflix should follow the example of other streaming services who distribute films in theaters, like Amazon Studios did with “Manchester by the Sea”:
“When courting filmmakers young and old to create content for their platform, I wish Netflix would consider the relationship with cinemas built by Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and Epix…They believe in the promotional partnership that successful theatrical engagements can give to word of mouth, awards consideration, brand loyalty and ultimately maximized financial returns.”
Finally, he does believe in innovation in movie theaters, but not at the expense of the movies themselves.
“I will acknowledge some underlying truth to Reed Hastings’ words. We do, as an industry, need to invest in innovation. Cinema’s primary threat today is not Netflix; it is ourselves. We must continue to maintain high exhibition standards, invest in new sound and picture technology, improve the digital experience for our guests, develop innovative ways to delight our guests and ensure that we live up to our one job – make going to the cinema an amazing experience.”
The common factor between the two films (besides plots, budgets and profitable box office receipts) is a production studio: Pure Flix Films.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The studio’s credits include the “God’s Not Dead” franchise, “Do You Believe?” and the 1970s-era high school football movie “Woodlawn.” Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.
The company recently got in the streaming business. The Pure Flix app was released in 2015 and is available on Android, iPhone, Roku and Amazon and can be used via Apple TV or Google Chromecast. The streaming service itself is free for one month, then jumps to $7.99 after that. As of this writing, there’s almost 6,000 titles available on the site, all of which boast “no language, sex or violence surprises.” The selection includes most of Pure Flix’s catalog, as well as other faith-based films, TV series, documentaries, sermons, Bible studies and home-schooling materials.
“It’s all based on what the consumers respond to, and it’s all about what we can bring to them through all the different formats,” Pure Flix Digital CEO Greg Gudorf said. “Actually, one of the strongest markets we have is Houston, and Dallas is one of our biggest home-school material markets.”
Last year, faith-based films made almost $137 million worldwide, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Like the horror film genre, the Christian film genre has proven a lucrative formula: Built-in loyal fan base + small budget + reaffirming stories – sex, language and violence = profit.
And this year will see the release of “God’s Not Dead 3” as well as a smattering of other faith-based entertainment. “The Shack” opened at No. 3 last weekend to the tune of $16 million. “The Case For Christ” opens April 7 and is poised to further help Pure Flix’s brand. But what about their streaming service? Is it any good?
I have watched a pretty steady diet of Christian media along with secular media all my life. I was raised on stuff like “McGee and Me,”“Adventures in Odyssey” and “Psalty the Psalm Book” as well as Disney movies and any action or comedy film I could get my hands on. And I’ve always been fascinated by the divide between secular and Christian media, and why both seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. Is it possible to make good Christian entertainment that appeals to everyone, not just Christians?
I set out to find an answer to this question last week when I picked seven pieces of content from Pure Flix’s streaming service to watch. Some were great, most were OK, and some were really bad — just like any streaming service. A majority of the films and TV shows I watched were produced by Pure Flix, but most of the content on the site is licensed content from other studios.
I live-tweeted my experience @jakeharris4 every night, and I detailed the first night of my #PureFlixWeek in a previous blog post. “New World Order: The End Has Come,” the first film I watched, was a low-rent “Left Behind”-type film rife with inconsistencies and a blindsiding ending. It’s in the “most-watched” category, and it was not made in association with Pure Flix. Its “most-watched” status leads me to wonder if the target audience is indeed preparing for the end times. If so, they would be better off reading the Bible than watching this film, which implies that the Mark of the Beast will look like the Wu-Tang symbol and the Antichrist will be Hispanic.
About that target audience — Gudorf told me the company’s main audience is evangelical Christian-focused.
“Our bullseye is typically an evangelical Christian household, yes. But the command we were given was not to just minister to evangelicals; it was to minister to all. And so we have a pretty interesting mix, not just the single view of one particular denomination. And our customer information reflects that kind of broad basis, from people who are Catholic, Protestant, even Jewish. Yes, it’s faith content, but it’s also family content.”
That target audience was clearly in mind for the second film I watched, the Pure Flix produced and distributed “Do You Believe?” In this Christian version of “Crash,” the paths of 12 people all collide together after a pastor meets a sidewalk preacher played by Delroy Lindo (here in the “mystical Negro” trope) who helps him clarify what exactly he believes about Jesus. Other characters include Sean Astin as an atheistic doctor who could have only been written by someone who has only been around angry atheists (“I’m the one who saves people, yet they thank Jesus”), Brian Bosworth as a reformed convict, Lee Majors as a man grieving the loss of his daughter and Shwayze as a gangster trying to do the right thing (side note: there are four black main characters in this movie; half of them begin the film as criminals).
And Sean Astin's character is a religious person's view of an atheist: "I'm the one who saves people, yet they thank Jesus." #PureFlixWeek
Oh, and if you thought “Crash” didn’t have any subtlety, consider this: Sean Astin’s doctor is named Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. He refuses to believe it when Bosworth comes back to life after flatlining for eight minutes. And in a movie that insists on spelling out its themes for its viewers, Thomas is the only character left with an ambiguous faith at the end.
That’s not to mention the many ways “Do You Believe?” cribs from the “Crash” playbook, including an end sequence that calls to mind the Matt Dillon/Thandie Newton crash scene from that movie. It’s even worse when you remember that Dillon’s cop sexually assaulted Newton earlier in that film and he’s rescuing her later not out of any compassion but because it’s his job. This theme is handled in “DYB?” by allowing a Christian paramedic to rescue the lawyer who previously prosecuted him for administering the sinner’s prayer to a dying patient instead of any sort of aid.
Lest I sound like I’m relentlessly bashing the film, it did make me think hard about the ways I portray my Christian faith to the world and inspired me to live it better. That’s the point of the film, but I could have gotten that message without seeing multiple characters die simply as a service to the film’s convoluted plot and to the film’s main (Christian, mostly white) characters.
So, as Day 2 of Pure Flix Week came to a close, I was impressed with the app, but I wasn’t feeling too impressed with its content. But then I watched “The Encounter.”
“The Encounter” is one of Pure Flix’s first original series. It’s based on a series of films that share the same name. In them, a mysterious man simply referred to as “The Man” shows up to help people out of whatever bind they may be in. It’s later revealed that the Man is Jesus.
The pilot episode is about an amateur convenience story robbery gone wrong, carried out by two brothers and some friends. “The Man” here appears as the store’s clerk. He helps one of the brothers realize the error of his ways, and that influence spreads to the rest of the robbery crew. The 30-minute episode ends with one of the brothers preaching about his conversion to Christianity in a prison chapel.
On Day 4 I watched a second episode, “U-Turn,” which established “The Encounter” as an anthology show. In this episode, a high-profile lawyer attempting to leave her small hometown after an argument with her mom at her dad’s funeral ends up on a car ride with the Man and someone who I think the audience is supposed to believe is the devil. During the car ride, the lawyer comes to grips with her father’s loss and her mother’s grief at losing a husband and a daughter (to the big city). It also ends on a happy note, with the lawyer and her mother reconciling.
I found both episodes to be immensely watchable and not too preachy. Despite some casual sexism in the second episode (why is it always female characters who are punished for having jobs “in the big city” in Christian entertainment?), both were well-done and executed their premises in challenging ways. At one point, the Man offers a riff on Mark 8:36, emphasizing the importance of treasuring human relationships.
A good twist on Mark 8:36 here: "What good will it do if you save the world but lose your most important human relationships" #PureFlixWeek
For Day 5 of Pure Flix Week, I watched a game show. “It Takes a Church” is a Game Show Network-produced series hosted by Christian singer Natalie Grant. Grant travels to different churches across America in search of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. The catch? All of the potential matches for each contestant must come from their church.
I could write an entire thesis on this concept and how, in attempting to create “‘The Bachelor,’ but for churches!,” the show ends up being no better than the reality TV it’s trying to ape. But I will leave that for another time.
Day 6 saw a sermon from Bayless Conley, a pastor at Cottonwood Church in Orange County, Calif. Pure Flix’s streaming service offers several Bible studies and sermons from a variety of sources. This sermon focused on ways to improve your relationship with God if you feel stuck. It was a great way to start my morning, and I found the message to be inspirational and challenging as well as biblically sound.
I watched that sermon on the Pure Flix iPhone app, which worked better than Netflix’s iPhone app at some points and was extremely user-friendly. That’s thanks to Gudorf, who said the company just revamped the app a few months ago and worked out a lot of bugs.
On Day 7, the final day of my week with Pure Flix, I watched “Woodlawn.” The film was produced and distributed by Pure Flix and brought in a little more than $14 million on a $12 million budget, according to Boxofficemojo.com.
The inspirational sports film centers on the true story of Birmingham, Ala.’s Woodlawn High School in the early 1970s. Integration was just starting to take effect, and head coach Tandy Gerelds is tasked with coaching his first integrated football team. Superstar black tailback Tony Nathan ends up becoming the team’s secret weapon on the field, and Sean Astin’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplain becomes the secret weapon off the field. Oh, and Jon Voight shows up as Bear Bryant.
This film could very easily have become a “Remember the Titans”-meets-Christianity mashup (indeed, the similarities between the two films are numerous), but it succeeds because the message that unity through a shared belief in Christ crosses through all color lines is deftly dealt with. It doesn’t preach, and it lets the Christian actions of the characters come naturally through their actions, unlike in “Do You Believe?” And Astin’s chaplain is just as convincing as his atheist doctor.
Throughout this experience, I kept thinking about the Christian music genre in my teenage years. The common refrains of “Oh, if you like Blink-182, you’ll love Relient K,” or “Switchfoot is a great band, but they’re also Christian, so that’s better!” rang hollow to me then, and they still do today. I was always confused: Why can’t we have both/and, not either/or? The divide between secular and Christian media was meant to offer a safe haven from the perils of the world I was supposed to be of, but not in. Instead, it turned many people of my generation away from the saccharine messages of Christian media and caused us to search for something that felt real and not merely an attempt to Christianize what Hollywood was doing.
So, for this experiment, the parallels became clear the more I watched. Do you like “Left Behind” or other post-apocalyptic films? Watch “New World Order.” Did you enjoy “Crash” but don’t want to deal with the racism or the explicit language? Then “Do You Believe?” is right up your alley. Does “The Bachelor” make you squirm, but do you still want to see a representation of what love should be? “It Takes a Church” it is, then.
And yet, there are still great strides being made in Christian media. The primary purpose of films like the ones Pure Flix offers is to be reaffirming to the faithful. And those films are doing that in a number of ways. “Woodlawn” makes a point about sports being a unifier, and “The Encounter” encourages Christians to look in the mirror and confront their own selfish choices. As a streaming service and app, Pure Flix is top notch, and better than its competition in some regards (looking at you, HBO Now app).
But if the film studio is to expand to become one that can minister to non-Christians, the programming must get better at creating its own original stories and stop simply mining secular entertainment to create pale imitations of other films. Christians, especially young ones, can spot that type of in authenticity a mile away. For Christians looking for a service that promises family-friendly entertainment that will lead to conversations, Pure Flix is a great investment. If you’re not in that target market, however, you might not want to wade into these waters. But that’s a shame, too, because there is some genuinely entertainment here. You just have to know where to look. Just like Netflix.
What would Jesus watch? Maybe Pure Flix, dubbed the “Christian Netflix” by many viewers.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The company’s biggest hit to date is “God’s Not Dead,” which made almost $61 million on a $2 million budget, according to IMDb.
Pure Flix is also the studio behind that film’s sequel, as well as “Do You Believe?” which could be described as a Christian version of “Crash” starring Sean Astin as a cynical doctor. Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.
Pure Flix also offers a streaming service not unlike Netflix, or Hulu, or HBO NOW. The service is free for one month and then jumps to $7.99 after that. It’s available on Android, the Apple App Store, Roku and Amazon. The site advertises “thousands of titles” with “no language, sex or violence surprises” in any of its content, which includes movies and TV shows in genres like faith, education, shorts, kid’s choice and sermons and ministry. Sample titles include the aforementioned “Do you Believe?,” “Saved By Grace” and “Revelation Road.”
The service allows Christian parents the ability to control what their kids are watching without worry, and that’s a big deal in today’s cord-cutting world where entertainment is available at the click of a button. And for those so inclined, many of the films offer an opportunity to discuss matters of faith with your family.
But many of these films have very low or nonexistent Rotten Tomatoes ratings and (at least in my case Wednesday night,) look to be made on shoestring budgets in an attempt to relate a message that would comfort the intended audience but alienate possible converts. I’m a Christian, and I have always been curious about why there has to be a divide between “Christian” film and “secular” film, and why there’s such a tension between the two.
The movie paints a not-very-bleak picture of a post-Rapture America as a place where the Mark of the Beast looks a lot like the Wu-Tang Clan logo, the Antichrist is the only Hispanic man in the film and people pronounce the final book of the Bible as “Revelations” with an “s” (if you’re going to make a movie about the book of the Bible that talks about the end of the world, at least copy edit).
Apparently in this world when the Tribulation happens, life goes on as normal- school, haircut appointments, etc. #PureFlixWeek
The plot follows young Demi and Christen, two friends who were not raptured with everyone else and are living out the earth’s last days after Supreme Chancellor Lord Aldo Deluca has been Satan-resurrected after he is assassinated while trying to broker a peace treaty in the Middle East. Or something. The movie’s explanation for the Rapture is never too clear, content to throw around words like “Iran” and “assassination-by-hire scheme” to explain why the bad guys are here.
By the end of the movie, Demi and Christen must choose whether to be branded with the Mark of the Beast or be martyred for their beliefs. There’s not a lot of room for subtlety in this movie, so you can guess which one is martyred and which one takes the easy way out. I don’t recommend it unless you want to relive your childhood memories of watching really bad Tribulation-themed movies in Sunday School (or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know). It would make a great candidate for the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast. If you really want to find out what happens, check my Twitter feed.
So while my first viewing experience with Pure Flix wasn’t pleasant, I’m keeping an open mind. I’ll be watching and live-tweeting“Do you Believe?” tonight, using the hashtag #PureFlixWeek. And if you or someone you know uses Pure Flix’s streaming service, send me a message or comment on this article- I’d love to know your thoughts!
The time has finally come. Netflix announced Monday that it will become the exclusive U.S. pay TV home of the latest films from Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar, starting in September.
Though specific films weren’t named, Netflix’s head of content Ted Sarandos listed other new additions coming at users this summer. In June, we can expect sci-fi adventure classics like the first three original “Jurassic Park” films and Oscar-winner “Spotlight.”
July welcomes “The Big Short” and Netflix Original “Brahman Naman” while “The Little Prince” and “The Fast and the Furious” arrives in August.
Basically, if you thought you were going to be active this summer, Netflix is going to shut that dream down pretty quickly. Oh well.