Monday, February 21, 2005

John Constantine vs. Father Merrin

I saw Keanu Reeves' new movie Constantine this weekend with my son; it's a mildly interesting and very violent action film wrapped up in some gooey, quasi-Catholic cosmology. It's also mixed up with a lot of manichean dualism entailing dull conversations about "the Balance" between Good and Evil. Bleah. The scriptwriters were clearly affected by the 20th century's most influential theologian, George Lucas.

Reeves plays John Constantine, a cynical psychic who is trying to earn his way into heaven by "deporting" renegade demons back to Hell; he gets mixed up with detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), who is trying to figure out her twin sister's mysterious suicide. Together they end up battling all the forces of Evil in a rather uncompelling way, although a few cameos by Satan and the archangel Gabriel brighten things up at the end.

I'm often amazed at how little trouble Hollywood takes to get even simple details of scholarship right. At a crucial point in this movie, Constantine's quirky, occult-scholar pal has to consult the infernal version of the Bible, which has extra stuff in it. I'm almost sure I heard him refer to "the seventeenth act of Corinthians." Act? Don't these guys know that the Bible is divided up into chapters? Probably not.

On top of that, the content of what he reads therein is obviously supposed to sound like the book of Revelation, not like any of the loving chastisements that St. Paul wrote to those rowdy Corinthians.

Oh, well.

Constantine compares very unfavorably with my favorite demon-oriented movie, The Exorcist, which I rented last week. After thirty-two years, it's still very scary. Maybe that's because The Exorcist takes evil seriously. I also like the fact that William Friedkin, who directed it, along with William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel, were very careful to get their Catholic theology right.

Toward the end, Father Karras, the young priest who's having a crisis of faith, asks his elder partner, "Why did the demon possess this little girl? It makes no sense." Father Merrin, the experienced exorcist, replies, "I think the point is to make us despair — to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us."

Skip Constantine. Rent The Exorcist.


Titus said...

Somehow I’m not surprised you didn’t enjoy Constantine, this movie was doomed from Word One. I don’t know if you already know or care, but it is loosely based on a highly acclaimed DC comic book called Hellblazer. One could make the argument that the reason why the comic has such a loyal fan following is because it is everything the movie isn’t. It is smart (I’d wager the authors know the difference between an Act an a chapter). It is scary. It can be very funny, very tragic, and (when written/drawn well) it can be subtly psychological a la Blatty. And it features a charismatic, blonde Londoner as John Constantine instead of an untalented, dark-haired Californian as John Constanteen. So, while I agree with your post’s one-line summation (because I enjoyed The Exorcist as well) I’d suggest one alteration: “Skip Constantine. Rent The Exorcist. Read Hellblazer.”

(But if I really had to dispense even further unsolicited advice to a professor in the Classics department, I’d actually recommend The Sandman instead of Hellblazer. And perhaps certain issues of Bacchus.)

David Wharton said...

I was aware of the Hellblazer connection, but didn't mention it because I'm not a reader.

Hollywood certainly has a perverse way of ruining good material.