Screen Savior

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 was the evening I first heard the words “My fellow Americans . . .” broadcast live from the Oval Office. Being someone who is originally from Great Britain, I’ll never forget it. The President of the United States was on my television. He announced that due to the spread of COVID-19, the United States was shutting down all travel to and from Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom. He mentioned that a multi-billion dollar stimulus package was being arranged for small businesses and reassured American citizens that his team was doing all they could to “protect the lives, health and safety of the American people.” In previous days we’d heard news of local cases but this was coming from the White House. Later that night the NBA suspended its season. Normal American life was about to be put on hold.

The next morning Westminster’s campus closed, and that afternoon Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf announced a two week closure of all schools in Montgomery County. Events were changing rapidly. Or rather, they were being cancelled rapidly. The scale was unprecedented. The waters uncharted.

I’ve lived through a couple of these “where were you when you heard?” moments before. As a Briton, I know where I was on Sunday, August 31, 1997, when Princess Diana had died in a car accident. I know where I was four years and eleven days later when planes had been flown into buildings on the East Coast of the United States. I’m sure you know where you were too. But the reason I’m convinced I’ll will never forget the camera slowly zooming in towards the President as he began to address to the country in the middle of a global crisis was because I was certain I’d seen it a thousand times before. We all have. These events (or events very much like them) have been acted out in movies and television shows for decades.

Maybe it’s a cliché, but it’s an effective one. To grasp the scale of an emergency, cinematic shorthand shows us the POTUS being filmed in the Oval Office followed by reaction shots from living rooms around the country—each one a slice of American life. People on couches watching a man behind a desk and in front of a flag. It’s a simple way for parts to show the whole and save time. That night, I was a reaction shot in a movie.

But the pandemic-and-the-movies connection is more complex than that, as a quickly adopted cultural phenomenon soon revealed: as COVID-19 cases were first diagnosed in the United States, American people wanted to watch films about viruses and epidemics. You may not have been among them—I’d be surprised if you weren’t—but Contagion, Outbreak, and 28 Days Later… jumped up the streaming charts faster than Mariah Carey’s song All I Want for Christmas does every November. But why? Why, when trying to avoid the virus in real life, would Americans see such a spike in watching films about viruses?

A friend of mine suggested it was an attempt at psychological immunization, as though watching films about global catastrophes would somehow protect against the real threat. Or maybe viewers were picking up tips? Perhaps this was a strategic move: if we take enough notes on the actions of survivors on screen, we’ll be better prepared ourselves. Or else it was a darkly comic punt in the direction of the gods of irony: if I’m watching people pretend to die of a viral disease in a movie, surely it can’t happen to me in real life.

But watching films is not as trivial a pursuit as we might be tempted to think. Like all storytelling, it deals with characters and events in space and time, and it’s inescapably derivative of our real world’s physical and temporal dimensions. As creatures made by the Creator, we cannot help but be sub-creators. Yet perhaps more than any other medium, the marriage of moving pictures and sound has given us a direct, immersive and (at times) almost indelible appeal to the senses. Through the magic portal of the screen we can visit places that don’t exist and experience things which have never happened. But here, in the reign of Coronavirus, has it given us a simulation of real-world events? To a degree, yes. Cinema can give us a vision for the future—placing us in familiar places and showing events that merely haven’t happened yet.  And that is, of course, what I experienced that second Wednesday in March: eerie familiarity. I had been prepared for this.

Such cinematic projection can be used for good or ill. Filmmaking puts a scepter of power in the hands of directors. For the duration of the movie they choose where we look and for how long. They decide what we hear. They dictate when the story starts, how it moves forward and what happens in its conclusion. Of course, we can turn it off or choose to avoid it altogether but—and here’s my take on auteur theory—for the time we’re watching, the director is a sovereign lord. Whether Stephen Soderbergh is directing Contagion or Edgar Wright is overseeing Shaun of the Dead, in the act of watching we submit ourselves to their vision. Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair!

This obviously raises questions for us as Christians. If the creators of films have such power should we be watching their movies at all? We may owe the denarius to Caesar but we are under no obligation to Spielberg. Since film is so immersive  formative, is it not better left alone? I believe this would be a mistake. We are not obliged to watch any film, but to avoid the medium altogether seems unnecessary. We can watch movies as Christians. We can discern and glean and give thanks. We can scrutinize the trending philosophies and world views of the movie theater with the truth of God’s eternal Word. But it’s also a question of comparative delivery. How can we make use of the medium of film to give a better vision? How can we capture peoples’ imaginations to showing how the world really works? The true seat of power is not in the Oval Office but in the highest heaven. The truly Sovereign Lord does not reign from a folding chair in a film studio. His kingdom crosses international borders and will outlast the years.

So, what would it look like to show the world as it truly is? People on couches responding with prayer to the presidential address? Doctors, nurses and paramedics bowing their heads before attending to the sick? Churches using Zoom to call on the name of the Lord? Would it look trite? Wooden? Who knows? It’s not easy to make a good movie. Let alone one about a global pandemic. If it was, everybody would be doing it. All we know is that done well, cinema resonates to the extent that real world events can feel like something we’ve seen and heard before. The truth of God’s revelation resonates too, profoundly so. The key difference is that what God has accomplished through Christ is not a placebo, a list of survival tips or a cynical joke, but salvation. Christ our Creator is our Savior and Sovereign Lord. Let’s proclaim it with every tool at our disposal.

Nate Morgan Locke is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity.

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