Netflix Clunkers and a Theology of Disappointment

Joel Mayward

The appearance of The Cloverfield Paradox on Netflix following its unexpected trailer during the Super Bowl was a delightful surprise. As a fan of both the original Cloverfield movie and its companion film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, I had been following the development of this third installment, originally enigmatically titled God Particle. In eager anticipation, I clicked “play” and watched the film, hoping for an original, well-crafted, science-fiction flick.

Alas, my hopes were dashed. The Cloverfield Paradox, despite its unique marketing and intriguing premise, is a clunker. To say I was disappointed is putting it mildly.

This has also been the case, unfortunately, with two other Netflix sci-fi projects: David Ayer’s Bright and Duncan Jones’ Mute. Along with The Cloverfield Paradox, these films hold an average approval rating of 19 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. All three are formal and critical disasters. All three also, interestingly enough, have overt allusions to God’s activity in the world. While I am not suggesting a correlation between these two observations—I’m not arguing their failings are due to their religious imagery—I do want to use this connection to consider a cinematic theology of disappointment. What analogues might there be between our expectations of films and our expectations of God? What happens when we expect God to answer our prayer, to provide for our needs and desires, to come through when times are tough … and it appears as if he doesn’t?

First, it must be said that the allusions to God and religion in these recent Netflix films films feel gratuitous and ill-placed. In Mute, the silent protagonist Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is Amish. Early in the film, we see that his mother’s Amish lifestyle prevented Leo from receiving a medical operation to save his larynx after a childhood boating accident. So Leo can’t talk, and seems unwilling to get surgery as an adult. These Amish characteristics are entirely utilitarian for the story and unsympathetic to actual Anabaptist traditions or beliefs. They’re employed to make Leo appear like an outsider in a technologically driven future Berlin. Leo’s Amish faith is an expositional tool when the film needs to show him fumbling with a phone, but unnecessary when it requires Leo to employ violence (he’s not a very good pacifist, to put it mildly) or practice the discipline of chastity. Vile atrocities are committed by characters throughout Mute and yet both Leo and God remain silent. Mute aesthetically disappoints, as does its portrayal of faith. It raises a question for me: where is God both inside and outside the unjust world of the film?

Similarly unfitting, there is a brief prayer scene in The Cloverfield Paradox, as an astronaut aptly named Monk (John Ortiz) offers up a petition before initiating a space station test. “Hit us with your holy stick,” quips Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) as the other crew members look on with silent skepticism and even disgust. “Please God, be on our side,” Monk prays with sincerity, begging that the machine would work. Is his prayer answered? Yes and no: the machine does fire up, but it also inaugurates the disaster which leaves the crew (and reality itself) in jeopardy. In a way, Monk’s prayer actively leads to his own demise. What does this say about prayer? About God? Did God disappoint? The film never explores this theme further. Even as The Cloverfield Paradox is full of religious symbolism, these ideas are ultimately traded in for horror tropes and interdimensional monsters.

What happens when we expect God to answer our prayer and it appears as if he doesn’t?

Just as Mute utilizes the Amish faith for narrative purposes and The Cloverfield Paradox trades spirituality for sensationalism, Bright exploits a Tolkienesque mythology of elves and orcs to make Big Important Statements about racial tension in the Los Angeles Police Department. Dim both in its lighting and its ideas, Bright hardly resembles Tolkien’s immense, world-building aesthetic. In his lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien writes about the unique capacity for fairy tales as an avenue for truth, particularly in the narrative’s sudden turn from despair towards joy in a moment of magical enchantment:

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’

Tolkien suggests that fantasy and reality, legend and history, have much in common in that both are united under the Creator. Yet for all its talk of prophecy and mythology, Bright is more interested in Will Smith spouting lines like, “Fairy lives don’t matter today,” as he smacks a fairy with a broom than it is in exploring the surprising joy of the divine.

These are deeply disappointing films, with disappointing references to God. Our expectations—our hopes—are challenged by such experiences, trite as they may be (although sitting through a bad film can feel like a personal offense). When faced with disappointing circumstances, we are forced to wrestle with our beliefs and perceptions of the world and forced to ask: where have we really placed our hope?

Christian theology suggests that God is the God of hope, that we can approach him with our disappointment and fear, and be met with grace and peace. What’s more, perhaps God is even present in the disappointment. This is not a shallow optimism or prosperity theology. In Romans 5, the apostle Paul makes a startling paradoxical statement for our consideration:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

In the economy of God, suffering ultimately leads to hope, and this hope, in the New Revised Standard Version of Romans 5, “does not disappoint.” We can feel disappointment with God, and God will continue to pour out his love—even in the midst of the chaos and pain and suffering and desolation (not to mention crappy movies) that this world so often dishes out.

Topics: Movies