In Constantine (out today), Keanu Reeves plays a chain-smoking, world-weary exorcist, John Constantine, who wields a Latin-inscribed, crucifix-shaped Tommy Gun in battles with nearly-headless “soldier demons” about contemporary Los Angeles.
Able to see from a tender age dark spiritual beings that inhabit the incarnate edges of our world, his parents come to think him insane. Subjected to shock treatments and shrinks, as a despondent teenager he takes his own life but is resuscitated after visions of a hellish plane just beyond our ken. Now he lives to send half-human, half-demon predators back to the inferno, hoping to earn a ticket to paradise the next time death kindly stops for him.
Enter a dagger assumed to have been used in the crucifixion and somehow tied to apocalyptic prophesies (found under the ruins of a freeway bridge wrapped in a Nazi flag!), the angel Gabriel (ticked off at God for making the achievement of heaven too easy for humans by the grace of forgiveness), the son of Lucifer (who has possessed a peasant Mexican—demons like to inhabit Latinos in this film), a gorgeous detective (Rachel Weiss) looking for answers to why her twin recently committed suicide, a retinue of bookish, trinket-laden spiritualists, the aforementioned demonic half-breeds, with hints of the end of the world and… you get the idea.
Suffice to say the film portrays a dualistic creation wherein God and Satan have “made a wager for the souls of men.” Gabriel and the son of Lucifer team up to rush the Apocalypse on mankind (remember, please, that Gabriel wants humans to suffer greatly for their sins before they enter paradise—no reasons are articulated for the “rebellion” of Lucifer’s son), while Constantine, with the help of the young Ms. Weiss, discovers their intentions and, after they swipe the pretty young thing whom he’s begun to fall in love with, sets out to stop them.
I cringe at the sort of “Christian criticism” that finds fault with artifacts of our culture, picking them apart here and there for signs that they are worthy or unworthy of our regard—trying to baptize them or excommunicate them—especially in light of what self-described Christian artists too often produce.
Still, I cannot justify anyone witnessing a film that maligns the character of God as acutely as does Constantine. While the forces of darkness get all the screen time (the director, to his credit, admits it’s easier to depict evil than goodness), what we learn about the God who represents the side of the angels is just enough to identify him with the God Christians are supposed to worship—here is the Catholic church, there is the crucifix, here is the holy water, there is the statue of Mary (in the window of a storefront Pentecostal church!)—but who could not be further from the God who enters our world himself, becoming one of us, to redeem creation and humanity from destruction and the grave. The Christian God, mocked here as a figurehead of hapless deism at best, is no mere bystander, indifferent to our suffering and careless about our annihilation.
Is Constantine “just entertainment” (how much do we dismiss with those words?) or does it purport to tell a story which, even if fictional, symbolizes something about this world? The creators seem not to want to commit. Their answers—surprise, surprise—are impressionistic. A good work of art does not distort God and Lucifer, the angels and the demons, so baldly and so badly. It respects them more than this art does. Constantine flipping Lucifer his middle finger as an invisible force pulls his dying soul into an idyllic, cloudy afterworld tells you all you need to know about this movie, and is a clue to exactly what’s wrong with it. Christ has more respect for Satan than to give him “the bird.”
Constantine doesn’t work as art or story or theology. To the extent that it does certain things well (its depiction of hell as a never-ending nuclear firestorm engulfing but never quite consuming the entire surface of the earth in a dimension of time and space just beyond our senses is harrowing) the story the film tells is yet a false one. Not to mention the confusion the film sows by mixing the symbols of traditional Christianity with dualistic tomfoolery.
There are young men, in particular, who may appreciate its occasional one-liners, and jaw-gaping visual conundrums (one of these at the beginning of the film is disturbing precisely because the technical achievement is so astounding). But is Constantine good enough as art or story that moviegoers should subject their imaginative life (waking or sleeping) to the collective frames of this film just to be cut by whatever shards of goodness, beauty or truth it might produce? No.