Friday, July 15, 2016

City of Ember

95 minutes / 2008

The world is ending and we don’t know why. In Ember’s opening scenes we learned for humanity to survive they have to hide underground for 200 years. That’s why a group of engineers and scientists – the Builders – have crafted a city, the City of Ember, and buried it deep underground so the residents can survive the apocalypse that is presumably killing everyone who remains above.

But now, after 200 years have passed, no one alive remembers there is another world out there – they only know of Ember, and the only light they see is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. However the generator – their whole city – was never meant to last forever, and now everything is starting to break down, and they’re running out of food too. The biggest problem? No one will admit what’s happening.

So to the rescue comes Doon Harrow, a teen with a knack for fixing things who wants to have a go at working on the generator. But to get at it he has to break rules and venture where he’s not supposed to go. When Doon’s friend Lina uncovers some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the Builders the two of them have to piece together all the clues to figure out how they can save their family and friends before all of Ember’s lights go dark.


The film has no language or sexuality concerns at all.

However, there are a couple scenes involving a gigantic mole, roughly the size of a Volkswagon Beetle (the original, not the modern version) chasing Lina and Doon. This mole can tunnel through floors and walls, and seems intent on eating them. One moment in particular gave my movie-watching companion the shivers when the Lina reaches for a box just out of reach at the very same time as the mole’s slimy pink tentacle-like feelers also reach out for the box. This could be a bit too creepy for any kids under 10, or just anyone who has an aversion to icky things (spiders, octopuses, rats, etc.). While Lina and Doon escape the mole does seem to eat someone else, though this isn’t shown onscreen.

There are also a scuffles and such, but nothing graphic gory or all that violent.

The more notable caution would be the religious aspect of the film. God is never mentioned, and His absence in a movie about a coming end to the world is glaring. Instead of Christianity the citizens of Ember have oaths of loyalty to the city, and a quasi-cult that holds the original Builders in high esteem, expecting them to come back when they are needed to set everything right.

One more note: one of the villains has a club foot, and while it is common movie shorthand to have disabled or misshapen people as villains – Jack Elam's wandering eye got him typecast as the bad guy in every Western he was ever in – it’s important to point out to our kids what’s going on here, lest they unknowingly accept as true something that just isn't so. The moviemakers are showing us a villain's inner deformity by giving him an outer one - that's the movie shorthand. But they are making a connection that just isn't so. That's why this needs to be a point in the film where we hit the pause button, and help our kids spot the lie being told.


This is another film by Walden Media, the folks behind the Narnia films, and the owner of the company, Philip Anschutz is a professing Christian who has stated the intent of the company’s films is “to be entertaining, but also life affirming and to carry a moral message.”

Some of this Christian influence is evidence in the complete lack of language and sexuality concerns. This is so rare as to be astonishing.

But a post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical family fare. And a story in which the kids get something the adults are too dumb to understand promotes an all too common and entirely unbiblical disrespect for elders.

So this is an entertaining movie, and one with no sex or language concerns, and only a moment or two of violence/creepiness. But it is also a movie that shouldn’t simply be swallowed whole as simple entertainment – it needs to be discussed.

Friday, July 1, 2016


113 minutes / 2014

In 2013 Edward Snowden let the world know that their emails, phone calls, text messages, and everything they were doing online, was being tracked by the US government and, often times, with the help of their local government. This was the surveillance of private citizens who had committed no crime, and for whom no search warrant had been granted.

And even as this surveillance was being done, the leadership of the National Security Agency (NSA) told the US Congress that no, they were not spying on Americans.

Were they lying? Well, it all depends on what they meant by "not spying."

As the documentary recounts, in May of 2013, Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a computer full of classified NSA documents that proved this surveillance was going on. He showed some of them to journalist Glenn Greenwald and to the director of this documentary, Laura Poitras. It was only after they helped the story go public that the NSA then admitted they were recording and collecting all sorts of data on US citizens. But they insisted that while they had it, they weren't actually looking through it.

The NSA said they were collecting and storing citizens' information so that it would be available should they ever want to take a peek at it, which, they assured the public, would only happen after they got permission from a judge. In other words, collecting everyone's data wasn't spying on them because, according to the NSA, they weren't looking at it...yet.

Snowden was celebrated by many as a whistleblower – that's how he thinks of himself – but condemned by others as a traitor. This film has some amazing strengths, the biggest being that Poitras was right there in his Hong Kong hotel room to capture Snowden's determination and anxiety as he became front-page news the world over.

But it has a notable weakness: you have to be a detective to figure out, from what's shown, why anyone would think Snowden a traitor. One key scene that gives a hint as to why occurs in a newspaper office where an editor and reporters are debating what of the information Snowden gave them is safe to release to the public. In other words, Snowden gave out classified materials that were dangerous to US interests, and he left it up to a bunch of journalists to decide what was and wasn't safe to release to the public. That's crazy!

But whatever we think of Snowden, it's clear we should be upset with the US government. Now, it is hard to find a clear biblical basis for a right to privacy, so on that front it may be hard to condemn what they have been doing. But it takes no effort at all to find a warning about government intrusion (1 Samuel 8:10-19). We also know men are not angels, and so it is best not to entrust them with tools that can only be used properly by angels. It's naive to think the very same government group that lied in the first place about collecting our information can be trusted not to look through this information without a warrant. Even if they do go the legal route, Snowden noted that whenever the NSA goes to a judge to ask to look through someone's data the judge always grants approval. So that is no check on abuse at all.

One of the more common Christian responses to the government surveillance states is to wonder why, if we've done nothing wrong, we should make a fuss about the government watching everything we say and do? That's a question best answered with another: have you ever done anything that might, if seen in the wrong light, seem wrong? Harvey Silverglate makes the case that the average ordinary American citizen arguably commits Three Felonies A Day inadvertently, due simply to the sheer tonnage of laws on the books. So we're already in a situation in which the government can, if it wishes, convict any one of us. Do we really want to entrust them with a permanent record of all our activities?

And if they insist that this is no big thing, then Pastor Douglas Wilson has a proposal predicated on the biblical notion that the government should only subject others to what they would gladly subject themselves (Matt. 7:12): 
I have a proposal. We need a law that says that there will be no surveillance of the American people that has not first been test-driven for five years at the Capitol building and its environs. You tell us the drink is not poisoned, so you drink it. Sweeps of phone records, busting into emails, targeted review of IRS records, tracking of movements through security gates, and surveillance drones overhead. All such records gathered will be open to Freedom of Information Requests, and will be provided to primary challengers free of charge, and with no names redacted. Why do I want to do such a thing? National security, ma’am.

CitizenFour is rated R for language, and that is primarily for the use of the f-word which pops up a dozen or so times. But there are two instances of God's name being used in vain.

I don't normally recommend films that take God's name in vain. In fact I earnestly avoid doing so – this website exists largely to recommend excellent films that don't misuse God's holy name.

As Christians we're also worried about the violence and sexual content in a film, but we know that in both those cases there are depictions that fall "in bounds" – we aren't concerned with couples hugging or with heroes punching out villains. But there is seldom any excuse for taking God's name in vain. You want viewers to know your character stubbed his toe? Have him say "Ouch!" Does the protagonist need to express frustration? Then have him say something with some volume. But there is no need to use God's name as an expletive.

So why the exception in this case? Because this is not entertainment.

While this documentary would be better if it didn't include these two instances, the information found here is information we need to know. That makes it very different from a film we watch only for entertainment. When our viewing is simply for entertainment's sake then there is no need to tolerate blasphemy. But when we are watching something for education's sake, then we may have good reasons to sit through some sinful depictions, including those of blasphemy and violence.

We don't watch footage of violent protests and war carnage to be entertained, but rather to be informed. So too, in this case as well. We need to understand what our government is up to, and there is really nothing comparable to this film as far as giving insight and clarity. So, for the sake of being informed, this is still worth watching. (In very rare instances there is even a reason for some people to endure sinful depictions of sex – for example, a vice cop who needs to watch illegal porn videos to rescue victims and find perpetrators.)

One last caution: a brief kiss is shown between reporter Glenn Greenwald and his homosexual partner.


At movie's end Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are in the same room, sitting side by side, but making use of a pad of paper to carry on parts of their discussion.  Why? Because it's the only way they can be sure the government isn't listening.

This is a film everyone should see to learn about our governments' surveillance capabilities – as citizens the only way we can rein in government abuses is if we understand what they are. This is also a move to be shared and discussed. To help you carry on that discussion I've included a couple links to helpful articles that look at Snowden and the NSA from a Christian perspective.

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.