The hero is stranded on a dying planet, lonely and yearning for companionship. Then a miracle occurs and his female counterpart -- her name is EVE -- arrives seeking a sprout of new life that says it's time to heal this world condemned by the sins of previous generations. Her mission is to take this green sign of hope back to the giant vessel that has sheltered humanity during this ecological storm.
Recognize any names, symbols and themes from an old book?
This is the story at the heart of Wall-E, the latest hit from Pixar. A panel of judges at Beliefnet.com selected this parable as the year's best "spiritual film," praising it as the story of a "lovable robot who miraculously rids our planet of pollution and causes a global spiritual transformation."
"Of course the robot Wall-E falls in love with is named EVE," said Dena Ross, entertainment editor for the interfaith website. "Some people see this as another Noah's Ark story, too, and it ends with humanity coming home to start over with a new earth. …
"So there are obviously biblical elements here. These themes of stewardship and creation will resonate with Christians, but you'll find these same themes in many other religions, as well."
Critics at Christianity Today reached a similar conclusion and selected Wall-E as the year's top "redeeming film," noting that, "Existential longing, awe and apocalyptic hope form the ambitious thematic terrain of this poetic, mesmerizing film." The biblical symbolism wasn't a shock, since director Andrew Stanton had previously discussed how his Christian faith influenced the film.
It didn't take a giant leap of faith to pin the "spiritual" and "redemptive" labels on Wall-E. But things get more complicated when applying these terms elsewhere.
After all, the 2008 "People's Choice" award from Beliefnet.com went to Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," the story of a violent, racist, foul-mouthed Korean War veteran and his unlikely path to brotherly love, redemption and sacrifice. Laced together with Catholic threads, it ends with one of the most obvious visual references to a crucifix that moviegoers will ever see.
At the same time, Beliefnet.com judges and readers skipped over the evangelical hit "Fireproof" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," based on the novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
What is a "spiritual movie," as opposed to a "religious movie"? Beliefnet.com editors argued that "spiritual" movies "shed light on, or make a serious attempt to grapple with, the big questions. Why are we here? What's the meaning of life? Is there a God? Why is there evil in the world? Of course, this will inevitably include movies with overtly religious themes -- Christian or otherwise -- such as redemption, forgiveness, keeping faith, life and death, good vs. evil, and more. But sometimes they're simply about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."
Christianity Today critics used this definition when listing their "redeeming" films: "We mean movies that include stories of redemption -- sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree. … Some are 'feel-good' movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films."
The critics at Beliefnet.com, for example, struggled with "Slumdog Millionaire," which was named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The story of a boy's rise from the Mumbai slums wove together themes of destiny, compassion, love and justice. It was a feel-good movie, but was it "spiritual"?
Over at Christianity Today, the same movie was described as a "Dickensian chronicle" that rises above its success story plot to become a tale "about providence and how all things are used for good by something greater than ourselves. As the film clearly says, all things happen 'because it was written.' "
The bottom line is that it's impossible to put these artistic and spiritual judgment calls into simple formulas, stressed Ross. But people who care about the mysterious role that faith plays in real life know a spiritual movie when they see one.
"There are movies," she said, "that appeal to religious people and there are also movies that, in some strange way, appeal to all kinds of people by touching their souls. That's hard to describe, but that's real."