It’s movie night for your student group. Maybe it’s a schools out gathering, could be a random weekend, or maybe you’re attempting to survive another forsaken lock-in. Regardless, it’s time to pick up the garbage bag full of leftover popcorn from the local movie theater (heck yes you can do that), and fire up the projector. Now… what to watch?
As a minister you probably want something that will facilitate discussion, or at least give your group something to think about.
Over the years there have been many objectively terrible, contrived, “Christian” movies that wield their theology like a radioactive sledgehammer on fire. I will admit there have been a few well done movies of the like, but they are definitely the exception. I mean you do you, but you have options.
So if you’re in the market for something a little deeper, we simply need to find theological talking points. Hollywood is full of viable opportunities. Some movies hide their theology a bit better than others, and I assume many don’t intentionally include overt theological undertones – but the important thing is that they exist.
Here are a few titles, sorted by rating. Included is a quick synopsis of each movie in case you haven’t seen it and the key theme (or themes). This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list of movies, nor it is intended to be a comprehensive assessment of themes. If you come up with more/different themes you’re probably right.
*Disclaimer: not all of these are appropriate for all ages. Make sure you check ratings (included) before you show something to your 6th graders.
Rated G – It’s a little shocking how few movies are rated G anymore. There are more out there, but very few that are quality and less than 20 years old.
The story of a plucky little garbage-sorting robot that falls in love with another robot and saves humanity from itself (and wal-mart).
The dangers of disposable, consumerist culture and the possibility of something better, even redemption from a lazy, self-centered society and it’s impact on the world around us. (They sort of punch you in the face with this one)
The power of one ‘person’ doing the right thing. Even if this person is a robot, and it’s only a little at a time, or doesn’t seem like much – determination to work for good can change the world.
The value of relationships, and that it’s ok to have a pet roach.
Rated PG – this is about as kid/family friendly as it gets now. There are very few exceptions (see Wall-E), but even the most family friendliest movies now warrant some good, old fashioned nods to adults (see Lego Movie. Seriously, if you haven’t, see it. Watch it soon.)
- Lego Movie
If you haven’t seen this – stop, go watch it now. A totally normal Lego guy discovers that he’s the only one who can stop Will Ferrell from destroying the world… but he can’t do it alone. (The main characters name, Emmet, is truth in Hebrew)
The value of learning to rely on others, and at the same time appreciating being ourselves. “All you need is to believe” The main goal in the movie is to figure out how the “special” can save Lego-manity, and he ends up sacrificing himself. This one’s a softball. Constant acts of faith and of grace.
- Lego Batman
A little darker than it’s predecessor, we’re back to Legoland and the caped crusader has got it all… until he doesn’t. A great flick in which Batman has to save Lego-Gotham from the Joker (of course) using some unorthodox tactics. Will Arnett is Batman, if the cameos alone are just fantastic.
Relationship building, teamwork, and relying on each other sort of get beat over your head here. Good messages though. Strong emphasis on family, side by side with the question of “Who is my family anyway?” There’s a nice little lesson in loving your enemies… or at least working with them as well.
- Wreck it Ralph
A video game villain has an existential crisis and disappears from his game. The hero embarks on a mission to rescue Ralph, who gets wrapped up in a quest to save another video game.
Be who you are, not who you’re told you are. Love your enemy. “Good guys” and “Bad guys” are much more complicated than simple labels. Considerably deeper themes can be drawn from the constant existence (and even need) for struggle in life.
- Chronicles of Narnia
Three children walkthrough a closet and find another world. Sorry, I mean we all know this story, at least broadly. The three various movies have different stories and themes within themselves but the Pevensie children and Aslan are the constants.
Main themes: Aslan (the Christ figure) is not safe, but he’s good. Good vs evil, betrayal vs faithfulness, forgiveness and courage, transformation and even God in creation run throughout the books.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe
The kids find Narnia and their little brother sells them out for some candy.
Forgiveness and the ever present potential for redemption. Trust and caring for strangers.
The Pevensie kids help Prince Caspian take back the throne from his uncle Miraz, who tried to kill him and took over as king.
Compromise and dealing with ego (Peter & Caspian). Courage and leadership. Peace vs conflict and the destructive power of anger. The natural world vs control of it. Don’t mess with tiny mice swordsmen.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The two younger Pevensie children take a boat ride with their insufferable cousin Eustace, and are forced to face all sorts of challenges and creatures.
The destructive nature of selfishness. The dangers of temptation. Sacrifice and redemption, and the importance of facing our fears. Also, still don’t mess with tiny mice swordsmen.
- Big Hero 6
A genius boy inventor has to rely on his team to cope with the death of his brother and save the city from an evil scientist who stole his invention with the help from his brothers inflatable robot nurse.
Coping with loss (or friends and families look our for each other).
Everyone has different gifts, and we are stronger when we use them together. Violence only perpetuates violence. Mercy is a heroic virtue.
- Frozen (Ugh, yep)
If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you. Honestly, there are some good messages in here… if you can bear to watch it.
Everything we do is bigger than just ourselves. Judging others (or rather don’t).The value of self-control. Love is more than a fleeting feeling, and takes work. And yes, sorry, learning to let it (fear) go.
Zootopia’s first rabbit policewoman and a fox scam-artist have to solve the disappearance of several predators.
The dangers of bias and predjudice, and similarly the importance of equality. The benefits of questioning the status quo, if not challenging it outright.
A girl from a xenophobic island strikes out on her own with a brain-damaged chicken in order to force The Rock to return a rock he stole, thereby saving the world from the encroaching darkness.
The danger and reward of the unkown. Self-discovery and walking your own path. Redemption, and understanding our past doesn’t dictate our future. Problem solving and teamwork.
- Lilo & Stitch
A girl and her sister, struggling to stay together and make ends meet adopt an alien who they somehow think is a dog. They are forced to fend off DFCS and alien attacks while discovering individually and collectively who they are.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, and learn to find value in who you are. You are the only one who can decide who you will be. Of course: Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind.
- Iron Giant
Another movie I can’t recommend enough. I young boy inexplicably named “Hogarth” befriends a giant robot that falls to earth after the launch of Sputnik. Naturally, the robot must be hidden lest people freak out, and of course the government gets involved.
Coming to terms with mortality, and discovering what makes us human. The rewards of curiosity vs the perils of letting fear win. The value of comic books. Violence only begets violence. And of course, “you are who you decide to be.”
- Despicable Me (1,2,3)
Gru was a villain, then he adopts three girls and struggles with who he is, what it means to be a father, and how to deal with challenging family (respectively in the 3 movies). This doesn’t do them justice, individually they have a lot to offer.
Identity and facing new challenges. The importance of trust. The transformative power of loving family.
– All of these are present throughout, the story varies, the movies are good, the themes are similar.
A rebellious but gifted girl finds a button that transports her to a secret retro-futuristic land, and she recruits a humorously paranoid George Clooney to help discover its mysteries.
The value of optimism. Don’t interrupt – or more appropriately, don’t undervalue the opinions and stories of others. Persistence is hard, but worth it. The importance of action in times of need (or things are bad, do something). Always be moving forward, (or the future is what you make it).
- Meet the Robinsons
Y’all, for real. This movie… An orphan boy genius has determined that inventions are scaring off potential parents. He gets taken on an inspirational journey to the future, then gets stuck.
Keep moving forward (they sort of punch you in the face with this one), maybe a little deeper – failure is an important part of learning and improving ourselves. Family is much more than who we’re related to. No one is beyond redemption (even if it’s it the past?).
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Young Michael J Fox, I mean Milo Thatch, joins a quirky team of explorers on a search for the lost city of Atlantis. Unsurprisingly, they find more than they bargained for.
Live fully into who you are, and by proxy: being a geek doesn’t mean you aren’t a hero. There are times when teamwork isn’t just a good thing, it’s the only way to avoid total failure. The dangers of greed, and the destructive nature of power. Selfishness vs acting against our own best interests.
Rated PG-13 –
- Star wars – PG to PG-13 (PG13 didn’t exist until 1984)
Hopefully we all know the general synopses of the Star Wars films. And say what you want about me and my own fandom, but I won’t be addressing the prequels. So there.
A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi (Eps IV, V, VI)
Luke discovers who he is, gets made fun of by Indiana Jones and a Yeti, meets Yoda, makes out with his sister, yells “NOOOOOOO” real ugly style, and finds his father’s humanity. Cool laser swords and space magic throughout. (again, you know what these are about. Right? RIGHT!?)
Family doesn’t define who we become. We’re all connected in ways we can’t fully understand. The importance of mindfulness. Nature vs Technology (Vader vs Luke, Ewoks vs Empire). The myth of destiny, or destiny is what we make of it.
The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi
Again, I’m hoping we’re all at least familiar with these, but…
Finn escapes from the First Order, Rey discovers she has a new thing. Han & Leia have discipline issues with their son, who has major granddad issues. Chewie makes new friends. The rebellion has to destroy “totally not a death star”. Luke finally gets found and becomes Rey’s Yoda (no backpack), he milks a space cow. Poe Dameron displays some major sass. The rebellion slowly runs away from the First Order while Finn and some girl try to kidnap Benicio Del Toro in a James Bond-esque heist from a casino. Chewie makes more new friends. Ben is moody, shirtless, weird, and angry. More cool laser swords and space magic throughout. A random kid uses the force.
Fate vs Free will – much moreso than in the original trilogy. Identity and destiny: self discovery and choice. The connection we all share with each other. Anger management. Letting go of the past and embracing the future. Challenging what is vs accepting situations. The importance of perspective. Dealing with loss. The importance of guidance.
Avatar – PG-13
Another one you’re probably familiar with. A large corporation travels to a planet to make heaps of cash, and they recruit a paraplegic marine to help them learn the ways of the natives. Not shockingly, in learning about the culture of the Na’vi, the marine learns to appreciate it, and when the tribe turns out to be a threat to making money hand-over-fist, the military gets involved and it’s Dances with Wolves in the future.
Environmental stewardship. The destructive nature of violence. The necessity of humanity working together – despite race, creed, & religion. The danger of inaction. Being human is more than just an inherent thing, and even finding God (may be a little stretch) in the other.
Maze Runner – PG-13
This is the first a trilogy, at time of writing the 3rd installment is on it’s way to theaters. I’ll focus on the 1st one (called The Maze Runner) because some themes of the others vary significantly.
A group of boys find themselves in a glade in the center of an ever changing maze. Thomas wakes up there one day. None of them know how they got there, but they’ve established a Lord of the Flies style society (although much less terrifying) run by adolescents. Each day the labyrinth opens, and a few boys venture into it, braving hazards and strange creatures, attempting to find a way through.
Teamwork, obviously, as well as giftedness and how we work together. Perseverance. Trust. Exploration and the dangers of… the opposite of exploration. Manipulation and free will. The relationship between memories and identity. Fear. Sacrifice.
Another trilogy (although there are 4 movies), each with varying themes. I’m sure we’re familiar with this one, but just in case.
In the post apocalyptic US, each region chooses children annually to fight to the death in a reminder that you don’t mess with the gov’t. A girl volunteers to fight in place of her sister and there’s a weird love triangle with the girl, a cake decorator and a dude named Gale.
Female strength. Resolve and resolution. Self-sacrifice and identity. Power and what it means to have it. Societal inequality. Love. Adaptation in changing circumstances and perseverance in the face of adversity. Competition. Politics.
Another trilogy(?) but the others are just extensions of the first, following a (predictable) natural storyline.
In the future everyone is divided into factions. Teenagers, known for making good life choices, are put into factions for life based on a test. Tris discovers she doesn’t fit into a single faction and has to decide to be. It is uncovered that, unsurprisingly a faction war is eminent.
Identity and choice. Fear and facing it. Selflessness and bravery. Classism and equality. Trust and honesty. Values and virtue. The danger and toxic nature of power. Family
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise has drawn the short straw. He must accomplish a task and doesn’t know what it is, but he’s going to die over and over and over and keep coming back until he does. Also there are aliens. It’s surprisingly enjoyable, if not confusing.
The brutality of sacrifice for the salvation of others. Choice and self-sacrifice: finding a purpose larger than ourselves. Acting for others, especially when it’s difficult.
We finally succeeded in rendering the planet inhabitable for crops, and a team of researchers must venture out through space to find a new home.
Environmental stewardship. Coping with loss and embracing the future. The importance of relationships. Seflessness and duty (or human nature). Faith/logic and the balance of the two.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Yep. Really. James Franco tries to cure Alzheimer’s but accidentally makes a super intelligent chimp who decides he wants to be in charge.
Care for others & the environment. Might doesn’t make right. Do unto others… Finding commonality despite differences. Peace vs conflict.
Old man Rocky agrees to train with the son of Apollo Creed, who died before he ever met his son. Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Adonis has a rocky (heh) road ahead of him.
Father-son relationships (or parent-child). Mortality and choices. Rejection and overcoming challenges. Love and acceptance. Perseverance and willingness to change.
Lord Of The Rings
Several short guys, a very pretty man, a secret king, and Dumbledore take a cross country hike to destroy possessed jewelry while a giant flaming eyeball tries to kill them with ghosts and dragons. Seriously though, I genuinely hope you know this story. Although the movies are 9 years long, Tolkien’s story is one of the richest and most theologized in history. The list of themes, allegories and theological and scriptural parallels would take (and have taken) up dozens of articles by themselves.
Destructive nature of power. Good vs Evil. Friendship. Altruism and responsibility. Character. Relgious and racial harmony. Christ figures aplenty. Forgiveness. Growing up. Nature vs technology. Loss… etc etc etc.
Harry Potter (most, dealthy Hallows…duh)
There are running themes in most of these, I mean there’s always some element of good vs evil because they’re superheroes, that’s what they do. Unless there’s something significantly unique, just assume that’s a theme. These aren’t necessarily the best superhero movies, but they’re really good at portraying fairly unique themes among others. Any could potentially apply based on what you’re going for.
Wreckless and immature thunder god loses god powers and gets cast to earth, has to learn humility, maybe doesn’t do that but learns to protect others along the way. Has to fight is scheming half brother (via fire vomiting robot). The second movie is good, but other than Rene Russo sacrificing herself and gross floaty evil I don’t remember much about it. Finally, Thor’s magic hammer gets destroyed and he’s thrown in jail on the other side of the galaxy (or at least a different zip code). He has to come to terms with his inability to save his home alone (again), and must cope with the fact the movie is named for the end of all things. Also, Ragnorok is potentially the best Marvel flick to date.
Humility, pretty much in all of them. Caring for others. Teamwork, relying on others and trust. Adaptation to adversity, and coping with loss. All things end, and bring about new beginnings. The evils of colonialism and even care for the refugee.
Famous, and famously arrogant surgeon has his hands rendered useless in a car wreck, must learn to cope with phenomenal cosmic powers in stead. Surprisingly self aware, and quite funny.
Responsibility, and surrendering self. Acknowledging our place in the Kingdom (and universe). Victory through self-sacrifice.
We know this one. Kid gets bitten by spider, kid gets powers, movie gets rebooted every few years. This time featuring young Aunt May and Iron Man.
Acceptance of self. Perspective. It’s OK to question what you’re told. Greatness begins with serving others.
Loki shows up and taunts everyone, then releases a bunch of aliens. *Featuring the best Hulk/Loki & Iron Man/Loki scenes.
Teamwork through adversity, like, a lot of it. This is the essential teamwork and leadership film. Loki turns everyone against everyone, most of the fight scenes are between heroes. Leadership, and how to lead while serving. Sacrifice, and putting your ego aside.
Superheroes fight superheroes because the bad guy is super manipulative. If it sounds like the 1st Avengers you aren’t far off. The difference is the initial issue is over government registration.
Teamwork and leadership, again. The toxicity of manipulation. Separation of Church & State (seriously, consider the heroes and govt registration, the connection is there). Oversight vs personal accountability. Sacrifice and persistence. Morality vs greater good and the line between good/evil. Unity and common purpose (“Divided we fall” is the tagline).
This one started the Marvel movies, and it still holds up. Tony Stark is Iron Man. No bones about it. People want him to be dead, he disagrees. He struggles with the whole process considering where he’s come from (arms dealer), then he wins because hero.
Repentance and redemption. Forgiveness. Acceptance of self. Undesrstanding that our past creates us but doesn’t define us.
Return of Superman
Superman. It’s superman.
Jesus. I mean… superman is basically Jesus. There is a scene where he dies, and then comes back to life.
Girl grows up on Island of warrior women, things are good but she’s restless. Evil men attack, but there’s a good one so girl leaves with him. She knows how to fight but realizes they need peace, so she fights the god of war.
Terrible mustaches. Women are awesome (Gal Gadot was pregnant most of this, so just another level of awesome). Peace is worth fighting for (maybe not literally?). Violence only begets violence. Those who can are called to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The question of mission and direction in life is brought forth constantly.
Skinny kid gets beat up a lot, still wants to make a difference. Kid gets chosen for dangerous gov’t experiment and turns into Chris Evans, attempts to beat up Hitler but settles for Agent Smith from the Matrix.
Responsibility, character, integrity, service, loyalty, humility. The shield is more powerful than any weapon. Real power is defending the powerless.
Best quote: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.”
Rated R – I’m not advising you show these to your group, but let’s be real most of them are going to watch R rated movies. I tried not to go nuts in this section because it’s probably a bad idea, but there are still some dang good movies here and the themes are killer.
A commercial spaceship crew is diverted from their journey home to investigate a distress signal on an alien moon. Turns out it was a warning, bad things of the alien variety ensue.
Gender and authority. Birth and rebirth. Technology (through corporate greed) vs nature. Fear and panic. Humanity and mortality, again the question of what it means to be human. Unity and teamwork. Survival.
Hugh Jackman is old and caring for a dying Professor X, planning to shut out the world gets upended when a tiny girl Wolverine shows up. He has to defend her from crazy bounty hunters and his own demons.
Predjudice. Confronting internal conflict. Selflessness and care for others. Coping with loss. Family. Making peace with your past and taking hold of your future. Perception vs reality. Consequence and redemption. Hope and struggle.
The Book of Eli
The world is a wasteland, so it’s set at least a few years in the future. Eli has humanity’s only hope and has to deliver it somewhere. He only wants peace, but the movie wouldn’t be exciting if that worked out.
Faith. Devotion and conviction. Greed. Call and sacrifice. Good and evil. Witness and influence. Violence and peace.
An alien race has been marooned on Earth, and although initially welcomed and cared for has been relegated to live in a Johannesburg slum. A nerdy government employee tasked with evicting certain the ‘Prawns” becomes an unlikely ally after an accident.
Racism and humanity. Care of the other. Human nature. Justice.
I’m only acknowledging the first one here. Keanu Reeves is a computer guy of some sort, he discovers that we’re all stuck a simulation run by the artificial intelligence that enslaved us after we created it. The only way to save humanity is with leather, guns, and kung fu.
Freedom and the meaning of it. Technology and Humanity. Truth and illusion. Humanity and perspective. Destiny and choice. The relationship between body, brain and mind. There are Biblical references throughout – from Morpheus prophetic nature to Neo’s Christlike character, to the Judas character of Cypher, to the Biblical names and references all over the place.
In a post apocalyptic desolation of a world, Harrison Ford is a dectective charged with tracking down replicants (androids) who are deemed to be dangerous. When some save his life things get interesting.
Humanity and soul, what defines them and makes us human? Memory – the past helping create us but not defining us. Mortality and acceptance. Class and society. Technology and humanity.
A Roman general is betrayed, stripped of his rank and forced to compete in the arenas. He vows vengeance against his betrayer and goes on an impressive killing spree (hence the R rating).
The destructiveness of revenge. Death and the acceptance of mortality. Politics and corruption. Slavery and how it’s defined. Family (in the weirdest way possible).
Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. During his time there he finds the value of being friends with Morgan Freeman and becomes integral to the money laundering operation of the prison before he makes the warden ask, “What say you, fuzzy britches?”
Fear and hope. Redemption(duh.) Freedom and confinement. Determination and perseverance. Hope and injustice. Transformation and suffering. The value of friendship.
The green mile is the hallway from death row to the execution chamber. Tom Hanks, a death row guard meets the immense Micheal Clarke Duncan, accused of killing two white girls. When John Coffey is discovered to have a miraculous gift, that and his manner cause his guilt to be questioned.
Death and sacrifice. Racism. Guilt and assumption. Compassion. Humanity and justice. Healing (both literal and figurative). Call and duty.
As I said, this list doesn’t even come close to being everything. There are vastly more movies out there and better surveys and theme explanations of the movies listed. However, hopefully this will help with your own resources and spark some great discussion. Enjoy!