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Action/Adventure Christian Drama Movies Reviews

Review: Samson (2018)

Distributor: Pure Flix Productions

Director: Bruce Macdonald, Gabriel Sabloff (co-director)

Writers: Jason Baumgardner, Galen Gilbert, Timothy Ratajczak, Zach Smith

Composer: Will Musser

Starring: Jackson Rathbone, Billy Zane, Taylor James, Caitlin Leahy

Genre: Action, Drama, Christian

Rating: PG-13

Coming to Christ later in life, I never had the privilege of learning about Samson at Sunday school. The first time I heard about him and his “magical” hair was on my own accord while on a quest to read the Bible cover to cover. I eventually came across Judges 13, and boy, what a page-turner! Here was the most bizarre Rambo-styled epic that I didn’t even know existed until that moment. It was a story that was just the right combination of weirdness, action, and mind-blowing theological revelations.

Immediately intrigued, I delved deeper whenever I could. For an Old Testament subject at college, I ended up selecting those four chapters for my exegesis–ended up being 7000 words long (whoops!) but I loved every moment of the exercise. I enjoyed the narrative so much that I named my dog Samson. I even called my business after an iconic moment in the plot! I love Jesus, but I’m also an Old Testament nutter. There was a point in time where I even thought I might be called to adapt the story to the big screen…

So it’s bittersweet to see a new Samson film hit cinemas. I’m absolutely thrilled to once again revisit this story, but a little saddened that someone has beaten me to the punch (not that this is the first movie to feature the disobedient Nazirite). Yet ultimately I’m glad that someone has completed their journey in bringing this tale back to the forefront. Though considering key crew members and the production company also brought us the much-maligned God’s Not Dead, there’s an inkling of dread. But I love Samson–if there ever was a target demographic, then I’m it! Surely this film will be great! Right?

…By the way, I also just want to say how joyful I am that God has lead me to a position where I can share my enjoyment of this complex Biblical narrative with you all. Okay, I swear I’m gonna stop geeking out now and get to the review!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This film is essentially a play-by-play of the Biblical account of Samson. So there’s a LOT of Old Testament violence. While it doesn’t shy away from the violent acts themselves, it isn’t particularly gory–there’s only a bit of blood splatter and streaking from time to time. The violent acts include: killing a lion by breaking its jaw, swordfights with a donkey’s jawbone, physical assault, whipping, eye gouging (act seen but not heavily detailed), stabbings (implied rather than seen), head stomping, getting hit with arrows, people getting crushed inside an unstable building (camera cuts away), and a woman is flung off a high wall and into a burning field below. Decapitation is hinted–later on, the head is presented in a bloodstained bag. Piles of dead bodies are seen after the major battles; they are spattered with blood, but there’s no gaping wounds or horrendous mutilations depicted.

It is heavily implied that Samson attaches lit torches to live foxes–we don’t see their burning corpses, but we see the flames moving erratically through a field from a high viewpoint, with the foxes screaming in pain.

Language/Crude Humor: Some name-calling, but no swear words by modern day standards.

Drug/Alcohol References: The Philistines are seen drinking wine, though not to excess. Samson is tricked into consuming it and displays disgust once he finds out.

Spiritual Content: It’s a Christian Bible flick. The accuracy of this film’s depiction of Biblical events will be discussed thoroughly in the review below.

Sexual Content: An unmarried male and female character kiss. Characters frequently mention how Samson has a wandering eye for the ladies, though this isn’t actually seen much in the film. Likewise, a character mentions that they are in a brothel, but apart from the line of dialogue, no evidence is seen. Male characters are frequently topless. A woman is threatened with rape.

Other Negative Content: There’s a fair chunk of petty behavior and crimes depicted, such as theft and property damage. Characters are betrayed or blackmailed, sometimes for money.

Positive Content: The film’s overall message is murky at best. It sits in the realm of “God works in mysterious ways”, and that God is faithful, delivering Israel from its oppressors. While not untrue, Christians may have an issue with how the message is presented in the context of the film. Yet one thing is clear–God reigns over Dagon, and that there is a greater plan in place.

Review

There’s a lot to love when it comes to the story of Samson. Taking the text at face value, it’s an entertaining “one man army” tale with epic battles and bewildering pranks. Stepping back and looking at it within the context of the book of Judges, Samson is the climax, right at the point where the Game of Thrones-esque wheel finally breaks down. As Dame Shirely Bassey would twang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating!” Google “cycle of apostasy” if you’d like to know more.

Then there’s the feminist reading, where the pulse of Israel’s spiritual health can be seen in the treatment of its women. Samson is once again the tipping point where we see the power shift, and strong female characters are instead seen on the side of the enemy. Lastly, in the grand scheme of God’s plan, Samson’s disobedient and hedonistic actions set up the need for David to finish delivering Israel, who then, in turn, establishes the line of kingship leading to Jesus.

Samson–the Bible’s anti-hero whom never bothered to follow the Lord’s commands and is essentially a walking metaphor of Israel’s failing relationship with God–is still used by Him, somehow fulfilling his prophecy. That blows my mind! This is a story that not only shows God’s faithfulness and grace, but also His sovereignty–even if we go completely off the rails, it’s never outside of God’s control, and He can use even the most unsuitable of tools to complete His work! It seems that while we’re stuck pondering which pawn to move at the beginning of a chess match, God has already figured out the checkmate and moved on to set up a game of backgammon.

There are so many layers to the book of Judges that theologian, James Crenshaw, believes it to be “the zenith of Israelite narrative.” Every time I read it, I simply uncover more. It’s this book in the Bible which finally convinced me that there’s certainly a divine element to Scripture, as no human can possibly construct a piece of literature that’s so deeply intertwined and beautifully structured. Which begs the question as to how an average length movie can give justice to such complex source material?

Short answer–it doesn’t.

The parts I enjoyed essentially stemmed from my love of the story in general, as opposed to the movie’s representation of it. However, I do admire the film’s commitment to portraying the main events in the narrative. I grinned when that lion appeared on screen, and when Samson picked up that donkey’s jawbone! They even featured that awkward bit involving the foxes, which is simultaneously a barbaric act and yet oddly creative on Samson’s part. Only the minor, finer details were scrapped, while other parts were given nice context. For instance, the moving of the city gate always read like a random prank to me, whereas the movie provided a reasonable explanation behind the act.

It’s a film that covers the bases of the Biblical story, but it struggles with the themes. The movie opens with a display of Samson’s immature nature, but it quickly disappears under a veil of ‘Christianese’ that never lifts, as though his boisterous behavior was too much to handle. The essence of Samson’s tit for tat squabble with the Philistines is also glimpsed, but that too morphs into something else. If you look hard enough, you can see the spirit of the multi-layered themes found in the book of Judges, but ultimately it’s not the same story that I came to love. There are quite a few problems with this movie. So get comfy, grab a cup of tea (or coffee, as you may need the caffeine), because I have a few things to say!

The Problem With the Philistines

In the movie’s defense, there isn’t a great deal known about the Philistines. They were a militaristic society during the time of the Judges, and like a bad game of Settlers of Catan, they hogged the iron sources and the ability to manufacture weapons, leaving Israel with a massive shortage (and yes, I do giggle at the thought that the Israelites probably did try to trade some sheep for iron). Whilst the timeline of Judges is unclear as to where exactly it sits in history, the Philistines did fight the Egyptians. All of this is portrayed in the film, so it seems someone did do their homework.

Yet they’re not really the ‘bad guys’ as the movie sets them up to be. Sure, there were racial tensions, but it’s mostly around the border territories. The Israelites were “oppressed” by them, as Scripture states, for 40 years–the longest time listed in Judges– and yet the tribe of Judah weren’t keen on kicking that hornet’s nest. They seem to have gotten used to each other’s presence. Unlike other times, Israel didn’t cry out to be delivered, which is why God had to get creative. The film touches on this, but once again doesn’t commit fully to this concept.

So we watch as the Philistines essentially act like the Roman Empire, taxing the Israelites in ways that would put Negan from The Walking Dead to shame. I can see what the film is trying to do here. It’s attempting to quickly establish the ancient status quo. It’s a really foreign context; it’s set before the Romans (which most people are familiar with), before the kings of Israel, and before the prophets. The concept of “judges” is so distant from modern times that this period of history is rather murky even for Christians to understand.

Therefore the film simplifies it by whacking the audience over the head with the Philistines’ ‘evilness.’ Israelites are good. Philistines are bad. Got it? The writers try to make Samson’s feuds even more personal by adding an original character by the name of Rallah, who essentially personifies the will of the Philistines. Like the other movie adaptations before this one, Delilah also plays a larger role, just to assist in building this foreign world.

These narrative techniques usually work; we’ve seen it in film history between Moses and the Pharaoh, Ben Hur and Masala, William Wallace and Edward the Longshanks. Yet it fails miserably here. There isn’t enough history to fall back on. The film doesn’t spend enough time developing the emotions behind the events it does portray, leaving Rallah to scream maniacally, unjustified, like a petulant child, and the audience scratching their heads as to the source of his motivation. The Philistines in this film are a shallow villain, used as a simple prop to showcase how wonderful Samson is in comparison. As a result, it robs the audience from a deeper, morally questionable story, which ultimately highlights the Lord’s grace towards the Israelites, because they certainly didn’t deserve to be God’s chosen people on merit alone.

Which brings me to the next issue…

While sometimes it’s justified in the film, Rallah just seems to be a moody guy that likes to rock some eyeliner.

The Problem With Samson and God’s Relationship

Samson is not a man to be idolized. Despite being raised by God-fearing parents, he served his own needs, seemingly giving little regard to the Lord’s commands. Yet ironically he is listed as a hero of faith; some theologians believe he is mentioned as a way to demonstrate that only a mustard seed’s worth is required, while others give the man a bit more credit, as he literally sacrificed his life for God’s calling in a world full of complacency. Then there are others who believe he actually was a hero, who wholeheartedly followed the Lord’s unconventional path to glory. All interpretations can be argued, though the latter has been mostly relegated to the pages of children’s Bibles. I’ve personally never heard that version of events from the pulpit. Yet in Samson, it seems as though none of the screenwriters wanted to pick sides, so instead, they aimed for a story that pleased all the different viewpoints. Suffice to say, it’s awkward.

Samson repeatedly commits the cinema sin of telling and not showing, with characters constantly describing the troubled hero as being a delinquent and having a wandering eye for foreign women. Yet the Samson that does appear before us, however, is a conscientious individual. The filmmakers try to blend both versions of Samson’s character, but ultimately an anti-hero can’t also be the wholesome stereotypical protagonist either.

While he spends half the film refusing the ‘call to adventure’ in becoming a judge (which the people of Israel suddenly seem to desire), it’s all because he feels his path with God is the one less traveled. He’s incredibly self-aware when he’s breaking God’s laws, as his circular logic dictates that he’s serving God whilst doing so. When he ‘innocently’ finds himself in trouble, he frequently submits to the Lord in prayer and overpowers his enemies, becoming an inspiration for all who watch. He rallies the Israelites at times and teaches them to push back against the Philistines. Though ultimately he wishes for peace between the two people groups.

Cool story, bro, but that’s not really the Biblical story of Samson.

The film has several core issues mostly caused by its lack of committal to a singular interpretation. Yet by far, the movie’s biggest problem is its insatiable need to sanitize events and push God forward in an otherwise godless narrative. I’m not saying that God wasn’t present with Samson. He was. Rather Israel wasn’t necessarily with God, and they certainly didn’t bring Him up in conversation nearly as much as what is portrayed in this movie. Essentially the film’s version of events don’t line up with the surrounding context of the book of Judges. Normally that doesn’t matter when it comes to standalone film adaptations, but because Judges is so rhythmically structured, tweaks to the relationship dynamics between Israel, Samson, and God alters the story’s message.

This continual willingness to pop God in–as though the producers thought the audience needed reminding they were watching a Christian movie every five minutes–ultimately causes the film to undermine its own climax. Since Samson consistently prays throughout the film, it means that there’s no real sense of redemption in the final act. It also grossly mishandles the symbolism that is present in the Biblical account. With neanderthalic clarity, in the book, Samson’s mantra seems to be “I see. I like. I take.” So when his eyes are plucked away, it’s done so with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood irony, where he loses the source of his prideful, lustful behavior. A classic example of God taking our weakest moments and making them strong, its significance is stymied here when Samson isn’t depicted as needing to be saved since his faith was always sound.

Blind, but still lead by God. The symbolism gets muddled up in this film since it’s not contrasted with Samson’s past actions.

By elevating the wholesomeness of Samson’s deeds, it conversely drags down God’s reputation. This problem is most obvious when Samson needs to obtain as much clothing as a Katherine Heigl movie in order to pay off his debt to the Philistines. Instead of framing the entire event as a spiteful way to solve a foolish matter, we see, as the camera slowly rolls in, that there are three helpless Israelite girls that need saving! God be praised that Samson is there to prophetically kill two birds with one stone–he gets his garments and it’s all for a good cause! Then, after freeing them, the girls run off, leaving Samson lamenting over the fact that he’ll have to break his Nazirite vows whilst stripping the dead bodies (‘cause, you know, he really cares about that). So what’s the underlying message here? That God set Samson up for failure?

The eyes really get a rolling workout when Samson visits a brothel. While staring at completely bare stone walls and non-existent prostitutes, he suspiciously wonders what type of establishment it is. He is mortified by the answer. Yeah… I’m sure that’s EXACTLY how it happened! Is this the version that Samson gave his parents? Was it God that led Samson to the brothel? Or doesn’t it matter, as this little interlude added nothing of value to the story thanks to it being more sanitized than a CDC lab?

Behind the scenes footage of how the directors approached the brothel scene.

I suspect the true answer can be addressed if we dare to look at an even wider issue…

The Problem With Christian Media

Art, in general, is an authentic and honest pursuit of the ‘truth’, where the work reflects the artist’s personal journey. When it comes to Christians adapting a Biblical text, there isn’t that same sense of deep questioning. We already know the truth as revealed by Jesus, so the artwork that is produced originates from a different perspective. There are exceptions, but the journey seen in Christian films aren’t ones that are happy to incorporate multiple interpretations. Rather, the film is crafted with the express desire to manipulate the audience into thinking and feeling a certain way. Unfortunately, viewers tend to have a negative gut-reaction to inauthentic stories.

For a community of people that are highly conscious of our sinful natures, we have a hard time confessing them to the public at large. Generally speaking, Christian characters in Christian films seem to be saints in comparison to the non-believing characters. Too bad it reeks as bad as Samson’s lion carcass, shattering the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

It’s a vicious cycle; Christians feel led by God to make a Biblical movie, so they make sure the characters preach throughout their dialogue, which in turn means those parts can’t be depicted as doing anything ‘bad’ as they’ll be perceived as hypocrites, and ultimately that kills any genuine source of conflict in a medium that needs it to thrive. Therefore, the film sucks.

The deep question we need to ask is why we feel the need to portray ourselves as being faultless in order to promote God’s message? If we feel uncomfortable in a man like Samson being portrayed as a sinner–the one Biblical figure that is possibly the most renown for his personal faults–then we really have a problem here. Even in Scripture, the narrator of Judges merely sets up the framework of the story, then sits back and sips tea like a Kermit the Frog meme, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions as the story naturally unfolds.

It’s the reason why non-Christians tend to produce the better Biblical adaptations. It may not be theologically correct, but they know what themes they genuinely want to explore. In comparison, because Christian filmmakers are instead trying to convey a specific message as opposed to taking the audience on a journey, it comes across as propaganda. As a result of being so eager to please, ironically the opposite is achieved, and it’s utterly depressing to think that non-Christians end up doing a better job in sharing these Biblical tales than the people who have devoted their lives to the cause.

Yet sanitizing Samson in order to proselytize isn’t the only issue here. There’s also the problem of a lack of commitment to serving the story. Surprisingly the film does well in depicting the Old Testament violence in a tasteful way, albeit Samson’s vengeance is definitely more righteous than what is extrapolated from the book. Yet this is also a story that is largely about lust. While there’s some sense of romance between Samson and the Timnah woman, Delilah seems comfortable seducing the Nazirite from her position in the friend zone. The fact that I have to glance at my dog, Samson, to get my fill of puppy-dog gazes because his namesake doesn’t deliver any despite nearly two hours of screen time, shows that there’s yet another problem here.

Yes, I confess, that whole sentence was an excuse to post a photo of Samson as a puppy. But they do say that if he is shaved, then he loses his powers of cuteness…

It’s as though one of the nuns from Lady Bird whisked between Samson and Delilah and told them to keep “six inches for the Holy Spirit.” I can only assume that, being a Christian production, the actors (or other key crew personnel) drew a line when it came to portraying physical intimacy. Fair call–as a Christian performer myself, it’s important to maintain some boundaries that are in keeping with my faith. However, it’s equally crucial to pinpoint exceptions to the rule and decide to serve the story instead.

For instance, any re-enactment of Jesus’ death will require someone to play Judas, another to deny Christ three times as Peter, while others will need to act as Roman soldiers, whipping and humiliating the man portraying the son of God. Each part when isolated from the wider context is a problematic role to take on board as a Christian actor. Yet the production as a whole can bring glory to God.

The acting industry is a tough world to navigate as a Christian, particularly when an actor’s job is to serve the story and not the Lord. Most believers would seriously reconsider their involvement with atheist propaganda films such as Sausage Party and The Invention of Lying, where one’s Christian faith comes into direct conflict with the film’s message.

Yet sometimes Christian desires go hand in hand with a production’s underlying message, which should have been the case with Samson. Though despite the narrative’s Godly themes, the ‘messier’ parts feel like they’re kept at an arm’s length. Samson is undermined in its presentation because of a continual unwillingness to explore the full extent of the narrative. As mentioned before, I can only assume the root of the problem stemmed from the Christians involved wanting to serve God on a personal level and not as an ensemble. Whatever the cause, the inauthenticity is as blindingly obvious as Navi’s presence in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I’m not arguing for an HBO-level of nudity here, not at all. With a little bit of ingenuity, lust can be portrayed by a few simple close-ups on the eyes or a touch of the hands. But the actors, the director, or someone working on the production didn’t want it to go there, and it’s a frustrating watch. We see Samson, who has spent the entire film worrying over his Nazirite vows, freely tell Delilah his ultimate weakness, in a scene that’s about as romantic as a neighbor popping by to deliver some misdirected mail. We can only surmise that he is an idiot (and an oversharer). However, if it was shown that Samson only told her because he was being manipulated within an emotionally abusive relationship, suddenly everything makes more sense.

This conservative aversion to displaying unappetizing themes only hurts the narrative and the underlying message of the movie as a whole. Lust was a major flaw in Samson’s character. It’s a key component to the story, similar to how David’s adultery marks a massive turning point in his journey that shouldn’t be overlooked, undermined, and especially not sanitized. Just how a production company shouldn’t consider adapting Song of Solomon if they’re squeamish about sex, likewise this story shouldn’t have been considered if they weren’t willing to be brutally honest with the source material. Why not Samuel instead? Elijah, or King Hezekiah? There are a plethora of awesome Old Testament characters that can deliver a similar message regarding God’s triumph over evil, but picking Samson and tweaking what makes it unique, to the point that it no longer makes sense, just wastes everyone’s time.

You know something is wrong with your Biblical epic when Delilah is friend-zoned harder than Mary Magdalene.

The Problem With the Movie

Let’s step away from the theology for a moment to focus on the basic film production elements. Even if Samson weren’t an adaptation of a holy book, it would still be a bad movie. Surprisingly, considering it’s not produced by a major Hollywood studio, it does well with its budget. The action sequences are the best part of the film, while the production design isn’t too shabby either.

The problem is that while the movie includes most of the moments found in the book, it doesn’t know which events to punctuate. The pacing feels off as the movie bounds along, ticking off the Bible’s classic Samson moments at a rate of one every ten minutes. I love how much this film included, but it was at the expense of having little to no focus.

Admittedly, the movie’s instincts were right. It does spend a decent amount of time trying to set up Samson’s relationship with the woman from Timnah, which is the inciting incident for everything that follows. A parallel could be drawn between Samson and Braveheart’s narrative arcs, but this film doesn’t have the skill to pull off the same level of pathos that Mel Gibson creates. Also, by skipping the content in Judges 13 and deciding to start the story during the following chapter, it meant that a lot of crucial information regarding Samson’s prophecy, Nazirite vows, and God’s involvement needed to be conveyed through dialogue, cluttering the first act of the film and leaving less time for the characters to emotionally develop. Either some events needed to be cut in order to give preference to the weightier elements of the narrative, or the runtime needed to reflect the epic scale of Samson’s tale. Or why not both? Braveheart was 2 hours and 58 minutes long and filled with bagpipe awesomeness.

Speaking of music, the film’s score throughout Samson is working on overdrive. With no clear direction on what part of the story to emphasize, one scene confusingly rolls into the next, only tenuously linked to the one previous. The lion attack truly does feel completely random, even when you are expecting it. So the job to forge everything into a more cohesive product seemed to fall onto the composer’s shoulders. Yet with the script littered with profoundly preachy insights, ‘deep’ moments where Samson needs to rely on God, and slow dolly shots, the score comes across as a bad drinking game, where every time one of those aforementioned events occurs, the orchestra plays a crescendo. It’s overpowering and incredibly frequent, quickly becoming a hindrance rather than a theatrical enhancement.

Simply put, the film has no flair. The directing feels uninspired. The cinematography merely captures the action within the frame. There’s no creativity in the movie’s communication; no toying with moments of silence, or juxtapositioning between the film’s brutal action scenes or times of romance. It’s a rushed, bland mess that’s amazingly a worse love story than Twilight.

Meanwhile, the acting feels flat. It’s as though the actors never fully understood their own roles, as their characters’ motivations are as unpredictable as the xenomorph’s AI in Alien: Isolation. Or it might simply be the fact that no one, no matter how talented they are, can pull off the script’s pulpit-zingers. Even the film’s biggest star, Billy Zane, seems a little lost and confused with his part. As despised as the movie was at the time, if Samson was shot in a style similar to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, with the screenplay adopting a taste of Guy Ritchie’s electric dialogue, then it would have greatly energized the film, and matched the tone needed to pull off this epic narrative. More style certainly might have made audiences overlook the film’s lack of coherent substance.

Billy Zane waiting for his paycheck.

Then again, there is one aspect of the film that is spot on with its sense of style. If you love a fake beard, then you’re in luck! Samson includes a twenty-year time jump, and instead of sensibly allowing the actors to grow facial hair in pre-production and shooting the second half of the movie first, the audience is treated to the most unconvincing, glorious fake beards they’ve probably seen since a Life of Brian stoning. Once again, there are some good instincts there–depicting a lengthy passage of time via a character’s hairstyle isn’t the worst decision that could have been made, but it’s the poor execution that’s the cherry on top of an already horribly flawed film.

Samson is a movie that is filled with the best of intentions, but sadly it doesn’t succeed in its delivery. While the lower budget didn’t impede the production as one might predict, the film is crippled by its lack of ingenuity and creative flair on the technical side of its presentation. As for its theology, it’s a mixed bag. It’s clear that a lot of research has been done, which sometimes shines through, past the movie’s other flaws. Yet there doesn’t appear to be a singular overarching vision guiding all of the narrative’s trappings into a clear, concise message. Samson ends up being an odd film that isn’t necessarily untrue with what it preaches, though it’s inauthentic within its context. Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend this film. It’s rushed and confusing for those unfamiliar with the story, whilst it’s utterly unsatisfying for those who are fans. There is some entertainment in seeing this longhaired anti-hero and his audacious actions on the big screen, but apart from that, there is little to be gained.

By Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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