Tyler Smith is certainly a familiar name for those involved in the film criticism world. Host of the podcasts Battleship Pretension and More Than One Lesson, Smith has always had a refreshing voice in film criticism that offers both a strong knowledge base and the ability to effectively communicate critical thought and his own personal experience with a film. A graduate of UCLA with a Master's Degree in Cinema and Media Studies, Smith complements his 10+ year history as a film journalist with his work teaching film aesthetics and history classes at College of the Canyons and Chaffey College.
In other words, Tyler Smith tends to know what he's talking about when it comes to cinema.
Tyler Smith is also a Christian, somewhat of a rarity it would seem in a field that seems to attract those who question naturally and those who lean toward a healthy, or potentially unhealthy, degree of skepticism. There are, of course, exceptions including this writer - an ordained minister with my own complicated relationship with Christian cinema having both served up warm, generous reviews for films otherwise rejected by critics and, perhaps even more often, served up scathing reviews for any number of formulaic, paint-by-numbers Christian motion pictures.
It's surprising, but perhaps shouldn't be, that Smith would find a fairly incredible way of weaving together his faith and his cinematic background by constructing this surprisingly fair, balanced, and intellectually satisfying feature video essay/documentary Reel Redemption: The Rise of Christian Cinema, a film that spends nearly its entire first half exploring the history of faith in cinema, a history that started out as rather amicable between the two, before taking a rather abrupt detour into the kind of critical thinking we've come to experience from Smith, both complimentary to and critical of the Christian film industry.
Smith is writer and director for Reel Redemption and supplies the film's even-keeled, almost retro-styled narration that often sounds as if we've stumbled across an old Hollywood news reel. It's a narrative style that works much of the time, though definitely, at least on occasion, leans toward monotonous and repetitive. However, there's really no denying that the narration also shines a spotlight on Smith's immense knowledge of movie history and his ability to critically communicate Christianity's somewhat complicated history with Hollywood.
Available for viewing on Faithlife TV, Reel Redemption is a film that will inevitably have its detractors and supporters. While Smith is undeniably critical of Christian cinema, he's undeniably supportive of it and respectful of it as an art. That's a difficult balance to maintain throughout the nearly 90-minute film, yet it's a balance that Smith for the most part maintains.
Still, that's not going to be enough for some folks. Upon learning that Smith is a Christian, some will automatically assume bias and dismiss his efforts here. Christians, on the other hand, don't take kindly to any criticism of even their worst motion pictures and are likely to hear Smith's words as overly critical or judgmental of their faith. Having received my own share of hate mail, and even death threats, from Christian moviegoers after writing a negative review of a faith-based film, I can't help but have a deep respect for what Smith is trying to accomplish here.
Smith incorporates a wide array of movie clips throughout Reel Redemption, often offering his own commentary alongside them both as critical analysis and editorial. Occasionally striking out boldly, such as when he compares contemporary Christian cinema to slasher flicks as a genre, Smith doesn't simply make bold statements but takes the time, at times a little too much time, to explain his viewpoint and back it up historically and academically. You may not necessarily agree with every point that he makes, I certainly didn't, but it would be difficult to argue with his intellectual and artistic foundations.
Smith makes the legitimate point that while the contemporary Christian cinema has seen certain filmmakers rise, most notably folks like the Kendrick brothers, it has yet to see a filmmaker really become visionary about filmmaker in an attempt to push the genre, and Smith does believe it's a genre, forward. From the early history of faith in cinema with the early Hollywood biblical epics to films such as The Seventh Seal and The Passion of Joan of Arc and through the years when the R-rating was invented and Hollywood's formerly mandated reverence for church was suddenly off the table, Reel Redemption is an exhausting, but not exhaustive journey through Hollywood's exploration of faith and the faith-based moviegoing community's surge into influence and self-identity.
Those expecting Smith to maintain his podcast personality may be both surprised and somewhat disappointed by his respectful approach to Reel Redemption, an intelligent moviegoing experience that thoroughly and engagingly brings to life the rise and fall and rise again of Christian cinema, the people who create it, and the people who demand it. Well researched and presented with fairness galore, Reel Redemption may not quite be the definitive documentary voice on Christian cinema but it's certainly a vital voice and a well-informed place to start.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic