See “Constantine” – challenging your ideas about God and good

Summary: Most modern films are either shallow like puddles, socialist realism (PC, stealth re-education of the audience by politically more advanced Hollywood), or comic books. Occasionally, a film comes along that challenges our comfortable view of the world. Critics recoil in horror. Audiences tend to avoid them, unless they are superbly executed. They are worth watching for those willing to think outside the lines. Like this one. It’s on Netflix and at Amazon Video.

Constantine (2005)
Available at Amazon.

Constantine (2005).

Starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, and Shia LaBeouf.

John Constantine: “What if I told you that God and the devil made a wager, a kind of standing bet for the souls of all mankind?”

Angela Dodson (detective): “I’d tell you to stay on your meds.”

Constantine: “Humor me. No direct contact with humans. That would be the rule. Just influence. See who would win.”

Dodson: “Okay, I’m humoring you. Why?”

Constantine: “Who knows. Maybe just for the fun of it. No telling. …”

Dodson: “This has been real educational, but I don’t believe in the devil.”

Constantine: “You should. He believes in you.”

A capsule review by Belinda at IMDB.

Constantine is a dark, yet dazzling film. A terrific story backed up by spectacular special effects and great cinematography pull us into a dark and dangerous world – a world where half-angels and half-demons whisper to us mortals as God and Satan use us as pawns in an apocalyptic game of chess. Cursed with ability too see these spirits, John Constantine finds himself right in the middle of this showdown.

“Keanu Reeves gives a fantastic turn as John Constantine. He infuses Constantine with a grim sense of purpose and dark humor. He is the ultimate anti-hero, and Reeves deftly takes Constantine from being someone we simply root for to someone we actually like and respect.

“Rachel Weisz is terrific as well. Her tortured and soulful performance is the best of the film. Shia LaBeouf also blew me away.”

Now for the really interesting reasons to watch it.

Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in "Constantine,"
Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel.

Why fight for good, or justice – rather than just for that which benefits you? Is there such a thing as good? The good are always outnumbered, which implies that God does not care that evils rules on the Earth. An omnipotent God could surely arrange things otherwise.

The best explanation I have found is that God has more important concerns, does not care about us, and leaves a subsidiary immortal — the demiurge – to rule the World. This is Gnosticism, logical but too dark to become popular.

In Constantine, we see a more modern explanation: a hybrid of Christianity and Existential philosophy). There is no meaning beyond that which we create ourselves. We are playthings of forces beyond our control or even understanding. The world is not only unjust and irrational, but absurd.

In Constantine we see this played out. The plot follows few of the usual tropes. The critics, preferring politically sweet and unchallenging stories, recoiled in horror (even most of those that gave it a “fresh” rating did not like it). The plot is simple in outline, but they professed not to understand it (perhaps because it lacks the heavy exposition poured on the audience by modern Hollywood films).

In John Constantine we see a man struggling to cope in a world run by rules incongruent with justice — or the welfare of people on the street. He has little interest in goals of Heaven or Hell, just self-interest — which provides him no clear guidance. Until he sees higher needs, those of humanity — and heeds their call. Although I doubt he could say why. The causes of heroism are often mysterious.

We see an angel — before whom we are bugs, who no more understands God’s plan than we do — adopting “own goals” (much as Nazis “worked towards the Führer” in the absence of his instructions).

The ending is ambiguous, as it is in most great dramas (e.g., what’s the message of Hamlet?). As it has been in many recent films about heroism, such as Drive Angry and The Great Wall. To say more would be to spoil the film for you. Be sure to watch the scene in the credits. It is integral to the plot.

These films should provoke us to think more deeply about what we are doing in our lives, what we are doing with America – and what America is doing with (or to) the world. Simple-minded attempts to “do good” will not work in our complex world, especially as we wield powers beyond the imagination of our ancestors. These films feature magic, but our daily lives consist of what would be considered magic to anyone from the past.

Trailer for Constantine

For more information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all film reviews, and especially these about recent films…

  1. See Solo, a Star Wars film that says much about America.
  2. Incredibles 2, a Father’s Day gift from Disney.
  3. Ocean’s 8: the most dangerous film of the year.
  4. See the secret theme of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
  5. Ant-Man and .the Wasp: fun for kids, boring for adults.
  6. MI Fallout is Tom Cruise’s fun cartoon for grown-ups.

For a better perspective on these matters

The invention of hell is one of the West’s greatest intellectual achievements, an attempt to see the world as having some element of justice. It has proven to be quite complex and difficult to explain. Our attempts to do so make the story of Hell the West’s longest story, told and retold and repeatedly refined for thousands of years. Here is the best book yet about this project.

The History of Hell
Available at Amazon.

The History of Hell

By Alice K. Turner.

“From the beginning of recorded history people all over the world have believed in an afterlife with two principle destinations, and Hell has inspired more interest than Heaven, especially among painters and poets. This is an illustrated survey of how religious leaders, artists, writers and ordinary people in the West have visualized Hell.” {From the publisher.}

See the review by Jonathan Kirsch in the LAT: excerpt…

The History of Hell is a fascinating survey of how ‘the Great Below’ has been depicted in arts and letters over 4,000 years of Western civilization. “This investigation is geographical rather than theological or psychological,” insists Turner, who shows us hundreds of color and black-and-white plates that vividly (and sometimes pruriently) depict what hell is supposed to look like.

But the fact is, Turner’s book reveals a sophisticated mastery of theology and psychology as well as art history and comparative religion. Indeed, the book was inspired by Turner’s graduate studies in comparative literature at New York University. Her musings on the varieties of hell range from ancient Babylon and classical Greece, through Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Milton and Goethe, and all the way to James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Joseph Heller. …

“‘Far from disappearing in the twentieth century,’ she writes, ‘Hell became one of its most important and pervasive metaphors.'”

19 thoughts on “See “Constantine” – challenging your ideas about God and good

    1. 7zander,

      Job is a mild, very mild version of the wager described in Constantine!

      God allowed Satan to test one family. Job loses wealth. Satan kills his servants and children (not a bad deal if they went to Heaven, of course).

      It’s a stress test, perhaps for a high purpose (eg, tempt Satan back?).

      But the entire world run as a wager? That’s like Arthur C. Clarke’s “Nine Billion Names of God.” There the purpose of humanity was to write out all the names of God. When done, the show was closed.

      It’s a bleak vision. But logical.

    1. The answer Job got was summed up as “What do you know? You are not God.”

      Since reality has so many moving parts and free will must be allowed in a world that is haunted by flaws.

    2. info,

      I’ve always thought that Job was the most interesting — by far — book in the Bible. Like the Gospel of Mark and “Constantine”, it has a happy ending tacked on for the public. But the core story is dark beyond imagining – but a compelling answer to some basic questions.

  1. Addressed also in Kingsley Amis’s novel, The Green Man, which was also adapted to a two-part TV film in the late 80s.

  2. I watched it a while ago, and thought it missed some of the humour and subtlety of the comics, but was an OK film if you’re OK with Keanu Reeves, who I always think is something of a mixed blessing. Perhaps I’ll give it another go.

    On the theme of an incomprehensible god and our blind obedience I think it would be hard to beat Randy Newman’s ‘God’s Song’. If you can, listen to the cover version by John Martyn on: A Church With One Bell.

    Here are two verses:

    Man means nothing he means less to me
    Than the lowliest cactus flower
    Or the humblest Yucca tree
    He chases round this desert
    Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
    That’s why I love mankind

    I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
    I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
    You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
    That’s why I love mankind
    You really need me
    That’s why I love mankind

  3. Good movie pick. I remember seeing it in theaters and liking it a lot, especially Swinton’s role. I think Keanu Reeves gets under-estimated as an actor, though of course his character is also not much like the John Constantine of the comics. (Though that Constantine also often engages in relatively thorny topics.)

    As for the ethical problem I myself have resolved it by going into a wholly different line of religious practice, because I figured I could be a full-throated Buddhist instead of a Christian with a bunch of signing statements. If I have had a complaint is that I wish there was a more genuine “American” Buddhism — but that will come in time, and you can’t really force it.

    1. Gnosticism?

      Interesting. I have always thought god (if there is one) is/must be unknowable and that there’s no evidence that we were created by god prime. But the rest of it, not so much.

      One thought I’ve come across, was that if god is all powerful perhaps we were created a millisecond ago…

    2. I ought to read more about Gnostic thought though I am fairly committed at this point. Any recs?

      There are a few points about Buddhism that appeal to me but the one most relevant to this is the problem of evil. Buddhism removes a lot of the dramaturgy from the issue (which I think has been, as a world-religion, its biggest obstacle – had Shakyamuni Buddha been fed to tigers at age 51, we would have a very different world religious landscape) in favor of viewing the situation as a process in which one participates, and can, with one’s own efforts, not participate. Even the more mystical schools of Buddhism which involve something approximating a savior-figure add this on top of the core idea. There is also the lack of a ‘Doomsday’ – it is expected that Buddhist practice will eventually peter out and fade, but also that in the millenia to come at some point another Buddha will appear and teach anew, and that this has happened many times before.

      Now this has some plausible negatives, but I think it has a lot of positives to go with it, and it has certainly taken me loudly and strongly out of the doomsday-driven narratives of society without requiring a total hermitage!

    3. SF,

      “I ought to read more about Gnostic thought though I am fairly committed at this point. Any recs?”

      Read Wikipedia for fun. Gnosticism has near-zero appeal to anyone who is interested in reading about it. I think that’s true of most religions these days (that is, of course, a guess).

  4. “Why fight for good, or justice – rather than just for that which benefits you? ”

    Scaled to gen. environ, the good fight provides safety, which encourages Evolution of mind/soul if one subscribes to the concept of eternal soul. if not, and existence is contained to this environ, it’s simply Maslow’s hierarchy, somewhat above/beyond the lower order 4F’s (fight/flee/feed/fk), sans ‘self-actualization’ at its top. a state of peace, even if only to catch a nap.

    Is there such a thing as good?

    (Other than Deity, commonly understood in reference as The Monad) Name a monopole extant in Nature. I’ll wait.

    Duality is the condition of our Universe, inner/outer. We exist in an environ of paired opposites. Mind/Matter. As within, so without. As above, so below. Without Duality in Nature there is no oscillation among states of matter or Being, no movement, no life as we understand it. Duality is Universal. It is provable and scalable from micro/macro, Chaos to Cosmos, and There/Back again.

    “The good are always outnumbered, which implies that God does not care that evils rules on the Earth. An omnipotent God could surely arrange things otherwise.”

    The condition you describe, exemplifies Operant Freewill. We, via our Gift of Reason, get to CHOOSE our actions in this Garden of Good/Evil, this Duality.
    Arrangement of such (as you opine) would negate Freewill, and make Deity’s Gift of Reason to humanity superfluous.

    What you describe as Evil, is merely ill-Reasoned use of Freewill, an inefficient ROIC, a crap ‘retn on invested capital’.

    Evolution among entities occurs at differing rates, for some it changes very little over millennia. Our sense organs function to discern conditions in environment/Duality. Our higher faculty of Reason (triune brain, neocortex, frontal lobes) sits atop in executive oversight of info from our environment. It improves our choices over time, and contributes to our continued and improved existence.

    As to “Constantine” and ‘the bet’ – naah – that’s 101 anthromorphization of Deity. Omniscient/Omnipotent Deity was bored? really? tsk tsk tsk.

    As to concept of Satan/Devil,’Lucifer’ as concept is more apt. Lucifer, The Lightbearer, The Illuminator; as metaphor {he’s} a teacher. {he} allows us due diligence in exercise of our Light of Reason via choice; to learn/evolve from others’ and our own ill-reasoned use of Freewill.

  5. I liked the movie and the story. I also like spawn, the crow, wolverine , hulk.

    Real people have skeletons, can find redemption. Superman doesn’t really have demons.

    1. Sven,

      That’s a powerful point. It’s why I prefer Spiderman, Cyclops, the Hulk, and Batman over Wonder Woman and Superman. Their humanity, dark side and frailty, is what makes them interesting.

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