(REVIEW) I’ve been a fan of science fiction adventure stories since I’ve been a kid. Whether it was superheroes or “Star Wars,” or when I got older Christopher Nolan movies like “Inception” and “Interstellar.”
That’s why, as a Christian, I’m always excited when faith-based movies like “The Shift” enter the sci-fi space. I believe that the way that Christianity imagines the world is the right way and that faith is a fundamental part of the human experience. Therefore, science-fiction, as a genre, is missing a crucial part of the human imagination when it tries to ask and answer the questions it does. So far, Christian imagination has been regulated to fantasy like “Narnia” and “The Lord of The Rings,” so it’s about time Christian sci-fi took off as well.
While “The Shift” takes exciting steps in reviving the faith-based science-fiction genre, it never develops its ideas well enough to rise to the level of its own concepts.
This is, of course, not the first time Christian faith-based films have entered this space. “Left Behind,” “The Genesis Code,” “The Time Changer” and other faith-based sci-fi films were ubiquitous at the start of the faith-based movie industry in the late 1990s and early 2000.
But when the Kendrick Brothers movies like “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof” became huge hits, the industry shifted to faith-based inspirational dramas. It’s only been recently that mainstream faith-based industry movies have begun experimenting again with some real success. This year, the writers and directors of “God’s Not Dead” experimented with horror in “Nefarious” and Angel Studios, the company behind the hit show “The Chosen,” made the enormously successful faith-based thriller “Sound of Freedom”. With “The Shift,” Angel Studios is positioning itself to revive faith-based science fiction.
“The Shift” follows Kevin (played by Kristoffer Polaha), a man with a struggling marriage who is thrown into the multiverse when he refuses to be the minion of a malevolent man called The Benefactor (Neal McDonough) who has the power to “shift” people to different universes. Now, Kevin has to find a way to survive in the hellish world he finds himself in and the way back to the woman he loves (Elizabeth Tabish).
The film has all the elements of every great sci-fi adventure: a great concept, a great core relationship and a great antagonist. In “The Shift,” the genius central sci-fi concept is that this other dimension is real and a place where, in effect, everyone’s interpretation of their experiences is correct since every difference in perspective or memory is the result of the multiverse.
This is a fascinating twist on the multiverse as it makes this place a metaphor for misunderstanding and potential reconciliation. The central relationship is the love story between Kevin and his wife Molly. The film does an extraordinary job making you fall in love with their relationship. Kevin and Molly feel like a real couple. In fact, the opening scene between the two is some of the best writing I’ve seen in a faith-based industry film.
The villain — known as The Benefactor — is both terrifying as he’s essentially a traditional (and implied literal) “devil” character. The horrifying power to shift people in and out of the multiverse is coupled with a dogged commitment to never giving Kevin a moment’s peace until he works for him. McDonough’s performance has all the archetypal villainy you would want from this role.
Unfortunately, the movie almost immediately abandons its concept, central relationship or its villain in favor of recycling more familiar themes we’ve already seen in a bunch of other Christian (and non-Christian) movies. This leaves the film feeling like a bigger missed opportunity rather than a satisfying adventure.
Instead of exploring the multiverse and the themes of reconciling misunderstanding or different worldviews, we get stuck in one stock dystopian world for the majority of the film with stock non-believers tossing him stock “where is God when you suffer” questions. Instead of spending the film exploring Kevin and Molly’s relationship, they spend the whole movie apart.
If you’re not going to explore the different worlds with a different Kevin and Molly in it, then why would you introduce that concept at all? If you aren’t going to explore how different viewpoints and misunderstandings destroy relationships and how to resolve that, why introduce that idea through the multiverse? And if you are going to switch to exploring something different, why would you have it be things that are so much more conventional and less interesting?
Good sci-fi like “Inception” often leaves the audience with questions. But the questions we are left with in “The Shift” feel unsatisfying rather than intriguing or exciting. Why does Kevin think for a moment he’s safe from The Benefactor with no evidence he’s going to leave him alone? Why does Kevin spend five years holding on to hope despite there being none that he’ll be back together with Molly only for him to give up five seconds after he’s in a new universe? And where was the character or thematic groundwork laid for us to see this as the proper ending to the relationship that has propelled us through the story?
The reason sci-fi stories are so powerful is that they take a relatable human anxiety and blow it up into something grand, then show how the characters deal with the problem in their world and show you how to handle the problem in yours. Modern multiverse stories do that very well. “Rick and Morty” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” use the multiverse deal with the anxiety that life is meaningless and all relationships are discardable in the modern world, grounds that in the direct relationships of the characters, and then resolves that anxiety — in their world and in ours — by showing the characters chose to love the people in front of them despite the infinite other choices. The “Spider-Verse” movies use the multiverse to address the anxiety of wanting to find people like you in the world, but also being afraid of them not accepting you. Even nihilistic sci-fi/fantasy/horror like “Knock At The Cabin” resolves itself with an utterly nihilistic answer, which still counts as a resolution.
Nothing in how “The Shift” deals with the questions it raises helps us to resolve them in our imagination the way it wants to. In fact, the world that “The Shift” imagines for us actually validates the idea that God is not actually real or doesn’t love us. At one point, Kevin says that there’s grief in the world, but also so much beauty. And yet, we don’t see a world like that. We see a multiverse where The Benefactor is all powerful.
You may say that’s the point. We are supposed to believe God is good even when life doesn’t look like that, even if we never understand like in The Book of Job, the story that this movie is loosely based on. And yet, even The Book of Job resolves its tension. Instead, “The Shift” doesn’t give us a similar revelation of God’s power and goodness. As a result, conflict remains unresolved.
Despite this, there’s still a lot the movie gets right. The movie captures the aesthetic and rhythm of sci-fi adventures, with shots like Kevin falling into the lake at the beginning, the designs of The Benefactor’s stormtroopers and the dark and gritty tone the movie doesn’t shy away from. In addition, the flashback scenes between Kevin and Molly and their loved ones are done with visceral beauty.
However, a problem I’ve had with a lot of Christian films is that they never show our world as dark and complicated as our world actually is. The fact that this movie is willing to take the risks of this nature makes me hopeful that — if this movie does well – we will see more of that in faith-based spaces.
In the end, “The Shift” is groundbreaking in how it attempts to re-popularize combining a Christian imagination with the science fiction imagination, but fumbles the execution of these ideas, robbing itself of most of its imaginative power. I hope that, regardless of how this movie does, we don’t give up on faith-based sci-fi films. Christianity is the most true and beautiful vision of the world that exists. Its popularization into the world of science fiction is long overdue. Faith-based films, science fiction and our world will be better for it.