By Katrina Schell, Performing Arts Division Head
Disclaimer: I am a strongly pro-life Christian, and the movie Unplanned is anti-abortion as well as anti-Planned Parenthood. While I examine the theatricality of the movie itself, I will keep my political opinions to myself best I can, but when I evaluate the message, I will be very biased.
Last weekend, I viewed the movie Unplanned, directed by Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman. Sitting in the theater, I was sandwiched between three pro-life Christians on my left and two pro-life Christians on my right. Naturally, I planned for a deeply scarring movie, one that would inspire the masses of pro-choicers to change their ways and finally see the evils of abortion. Instead, I was met with an average movie that had an anti-abortion agenda, but served more as a Planned Parenthood exposé.
The biggest problem with this movie is how on-the-nose every single character was. No matter what the scene was, they were constantly talking about abortion. Usually, it was Abby Johnson defending herself and her choices to her Christian parents and husband. This is understandable as the story was based entirely around Abby’s experience with Planned Parenthood, but it begs the question of formatting. Was this story meant for the cinema, or would it have done better as a straight based-on-true-events documentary? In my opinion, the choice of cinema over theater allowed the pro-life message to be spread more easily into the mainstream, but the execution was underwhelming.
The character development also bothered me. As a playwriting student myself, I find I have the most trouble with giving every character distinct emotions. My plays usually focus around a central character, with the characters around him/her just elaborating on what the main character is feeling. In Unplanned, it felt as though no character was allowed to have emotion except for Abby Johnson. This resulted in average acting performances from everybody except the main character. The whole movie seemed like a first draft, where the writers only fleshed out one character. I wish they had taken more time to allow the movie to tell a story rather than simply send a message.
The structure within this movie was also problematic. Within the first fifteen minutes, there is an abortion procedure shown on screen. After this initial exposition, the movie flashes back in time, so by the middle of the movie, we see Abby going through the abortion in context. At the beginning of the movie, they showed the actual procedure, in the middle, they simply did camera cuts to demonstrate that she was seeing it again. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is the only reason the movie is rated R, but this was terrible structuring on the director’s part. Why would they do this! If they had waited until the middle to show the actual abortion, the moviegoers would be so invested in Abby’s story that it would have a much deeper impact. The way it stands, the director has already told you the opinion you need to have in the first fifteen minutes, and you are not allowed to have any other opinion. I think everyone should have been allowed to have their opinions, then realize what an abortion was truly like.
To be fair, this movie had a $6 million budget (compared to Dumbo’s $170 million), and there was a heavy ban on advertising. Notable networks such as Lifetime, HGTV, and Discovery (along with many more) were not allowed to advertise Unplanned. However, a low budget does not mean a garbage movie (think original Star Wars), and having a big budget does not mean a great movie (think Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Unplanned adds to the stereotype of Christian movies being terrible. However, since I believe this stereotype comes from the on-the-nose portion of Christian movies, let me move into the message of Unplanned.
As a pro-life Christian, this movie appealed very strongly to my beliefs. Everything the Christians said about abortion I agreed with, everything Planned Parenthood said I disagreed with. (Good thing this movie made Planned Parenthood the bad guy). This movie did a lot of things wrong, but the two things it did right was show Christians in a positive light, and allow for a deep discussion with many moving parts.
First, Christians were shown very positively in this movie. Throughout the film, there was a group of Christians praying outside the Planned Parenthood fence, which we learn resulted in a 75% no-show rate to abortions. There was a group of “bad” Christians, the ones that dress up as the Grim Reaper and tell the women they are going to hell. However, the loudest voices in the crowd were not those screaming, it was the “good” Christians that loved the women, and wanted to stop abortions but not judge the women considering them. In a culture that portrays Christians as Bible-bumping hippies that claim fire and hellstorms, it feels good to be represented properly in a mainstream movie.
Secondly, Unplanned was not completely one-sided, and did not alienate opposing opinions. Of course this movie was targeted for a specific audience, but it would not have been successful even in this very specific field if there was no variety. The women receiving abortions were from all sorts of backgrounds, some were very confident in their choice, others could be convinced; this diversity in life stories is very representative, and the detailing of personal histories allowed for projection of the audience onto different characters.
For those that would argue the pro-choice movement was not given a fair chance, I would say more than the first half of the movie showed a pro-choice perspective. It was actually annoying how long it took for Abby Johnson to change her mindset, and I was slightly disappointed that there was so little attacking of Planned Parenthood on her part. Even if it seemed like the audience was being forced to have one perspective, this is the writer’s prerogative. If you go into a movie that takes no stance and does not challenge ideas, you are watching a wasteful movie. The creators of this movie are all strongly pro-life, therefore it is their right as free Americans to write a pro-life movie and share their opinions.
Overall, this movie was groundbreaking in concept, problematic in execution. In an anti-conservative pop culture period, this may be the only chance for pro-lifers to have their point of view shared in the mainstream. However, I wish the movie had taken more time to hone the story rather than just the message. Perhaps now more pro-lifers in Hollywood will take courage and bring love into the narrative.