My Scientology Movie (2016) – Movie Review
My Scientology Movie
Directed by: John Dower
Written by: Louis Theroux
Starring: Louis Theroux & Mark Rathbun
Music: Dan Jones
Release Date: October 7th 2016
What has always been the appeal of Louis Theroux for many people is his ability to listen to contrary people. It’s not what only makes him a fun screen-presense, but it also allows the subjects of his frequent BBC documentaries to open up to him. Whether it’s literal-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Ku Klux Klan or less controversial figures like porn stars, amateur actors, prison inmates, wrestlers, body-builders and more, Theroux’s seemingly passive approach to documentary film-making has resulted in some unforgettable encounters and has helped viewers understand people different to themselves.
So when Louis Theroux said he’d be making a movie based in the controversial religion Scientology, it seemed like a match made in the “afterlife facility” (a Scientology term). But what do you do when they refuse to reply to your correspondence? Well, that’s what Louis Theroux is hoping to find out with ‘My Scientology Movie‘ where he faces a group of people to whom his normal approach will not work. Is Louis Theroux able to convince the Church of Scientology to give him access or is this more of a “making-of” documentary for the documentary he wanted to make in the first place?
After numerous attempts to contact the infamous Church of Scientology, BBC Documentary Filmmaker Louis Theroux decides to take a different approach. He gets in touch with former church official Mark Rathbun in order to help him re-create many of the alleged encounters Rathbun had with the Church’s current leader; David Miscavige. But during the making of this documentary, the Church catches wind of Theroux’s plans and start attempting to make their own documentary on Theroux as well as trying to de-legitimise the work of Rathbun by threatening his livelihood and his family.
Those eagle-eyed readers may have realised that in my opening paragraphs I’ve not mentioned exactly what Scientology is or what its followers believe in. Well, if you’re unaware or uninformed on what Scientologists are then you’re in a bad position going into ‘My Scientology Movie‘ as neither Theroux nor the editing team make no attempt to put audiences on an even-playing field before getting into the documentary proper. It’s a fundamental error for what is supposed to be a theatrically released documentary as you can’t be expected to do a Google search whilst in the theatre on your phone. I was fortunate enough to know the basics of Scientology (mostly thanks to ‘South Park: Trapped In The Closet‘) but those wanting even a minuscule crash-course will be completely lost.
What we have here is a bit of a paradox; if you don’t know anything about Scientology then you’ll be confused when watching ‘My Scientology Movie‘ but if you DO know the basics then ‘My Scientology Movie‘ can do little to surprise or shock you. Sure, it might teach you a few things and a couple of secrets you might already know (and there’s certainly value in seeing the Gold Base in California on camera and seeing it through the eyes of Theroux and his camera team) but nothing that will shock you. Because if you’ve even done some cursory research on Scientology, many of the shocking things that Mark Rathbun reveals will likely be met with “Well, it’s Scientology. OF COURSE it’s like that”.
However, ‘My Scientology Movie‘ still takes a novel approach as Louis Theroux learns about the inner workings of Scientology through the first-hand accounts of Mark Rathbun. We see the casting process the two take when trying to find a perfect David Miscavige and Tom Cruise, but the real superstar of the documentary is ironically Rathbun. This guy is the heart and the soul of the documentary as he has the most going on under the surface. He clearly did some terrible things to people when he was working as one of the heads of Scientology. He was essentially Miscavige’s right-hand man for years and ruined the lives of many people who tried to leave the religion and he’s having the same things done to him for disavowing the church.
But Rathbun has an element of denial where he acknowledges the acts of “terrorism” he inflicted or was complicit with against other people but refuses to accept responsibility for them. This creates some legitimate tension between him and Theroux and during the frequent driving scenes between Louis and Mark you’re just waiting for Mark to snap (not Louis because the only thing that can make him break his composure is surprise loud-noises according to this documentary) and for the documentary to come crashing down at any moment.
That’s part of the fun of ‘My Scientology Movie‘ as you’re watching a “making of” as opposed to an actual analysis or discussion on Scientology; just seeing how far Rathbun can be pushed in the name of bringing light the many misgivings of Miscavige.
It goes without saying, but the segments where Theroux is being filmed by the Scientologists who are working on their own documentary to try and discredit him are as entertaining as they sound. And when Louis talks to the camera operator who has clearly just been hired by them and has no personal stake in this project just makes the awkwardness even funnier. Theroux managing to get a permit to film outside of Gold Site which is completely ignored by the Scientologists, Theroux being sent angry letters from the Church threatening him and more, this is where a lot of the entertainment and the insight comes into play in ‘My Scientology Movie‘, it just feels like aspects that many watching the movie can’t fully appreciate since the movie hasn’t actually told them what Scientology is.
But the inherent problem with this approach is that we’re not watching Theroux’s usual shtick and it doesn’t quite fit with this “making-of” approach. There’s a natural charm to his approach, but when it comes to gleaming information out of people for his documentaries, he can’t really do that when there’s no documentary to make. It also doesn’t help that just when the stakes start to become incredibly personal for Mark Rathbun and just when the movie feels like it’s starting to ramp up and become more substantial…the credits roll. Part of me thinks that we’ll end up getting “My Second Scientology Movie” at some point because the movie in its current state simply feels incomplete.
While Louis Theroux purists will be wanting to seek out ‘My Scientology Movie‘ and will easily get enjoyment out of it, casual viewers may find the film a bit too inaccessible and insubstantial. The film feels like Theroux tried to get access to Scientology and when he was denied he tried to make lemons out of lemonade, yet the incomplete nature of the whole production makes it feel like a half-hearted effort. Theroux and Scientology feel like they should go hand-in-hand in terms of documentary material and thankfully there’s plenty of intriguing footage of Mark Rathbun and entertaining segments of the Scientologists coming across as petty as their public personas would indicate, but as a documentary it feels like this one needed a couple more reels of footage to become a whole piece.
I give ‘My Scientology Movie‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 5th Jan 17