Son of God
Whether inspired by divine forces or the prospect of wringing some box office cash out of the History Channel 10-part series "The Bible," the producers of last year's ambitious television spectacle have culled footage from several of "The Bible"'s episodes, shot new scenes, and created a new two-hour film focusing on the New Testament's Gospel According to John.
The result is "Son of God," a project that would be impressive if it had been made for TV (like much of its constituent material was), but which comes across on the big screen as something more Made for Comic Books than destined for the cinema.
The problem, in part, is that "Son of God" offers nothing new about the life, times, and teachings of Jesus. (Whether it offers much in the way of historical validity is also a question, given that Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is cast as Jesus -- who was almost certainly darker complected than your average white guy with blond streaks in his hair. Indeed, there's not much about any of these actors that suggests people living in the harsh, primitive conditions of two millennia ago. Give them a shower and a change of clothing, and these are people you'd see at the mall over the weekend.)
What's more, the film is structured like a cut-and-paste that stitches together the "greatest hits" from the three-year ministry undertaken by the historical Jesus, skipping from crucial moment to crucial moment. Here's Jesus recruiting Peter (Darwin Shaw), climbing aboard the fisherman's boat and miraculously causing his nets to fill; "I will make you a fisher of men," he assures the stunned new disciple.
And here's Jesus healing a paralyzed man, and having his first run-in with a pharisee at the same time. (The pharisees who challenged him on the streets of Galilee are compressed into a single character played by Paul Marc Davis, whose character seems mostly driven by displeasure that the people who once knelt reverently at his feet have started following someone else.) Blink, and you'll miss Jesus declaiming the beatitudes to a growing flock of followers; longer than this, but not by enough, is the scene in which he miraculously feeds a throng of five thousand with a couple of flatbreads and two measly fish. And, of course, Jesus walks on water during a terrifying storm. The miracles keep on coming, but they're staged almost as sketches; it's more than a montage, but less than a fully realized treatment.
The film takes a few minutes here and there to glance at the political, legal, and religious ramifications of Jesus' preaching and his miraculous actions. He speaks up to defend tax collectors, and acquires a new disciple, Matthew (Said Bey); at another juncture, he sidesteps a trick question about taxation, making a fool of the pharisee who attempted to trap him in a rhetorical box. All of this confuses the Jews, who have labored long under the heel of Roman oppression and are looking for a firebrand to call them to bloody insurrection. What they behold is a smiling, gentle man who insists on the dignity of those deemed unworthy. Indeed, here he goes, sparing the life of a woman about to be stoned; the pharisees practically grind their teeth with outrage.
But the real political drama lies elsewhere, and in due course Jesus leaves Galilee behind for the great walled city of Jerusalem, which is where the trouble really starts. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks), has little sympathy for the Jews and their grievances; he's there to maintain order. With masses pouring into the city for the important Passover holiday, Pilate is ready and willing to shutter the temple and send all of the celebrants home if the people get out of hand.
Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) sees in Jesus the spark that could ignite just such conflagration. Fearful of Rome's punishment, Caiaphas orchestrates Jesus' capture, torture, and death. It's here that the film's breakneck pace slows to a crawl, and it becomes obvious that what the filmmakers have in mind with all this rushing through the boring bits (you know, the Good News about love, neighborliness, generosity, and self-sacrifice): The movie yearns from the start to get to the bloodshed and torment.
This is the film's most cynical aspect. Marketed as possessing "the scope and scale of an action epic," "Son of God" seems to want to be an Iron Age epic of the venerable Hollywood superhero stripe. In this, it succeeds: The gore is lavish and plentiful, the pathos endlessly pumped up, and the climactic sequence of Jesus dragging his cross through the city streets endless to the point of sheer tedium. (It's not unlike the action that unfolds in New York's city streets during, say, "The Avengers" -- drastic, yes, but also extended beyond all sense or decorum.)
The CGI effects that tart the film up are adequate, but do seem to belong to the small screen, where they truly would be more impressive. Much more jarring are the establishing shots of Jerusalem, which are blurry and show a city devoid of detail or (with the exception of a small group in one shot) people: This looks like a miniature model of the city, and to show it to us once would have been bad enough, if forgivable. (This is clearly a film made on a smaller budget than the average Hollywood blockbuster.) To keep showing it to us, though, is absurd since it cheapens the entire production and snaps us out of our suspended disbelief. (Believe me, given some of the performances and dialogue, you'll need to work to suspend your disbelief.)
This particular recitation of the familiar story clings to the orthodoxy of strict believers with a telling, and shallow, rigidity. A few previous films at least attempted a wider meditation on Jesus as man as well as God, along with philosophical problems such as suffering, sin, and redemption. If all you want to do is film the same movie over and over again, why not make it easier on everyone and remaster 1979's "Jesus" (based on the Gospel of Luke)? Or, if you're bound and determined to stretch TV-sized ambitions over the silver screen, as the producers of this film are, why not just release a theatrical version of 1977's made-for-TV "Jesus of Nazareth?"
No one's asking for another "The Last Temptation of Christ" (though that film at least had the temerity to ponder, at length, the "man" side of the Son of Man), but something with a little more depth than this paint-by-numbers project would have been refreshing.