Hardly a sign of approaching apocalypse, but Hollywood appears to be rediscovering the Bible as epic source material. The Biblical epic was once a movie staple: Cecil B. DeMille’s silent, King of Kings (1927) – remade by Nicholas Ray (1961) – DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959); George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and (for TV) Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). And then there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, truly an outlier in 2004.
But a decade after Passion, comes Christopher Spencer’s re-edit of last year’s Roma Downey-Mark Burnett-produced miniseries, The Bible, in theaters now as Son of God (just New Testament material this go-round). At the end of this month will come Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and, in December, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, although expect less Bible and more Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in those two, as befits the films’ edgy superstars: Russell (Gladiator) Crowe as Noah and Christian (Batman) Bale as Moses.
As the casting of Crowe and Bale may prove, an actor needn’t be religious to act in a religious film: not every actor is Jim Caviezel or Eduardo Verástegui, two performers who take seriously their Catholic faith.
And if producers such as Mr. Burnett, of TV projects such as Survivor, and his wife and collaborator, Ms. Downey, famous for TV’s Touched by an Angel, had to employ only saints in the making of their media (or be saints themselves), they’d produce nothing. Good Christians loved The Passion of the Christ despite Mel Gibson’s peculiar life choices, so there ought to be no impediment to loving Son of God. None, that is, except the film itself.
The Bible aired last year on The History Channel, and Variety, the bible of the movie biz, termed it “hugely popular.” Logically, if you liked the miniseries, you may well like this big-screen rerun. Variety describes Son of God, as a “clumsily edited feature-length version of five episodes of The Bible” that is actually “a cynical cash grab.”
And speaking of cash, if you were thinking of taking the kids to see Son of God, consider that going to the theater will set you back at least $60 (two adults, two children, plus popcorn and sodas), whereas the entire Bible miniseries is out on DVD for about half that.
No spoiler alerts are necessary – we all know the story – but I must spoil the gleeful mood of anyone who, without screening the film, considers it a must-see, which I assume is principally the consequence of the aforementioned dearth of recent Biblical movies. Movie-loving Christians, a parched people, cry out for water in the desert, after which, in this case, comes dysentery.
Son of God is the worst-ever greatest story ever told.
Some CGI from S.O.G.
The film is ostensibly based upon the Gospel of John. He is the first character we meet, crouching in his cave of exile, as he begins narrating the story of Jesus.
There is but the faintest, fading flicker of John’s intensely theological account. Son of God owes more to Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, although it lacks that film’s cinematic scope and narrative power. Son of God is far too constrained to be an epic. Much of the movie consists of very tight shots – a technique designed to squeeze the most out of The Bible’s budget.
We see Jesus first as he emerges from fasting in the desert and heads straight to the Sea of Galilee, where Simon bar Jonah, stowing his nets in frustration, is giving up for the day. Jesus calls to him:
Simon looks up. He seems to recognize that name, although Jesus did not actually call him ‘Peter’ until several years after their first meeting. Every filmmaker “telescopes” in order to get audiences quickly into a story, but a great many segues in Son of God are incongruous and jarring. It’s almost as if the film is aimed at the people who fall asleep in church, or who learned the Gospel at the movies. Better to fall asleep at Son of God and pay attention in church. The heavy-lidded Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus, certainly seems on the verge of dozing off during much of the film.
Besides Peter and John, we see Matthew and see and hear Thomas (Matthew Gravelle in the film’s only interesting performance) and, of course, Judas, but the other seven Apostles seem hardly there – except for Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah), who is in nearly all of the scenes involving the Twelve. In one scene in which the band of brothers sets off to Jerusalem – among the few wide shots in the film and the only of sufficient length to allow a body count – she’s there. Jesus and the Twelve, by my count. And Mary’s the twelfth!
It’s unclear if this indicates the New Age sensibility detected by many critics of The Bible miniseries, although in this regard it may be worth noting that the once-divorced Mr. Burnett and the twice-divorced Ms. Downey were married in 2007 (tabloid headline: “Survivor Creator Weds Cancelled Angel”) by Ms. Downey’s Touched co-star Della Reese.
Ms. Downey-Orser-Anspaugh-Burnett also plays the older Blessed Virgin.
Messrs. Aronofsky and Scott will employ the best technicians of computer-generated imagery (CGI) for floods and parting waters and such, but, of course, the budget for Noah is $130,000,000 and for Exodus is, in Scott’s words, “f—ing huge.” The CGI in Son of God looks as if it might have been done by a clever middle-school kid with money left unspent from last week’s allowance.
Squeezing a miniseries and a movie out of just $22,000,000 is very efficient, just not very effective.