On Saturday night, my wife and I were able to see the new Jesus movie called “Son of God.” It’s being billed as the first time Jesus has appeared on the big screen since 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ.” With the runaway success of The History Channel’s “The Bible” TV series, producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (creators of shows like The Voice and Survivor) had a pretty solid foundation of viewers to build on, so making a movie seemed like a pretty good idea. Having not seen any of the TV series, I didn’t really know what to expect apart from what the trailers showed me.
First, let me put my bias out on the table. Everybody has biases in their worldview (though rarely do people recognize them), and these especially seem to rear their heads when it comes to “religious” movies (Passion of the Christ, Son of God, the upcoming Noah movie, etc). So here it is: I’m a Christian pastor who believes in the Jesus of the Gospels so much that I’ve based my entire life on its truth. How’s that for being honest? The reason I mention this is because I’m invested in the story more than I’m invested in the movie, but obviously one will affect the other. You can almost always tell when a movie reviewer is a non-religious person, because it will come out in the way they review religious movies. I’m convinced many of the poor reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/son_of_god_2014/) are due to the biases of the reviewer, not the objective content of the film itself. Also, if I hear one more person complain that a Christian movie is “preachy” I think I’ll bang my head against the wall. Just take a glance at this year’s Oscar nominations for “Best Picture” (which include the Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Her, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyer’s Club etc). So you’re telling me none of these movies are “preachy?” Please. The problem is not that a movie is “preachy,” but that a reviewer will either agree or disagree with what is being “preached.” Every movie preaches, it’s just the message and the blatancy of it that changes.
With that out of the way, here’s what I thought of “Son of God.”
What Could Have Been Better:
1. The special effects. Though some scenes were surprisingly good (ex. The prologue), the wide shots of Jerusalem were kind of a cross between a 4th Grade diorama and a low-budget video game. They could have definitely borrowed whoever Peter Jackson used for his Lord of the Rings films to beef things up a bit.
2. The editing and flow. Many reviewers have already commented on this, but the filmmakers seem to be presupposing a certain amount of Bible knowledge from their audience from the beginning. Scenes often have the feel of checking off certain events in the story (Feeding 5000? Check. Sermon on the Mount? Check., etc.). This is especially the case in the scene of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We are introduced to Martha and Lazarus and get no explanation of who they are, or what their relationship is to Jesus or Mary. It could have really helped the emotion of the scene to provide further details on why this occasion lead to the famous “Jesus wept” verse in John 11:35. Instead, the miracle is used to further the plot of angering the political authorities who are out to get Jesus. They could have done more with that.
3. The resurrection. This is undoubtedly the climax of the whole Jesus story, and yet it seems rushed or even tagged on to the end of the movie. Even though the resurrection scene in “The Passion of the Christ” was probably less than a minute long, it gave a sense of excitement and anticipation for what would follow. In this version, I think they blew their opportunity to capture the meaning, magic, and magnificence of the greatest event in human history. I don’t know why Jesus films continue to spend so much more time on the death than the resurrection. The two go together and cannot be separated, so let’s at least give them equal treatment!
4. The accents. It’s weird to hear First-century Jewish people talking in British accents.
5. The clarity of the message. Why must Jesus die? What is significant about Him being raised from the dead? Jesus was more than just a political trouble-maker. People will definitely feel the horror of crucifixion, but the resurrection feels more like the end of “The Prestige” in which a grand magic trick has been pulled off, but the significance is not really explained to us. As a pastor, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing to really hit home the importance of everything the viewer just invested in for 2 hours.
6. Slow middle. I think scenes like turning over the money-changers tables could have been used to greater effect to bring out the excitement of the story. To be honest, the middle of this movie drags a bit. The beginning is exciting because things are just getting started and Jesus is gathering His followers, and the latter 1/3 is a slowly building tension filled with suspense. The middle could have used some help in tying things together.
What I Liked:
1. The authenticity. I know, I know, probably no one in 1st Century Palestine had that white of teeth or spoke in proper British accents, but did you really want to watch a movie where they spoke Greek and Aramaic? I loved the costumes and the way they infused the movie with Jewish culture and practices. This is not your typical Christmas pageant with “shepherds” dressed in their dad’s bathrobes! I felt the same way about “The Nativity” movie and its attempt to bring the culture of that age to life. For the most part, the actors look fairly Jewish as well (props on not casting a pasty white Jesus, although Diogo Morgado still looks more white than Jesus probably was. For the record, the actor is Portuguese, and there is no record of what Jesus actually looked like, so there is some room for creative imagination).
2. Cutting out Satan. In any movie portrayal of the gospel story, you’ll be forced to either make a 10 hour epic, or cut certain scenes from the final product. I actually like that they cut out the Obama look-alike devil for a couple reasons. For one, they are trying to avoid unintended controversy in order to reach the broadest audience. If you want the devil scenes, you can always watch them on The Bible dvd set. Also, I feel like the devil scenes in “The Passion of the Christ” made it seem like a battle was being fought between Satan and Jesus, when the main driving force for Jesus was not to defeat the devil, but to obey His Father’s will. In this version, Pilate sums it up well in a scene when he states, “It’s almost as if He believes that these things must take place.” Jesus was obedient to His father, even to the point of the cross. That’s powerful.
3. Peter walking on water. I’ve never really imagined what this scene would look like, but I think they did a great job with it. It’s just downright cool.
4. The disciples. I really enjoyed their take on this band of men (and women) who followed Christ. Obviously you can’t show the back story of each disciple, but they do show a couple, and my favorite was Matthew. We’re not given much info in Scripture on the call of Matthew, but this film puts it into the context of the Pharisees condemning the “tax collectors and sinners” while Jesus speaks about God’s love for them, prompting a weeping and socially awkward Matthew to leave his tax booth and follow.
5. The crucifixion. I think they did a great job of showing the horrors of crucifixion without displaying all the wince-worthy gore like Mel Gibson’s version did. I tend to think Gibson accurately portrayed the violence of what happened, but this version is obviously aiming for something a little different. You still appreciate the pain Christ went through, while also not alienating those who might not attempt to see the movie because of the violence. I thought it was tastefully and carefully done.
6. The music. Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Inception, pretty much every other awesome movie made in the last 15 years…) is a genius. Some people might be overwhelmed by his score, but I think it adds to the scope and mood of the movie, making it much more “epic” than it would have been in the hands of a lesser composer.
7. It’s just good to have a well-made Christian film out there that gets people excited and interested in Jesus. Here is my bias rearing its ugly head. You’re never going to make a movie about Jesus that pleases everyone, and I’m so tired of the Christians who slam any Christian movie that does not line up with their “infallible” interpretation of how these events went down. So what that Jesus here is kind of portrayed as a surfer-dude hippie, sticking it to the Roman Empire and the Jewish Pharisees? There is going to be artistic interpretation in every work of art, and the producers of this film are not creating a tract, trying to replace Scripture, or writing a theology text book. They are making a movie with the hopes of renewing an interest in Jesus for an American culture that could really use that right now. To that, I say, “props to them.” If you’re putting your hope in this movie to fulfill the Great Commission, then you’re misguided. If you’re worried that an unfaithful adaption of the gospel might somehow “ruin” what people think of Jesus who don’t know any better, I say “Then you go and tell them differently.” It’s our calling anyway. Burnett and Downey are using the platform they have to do what they can for a cause they believe in. We would all be wise to do the same with whatever platform we have, before criticizing the choices of others. Few of us know the pressures of Hollywood life, so it’s easy to judge, but much harder to go out and do something positive ourselves.
So what’s my final take? I think the film stands up pretty good. I’m especially glad to see Bible movies being made again in an industry that nominates garbage like “The Wolf of Wall Street” for a best picture oscar. It seems nothing is off-limits for Hollywood these days, and if they’re going to package pornos like “Blue is the Warmest Color” as “entertainment art,” then I’m grateful for people out there who give us other options.
The script is definitely more “The Message” than “King James” translation, but I think it’s faithful to the source material (probably even more faithful to its source than the recent Hobbit movies!). Does it have the grandeur and special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster? No. If you’re looking for a visual “wow” factor from a Bible film, wait for the new “Noah” to come out. I encourage non-Christians to see it and judge it on its own merits as a movie, whether or not you agree with the story as history. I encourage Christians to check it out too before they criticize it. Do not expect it to replace Scripture for you, but rather see it (as I did) as a visual and artistic representation of the greatest (true) story ever told. And you know what? Maybe enjoy it simply as a movie to, because that’s what it is.
p.s. Sarah and I saw it at the Cinebistro in Atlanta, where they valet park your car, seat you in amazing chairs, and sell you pretty good dinner and dessert options on your own personal table, so I think I would have enjoyed any movie under those conditions!