Just in time to be too late for Christmas is “Son of God,” Hollywood’s latest attempt to reboot the Jesus franchise. Director Christopher Spencer tries to give a more family-friendly version of the life of Jesus than the torture-porn brutality of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
If “Son of God” looks and feels a bit like a made-for-TV movie, that’s because it is. Spencer is a lifelong TV director, and, along with producers Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) and Roma Downey (who also plays Jesus’s mother, Mary), has assembled the film using bits from the 10-hour History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” with additional footage added — don’t be expecting a “Life of Pi”-style CGI slam dunk when Jesus walks on water.
Seeking to avoid the controversy that greeted Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” back in 1988, “Son of God” was created with input from megachurch evangelical pastor Rick Warren, the Jewish activist Anti-Defamation League, and was also previewed at events like the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Christian child-sponsorship charity Compassion International and Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University alone spent $4.5 million buying up tickets before they went on sale, which these groups then gave away like so many fish and loaves.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||138 minutes|
There is little to no poetic license taken with the New Testament here, so those who would prefer to watch the Good Book rather than read it, here’s your ticket. It does sway a bit heavy toward the miracles and crucifixion; the sermon on the mount gets short shrift, while the scene covering Christ’s 40 days in the desert was cut due to a tempest in a teapot about how the actor playing Satan supposedly (deliberately?) resembled U.S. President Barack Obama — now that must have been a slow news week.
Believers who have been pining for Jesus’ life to be told in the vocabulary of modern mainstream cinema will get what they pay for: sweeping aerial shots of Christ and his disciples striding purposefully through majestic rocky vistas like Frodo and the Fellowship; a big boost in the amount of blood spilled by Roman savagery; crisp digital cinematography; and a Hans Zimmer-clone of a score that uses every post-“Gladiator” cliche, from pounding taiko drums to vaguely ethnic female vocal laments. (Oh wait, that was a Hans Zimmer score!)
For me, though — and cards on the table here, I’m an agnostic raised Catholic with a respect for the teachings of Christ — it all felt a bit too much like “Life of Brian” without the jokes. The sight of Greg Hicks’ Pontius Pilate lounging about gobbling fruit in his toga had me wondering when exactly Biggus Dickus would make his entrance. Monty Python’s send-up of the robe-and-sandal genre was devastating, but “Son of God” finds no new ways to visualize the era. It’s like all biblical epics from time immemorial: hammy acting, scruffy extras in artfully weathered dishdashas, dodgy effects for the miracles and plenty of Aryan Semites. (And I’m surprised the ADL had nothing to say about the evil hawk-nosed Pharisee.)
The make or break aspect of “Son of God” is, of course, the lead, and that’s former model and Portugese telenovela actor Diogo Morgado. His Jesus shows little of the very human conflict so powerfully portrayed by Willem Dafoe in “The Last Temptation,” and instead gives off way too much of the kind of mystical smirk you’d expect to find on the face of an acid dealer on a beach in Goa, just back from three months in an ashram and clearly having seen the cosmos up close and personal.