If you consider yourself to be a person of the Christian faith, then there's a strong likelihood that you will find yourself appreciating Son of God, a feature film based on the History Channel's The Bible mini-series and created by the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank) and Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel). You may even convince yourself that you absolutely love the film. It is, after all, the story of Jesus from birth to Resurrection.
If you have the gift of discernment, and it is a gift, then you will likely realize very early on that Son of God is simply not a very good film.
Okay. Okay. I'll confess that was melodramatic for melodrama's sake. You don't actually have to blame Jesus, but you really can blame Diogo Morgado. Morgado, a devastatingly handsome Portuguese hearthrob who inadvertently serves up Jesus's first miracle as the miracle of white teeth, is either portraying Jesus with more artistic flair than Bob Ross, as a New Age guru, or as an ever-smirking Stifler from the American Pie movies.
Take your pick. It may be all three.
You've seen photos of Jesus with children? Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount? Laughing Jesus?
Son of God gives us Condescending Jesus, a Jesus whose every miracle feels like more an act of pity than it does an extension of the presence of God. Morgado waxes eloquently and preens preciously as he graciously serves up the miracles we've all grown to know and love. In a film that is so earnest and sincere, Morgado's performance is like a breath of Fukushima air.
It's a shame, really, because anyone familiar with the life and work of both Burnett and Downey knows them to be genuinely good-hearted and faithful people whose motivations are unquestionably genuine in wanting to create this cinematic journey. Unfortunately, Son of God too often feels like more of a money grab than an actual expression of faith.
Son of God actually kicks off before the birth of Jesus with glimpses of Adam (Paul Knops) & Eve (Darcie), Noah (David Rintoul), Moses (William Houston), Abraham (Gary Oliver), and King David (Langley Kirkwood). The birth of Christ is portrayed as one would expect and followed by scenes with a growing up Jesus with his disciples and with Mary Magdalene (Downey) and all of the familiar stories, some more briefly created than others, leading up to the extended crucifixion scene and, of course, the Resurrection.
It is not that Son of God is an abysmal film. It's more that Son of God is a film that preaches to the choir, a Hollywood-styled faith-inspired film that will appeal to Christians but almost no one else. I simply refuse to believe that such a thing was the vision that Burnett and Downey actually had for the film.
While Morgado serves up one of the weaker performances of Jesus to arrive on the big screen, Son of God is not without satisfying performances with the best performance of all, oddly enough, belonging to Greg Hicks as Pilate and Darwin Shaw's performance as Peter following closely behind. Roma Downey herself makes for a satisfying if somewhat histrionic Mary Magdalene, but the real problem with Son of God is that director Christopher Spencer takes material that didn't fit well into a 10-hour mini-series and tries to accomplish the impossible task of making it fit into a 2+ hour film while maintaining its cohesiveness and dramatic resonance.
It simply doesn't work.
To his credit, Spencer does create a vivid and prolonged scene of the crucifixion. These scenes should make human beings flinch, even those who are not Christians, because there's no question they were extraordinarily brutal and to compromise on that brutality is to not give the story its justice. While Son of God is nowhere near as graphic in its presentation as The Passion of the Christ, it still presents these scenes with tremendous and lasting impact.
Unfortunately, a good majority of Son of God lacks that impact and, I'd dare say, lacks the impact that most Christians experience while reading the Bible. Miracle scenes should look and feel miraculous, but in Son of God they feel manipulative and even staged. The Resurrection scenes should be awe-inspiring but, once again, in Son of God they lack the emotional resonance that one feels while reading the story or listening to a particularly gifted preacher.
The technical side of Son of God doesn't fare a whole lot better. Lorne Balfe's original music, working with Hans Zimmer, is effective yet predictable, while D.P. Rob Goldie's lensing has, and yes I'm going to say it, a halo effect that makes you feel like you're watching an outtake from a Spielberg flick. Alan Spalding's production design is competent, yet it doesn't particularly stand out even when compared to similarly themed films from years past.
It is almost impossible to hate Son of God, a well intended effort that has a good heart but a predictable and remarkably sterile presentation. The film is opening in 3,000 theaters nationwide and is known to have strong support from Compassion International, Liberty University, and quite a few churches nationwide (Critic's Note: I will confess to a healthy dose of cynicism when I read that Compassion International had purchased over 200,000 tickets in cities across the country. I'm not sure their relief efforts are supposed to be extended to risk-taking filmmakers).
But, I digress.
Having read the Bible throughout my entire life, what is perhaps most disappointing is that Son of God simply fails to share the wonder of Jesus and why so many followed Him even to their deaths. It fails, or at least falls short, in sharing how the life of Jesus has continued to inspire and guide millions of people for thousands of years.
Son of God should teach, but it is content to tell.
Son of God should inspire, but it is content to entertain.
Son of God should truly improve people's lives, but it is content to serve up a Cliff's Notes theology.
Son of God should love, but instead it wants to be loved.
For those who are convinced that Jesus was a white man who spoke slightly accented English, Son of God may very well prove to be a faith-affirming and genuinely moving experience. For those who simply wish to have a more contemporary Jesus film for the family library, Son of God will certainly be a welcome addition.
But, for those who were hoping for something more and something life-changing there's little hope of finding it in Son of God, a film that even amidst its more brutal scenes seems far too content to tell a picture-perfect story of a picture-perfect Jesus telling picture-perfect parables to the throngs of not so picture-perfect people who surround him.
Caught somewhere between artistry and authenticity, Son of God is a far too safe and inoffensive telling of the story of Jesus. With cheesy melodrama and occasionally humorous dialogue, Son of God takes the greatest story ever told and turns it into a snooze-inducing bedtime story.
What would Jesus do if he saw Son of God?
I have a feeling he'd look at the screen and ask "Who's that?"
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic