Review: ‘Son Of God’ is all mini-series left-overs and no miracle

As the news broke this week that Paul Greengrass is interested in finding a way to bring “Zealot” the bigscreen, it made me sad that we still haven't seen Paul Verhoeven's proposed movie about the historical Jesus Christ. It's a subject Verhoeven's been studying for decades now, and I have to imagine he would bring a real breadth of knowledge to his approach. Like Verhoeven, I would assume Greengrass is going to try to dig deep to show us something we haven't already seen from this story.

Any time a filmmaker tries to tackle a subject as big and vague as “Jesus” for a movie, you're going to learn a lot about the filmmaker from the final product. However, Christopher Spencer has put that theory of mine to the test by turning in a genuinely bland and forgettable picture here, about as middle-of-the-road as a movie can be.

I have no doubt the film will do big business this weekend. It's a perfect film for the faith-based audience to get behind, because there is no chance this movie will rile or upset anyone from that audience. Diogo Morgado stars as Smilin' Jesus, and the emphasis seems to be on how Jesus built his following, with a fair amount of energy spent on the early miracles he performed, none of which come across as particularly miraculous or convincing.

This material was cut down from a much longer TV version that was part of a mini-series called, imaginatively enough, “The Bible,” and looking at the work here, I can't imagine why that would have been aired on The History Channel. This doesn't appear to be an attempt to show us what actual life in the age of Jesus would have been like. Instead, this is just straight up squeaky clean surface deep Bible Story time. This is the version you can safely show to anyone, and there is no chance it's going to end up controversial. There are still enough of Christ's agonies shown to earn the film a PG-13 rating, but we're a long way from the non-stop pornographic level of violence that was Mel Gibson's signature with his film. There are some ideas the film almost grapples with in an interesting way about the power structure at the time and the way Jesus and his teachings challenged that power structure, making him dangerous beyond the question of whether or not he is a divine being.

More footage from the longer mini-series version is cut together in a sort of “Previous on The Bible” montage that opens the film, and then we plunge right into what felt like a quietly mean-spirited take on the material. Gibson faced charges that his film was anti-Semitic, something that's hard to avoid when you're doing a Passion play, and this film ladles on the Jewish caricatures so deeply that it gets hard to ignore. The only thing that makes it more tolerable is the way they show the disciples as devout Jews, allowing at least some sort of balance in the portrayal.

On a technical level, the film looks a lot like what it is: repurposed television, but with an almost comical number of helicopter shots thrown in to make it look “bigger.” It feels to me like someone trying on swearing for the first time who has no idea when to swear or how to do it. This vaguely looks like a movie, but there's nothing genuinely cinematic about it, and all the polish in the world can't change the fact that there this thing is inert on a script level. Honestly, I can't even tell you if I think Diogo Morgado is a good actor or not, because he's hobbled by a fairly weak script that spends way too much time over-explaining things. One thing's for sure, though… the guy likes to smile. I kept waiting for him to start offering up high-fives to the faithful before grabbing his surfboard and heading to the beach.

For my money, the only time I've ever truly felt like someone made a movie that captured the battle between the flesh and the spirit that is essential to any understanding of Christ as a character was in Martin Scorsese's “The Last Temptation Of Christ.” That film got a bum rap from the “faithful” before it was even released because they seemed angry at the idea that it dared to suggest any weakness in Jesus. What made that film so powerful to me was that it showed exactly what he had to give up to embrace his destiny, and it showed just how powerful a hold the desire for a normal human life would have on someone. If there is no sacrifice, then how is the crucifixion meaningful? Scorsese wanted you to feel the power of that moment, and the entire temptation shown to him in that final moment was designed to make it transcendent when he finally hands himself over to fate.

There is nothing in this version that make any of this feel urgent or even important. I understand that people like watching pageants about the life of Christ, but unless my kid is performing in one, I don't want to watching something that just glosses over the greatest hits, hurrying down a checklist of things they know people will recognize. If you want something bland and unchallenging and overly familiar, this is the Big Mac of Jesus movies. No one will ever call this their favorite movie, but it's not terrible enough to really be called a bad film, either. The worst thing I can say is that until I was asked if I could review this film, it had completely left my mind since seeing it earlier in the same day. It bounced right off, and I suspect that for all but the most devout, the same will be true for audiences.

“Son Of God” opens everywhere today.