I'm sure the millions of people who watched the History Channel's "The Bible" miniseries took note (and were quite pleased) that the five parts of the 10-part that covered the New Testament took no licenses when it came to the words that Jesus actually spoke. What was written in the Bible is exactly what came out of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado's mouth. The only downside of this as far as extracting large sections of those five episodes (as well as including some unused footage) and converting them into a feature film called SON OF GOD is that there's absolutely no effort made to get even a little bit inside the head of a man who was in many ways burdened with who his father was and his place and mission on Earth.
It may seem silly to say that there's no character development of Jesus in a film that covers his entire life, but that's the case. Even the sparse narration from John the Apostle is relatively free from personal commentary about the events he's passing on to us. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that classic definitions of story arcs and dramatic elements used to tell most stories go mostly out the window when it comes to telling the story of Jesus on Earth, but just 10 years ago we saw another, far more brutal telling of Jesus' last days in Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST that still managed to feel like a more personal tale than SON OF GOD. I certainly wasn't expecting the Hamlet-like inner torture that was found in Martin Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, but even a hint of emotion or angst crossing Morgado's face would have given us something to cling to.
If ever a film or subject matter was criticproof (or perhaps more accurately, the audience for such a film is criticproof), you're looking at it. And reviewing it the way one would any other film seems almost pointless, but why no go nuts and try the impossible. A film that should be a sweeping epic—a tale often referred to as the Greatest Story Ever Told—shouldn't feel so small. I'm not just talking about the third-rate effects shots and lesser-known actors; I'm referring to the way it doesn't feel Great. As told to us, Jesus was a being of pure love, yet the mildly blissful look that Morgado holds on his face for most of the film just makes him look slightly stoned.
And since the filmmakers (director Christopher Spencer and executive producers and entertainment evangelists Mark Burnett and Roma Downey) have chosen to stick with Jesus' words straight from the source material, we get no real sense of what Jesus is about. We've seen too many great actors play this role with the appropriate gravitas to let this just slip by unnoticed. Morgado is the weak link in a film that lives or dies more or less on his performance; simply looking like classic interpretations of Jesus isn't going to cut it. Stronger efforts from the likes of Greg Hicks as Pilate, Adrian Schiller as Caiaphas, and even Downey as the older Mary, mother of Jesus, help balance this lacking, but they don't save the film in the ways it needs saving.
Except for a surprisingly brutal crucifixion sequence (not as bad as PASSION's, but for a PG-13 film, it's nasty), the film might find its greatest audience in younger people whose exposure to the Bible is minimal, and that probably sits exceedingly well with the filmmakers. Even with its gritty setting, the film has a polished quality to it, and it isn't afraid to layer in a little visual mysticism; the cheap effects shots are distracting, but they aren't the film's primary problem.
Above all else, SON OF GOD is dull for those of us who don't find the gospel inherently exciting and compelling. This story has been done well in the past, so I'm not knocking the text of the Bible itself. Something about this particular approach—designed to appeal to the easily offended devout—is flat and lifeless, the irony of which knows no bounds. If you're going to tell a familiar story, breathe a little life and insight into it, otherwise, you're just painting inside the lines, and no art ever resulted from such a technique. SON OF GOD is a closer call than you might believe, but I can't imagine any but the faithful being swept up in this stagnant storytelling.