Just about everybody in "Son of God" is looking good.
As portrayed by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, Jesus looks like a surfer-dude sibling of Ashton Kutcher. His mother, Mary, played by Irish redhead Roma Downey, has immaculate hair and makeup, and even Lazarus, the dead man brought back to life, has only bluish lips and disheveled hair after having been in the grave for four days.
In a film that takes place in ancient desert towns — long before tanning beds, hair salons, dental hygienists and British accents — the characters are impressively clean and coiffed.
But for all the glamour of "Son of God," the newest project from husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Miss Downey, it can't quite seem to find the right spotlight. The follow-up to their wildly popular 2013 TV miniseries "The Bible," this production seems too big for television but too small for movie theaters.
Recycling scenes from the miniseries, "Son of God" opens with what looks like a highlight reel of the Old Testament: There's Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Noah riding out the Great Flood on a wooden ark filled with animals. Moses parts the Red Sea, and a young David defeats the hulking Goliath with a single stone. Then Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus find themselves in a barn alongside animals and admiring shepherds and kings.
Similar to the opening, the high points of Jesus' adult life are presented in cinematic shorthand, giving little time for scenes to resonate with viewers. In fairly quick succession, Jesus cures a paralyzed man, multiplies loaves of bread and a few fish, gathers his disciples, raises Lazarus from the dead and walks on water.
Along the way, local elders grow concerned about the perceived blasphemies coming out of this handsome man's mouth, and after some backroom intrigue and Judas' infamous betrayal, Jesus is turned over to the Romans, who beat, torture and crucify him.
The film's lack of thematic interpretation and cinematic inventiveness makes this rote retelling of the greatest story ever told feel like a long but entertaining Sunday school lesson.
"Son of God" was produced on a $22 million budget, and the special effects show it. While the smoke and mirrors might not have been obvious on home televisions, some of the scenes look cheap when projected on a theater screen, and the miraculous moments like Jesus walking on water appear cheesy.
The cast includes a few stage actors who have been long recognized for their work, but their flair for the dramatic is applied with too heavy a hand.
But for all its mediocre special effects and melodramatic monologues, the movie finds its stride once Jesus is in the custody of the Romans.
While the blood and violence are muted for the PG-13 rating, the agonizing views of Mr. Morgado as he struggles under the cross and screams as nails are driven through his hands are intense and painful to watch — but hard to turn away from. The images drive home what is at the heart of Christianity: The son of God was willing to sacrifice himself in order to defeat death and atone for the sins of the world.
"Son of God" is one of three religious-themed movies this year, though it has the smallest budget and lesser-known stars. "Noah," which stars Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe, has a $130 million budget, and "Exodus" has a cast that includes Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver.
"Son of God" likely won't be a blockbuster, but it likely will serve smaller target audiences looking for a larger experience than what they saw on television.
TITLE: "Son of God"
CREDITS: Directed by Christopher Spencer; written by Richard Bedser, Mr. Spencer, Colin Swash and Nic Young
RATING: PG-13 for some violence and gore
RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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