American Jesus

03.02.14

‘Son of God’: Why Are Jesus Movies Always Lame?

When they’re not showing off their ridiculous white casts or Americanized religious themes, Jesus movies are overwhelmed by their self-importance. Maybe it’s time to stop making them.

I never want to see Jesus again.

Not in a movie, at least. Not after sitting through two hours and 18 minutes of Son of God, the latest tragedy about the life of Jesus and the acting career of Roma Downey, the onetime Touched By An Angel star who, in addition to playing Mary, produced the film with her husband, Mark Burnett.

Having watched some of History Channel’s The Bible, the 10-hour mini series from which most of Son of God was pieced together, I already knew Jesus Starring Roma Downey wasn’t going to be great. (Nothing starring Roma Downey has ever been great.) But still, I went to the theater praying for the best, hoping Jesus might not be terrible. But alas, God’s only son was terrible; the story, the dialogue, the acting, the non-miraculous special effects—all pretty terrible. Sometimes it was SyFy Channel-terrible. Son of God is so awful that it borders on godless—not sinful or heretical, just lacking true Spirit.

Which is why I’m officially done watching Jesus movies. Because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every single Jesus movie made since 1960. No, I’m not a biblical film connoisseur by choice; I was just raised in a cave by Baptists who, upon purchasing a VCR in 1985, only watched movies that were produced by Disney, loosely based on Bible stories, or called Ben-Hur.

Consequently, I’ve watched a lot of Jesus movies in my day. And frankly, none of them are exactly great.

Christians are quite possibly the biggest reason why Jesus movies are usually terrible, boring, and contain no elements of surprise.

The first movie I can remember watching was The Greatest Story Ever Told, the 1965 biblical epic starring Charlton Heston as the shapeshifter, John the Baptist. At times, Heston appears more werewolf than human, which ended up being the best part of the film. In addition to being dull, painfully slow, and the guy playing Jesus, an unknown Swedish actor named Max von Sydow, being a frail, blue-eyed corpse of a man, The Greatest Story Ever Told’s biggest sin was taking itself way too seriously. Not once did that movie forget that it was a biblical epic. Scene after scene was filled up with white actors in bathrobes all reciting their lines like they were constipated. The same is true for most Jesus flicks—from The Jesus Film to Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus, a 1999 made-for-TV mini series—all movies about the Christian’s savior come off as self-important.

Listen, I love the story of Jesus. In fact, no other narrative has affected my life more than the stories chronicled in the four Gospels. Do they all make complete sense? Hell, no. Still, there’s something about the life of Jesus—the teachings, the mysteries, the conversations, the miracles—that fascinates my imagination and challenges how I live my own story.

That is, until I see those stories combined together in a two-to-seven hour live action film or series. Nothing makes Jesus more fictional than a movie. Some Christly movies are better than others. For instance, 1961’s King of Kings isn’t completely awful if you can watch past the plethora of Americanisms it commits and The Passion of the Christ has a moment or two where Jesus comes to life if you’re able to block out the violent way Mel Gibson beats and kills the story in the end. Still, even the best Jesus movies fail to do the story justice. Even when the acting is stellar and the production is spot on, the medium of film seems incapable of translating the essence of Christ’s story, the true reason the story has managed to survive generations.

Whether or not Christ’s story can survive Son of God and Roma Downey remains to be seen. Few things cause the story of Jesus to fall short of God’s glory like a factual cinematic portrayal acted out by pretty Caucasians with British accents and bed-head walking joyfully across barren landscapes to a dramatic symphony of flutes and strings. At times, I swear I was watching the cast of Downton Abbey on vacation in Morocco. Among the long list of Christ-centric films that have been made in the last fifty years, Son of God—with its sexy Jesus who engages in cheesy “change the world” dialogue and seems to channel Harry Potter every time he performs a miracle—might end up being the chief of sinners.

But the movie’s flaws, the numerous cinematic nuances that caused me to cringe or snicker or roll my eyes may not be entirely the moviemakers’ fault. “Jesus” isn’t exactly the easiest story to retell, especially when Christians are the audience that a filmmaker is targeting. That right there might be Downey and Burnett’s biggest mistake: they catered their film to Christians. They formed a Christian board. They met with pastors. They attempted to create a movie that would please everybody, from Catholics to Baptists, from Pentecostals to Presbyterians. And that’s why their film sucks. Because more than poor acting and cheap special effects, Christians are quite possibly the biggest reason why Jesus movies are usually terrible, boring, and contain no elements of surprise.

When it comes to seeing the life of Jesus on the big screen, Christians don’t want to be “surprised,” “shocked,” or “caught off guard” by the contents of the film. Martin Scorsese learned that the hard way withThe Last Temptation of Christ. Though Scorsese’s Jesus (played by Willem Defoe) is, at times, a brilliant and alive portrayal, the Hollywood director underestimated the backlash his movie would receive when word got around that he’d depicted a Christ who was actually fully God and much-too-fully human—his Jesus was human human. Even though Christians believe in Jesus’s humanity, Scoreses’s Christ was human to a fault for Christians in 1988. Not only did people of faith choose to not see The Last Temptation of Christ, but they also raised hell about it, igniting a media storm that would cause Jesus to die in the theater with no chance of a resurrection.

In addition to Christians not liking Jesus surprises, most don’t want filmmakers to feel too comfortable using creative license for retelling Jesus’s story. A little fictional dialogue here and there is fine. But if filmmakers want Christians to watch their movies, they better resist the temptation to try and make Jesus too interesting, too human, or too full of mystery. Christians believe in the mysteries of Christ; we just don’t want to see them brought to life on the big screen. Christians want the mysteries of Christ to remain mysteries. So imagining a story of Jesus that dares to go outside of the basic themes and story lines of the Gospels is a complete and utter risk for filmmakers. One imaginative scene in an otherwise literal representation of Christ can ignite an evangelical firestorm and crucify a film even before it releases.

Which is why most Jesus movies are terrible. Because religion far too often stifles creativity, especially when it involves a depiction of Jesus. Which is why Son of God will likely do quite well this weekend: it presents a “Jesus” whose storylines and dramatic representation has been approved by Christians, a Jesus with whom most are familiar, one that was created perfectly in their image.