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In 2004, Mel Gibson released his iconic movie masterpiece The Passion of the Christ, which did two things: 1) it scored record breaking numbers at the box office (it’s still one of the highest grossing movies of all time) that blew open Hollywood’s reluctance to put anything religious on the big screen; and 2) it showed Christians how a Biblical story could be told with heart-stopping power and superb production value. This new movie about Jesus, Son of God, is yet more evidence that the trail that Mel Gibson blazed as a director is still reverberating today. Son of God has some astounding moments that caught me off guard (thanks to a five-star film score and brilliant ideas that I’ve never seen any other Jesus movie do), but it does not deliver the same production value as The Passion of the Christ. In several scenes it does deliver the goods, and it comes pretty close to Gibson-esque movie making awesomeness; but unfortunately, there are also wince-inducing moments that betray its origins as a TV movie with less-than-big-screen production value. All of that being said, it’s a very moving film with a world-class score by Hans Zimmer. It is definitely worth seeing in the theater — despite any flaws; and I will explain why in a moment.
Sexual Content: None.
Violence/Gore: A little more than I was expecting. In the beginning scenes of the film, we see the shadowed silhouette of a Roman soldier pulling his sword out of a man’s gut, and the shadow is detailed enough to show blood spurting out as the blade is wrenched out. We see lots of blood as a few random Jews are nailed to crosses in the beginning of the movie as Romans are cracking down hard on Israel. Though not as graphic as the R-rated close-up violence of The Passion of the Christ, Jesus’ beating and crucifixion shows more blood and gore than I was expecting. It stays within PG-13 boundaries, but it leans a little closer to the more graphic side of PG-13 as we see Jesus shaking uncontrollably on the Cross and screaming as blood streams down his face and body. The scourging scene, however, is not very graphic. Its emotionally distressing, of course, but it’s not the blood fest we saw in Gibson’s version.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.
Frightening/Intense Content: Besides all the intense violence that happens to Jesus at the end, in the beginning we see how ruthless Pilate is as he orders dozens of Jews murdered in cold blood and has his soldiers push a broken cart out of his way even though a little boy is sitting on it. The cart crushes the boy to death. It is not graphic, but it is emotionally heartbreaking and distressing.
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I have to say, it’s pretty darn cool that Hans Zimmer, one of the most legendary composers in movie history — and the composer who scored Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Man of Steel — is the film composer for Son of God. He did not disappoint. His score is phenomenal for Son of God, and it truly elevated the entire movie to a whole different level of quality. For all of the scathing rhetoric coming from movie critics who have blasted Son of God, some (not all) of these same critics failed to give the movie credit for its score — which makes me question the objectivity of their analysis. There is a reason why Hans Zimmer is regarded as one of the greats, and Son of God demonstrates it with gusto.
But, yes, unfortunately, some of these critics were correct about certain moments in Son of God that felt like, well, a basic cable TV movie. It’s not surprising to learn that parts were taken from the award-winning TV movie series The Bible and spliced with new footage to create Son of God. There were some sub-par production moments, unfortunately — everything from jarringly obvious, mismatching ADR (dialogue that was dubbed over later) to slightly unconvincing CGI (compared to the now standard quadrillion-dollar CGI effects that have spoiled movie goers and made us all special effects snobs). Some scenes faded to black after they ended like they would do in TV movies when they cut to commercial. I wish those obvious moments from the original TV movie footage could have been altered somehow. There were also some stereotypical shots of Jesus being portrayed as the “Christian Bookstore Jesus” — as I call our Western culture’s feminized version of Jesus — with His sparkling gaze looking profoundly into the distance with his long wavy brown hair fluttering in soft focus. Thankfully, not every scene with Jesus was like this. The film had some very human moments with Him. These more authentic moments reminded me that the Father sent Him to the earth to be fully human, which meant He experienced the frailties and trivialities of mortal life the same way we do.
While this movie will inevitably be compared with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (and perhaps faulted for copying Gibson in certain ways), it’s almost not fair. You’re probably noticing how much of a fan I am of Mel Gibson’s directing. Sure, Gibson has had some very sad public moments (though I am not convinced that he is antisemitic), but I’ve been studying the films that he’s directed for 20 years, and I’m convinced he’s one of the most brilliant movie directors in cinematic history. Very few directors — Christian or secular — can do what he does. So it’s not surprising then that Son of God borrows very heavily from Gibson’s directing style, especially in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion scenes.
Despite the production value issues, there were some magical moments in Son of God. There were scenes that caught me off guard with their sudden power and ingenious screenwriting. I won’t spoil the details, but the scene where Jesus is praying in Gethsemane is as good as any scene from The Passion of the Christ — simply because of its smart, creative screenwriting. It’s a scene that will stick with me for a long time, as will other scenes in this movie: like when Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to follow Him (which brought tears to my eyes) or when He turns over the money changer tables in the temple or when He multiplies the bread and fish to feed the 5,000. What this movie excels at is its juxtaposition of opposing elements; it ties colliding, conflicting worlds and personalities into single scenes in ways that are striking. In a couple of these moments, I actually said out loud in the theater, “Wow, that was awesome,” and I don’t do that very often. The film also did a superb job of building up Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees while also showing how the Jews — even the disciples — were fervently awaiting a military messiah like David who would restore Israel’s political sovereignty and deliver them from the absolute misery of Roman oppression. That was certainly not what Jesus was offering, and the film took great care in depicting this reality about His ministry. It added a powerful tension as the events slowly built up to the Cross.
I also commend this movie for portraying Pilate with historical accuracy. He hated Jews. He was utterly ruthless to them in the years leading up to Jesus’ public ministry; but just before Jesus appeared on the scene, Sejanus, the leader who had appointed Pilate to power, had been caught trying to plot against Emperor Tiberius. After Sejanus was executed, a wave of rapid executions hit the Roman Empire, and it affected everyone who had ties with Sejanus. This meant that Pilate was walking on very thin ice and any little slip on his part would give Tiberius — a man who did not share Pilate’s antisemitism — an excuse to kill Pilate. All of this went down just before Jesus began His ministry, and it explains why Pilate was so hesitant to kill Jesus and desperate to keep the peace when the Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate (though the dream that Pilate’s wife had also had an affect on him). In other words, Pilate was not hesitant about crucifying Jesus because he was merciful. He was hesitant because he was trying to avoid being the next victim of Emperor Tiberius’ rage. Pilate couldn’t have cared less about whether Jesus lived or died; he cared about his own survival more than anything, and the film gets all of this right.
Sure, there are some flaws in this movie. But it turned out to be much better than I was expecting. I had read some of the absolutely ruthless reviews from critics beforehand, so as I headed to the theater I was half-expecting to see the Gospel story played with puppet actors filmed on camera phones. Don’t let the detractors stop you from spending a couple hours watching a powerful movie that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. Compared to so much of the moral trash that Hollywood vomits all over us without hesitation, Son of God is a vision from Heaven. Take advantage of this opportunity and go have a fun night out to see a movie that will move you deeply and, most importantly, edify your spirit.
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