‘Risen’ might be marketed as an epic, released on a wide scale, and directed by Kevin ‘Waterworld’ Reynolds, but make no mistake, this is church basement Christsploitation.
Ever since taking a risk to release the independently produced fundamentalist drama ‘Heaven Is for Real’ and making $100 million for the trouble, Sony has gotten into the direct-to-Christian movie market. ‘Risen’ is the studio’s biggest production aimed purely at the Bible Belt, but in this case “biggest” is a relative description. It’s quite cheap by the standards of Hollywood historical epics, at times laughably so. However, by the meager standards of church-funded productions, it’s pretty slick. In fact, for the first forty minutes or so, the movie takes a unique angle to retell Jesus’ resurrection that’s even kind of interesting. Unfortunately, the movie eventually has to get pious and preachy or else it won’t be able to play properly at Sunday Schools. Once that happens, it’s a rough watch with no hope for salvation for anyone other than the converted.
Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman military tribune assigned to dispose of the body of that Jesus character who was kicking up a fuss and had to be crucified. Viewers are spared the sight of the actual brutal crucifixion this time, but get some gory details as the body is removed and buried in a cave. Clavius is then told by Pilate (Peter Firth) to make sure that the corpse is extra, super trapped in the cave on the off chance that the legends are true and the guy might rise from the grave like a zombie savior. Clavius is skeptical, but agrees.
Wouldn’t ya know it, the body disappears despite all the extra security. Clavius and his ward/assistant (Tom Felton) begin a quest to find out what happened. Interrogations are held and clues are followed. Eventually, the wise tribune tracks down Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and sees the big J (Cliff Curtis) in the flesh. Clavius instantly questions everything he’s known before and decides to follow twelve cool dudes into the desert to see if that JC character will pop up again.
Admittedly, director Reynolds has come up with a somewhat clever way to tell the Jesus story again. The film is initially structured as a detective story with a pair of heathens digging through corpses and interrogating followers to uncover the mystery of the missing body. That helps make this story actually seem fresh, and presents a Christian conversion in the form of a wayward Roman uncovering a tale so incredible that it challenges the very core of his being. That’s not a bad idea and it’s even executed decently thanks to some watchable performances from Joseph Fiennes (brooding up a storm) and Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton (also brooding, but less so). Unfortunately, the realities of this under-budgeted and Christian-funded production soon wipe away any interest for uninitiated viewers.
Historical epics aren’t cheap and Kevin Reynolds clearly didn’t have ‘Waterworld’ money this time around, so the minuscule budget is stretched to its breaking point. The scenes set in the city were clearly shot around an existing set not nearly big enough for the production. For a while, Reynolds and his team shift angles and redress their limited sets to make the space look bigger, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re watching the same few sets repurposed and the illusion disappears. Once JC pops up and Reynolds needs to show off some miracles, things really fall apart. The filmmaker tries a few cheap tricks, but mostly plays the big events off-camera, forcing his actors to communicate wonderment through reaction shots with flashing lights. That effect might work once, but after a while it just feels lazy and it’s hard not to giggle at what the filmmakers think they’re getting away with.
Aside from the recognizable lead actors (who likely swallowed up most of the budget with their realtively meager salaries), the performances in the movie are pretty, preettty, preeetttty rough. In particular, the apostles are just a group of big smiling guys with beards who have no personality beyond faith. The attempt to present the resurrection of Christ through a skeptic’s eyes is abandoned as soon as Jesus appears, and from then on there’s no attempt at even suggesting the possibility of doubt. All of the dialogue in the second half of the film can be boiled down to this simple exchange repeated endlessly:
Clavius: “But how can you be certain that Jesus is the son of God?”
Indistinguishable Apostle A: “Because he’s great. Look at the guy!”
Indistinguishable Apostle B: “Miracles bro, miracles.”
Clavius: “Good points. I’m convinced, but I’ll probably ask again in a few minutes to stretch this thing out to two hours.”
It gets pretty tedious pretty quickly. At a certain point, Reynolds seems to abandon any attempts at filmmaking or storytelling entirely and just starts sermonizing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Christian filmmakers wanting to stretch sermons into movies. However, when those movies play in mainstream cinemas as commercial entertainment, they should at least feel like movies. I won’t pretend that the Bible is a bad story (its sales figures are certainly through the roof) nor will I claim that there haven’t been wonderful movies adapted from the book. However, the great biblical epics were at least treated as genuine films that just happened to be about the Bible.
Movies like ‘Risen’ are unapologetic propaganda preaching to the converted, and that’s not easy for anyone other than the target audience to sit through. These sort of films shouldn’t get wide releases or be treated like regular mainstream movies. They should be marketed exclusively to the Christian community to share and enjoy since they certainly haven’t been made with any other viewer in mind. I’m sure church groups will eat it up and good for them. However, the producers shouldn’t get money from audiences who are tricked into thinking they’re buying a ticket for the next ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Exodous: Gods and Kings’ and then suddenly find themselves suffering through a Sunday School teaching aid. That’s just shady business and deceptive marketing. When someone like Roger Corman tricks potential viewers like that, it’s charmingly sleazy. When the church does it, that’s just regular old sleazy, even if it’s done with the best of intentions in the name of the Lord.