‘Risen’ Review: He’s Baaaaaack

'Risen'

Movie Rating:

1.5

‘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.

27 comments

  1. Shannon Nutt

    Your anti-Christian bias is really showing in this review, Phillip. Would you say the same thing (“these sort of films shouldn’t get wide releases”) if it were a movie about Mohammad…or Buddha? Would you say the same thing about a film that promoted gay marriage? Or a political film that promoted a liberal agenda? All those would be ‘propaganda’ movies as well.

    All movies have a bias. Critics, however, should try not to have one.

    • Criticizing a bad movie about religion is not the same thing as criticizing the religion itself. If those theoretical movies about Mohammad or Buddha or gay marriage were incompetent and terrible, I would certainly agree with Philip that they don’t deserve theatrical releases.

      A good movie can be made on any of these subjects. Nothing I’ve seen in any of the ads or trailers for Risen suggests that it’s even remotely a good movie.

      • Shannon Nutt

        That’s not what Phillip said, though…he said movies made with a Christian audience in mind shouldn’t get mainstream release like “regular” movies – whatever those are supposed to be. If I misinterpreted that, then I apologize, but that’s how much of his review reads.

        • That’s not how I read it. He’s complaining that the “unapologetic propaganda” movies shouldn’t get wide release or treated as if they were mainstream entertainment. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see any religious movies released – just not the bad ones that “abandon any attempts at filmmaking or storytelling entirely and just start sermonizing.”

          Love it or hate it, The Passion of the Christ was a legitimate piece of filmmaking with professional production values that attempted to engage a wide audience. Risen is being advertised as if it were ‘Passion 2: Return of the Christ’, but it appears to be more along the lines of amateurish crap like Fireproof or Courageous.

        • Phil

          What Josh said. I specifically mentioned that there have been excellent movies adapted from The Bible. It’s the open propaganda movies like Risen that bother me. And again, I have no problem with them existing or people liking them. They just shouldn’t be treated like mainstream entertainment or marketed in such a way as to trick general audiences into thinking that they are something else.

    • Don’t let his personal beliefs stop you from hearing his critical review. When it comes to the awfulness of the movie, Phil is spot-on. It’s bad. Really really bad.

      Mind you, I’m an active Christian who liked The Passion of the Christ and parts of Son of God. Even I cringed during Risen. There’s so little content that will inspire, educate or convert that it truly has no purpose. There’s no heart or emotion to it. It feels like a businessman made it just to get some cash from a specific demographic. It’s a sad cash grab.

      • Deaditelord

        I’m also a Christian I don’t see what all the fuss is about here. Risen isn’t The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, The Passion of the Christ or Exodus: Gods or Kings. It’s a direct-to-video cheapie that, if released in any other genre, would never have seen the light of day in a theater and nobody would be complaining about its absence. The fact that it did smacks of greedy businessmen trying to rip people off and audiences shouldn’t be subjected to such blatant cash grab tactics when paying to see a movie at the theater.

        As to people criticizing Phil for poking fun at Christianity, this review seems just as sarcastically written as his other reviews for terrible movies. Don’t take it so personally. It’s okay to mock religion sometimes. Take a look at South Park and Monty Python for proof of that.

  2. Sergio

    Good film in my opinion

    Agree with Shannon Nutt on this,

    “All movies have a bias. Critics, however, should try not to have one.”

    Regards,

    Sergio

  3. Cameron

    I know you already gave your explanation but still, saying a film doesn’t belong in theaters solely because it’s aimed at Christians is pretty insulting. So what do us Christians do if we wanna see a film aimed at us? Only home entertainment? Christians don’t deserve the filmgoing experience? Come on man. I understand the preaching to the converted argument, but if a wide release of this film makes even one non-believer think about picking up a bible, then the filmmakers accomplished what they wanted. Also regarding your sleazy argument, if you watch the trailer there is nothing deceitful about its plot. The film is even called RISEN for crying out loud. Not GLADIATOR 2. There is no trickery here. Saying that almost any film doesn’t belong in the theatre, is an insult to the art of filmmaking in general. Don’t let your non-belief bias you so much that you would not call a film art, that deserves to be presented in theaters, whether or not said art is aimed at you. If you don’t wanna watch it, don’t. If you can’t make an unbiased review, which you did very well till the last paragraph, then you shouldn’t review it. I respect your right not to like it, but to say a Christian film doesn’t deserve to be mainstream, that I can’t respect.

    • Phil

      I should clarify. It’s not that i think any film with Christian subject matter shouldn’t get a wide release. It’s specifically this brand of low budget christsploitation movie. They don’t look good on the big screen and unconverted audiences will feel cheated by a cheapie experience that isn’t worth the inflated theatrical ticket price. I didn’t mean to suggest that Christians don’t deserve to see Christian movies in a movie theater. That’s too harsh. I’m specifically against these cheapie movies that don’t benefit from a big screen experience. They are wasted in a theatrical experience. Apologies for the confusion and causing offense. JC is all about forgiveness, right?

  4. I suggest keeping an eye on this thread this weekend, Josh, this is sure to bring the tolls out.

    I just got back from this movie myself. While I think the star rating is low, Phil’s review is spot on. The first 2 acts of this movie are absolutely fantastic. There is a very unique story here, and I found it quite interesting. I also felt that the sets were fantastic (although several of the scenes look like they could easily have been shot in the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, New Mexico and West Texas). In fact, probably for the first two thirds of the movie, I would go as far as to call this one of the best Bible films I have seen.

    Sadly, I agree with Phil 100% on the third act – it was a mess. Truthfully, this movie felt like it should have ended 3 times, I actually found myself gathering my things together about 30 minutes before the movie was over. To me, it felt like the movie was going to end when Clavius sees Jesus for the first time. No seriously, it feels like the first two thirds of the movie were shot, edited together, they went in and screened it, and were like “this is too short, we got to pad this thing out. We will start shooting again Monday, you got 48 hours to write another 30 minutes into this”.

    In fact, the later part of the movie is so weak, and so different from the first part, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was written by a different person all together.

    However, the first half of the movie is fantastic, and because of that, I would give it a 2.5. The only reason why the movie isn’t a four in my book is the ending. It is seriously that bad.

  5. Phil can clarify whether or not what types of movies should play to what audiences/where/when etc. I think what’s likely to offend people more is the obvious, anti-christianity tone that’s prevalent throughout the review. Referring to Jesus Christ as a “zombie savior” for example is pretty disrespectful to followers of this particular religion. There seems to be an odd double-standard in the media these in that certain religions are off-limits to criticism (or in this case a mocking film review), while one of the main ones clearly isn’t. I’m not accusing Phil of indeed being anti-christian himself, but it’s not hard to pick up that vibe while reading his review for this particular film.

    • Phil

      Well, you know, they are just harmless jokes. No one complains about similar jokes in any movie unrelated to The Bible (though occasionally it happens when I mock a superhero, which is an interesting comparison). All I can say is this: don’t worry, I’m the one going to hell for the jokes. So really, you should feel good about being a little offended because that means you’re invited to a sweet party in the clouds and I’m not. Also, it’s just movies. I’m not saying anyone should or shouldn’t believe anything. I would never do that. I’m just saying if they should or shouldn’t go to this movie, which is my job. I have to do that.

      • You can make all the jokes you want Phil, and for the record I’m not one to get offended at those particular jokes, just don’t be surprised when some people are….

    • Al

      Calling Christ a “Zombie Savior” is offensive. Period. It’s an offensive remark, regardless of what religion someone is, or even if they’re not of any religion. In fact, I think it’s just as offensive as any anti-homosexual remark. After all, one doesn’t have to be homosexual to be offended by insensitive statements about the LGBT community, correct?

      • EM

        Absolutely, because we can empathize with members of the group being disparaged, and the pain that they have suffered and spoken of speaks to us all. Why, there are probably many people in your own community—perhaps co-workers, friends, even members of your own family—who have died in salvation of the souls of Mankind, then arisen a few days later and been terribly discriminated against for it. It’s the same sad story that androids and elves in our society know all too well…

    • Al

      I can’t believe the editor allowed that remark to remain in the review. I would think that this site would be held to a higher standard.

      • Cameron

        I feel the same way, this has been bugging me since the review came out. I think I just need to take this site off my bookmarks and take a break for a while. I just feel an overwhelming negativity being on this site now. Too bad.

  6. EM

    I hadn’t taken notice of this movie until a couple of days ago. The premise of the “police procedural” sounds fascinating (one might say inspired). But it sounds like I should wait until the movie‘s out on video, borrow it free from my local library, and turn it off once Whatsisnamus finds the zombie.

    • William Henley

      That may not be a bad idea. As Phil and I both said, the first 1/2 – 2/3rds of the movie is fantastic, the ending is AWFUL.

      Sadly, that seems to the case with many Christian movies these days, you got a great premise, but the writers don’t seem to know how to wrap it up. War Room seems to be the only one in the past couple of years that was solid from begining to end.

    • Al

      And you’re smart, right? Because people who deal in generalizations about a group of billions of people are the most intelligent people on earth.

  7. Derek W

    Quite a different perspective on this ‘christploitation’ film…looking forward to seeing it tomorrow hopefully…
    Risen Wash Post Family Filmgoer Feb 18
    “Teen believers and teen skeptics alike can get into this unpretentious and relatively unpreachy biblical epic, told from the point of view of an unbelieving Roman military tribune stationed in the Holy Land at the time of the crucifixion. A handsomely rendered Judaea of two millennia ago, literate writing and subtle acting all make “Risen” work as a sort of spiritual mystery. Although the film’s point of view is never in doubt, it lets historic and spiritual events unfold and never becomes an airless sermon. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, the tribune. Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), the Roman emperor’s man in charge of Judaea, faces unrest in the streets, made worse, he feels, by the vocal followers of the supposed Jewish messiah, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), a.k.a. Jesus, who has just been crucified. Rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection and the mystery of his missing body make Pilate nervous. He sends Clavius in search of Yeshua’s body to disprove the resurrection story. Instead, Clavius finds mysteries and possibly miracles. (107 minutes)”
    Now Ann Hornaday’s Wash Post review is more in line with some comments here (“the last third falters — succumbing to moments of wince-inducing ham-handedness”). The reviews seem to be trending the worldviews of the reviewers…not unexpected and often typical in a film of faith or religion.

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