Risen: A Pastor's Movie Review

About 2/3 of the way through the movie, I was ready to begin my review this way: "Risen is intriguing, but it's not great." I'd have talked about how the costumes, acting, and setting were well done, and that the plot of the film was an interesting idea but could have been executed better. Sometimes it was on the mark and other times searching for something to do.

But by the end of the film, I began to dread writing this review at all. The movie completely fell apart, going from an average wagon to one with no wheels yet still trying to drag it down the sidewalk. Whatever redeeming qualities it had in the first half are completely lost in the second. Risen is just not a good movie, and an even worse Bible movie.

I got to my seat just as the previews were beginning. I was hoping the worst part of my experience was going to be the price of my water (four bucks?!) and the trailer for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Good grief, that thing looks dreadful. The other three movies being advertised were the following:

Miracles From Heaven
I felt a combination of "Oh, brother" and "Hm, so what's the story behind this?" It's made by the same folks who did Heaven Is for Real. Don't expect biblical.

Eddie the Eagle
Dude. That looks great! The movie starts tomorrow (February 26). Drat, I wish now I'd saved my ticket. I like Hugh Jackman.

Money Monster
Yay, Stockholm syndrome! Apparently the Hollywood attitude toward terrorists is that they're just misunderstood, looking for answers, and we just need to sit and talk with them.

Alright, now on to the movie. This review does contain spoilers, but that doesn't matter. Nothing is going to save this movie from being rotten.

The plot is set up like a detective story. Jesus has disappeared from his grave, and Joseph Fiennes plays the Roman military tribune responsible for finding out what happened to his body. But the movie doesn't start there. It begins with Jesus's crucifixion at about the point of his death. Pilate tells Clavius (Fiennes) to oversee the disposal of his body.

As Clavius and his understudy, Lucius (played by Tom Felton of Draco Malfoy fame), went to Golgotha, the sky darkened and there was an earthquake. "The gods are angry," Lucius said. "One of them is," said Clavius. Exchanges like that made the first half of the movie enjoyable. The audience isn't played for fools. We know what's going on without having to be shown.

I wasn't crazy with their depiction of Golgotha. It was kind of an enclosure surrounded by walls rather than being on the traditional hill. Historians agree that Jesus was crucified on a high place, and Scripture indicates it also would have been along a road since he was derided by those who passed by (Mark 15:29). Perhaps the cross was a lot closer to one of the Jerusalem gates than we often envision. The Romans punished criminals so everyone could see them.

At this point in the movie it was an easily forgivable interpretation, putting Golgotha in such a secluded place. Greater liberties with the story were coming. I did appreciate that Jesus was not played by a blonde white dude.

The two thieves were disposed of and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus to his own tomb. The priests visited with Pilate and Clavius about unearthing Jesus's body and burning it so his disciples couldn't steal it. Caiphas, the high priest, convinced them that a Roman guard at the tomb with the Roman seal over the stone would suffice.

So that's what they did, and Clavius oversaw it himself, placing two guards on watch. Yup, just two. And they got drunk. The Bible doesn't tell us exactly how many guards there were, but we know there were more than two. After the resurrection, Matthew 28:11 says "Some of the guard went and told the chief priests all that had taken place." So there had to be enough soldiers that some of them went and talked to the priests.

Indeed, in the plot of the movie, the priests paid off the guards to make up a story of being held at spear-point while Jesus's disciples robbed the tomb and ran off with the body. Clavius found that out later as he conducted an investigation to find out just what happened with the body of the Nazarene.

There's a cameo of the Shroud of Turin thrown in there.

The film was at its best at this point. The less the movie said and the less it showed, the better it came out. When the movie tried to enter the biblical narrative or say something theological, it was annoying. Clavius interviewed a blind woman named Mariam, and she had some weird line like, "You are seeds already cast. You're too late." I have no idea what that was supposed to mean.

Clavius's interview with Joseph of Arimathea was as close as the movie ever got to the gospel. Clavius asked where the body was, or if Joseph believed Jesus rose from the dead. Joseph said, "If he has risen, I believe Yeshua will embrace you as a brother, even as you slew him." That's not quite Romans 5:8, nor would the movie ever venture near the gospel again.

At last, Clavius got a hold of one the disciples: Bartholomew. At first the character was light-hearted and fun. He talked like he was mad. That made sense. It does sound maddening to talk about a person being dead two days ago and now he's alive! But some of the things Bartholomew said were hippie-like: "We are few and our only weapon is love!" Oh, brother.

As Clavius's interrogations continued, I wondered if we'd go all the way through the movie never seeing the risen Christ. It would always be talked about but we'd never actually see him, left to make up our own minds at the end. Had Clavius heard enough testimony and eye-witness accounts to be convinced that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead? Was he the Son of God? The movie wouldn't even have to enter the narrative or present the gospel for me to appreciate that approach to telling the story from a cinematic standpoint.

Perhaps I got my hopes up too high because when they did finally reveal Jesus sitting with his disciples, it was a let-down. Clavius came upon him just as Thomas was rushing in to see the holes in his hands and in his side. Then Jesus disappeared, still with Clavius in the room, and the disciples had no idea what to do next. That's when Mary Magdalene spoke up like their mother and said, "He told you to go to Galilee." And they all went, "Oh, right, Galilee."

From this point on, the film was trash. I would go so far to say that the makers of Son of God knew the Bible better than the makers of Risen (and Son of God was an unbearable Bible movie -- Risen had at least some entertaining parts). It's like they had no where else to go and didn't know what else to do, so they just started throwing Jesus stuff in there, only in their version there's a Roman soldier following him around.

A conversation among the screenwriters probably went like this: "Isn't there a story in the Bible somewhere about the disciples fishing, and Jesus said to cast their nets on the other side, and they caught so much fish they couldn't pull their nets in? Let's put that in there." Seriously, that part just came out of no where. The disciples were just walking along and happened on some boats, so they decided to go fish.

"And didn't Jesus ask Peter three times if he loved him?" Yeah, that sequence in the movie was really forced and awkward.

"And didn't Jesus heal a leper or something?" When Jesus hugged the ill man, the leper wept and said no one would touch him. It started as a touching scene. But then when he got up and walked away, he looked at his hand and was like, "Oh... Hey... I'm healed..." No excitement or praise or appreciation whatsoever. No real astonishment on the part of Clavius either.

Right before Jesus healed the leper, Clavius asked Bartholomew, "Why did you follow him?" After he witnessed the healing, Bartholomew said, "That's why." Because sure. It couldn't have been because you thought he was God or anything (Matthew 16:15-17, Luke 5:8, John 6:68-69).

The plot here was so aimless even the dialogue made no sense. Jesus, Clavius, and the disciples got to the place they were going to in Galilee and spent the night sleeping on rocks. Clavius went and sat next to Jesus and they had the following exchange --
JESUS: What frightens you?
CLAVIUS: Being wrong. Wagering an eternity on the wrong answer.
JESUS: Know then.
(I think that's what he said. I missed the line. Either way, he didn't say anything.)
JESUS: What is it you seek? Clarity? Peace? A day without death?
CLAVIUS: *nods and starts crying*
And... that was it.

"I'm crying because I don't know what any of this means!"

The next morning, the disciples woke up and started calling for Jesus. They and Clavius finally saw him off in the distance walking toward the sun. He turned around and, while walking backwards, called out quotes from Christian bookstore plaques: "You are the light of the world! Go and be my disciples! You will be my witnesses! I will be with you always! Even to the ends of the earth-earth-earth-earth-earth!"

And then he exploded. No, I'm not kidding. Jesus exploded. He didn't ascend into heaven. He exploded. And the only witnesses to it were eleven dudes and one now-ex-Roman-soldier. Honestly, is there ever going to be a movie that actually depicts more than 500 men seeing Jesus alive at one time after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6)? Why does everyone think we're just going off the testimony of eleven clueless dudes and a few hysterical women?

The movie's version of the "great commission" was so not-great, I'm surprised the disciples weren't loitering around going, "What are we supposed to do again?" Then Mary Magdalene would have popped back up and said, "You're supposed to go tell the world about Jesus." And the disciples would have been all, "Oh, right, okay."

Following Jesus's explosion, there was a mini-sequence where the disciples witnessed to a few men for the first time. It was an exercise in evangelism that is not to be repeated: "It's about how you live, by love or by the sword." Then one disciple looked at the other and said, "That was good. I'm going to use that line again." Please, don't.

Simon asked Clavius, "Aren't you going back to Jerusalem with us to receive the Holy Spirit?" Clavius gave some nonsensical answer. Then Simon said, "He will be with you! Always!" Thanks, Obi Wan.

The movie is told from Clavius's perspective. At the start of the film, we see him telling someone else an account of all that he had witnessed. So at the end, it cuts back to the opening sequence with the man he was talking to asking him, "Do you believe any of what you saw is true?" Clavius said, "I believe. And I could never be the same."

Believe what?! Ugh. It was so infuriatingly bad.

So here's the gospel that the movie didn't deliver: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23). What you deserve for your sexual immorality, your lying, stealing, hating, blaspheming, and idol worshiping is hell. But Jesus died on the cross for you and rose from the grave so you can be forgiven.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you've been washed clean and clothed with new robes. It is only according to that message that you will never be the same. Leave your former self and your life of sinfulness behind. Follow him, and you'll live forever. Whoever has the Son has life. Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36).

No one who sees this movie will get that message. They'll be wasting two hours on a started-out-okay-but-crashed-and-burned movie. Avoid it.

When I saw Exodus: Gods and Kings (my review), the movie froze up in the last 15 minutes and the theater gave us tickets for a free movie. I finally used it to see Risen. So technically, I didn't have to pay for it... except four bucks for a water. What gives?

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