Risen proves evangelical movies are here to stay

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures.

Isn’t this the movie the Coen brothers pretended to make in Hail, Caesar! two weeks ago?

Risen follows Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, the very spitting image of Michael Jackson), a Roman tribune, through the story of Jesus’ Resurrection. Clavius is charged by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) with keeping the peace in Judea for the emperor’s imminent arrival, but the Hebrews are revolting, thinking their messiah has come to deliver them from Roman rule. The purported messiah, called Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) in the movie, is crucified, but tensions mount even further when his corpse disappears from its tomb three days later. To quell the unrest, Clavius is tasked with hunting the body down.

This movie has been a long time coming. Over the past several years, evangelical Christian films like Fireproof, which turned a $500,000 budget into $33.5 million domestic and God’s Not Dead, which turned $2 million into $60.8 million, have proven they can turn an immense profit. This came to a head last year when noted spousal abuse endorser War Room spent Labor Day weekend at no. 1. Further, Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott were given big-budget adaptations Noah and Exodus, respectively, in 2014, which heavily adapted the biblical text they were based on.

As irritating as it is to see Christianity imposed on the box office the same persecution complex-heavy way it is on all other aspects of American life, Hollywood is not a democracy. Christian movies make money, Hollywood makes Christian movies.

Risen represents the culmination of these two trends, adapting the Resurrection story and telling it from a tribune’s perspective, but also serving as a preachy reinforcement of Christianity. It can’t be ignored like its lower-budget predecessors since this one came to party with a significant advertising budget, high production values and name actors.

Well, moderate production values and an actor with a name big brother.

Risen does not feature Hollywood-quality cameras or Hollywood-quality camerawork, and it oversteps its bounds in a few places, all of which stick out like sore thumbs. There’s the opening battle scene, which you want to end almost as soon as it begins. Then there’s the earthquake upon Yeshua’s death and the flashing lights in his Ascension, both of which look like they belong in a direct-to-DVD production. No matter how good Fiennes and Tom Felton are, you can never escape the feeling you’d rather be watching a movie with Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Radcliffe, several of which exist.

However, it’s the story structure that really makes Risen tough to watch. Despite weighing in at just 107 minutes, the movie feels like it takes an eternity because the story keeps changing. Supposedly about the Resurrection, the movie spends its first half hour with Yeshua either still alive or still entombed. Then, after just 40 minutes of searching, Clavius finds him and spends the rest of the movie traveling to Galilee with the disciples and learning the gospel. That’s not a three act structure, that’s three complete stories with separate conflicts and tones and character arcs that have been crammed into one movie as three acts, and fittingly, acts one and three are way longer than they should be within that structure. Watching Risen feels like watching three movies. Also, this is all told as a flashback for no real reason.

Risen represents an admirable bit of opportunism from the evangelical sect, finding two leads in Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton who both have careers in dire straits, but are still name actors.

It’s a shame, because there are some neat story elements in the second act that could have been played with had they been given more time to breathe. Clavius is an interesting character. He’s a great warrior, but only serves to build wealth so he can go to Rome, marry a nice woman and retire to a farm somewhere and get away from all this death. He has an inherent latent conflict with the empire he serves, and in the end, he turns to Jesus’ teachings not because he sees a bunch of miracles and is rendered helpless before the gospel, but because he decides Christianity is more in line with the pacifist ideals Rome forces him to suppress. His internal conflict starkly contrasts with the typical Affirm or Pure Flix movie, in which the hero is a crusader trying to convince others to turn to the Bible to solve their problems.

That’s the most annoying thing about this brood of evangelical movies, really. It’s not just that they’re the cinematic equivalent of Morman bikers in those horrible shirts going door-to-door, it’s that taking that approach is a fundamental failure to see the other ways you can express an idea through cinema. You don’t have to have a main character who screams the moral of the story at the audience in no uncertain terms — that’s incredibly unambitious. Christianity in its best form is about a forgiveness and peace-based morality, and a better way to express its ideals through film is to have a movie that deals with those ideas. Risen kind of executes this concept, and it’s an encouraging sign. It’s sort of like the movie version of the pastor who spends his weeks at a food pantry as opposed to yelling about Jesus on street corners and inviting people to fight about it. Only sort of, though.

The trend of outwardly religious movies seems to extend well beyond evangelical efforts. Hail, Caesar! from the beginning of the month and The Witch, which released opposite Risen, are both extremely religious movies. The Witch and Risen, ironically, are great mirrors for each other — Risen follows a main character who tries harder and harder to turn a blind eye toward Yeshua while realizing slowly that his teachings have merit building up to an eventual confrontation with him, and The Witch does the same with its main character and Lucifer. Upcoming superhero movies Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse both promise to have heavy religious themes, as well.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Jeb! I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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