The Bible: A Film Review

Of course, this is an old film, so a review isn’t necessarily very informative but it can be worthwhile to visit old films now and again to subject them to a modern perspective. The Bible isn’t the first, or last, film to follow these themes being part remake part sequel to Ingmar Bergman’s critically acclaimed, intellectual, disturbing but commercially unappealing ‘The Torah’ (1952). The Bible lacks the critical authenticity of that work while also lacking the trendy (but also confusing) Tarantinoesque jump-cuts of 2006’s ‘Islam’ by Robert Rodriguez or the sheer surreality of Salvador Dali’s arthouse masterpiece ‘Mormonism’.

The Bible, then, stands somewhere in the middle, Roland Emmerich – as director – is given a huge budget to both re-tell The Torah for a popular audience and to tell the story of the sequel, ‘Messiah’, which was so heavily hinted at in the earlier work but never came to fruition. Unfortunately as with many Hollywood ‘epic’ summer movies of the nineties and noughties the high budget drove a confused, sprawling, over-long, monster of a film that paid far more attention to special effects set pieces than to consistent plotting, characterisation or even sense.

Jeremy Irons chews the scenery as the character ‘God’, a supernatural entity of enormous intelligence and power that dominates the first half of the film before fading into the background during the second half. Clearly we’re supposed to sympathise with the God character and, while Irons’ English accent does lend an element of credibility to the God character’s authority the plotting and actions of the character make no sense and the film would have hung together more with the God character cast as the villain, rather than the vastly more sympathetic Serpent/Devil character, depicted with sensitivity and sympathy by Jude Law. As it stands the audience is left confused as the character we’re supposed to be empathising with visits misery and destruction upon humanity much like the aliens in Emmerich’s other big blockbuster, Independence Day.

The effects are astonishing of course, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the flooding of the Earth, children being mauled by bears (which guaranteed the director’s cut a hard R rating in the US) but while there’s plenty of impressive eye candy the whole thing starts to fall apart in the plotting and narrative. God saves Noah (Donald Sutherland) as he’s supposed to be a man of virtue but after the flooding of the Earth the first thing he does is get drunk and doink his own daughters.

The Egyptian section of the film has received the most plaudits from critics and audiences alike but this is largely down to the tour-de-force performance by Brian Blessed as Moses, with audiences barely able to help themselves shouting along with his bravado delivery reminiscent of his role as Prince Vultan in Flash Gordon (1980). His scene of confrontation with Pharaoh’s sorcerors provides his most memorable line ‘YOU CALL THOSE SNAKES? HAHAHAHAHHAHAHA!’ but also demonstrates the weakness in plotting that even Brian Blessed cannot save, the God character being supposed to be the only true supernatural force in the world, yet these sorcerors capable of producing magic themselves. True, it makes for a more effective scene but this really is a goof up in the plotting.

In America of course, The Bible was released as a four hour epic movie and did reasonably well at the box office during its early weeks but in response to testing the film was split into two sections. The Old Testament and The New Testament since testing had shown that The New Testament tested better as an independent movie in focus groups. Now many people don’t even know that the two films were one ‘The Bible’ and many fans of The New Testament completely disregard Part One, preferring to focus on Part Two.

Part Two, however, cannot really be understood without having watched Part One and while it is a better plotted movie it lacks the same, grand, set-piece battles and special effects that redeemed Part One for the popcorn chewing hoi-polloi. There’s just too much dialogue, much of it repetitious, really trying to hammer home the film’s moral message in a crude fashion that becomes annoying about half an hour into the second half. The use of Jude Law to play the Jesus character – as well as the devil – was somewhat inspired but as soft featured and feminine as he is he fails to bring across either the supposed stoicism of the Jesus character or the malice of The devil in much the same way his lack of macho credentials damaged 2004’s Sky Captain.

While the message of the second half is a positive one it loses its impact because of the poor plotting, particularly when the two halves of the film are viewed as a whole. The first half spends all its time setting up the god character as this all powerful arsehole in the sky (perhaps Bruce Willis with his background of playing morally questionable antiheroes would have been a better choice) only to then have him settle on, perhaps, the most baroque and overly complex plan for the ‘redemption’ of mankind ever conceived, which leaves the cinemagoer – even Joe sixpack – feeling he could have come up with a better solution. The impact of the Jesus character’s sacrifice is further undermined by his popping back up again three days later, perfectly fine and then floating off to paradise. The film, therefore, lacks any real conclusion, the world hasn’t changed, nothing is different and the whole thing is left extremely anticlimactic.

The proposed sequel ‘Revelation’ has been stuck in development hell since the release of The Bible in the mid nineties but Emmerich has expressed a desire to return to the topic and to return to the eye candy of the first half of The Bible with an effects laden destruction of the world that will make The Day After Tomorrow look like Steamboat Willie. Michael Wincott is attached to the latest attempt to bring this film to the cinema, taking over for Jeremy Irons as God while Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have also expressed interest in interviews in the parts of Jesus and The Whore of Babylon respectively. Nothing concrete has settled yet though, so it seems that Revelation will remain in development hell for the near future.

Summary
A confused film, half effects laden, no-brain blockbuster, half cinema-verite talking-heads, lacking a conclusion or climax to justify the budget. Poor plotting and characterisation lead the audience to sympathise with the villains rather than the out-of-control God character or the whiny Jesus

Scores
Style: 3
Substance: 1

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2 responses to “The Bible: A Film Review

  1. I agree about the second part, but I thought some sub-plots in the first film were very imaginative and epic in scope. I especially liked Genesis, which dealt with the abusive relationship of humans with an incomprehensible alien being of great power, and Judges, which had plenty of cunning and daring adventures, including superheroes and ninjas, and some impressive mass battle scenes. This story is also noted for one of the first female warlords to appear in fantasy fiction – the wise and authoritative Deborah.

    Samuel and Kings lost pace a bit, but were still highly entertaining with plenty of backstabbing and romance.

    Afterward the film has a long and boring middle section, awfully preachy and repetitive, the only exception being some truly psychedelic visions by unreliable narrators. It is curious how the viewer never knows if the vision only exists in the hero’s mind or is truly happening.

    The film ends with a couple of amusing and romantic side stories – Esther and Ruth. The end is perhaps too philosophical for the average movie-goer and the pacing by this stage is horrendous, but nevertheless it has a lyrical quality often missing in modern fiction. I am of course talking about the sexy Song of Songs and the depressingly contemplative Ecclesiastes.

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