SUPERHEROES are out; Jesus, Mary and Noah are in as 2014 appears set as the year of the biblical epic. Hot on the heels of Noah comes Son of God, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado in the lead as Jesus, having already played this role in the hit miniseries The Bible, by the same producers.
Son of God opens today at Nu Metro Walmer Park and Ster-Kinekor The Bridge in Port Elizabeth, and at Hemingways in East London.
Its release in South Africa particularly well timed for the Easter weekend, unlike in the US where it already opened in February.
The film has been well received by Christians, but critics say it has its flaws, most notably that all the scenes featuring Satan have been cut.
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the married couple who produced Son of God, said they “cast out” Satan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazan from their picture so all the focus could be on Jesus.
But others say it was done because the on-screen depiction of Satan looked a little too much like US President Barack Obama.
Burnett was the reality television creator of series such as Survivor, The Apprentice and, more recently, The Bible.
Studio executives who have spent the last few years releasing superhero, vampire and zombie movies seem to be having an epiphany.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is another Biblical epic that has received solid box office support, including in the Eastern Cape where it opened on April 4 and continues to draw audiences.
This $150-million (R1.6-billion) special effects-laden extravaganza sees Russell Crowe building the ark to rescue mankind from the Great Flood.
Harry Potter actress Emma Watson plays his adopted daughter, Ila, Jennifer Connelly is his wife, Naameh, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is Methuselah.
Only this is no Sunday school version as Noah ran into controversy when screenings with a Christian audience in Arizona produced troubling results.
It has even been suggested the film shows Noah as an early opponent of climate change: Aronofsky himself called him the “first environmentalist”.
The film is still showing at Walmer Park, the Boardwalk and The Bridge in Port Elizabeth, and at Hemingways in East London.
Another religion-themed Hollywood blockbuster heading our way this year is Sir Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Christian Bale, as Moses, will part the Red Sea.
Scenes from ancient Egypt have been reconstructed in Spain, with Bale wielding bow and arrow and Sigourney Weaver playing the Pharaoh’s wife.
Then there is Mary, Mother of Christ, billed as a “faith-based, high-action drama” and starring Ben Kingsley and Julia Ormond. This prequel to Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, also stars 16-year-old Israeli-born actress Odeya Rush as Mary. The film is in the production stages and due for release in April next year. Another is Resurrection, by director Kevin Reynolds of Waterworld infamy, in which a Roman soldier is sent to investigate Christ’s death. The film, which has been likened to Gladiator, is also set for release next April.
Phil Cooke, a US film-maker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood’s epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins. “They’ve understood it’s very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real, serious market,” he said.
Studio executives have taken a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring box office returns. That faith is fed by the success of The Bible, the US’s most-watched TV show of last year. Since the days of epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments more than half a century ago, Hollywood and Christians have rarely seen eye to eye. A low point was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured sex scenes and flopped after Roman Catholics led a boycott.
But Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ achieved great commercial success 10 years ago, thanks partly to the endorsement of prominent Christians like Rev Billy Graham.
Biblical epics do have one distinct advantage. Unlike movies based on superheroes or the latest literary sensation, studios won’t have to pay millions of dollars in copyright and licensing fees: stories in the Bible are free to use. – Nick Allen and Louise Liebenberg, Additional reporting by The Telegraph