It's no easy task to make an ancient biblical story feel brand-new again. How does one present the life of Jesus Christ — a story that has been told innumerable times in literature, TV and film — in a way that's fresh and appealing to a younger generation?
Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (behind History Channel's hit miniseries The Bible, which achieved record ratings last year) laced up their sandals and met the challenge head-on with Son of God, in theaters nationwide Friday.
"We've seen enough of those movies as kids — the 'donkeys and sandals' movies — that we wanted to create a cast of characters that felt gritty, realistic and authentic, and didn't look like they'd just stepped out of the dry cleaners," Downey says of the film, which features a mix of footage from The Bible and new material. It is billed as the first movie to tell Jesus' story from birth to resurrection since The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965.
The married producing team of Burnett and Downey (who describe themselves as the "noisiest Christians in Hollywood") set out to make a biblical movie that was not only emotionally resonant, but modern, as well. Shot in Morocco and starring Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado in the title role, Son of God chronicles Jesus and his miracles on an epic scale, and doesn't shy away from the more brutal, gruesome aspects of his crucifixion. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer created the score and Lola Post Production (Clash of the Titans, Troy) did special effects.
"We wanted this to speak to any generation," says Downey, who is best known for her role as the angel Monica in CBS' Touched by an Angel, and plays Jesus' mother, Mary, in Son of God. "We have different expectations as filmgoers, certainly young people do. They're used to seeing Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and they're very sophisticated filmgoers."
So far, the reinvigorated approach seems to be paying off: Churches and religious groups have already bought close to 500,000 tickets for Son of God, accounting for nearly $4 million in sales ahead of Friday's release, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Many churches and organizations in major cities have secured entire multiplexes for Thursday evening as part of a "theater takeover" campaign, generating the sort of interest among churchgoers and students usually reserved for a blockbuster franchise.
The world's largest Christian university, Liberty University, bought out an entire local theater in Lynchburg, Va., where Son of God will show on 14 screens, with about 2,000 students expected to attend the midnight showings. Ever since Downey and Burnett visited campus last month, the film has generated huge social-media attention among students, says university spokesman Johnnie Moore. Many students even participated in a video contest, with 65 "campaign videos" for the film submitted and voted on by Burnett and Downey. The 10 student-filmmakers they selected as winners will be flown to Los Angeles for a taping of The Voice, for which Burnett is a producer.
"I haven't seen a film more custom-designed for the next generation of Christians," Moore says. "I think a lot of Christians can be wary of content about the Bible that tries to create a new story, but this is the old story that's been told for thousands of years. Now it's being told to a new generation in a truly excellent way."
But why now? Aside from it being the first Jesus film to hit the big screen in 10 years (when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ grossed a staggering $84 million in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo), Burnett says that people now more than ever are feeling "a very big desire for Jesus" and the "need to reconnect."
Traveling to numerous churches and communities since October promoting the film, "it's been this great feeling to visit so many diverse parts of America and really get the same message back, that people are ready to see their Lord Jesus Christ," says Burnett, executive producer of popular series such as Survivor, The Apprentice and Shark Tank.
"I think people are hungry for hope, hungry for God and are longing for that connection," Downey adds. "On the one hand, Son of God plays like an exciting, compelling drama — like a political thriller really — and yet, throughout the film is woven this extraordinary love story that we are loved so much by God that he sends Jesus for us.
"We're hoping people will come as families and share this together," she says. "It's a story for our time, for 2014."