Like 13.1 million other people, I tuned in to watch the History Channel’s new miniseries, The Bible. Unlike most of them, it seems, I tuned out after the first five minutes to watch something else. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is now on DVD, and I missed it during the theatrical run.)
Thankfully, I caught a repeat of the premiere (the first of five, two-hour episodes) the following night. Needless to say, millennia-old spoilers will follow. Be warned, lest you find out they all died, and Evil Locke was the Smoke Monster.
An overview: The Bible tells the story of, well, the Bible (both “Old” and New Testaments) using a combination of documentary-style narration, dramatic license, and digital effects. Its premiere episode begins with Noah’s Ark, leaps back to the Garden of Eden, then Abraham’s conversion, and finally Moses freeing the Hebrews from Egypt. Over the following four weeks, the production will take on the highlights of Jewish and Christian scripture, culminating with resurrection of Christ and the Apocalypse of St. John.
- The FX (mostly). Some of the production seems TV-cheap. But visual FX blend tightly with the live work. On the whole, they are passable and textured.
- Action. Battle sequences are appropriately violent, with fast but logical cuts. There’s nothing cinema worthy here — or even up to the par of “period” greats like HBO’s Game of Thrones. Still, for a religious program on the History Channel, it’s a strength.
- Speaking of battles: Ninja angel. That’s right, there’s a ninja angel. He ninja-fies the shit out of Sodom in the righteous anger of God. With swords and ninja flips and armor. Then fire rains down, and he stabs the survivors to death. Just like in Parshat Vayera.
- Cinematography. The landscape shots are epic in scope and open up the movie considerably.
- Music. Hans Zimmer did the score. That’s nice.
- Also, narrator. Keith David has a beautiful voice. From time to time, he pops in to fill the story gaps. He’s no Morgan Freeman, but his seriousness is charming.
What doesn’t work:
- The story. Look, the Bible is the most influential and widely-read literature in human history. But it isn’t a single story. The program’s constant time leaps will only make sense to those already familiar with the structure of scripture.
- Which brings me to my next point: the choir. They’re preaching to it. It’s religious masturbation: telling beloved myths with all the insight and artistic sensibility of a five year old to the already-converted. And the quality will never matter, because the target audiences will buy it anyway. It feels cynical.
- The miniseries covers a lot of ground, which means the separate emotional beats don’t always connect like they should. And since the narrative structure is so unsettled, we never let ourselves get comfortable before we’re yanked forward another decade or century.
- Acting. No one is completely bad. They’re earnest — but it’s a “local church Christmas pageant” earnestness. The heroes do a lot of ham-fisted pontificating about the glory of God, and the villains do a lot of teeth-gritting and yelling at our heroes.
- P.S., most everybody looks European. Stahp that.
- P.P.S., Noah is Scottish, I think. I got nothing.
- Dialogue. Much of it feels stiff and “barely there,” like each of the actors was driven into the desert and told to “act like Moses” or “act like Abraham.” Sometimes, entire scenes pass with what feels like improvised conversation meant to fill space, while the music swells or the narrator explains what’s going on.
- A few of these stories, while powerful on paper, become charmless and even disturbing on film. In particular, Abraham’s “Punk’d” sacrifice of Isaac is incredibly unsettling. From Isaac’s attempt to fight back (“Please father, you’re hurting me!”), to Sarah running up the hillside in sobs… it’s just… “ewww.”
- Ironically, the music in that scene is inspiring, like Abraham just cured cancer instead of almost stabbing his son to death while his wife waits helplessly at the foot of the mount. Because THEOLOGY.
If you like sandal epics, this is an option for light weekend viewing. If you’re not predisposed to like it, there’s not much else redeeming it. About an hour-and-a-half in, as Moses turned the waters of Egypt to blood, I found myself falling asleep. All of which leads me to an observation: remember when Bible movies were awesome? I’m talking about the heyday of the “sandal epic,” movies as entertaining and thought-provoking as they are inspiring. Heck, even Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (which came some time after DeMille and Heston and Wyler) feels more universally appealing than this film. I may not believe in Jesus, and the New Testament may not be in my Bible, but good storytelling can move anyone.
These days, Bible movies seem squarely geared at the uncritical “family values” crowd: mostly, white Protestants who vote Republican. Usually these movies don’t feel like art at all — more like commercial religious tracts. But there was a time when films could compel and preach. If I — a naturalist Jew with progressive politics — can watch the “Jesus saves the day” conclusion of “Ben-Hur” with a genuine tear in my eye, what’s to say any well-told religious yarn couldn’t do the same thing? [Although, as someone will likely point out, Director William Wyler was Jewish, and atheist Gore Vidal was an uncredited contributing screenwriter, so "Ben Hur" isn't purely a Christian labor of love, despite the subtitle "A Tale of the Christ."]
It would be nice to find a Bible project Christians and non-Christians agree on, something that captures the poetic and mythic qualities of religion without forfeiting an aesthetic sense or humanity. If the ratings for “The Bible” are any indication, the miniseries will continue to be enormously popular in the coming weeks. Yet I can’t see it becoming a yearly tradition for most — not like ”Ben Hur” or “The Ten Commandments,” both of which I watch at certain times of the year. Perhaps, though, the interest generated by the film will inspire pure filmmakers to test their hands at this often-parodied, much-loved genre.
Until then, let’s try to be content with ninja angels.