A seminal event in my own love affair with movies came when I was finally able to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in the 1980s. Theatrical reruns were a big deal once, because films that my generation had only seen emanating from our TV screens (instead of projected onto them), complete with commercial interruptions and cropped aspect ratios, were gradually made available in the forms they were intended to be seen and which showed them to their advantage: as a movie, at a movie theater.
These days, though, with dimmed projector bulbs and texting and talking consumers at the theater, the home viewing experience may in some instances be aesthetically superior to the public one. A theatrical setting for a film like Son of God is important only for the residual prestige the cinema screen has over the TV, not because we have to go to the theater to see a film the way it was originally intended to be seen.
If anything, seeing this film at the theater hurts rather than helps its production values, because the footage was edited, paced, and designed to be seen as a television program. More than one scene cut in the film looked and felt like a mini-climax designed to lead into a commercial break. The intimacy and immediacy of some scenes—the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fishes, for instance—felt more distant in a theater, while the special effects that stand out in a television production (like Jesus walking on water) don't feel quite as spectacular when they are projected on the same screen where you just saw Mount Vesuvius explode the week before.
Then again, a theater is a public space, and worship is a communal experience. Ten years ago, when I reviewed The Passion of the Christ and criticized the film's score, a colleague mildly chastised me for approaching Passion "like a movie." When I asked her how she approached it, she said as an occasion for worship.
The optimist in me wants to believe that the campaign to buy out theaters so that Son of God plays on every screen is genuinely about wanting to enhance the viewing experience by sharing it with other believers. The cynic in me wonders whether such cause-marketing is not a tacit admission that some viewers might only select the film if they have no other options.
As a devotional tool—a moving picture Bible—the film's simplicity is probably an asset. If it lacks the artistic ability of The Gospel According to St. Matthew or The Miracle Maker to defamiliarize the story, then show it to us anew, neither does it come with The Passion of The Christ's gory sensibilities or Last Temptation's hopelessly muddled theology. The miniseries' Satanic Obama doppelganger has been excised from the film, leaving Mary Magdalene's inclusion with the apostles at Jesus's ascension as the most likely editorial choice to rankle some believers.