God's Not Dead (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, brief violence and an accident scene
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, David A.R. White, Trisha LaFache, Hadeel Sittu, Dean Cain, Paul Kwo, Benjamin Ochieng, Marco Khan, Jesse Wang
Small role: Phil Robertson, Korie Robertson
Director: Harold Cronk
Screenplay: Chuck Konzelman, Cary Solomon
Review published March 27, 2014
Shane Harper (Flipped, High School Musical 2) stars as Josh Wheaton (Joss Whedon fans will do double takes whenever hearing his name in this film), an incoming college freshman at a liberal arts college whose Christian faith is tested immediately when he has the misfortune of enrolling in a philosophy class with the proudly atheist Professor Radisson (Sorbo, Soul Surfer). Radisson's first act is to have every one of his students sign a paper denying the existence of God, something the devout Wheaton just can't do. As penance, Radisson challenges the young student to a portion of each of the next three lecture sessions to prove to the rest of the class, who will serve as the jury, as to whether God exists. His ability to pass the class hinges on success.
First let me state up front that I'm not going to slam this film because it espouses any particular religious beliefs. In fact, I'm more likely to like the film's inherent difference to mainstream filmmaking because of that fact. Whether I agree with the film's message or not, it's not my call. My only mission in this review, or any review, is to state what I thought of it as a film, and not whether I agree or disagree with its message. And, as a film, God's Not Dead is the pits, feeling like a ramshackle made-for-TV flick that somehow got the push for a theatrical release once it was discovered that those who want to support faith-based films will come out in droves to see, or at least pay for a ticket for, just about anything that promotes their own values and world view.
If God's Not Dead is considered a good film, even by the Christian audiences that will no doubt constitute the overwhelming percentage of viewing audiences, then it's time to consider whether it marks the death of quality faith-based cinema. Even if you believe in God, in Jesus, in Christian ministry, and in supporting faith-based movies with your hard-earned dollars, make no mistake -- this will set the bar very low for filmmakers in the future if this proves an unqualified success. I mean, why try to make a good movie when low-reaching schlock like this brings home dollars by the truckload? This is, quite frankly, a shoddy movie-going experience on nearly every level, with hackneyed plotting, forced dialogue, ill-defined characterizations, spotty acting and murky cinematography that looks like someone took 480p resolution and projected it to the big screen.
Cameo appearances by "Duck Dynasty"'s Willie and Korie Robertson add a bit of levity, but feel gimmicky. At just a smidge under two hours, it also has too much concentration on Magnolia-like, interconnecting subplots that don't really contribute to the main story, including a liberal blogger's (LaFache, Garden State) confrontation with her mortality, a pastor's (White, Six: The Mark Unleashed) difficulty in securing an adequate car rental to go to Disneyland, a Muslim woman's (Sittu, The Book of Esther) shame at desiring to switch her religion against the wishes of her domineering father, a Chinese foreign exchange student's (Kwo) shame at the same, an unscrupulous business man (Cain, I Do (But I Don't)) and his mother afflicted with dementia, and needless concert footage involving Christian pop band, Newsboys, whose 2011 album, "God's Not Dead", inspired the title of this film.
I can understand how Christians, and religious people in general, usually feel slighted by Hollywood through their constant mis-portrayal in films as heavies and zealots who usually stand in the way of something progressive. But do two wrongs make a right, when those who aren't Christian are shown without any redeeming values whatsoever? The Muslim and Chinese fathers are shown as completely intolerant of any point of view other than their own -- but would a devoutly evangelical Christian father do much differently should their son or daughter claim they were going to convert to Islam, or worse, claim there is no God?
Meanwhile, atheists are portrayed as former religious people who decided to go to extreme lengths in order to show how hurt they are that God doesn't make the world a fine and dandy place for everyone. That, and they are so devoid of even the most basic of human decency that when Dean Cain's "President Business"-like character learns from his girlfriend at a fancy dinner that she has cancer, all he can think to say is, "Couldn't this news have waited until tomorrow?" Talk about painting the other side as evil incarnate! In the world of God's Not Dead, if you don't have Christian morals, then everything you do or say is going to naturally be repugnantly immoral.
The only really compelling moments of the film come from the classroom scenes, in which a completely heinous Kevin Sorbo commands the class in a fashion that would merely take one student or parent complaint to the school's administration to resolve. However, not only is the atheist painted as intolerant, he is a smug, despicable human being in nearly every respect even when he's not at the podium. We root for Josh, not because we're truly compelled by his argument, but because, by contrast to the snarling Radisson, he's the class act. It would be bad enough just to make Radisson the antagonist, but he's also given a story arc that completely undermines his philosophical position without actually taking down his arguments, thereby making the entirety of the debate obsolete. Radisson may be a learned philosophical thinker, but as evidenced by this film, he is the world's worst debater, serving up softball arguments that you don't even have to be a college freshman to strike down.
And to make matters even less realistic, Josh is shown giving his speeches with a professional-grade, full-motion video presentation behind him. It's no wonder Josh's girlfriend threatens to leave him throughout the film when he so clearly is spending all of his time on spiffy special effects and animation for his pro-God argumentation. Meanwhile, Radisson is stuck with a few boring words on a dry-erase board to counter him -- if you like your arguments presented flashy, there's really only one side to choose. It's like David vs. Goliath, if Goliath had the slingshot and David had an ICBM.
Had this film been within the realm of known reality, perhaps it might find some movement among the curious non-believers to examine the Christian teachings more closely, but its makers would rather manipulate every side of the argument to assure a win, and in so doing, the initially intriguing premise crashes and burns long before the wince-inducing, schmaltzy concert finale that implores everyone watching to spam their entire phone address book to let them know the name of the crummy movie they foolishly shelled out cash for.
If the film had been intended to investigate how members of academia are systematically shutting out Creationism and theological discussion from public discourse, it would have fared much better in terms of outreach beyond zealous Christians who already believe in what this film espouses, chapter and verse. Instead, the movie actually tries to tackle the age-old 'God' debate head on, which is just not going to be resolved within the confines of a poorly written and ineptly directed flick starring Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain and members of "Duck Dynasty"
In the end, the debate finishes where it starts, with one side not able to prove unequivocally that God exists, and the other side not able to prove he doesn't. Those inclined to agree will feel their beliefs justified; those inclined to disagree will find themselves further entrenched, knowing that when a film does so much to control all sides of the argument and still can't manage to deliver a definitive answer, it's all a waste of time for those who aren't already convinced they know the answer going in.
©2014 Vince Leo