It’s an unfortunate fact but Christian movies have very honestly earned the poor reputation that so many of them carry. From the cheesy production values of classic 70s fare like A Thief In the Night to more recent work like the “Left Behind” series featuring Kirk Cameron, we’ve very much missed the mark in terms of making quality films. Yet, there’s been a growing tide of not only support but of artists seeking to craft films from a faith-based perspective with excellence, not only theologically but also creatively. This is the type of thinking that’s led to films like Amazing Grace, The Ultimate Gift, and Blue Like Jazz. Are they perfect films? No, far from it. But they’re taking steps in the right direction.
The latest film to step into the spotlight in an attempt to bring a faith-filled message to the masses is Pure Flix Entertainment’s God’s Not Dead, which surprised many in its opening run, bringing in $8.5 million in its opening weekend in a limited run of theaters. So does this movie take Christian moviemaking to the next level?
Sadly, not this time out.
The film, conceived of and penned by Hunter Dennis, Chuck Konzelman, and Cary Solomon centers around the story of Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a freshman in college who opts to take a philosophy course as one of his electives. Josh is portrayed as a sound Christian, rocking his Newsboys t-shirt while he talks with his girlfriend of six years whom he met when their youth groups fatefully crossed paths. And it’s that faith that is pressed to the front and center as Wheaton embarks on his first day in Professor Radisson’s (Kevin Sorbo) philosophy course where the professor makes blatantly known his thoughts on God and, as a first assignment, challenges his students to simply write, “God is dead” on a piece of paper, signing their name to it. When Josh cannot bring himself to do it, the professor issues him the challenge to, over the course of the next three classes, take a period of time and defend the existence of God.
The movie attempts to deal with some differing subplots, following the plight of Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) and her tumultuous relationship with her upwardly mobile boyfriend, Mark (Dean Cain), Ayisha’s (Hadeel Sittu) attempt to hide her acceptance of the faith from her devoutly Muslim father, Misrab (Marco Khan), and Reverend Dave’s (David A.R. White) wrestling with the “mundane” elements of his pastoral life as opposed to his visiting old friend and missionary, Reverend Jude (Benjamin Ochieng.) And that doesn’t even touch upon the plots involving Mina (Cory Oliver) and Martin (Paul Kwo), who are there to try and flesh things out even more.
And what ultimately happens is that the overall message and plot get lost at times.
For while Josh Wheaton is at the center, he isn’t allowed enough screen time to really connect with the audience outside of the few times he’s found being dumped by his girlfriend when he won’t give up the challenge the professor’s given him or when he’s facing off with that very same professor in the hallway. Beyond that, the majority of his screen time is dedicated to his apologetic course within the philosophy class, which Harper really does do a fine job of, moving from an honest delivery of halting nervousness in the beginning to his growing energy and confidence as he delivers a solid argument overall.
Yet the subplots continue to step in and steal the spotlight, leaving us not necessarily confused but definitely rattled. And it’s a shame because a couple of those subplots deliver some of the better acting in the film, especially the breakdown of Amy as she is emotionally steamrolled by her cancer diagnosis and the disowning of Ayisha by Misrab, which results in them both giving in to great emotion. But those emotions fail to find a solid connection with the greater overarching story and that’s a big part of the problem.
However, the film’s bigger issues lie in the way that non-Christians find themselves portrayed throughout much of the film. Misrab is a good example. Finding that his daughter has converted to Christianity, be beats her and throws her from the house and, while his emotional breakdown after doing so is powerful and poignant, it feels a little heavy handed. Add to that the over the top narcissism of Dean Cain’s Mark, who bristles when Amy reveals her cancer to him, later referring to it as “personal issues” that she’s got to deal with. And Kevin Sorbo’s Professor Radisson is presented as a virtual fiend throughout the better part of the film, pacing the classroom floor as Wheaton impresses his class with the truth.
Sure, there are no doubt folks that fit these stereotypes in the world. In fact, this reviewer experienced a rather opinionated professor in college somewhat like that himself. But for all of those elements, this film fails to grasp the nuances of the situation. Yes, there’s applause to be had for Wheaton’s stand for his faith and I’ll be honest, there’s a misty moment when the inevitable occurs and Wheaton’s faith is rewarded in the classroom. That commitment to one’s faith is commendable and inspirational yet it’s unfair to paint with such stereotypical generalities, and that’s the film’s true downfall.
God’s Not Dead is a film that boasts some positive ideas but it simply falls prey to trying to do too much in too little an amount of time. And as such it defaults to some severe stereotypes and loses some of its genuineness along the way, despite those positive intents.