If ever a film has benefited from the timing of its theatrical release, it would be God's Not Dead, a formulaic and predictable faith-based flick that preaches to the choir and would have likely died a quick box-office death if not for having been released around the same time as a certain controversial and much bigger budgeted flick called Noah, the latter being a flick that has for the most part irritated, offended, and just plain ticked off a large segment of the more conservative evangelical members of the Christian community.
So, what happened?
They decided to show up in droves to support God's Not Dead, which has surprised nearly every box-office prediction by landing comfortably in the top 5 films for two weeks in a row now and has taken home a fairly remarkable $34 million in box-office receipts so far on an incredibly modest $2 million production budget.
I somehow sense every faith-based filmmaker with a flick coming out in the near future looking at the release calendar in hopes of stumbling across similar circumstances. While the film is vastly superior in every way, I somehow don't expect Heaven is for Real to have quite the same good fortune when it opens nationwide on April 16th.
One can only hope.
God's Not Dead centers around a young man named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a college freshman and devout Christian who finds himself in the Philosophy 150 class of Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), an embittered man whose first day assignment sets everything in motion. Professor Radisson starts off class with the loud proclamation that "God is Dead," and he challenges everyone in the class to write the statement on a piece of paper.
Will Josh, let's call him Joshua just so you'll get the obvious theological parallels, has to make the decision on whether he's going to honor his faith or protect his future.
Do you have any doubt which one he chooses? I didn't think so.
When he refuses, Professor Radisson then assigns him the semester long task of essentially developing a well researched, fact-based argument for God's existence and, ultimately, to debate the professor publicly on said prospect.
Again, do you have any doubt whatsoever what happens?
I think not.
While virtually the entire cast of God's Not Dead has acting experience, they are hindered here by dialogue that is lifeless and devoid of anything resembling balance. It's not that I expect an acknowledged faith-based film to give any credibility to the obviously jaded professor's argument, but God's Not Dead gives far too much focus to Wheaton's experience while grossly stereotyping everyone that surrounds him including other Christians. While faith-based films have never really been known for their subtlety, even naming the character Joshua, yes like the biblical Joshua, and Wheaton, an evangelical college in Illinois that was also Billy Graham's alma mater, is so painfully obvious and distorted that it's rather hard to relax with a film that is trying so hard to push its message. It's not the message that I have a problem with, so please hold off on the hate mail, but the way the message is presented.
Having reviewed films involving many of these folks before, both those on the screen and those working behind-the-scenes, I find myself perhaps a tad more forgiving than some who've observed that it seems like pretty much everyone but Mr. Wheaton himself falls into rather nifty stereotypes. Even those other individuals in the classroom who experience similar faith challenges as a result of the assignment are for the most part set aside in favor of Mr. Wheaton's seemingly called task of defending God and faith at this secular institution. I doubt seriously that the intent of the film was to paint minority characters in broad strokes, yet for anyone involved in social justice issues such broadly portrayed stereotypes will be obvious and more than a little troubling but not nearly as troubling as the fact that many would likely consider them to be true.
I am also troubled by the film's insistence on portraying the victimization of Christians in a country where Christians enjoy far greater freedom than virtually anywhere else in the world. If you think you're being persecuted here, perhaps you should take a trip to the Mideast and see what it's like to be put to death for even uttering the name of Jesus Christ. Mostly, it feels like much of God's Not Dead comes from a place of anger and hostility, places that simply don't further the film's purpose or arguments. The character of Professor Radisson, portrayed nicely by Kevin Sorbo, is broadly drawn to the point of cartoonish and should a professor actually engage in such antics in real life he would most likely find himself unemployed even in most secular universities. We also have a Muslim girl with a dominating Muslim father, a leftie/hippie chick/vegetarian type, a journalist with cancer, and the list goes on.
As I noted, I don't believe the intent was to paint true stereotypes. In fact, I believe the real intent of the film is to focus almost everything on Josh's defending of his faith and of God. It will be in this particular area where the film will be seen as mostly a success by the Christians who will comprise the film's audience.
Let me stress, as well, that there's absolutely nothing wrong with a faith-based film that preaches to the choir. After all, that very thing happens in many other genres including sci-fi, horror, and pretty much every Adam Sandler film you've ever seen. Adam Sandler makes films for Adam Sandler fans, and God's Not Dead was clearly made to build up and encourage people of faith.
The film's performance are, at least for the most part, superior to that which you may have become accustomed in faith-based cinema's early days. You've seen folks like Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain before, though the decision to add Willie Robertson (Duck Dynasty) seems a little odd and adds a layer of baggage to a film that already feels heavily weighted.
As a person of faith myself, I've always been troubled by Christians who get drawn into proving the existence of God. After all, my belief is about faith and while I certainly believe that faith and reason can co-exist I've always found the notion of "proving" God to be ludicrous. The arguments constructed in God's Not Dead are circular at best and embarrassing at worst, because they seem to come from a place of defensiveness. Furthermore, the evolution (sorry, couldn't resist) of the argument and the revelation of Professor Radisson's background feels gimmicky rather than naturally developed.
God's Not Dead is not a bad film, but it's a film by Christians for Christians and it's a film that reaped the reward of being released alongside a film that riled up many in the faith-based community. While Noah is a film that stimulates thought and curiosity and makes you want to go home and investigate for yourself, the sad truth is that far too much of God's Not Dead simply reminds you of why you stopped going to church in the first place.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic