In a rare case of a sequel being vastly superior to its predecessor, the inevitable God's Not Dead 2 arrives in theaters this weekend with a different, yet similar, story to tell with an aim not so much of casting the nets as to likely inspire those who already proclaim themselves to be Christians. The film's predecessor, God's Not Dead, was ravaged by critics yet arrived alongside the controversial Noah and used that controversy to attract a wider audience than one typically expects for the growing faith-based cinema market.
It's rare that one can say there's a wide variety of faith-based cinema to choose from, but a quick trip to the cinema right now will likely offer up the chance to catch this film along with Young Messiah, Risen, and Miracles From Heaven. While the original God's Not Dead received scathing reviews, including from this critic, God's Not Dead 2 is vastly superior in pretty much every way. While there is some character crossover, God's Not Dead 2 is less an actual sequel and more a revisiting of the themes presented in God's Not Dead.
This time around, director Harold Cronk moves the action away from the college campus and moves it into an Arkansas high school. Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a teacher who loves her job, her students, and Jesus, though I'm pretty sure not in that order. After a student asks her to discuss Jesus in a historical context, alongside conversations about Gandhi and King, Grace's obviously faith-revealing answer is brought to the attention of the school's superintendent (Robin Givens), who orders Grace to apologize for the weaving together of church and state into the classroom.
Of course, Grace refuses.
Before long, civil rights attorneys are involved and the battle is on between believers and those who, personified by the presence of Ray Wise as Peter Kane, would seek to have an actual court decision denying the historical proof of Christ's existence.
There are different types of faith-based cinema.
There are those films that seek to cast the nets widely, not so much to evangelize but to live into the beliefs and practices of Christ.
There are those films are more what I refer to as "faith-inspired" films, films that certainly profess their faith yet do as part of telling a story.
Of course, there are also those films that do unabashedly evangelize in a way that makes it less likely to find a more secular audience yet far more likely to be fully embraced by faith-based film goers.
Then, there are films like the God's Not Dead films, films with an undeniable agenda yet films that truly are aiming squarely at the faith-based filmgoer and aren't particularly concerned about crossover appeal. The first God's Not Dead felt like a Sunday morning at your nearby fundamentalist church which, if you're a fundamentalist, isn't particularly a bad thing and is actually fairly refreshing. The film found an audience, despite or even partially because of scathing critical reviews, and it offered a more strictly faith-based approach to the historical context of Noah, which wasn't a faith-based film but certainly tackled a topic of importance to faith-based moviegoers.
God's Not Dead 2, in addition to having a stronger cast and better production values, also seems to present us with a kinder and gentler God's Not Dead theme that is still aimed squarely at faith-based moviegoers yet feels, at least for the most part, like less of an attack on anyone who is different.
A huge part of the difference comes from the cast, though I will admit that it still always makes me chuckle when I find Hollywood's B, C, and D-listers showing up in faith-based cinema. In this film alone, you've got the likes of Melissa Joan Hart, Pat Boone, Sadie Robertson, Robin Givens, Ernie Hudson, Fred Dalton Thompson, Ray Wise and, just to throw in a former Presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee. Sometimes, this approach can be dreadful, such as with the recent awful flick Faith of our Fathers. In God's Not Dead 2, for the most part it works with the exception of Ray Wise's wildly over-the-top to the point of caricaturish performance as a civil rights attorney whose deep hatred of Christians is painfully cliche'd. Among the cast's faith-based cinema regulars, David A.R. White once again proves himself to be one of contemporary Christian cinema's most talented actors.
On the other hand, Melissa Joan Hart gives an earnest and pleasing performance as the earnest and pleasing Grace Wesley. Jesse Metcalfe, who may be familiar to audiences for his work on the Dallas and Desperate Housewives television series, gives the film's most winning performance as a young attorney who defends Wesley yet even most of the film's smaller appearances are massively preferable to the original film's cast.
It warrants saying again that God's Not Dead 2 isn't so much targeting crossover appeal and, quite honestly, it doesn't need to do so. The faith-based audience has grown and persons of faith are finally catching on that if you want to see more faith-based films then you need to show up when the films hit the theaters. So, in growing numbers they are doing so. God's Not Dead 2 isn't going to pass the muster of most joyfully jaded film critics, yet even with its agenda firmly in hand it's a higher quality, more inspiring and more relevant approach to a topic that is, in fact, quite timely and important to discuss. While I may wish that screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon had softened the edges just a tad bit more, when you're preaching to the choir such boldness is to be expected.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic