It has been quite the month at the movies for fans of faith-based cinema with I Can Only Imagine breaking records, Paul, Apostle of Christ rising above expectations and, now, a return trip to the God's Not Dead universe with God's Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness, the latest in a series of films that seems destined to continue for as long as the box-office numbers continue to hold up.
Despite being critically savaged, God's Not Dead hit a nerve with Christians and snagged over $60 million at the box-office while also becoming one of the ten biggest faith-based films of all-time. It seemed inevitable that there would be a sequel and, yes, there was a sequel that garnered a little more critical praise but in switching distributors from Freestyle Releasing to Pure Flix had to settle for a still profitable $20 million plus at the box-office.
The good news is that over the course of its three films, the God's Not Dead trilogy has become a less histrionic, judgmental series and has learned how to lean more into its faith without the harsh sincerity of the original film.
The truth is I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this entry, God's Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness, because even the film's marketing comes off as a tad histrionic in describing the film as "an inspirational drama that centers on Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) and the unimaginable tragedy he endures when his church is burned down."
Now then, maybe it's just me but there's an awful lot of "unimaginable" tragedies in the world, and for certain the burning of a church is certainly tragic, but I could think of about 100 things significantly more unimaginable than the loss of a building.
Fortunately, God's Not Dead 3 isn't particularly histrionic. In fact, God's Not Dead 3 isn't particularly inspirational. Or compelling. Or interesting. Or involving. In fact, I'm not sure that God's Not Dead 3 even has a cinematic pulse.
God's Not Dead 3 peaked at the second film, a kinder film still grounded within its evangelical faith and possessing of an involving story that holds the viewer, at least faith-based viewers, from beginning to end. It's the only one of the three God's Not Dead films that this critic could truly recommend, though looking back my relatively positive review was also partly grounded in my overwhelming sense of relief that God's Not Dead 2 didn't suck nearly as badly as God's Not Dead.
Seriously, you have no idea how much hate mail comes in with negative reviews of faith-based films.
God's Not Dead 3 isn't a bad film, though it's not quite up to par with its predecessor and it's just shy of a film that I can truly give a recommendation. It's easily the weakest of this month's three faith-based wide releases, a number that has to be a record at the box-office and it's even more impressive that all three have the likelihood of proving to be profitable ventures.
God's Not Dead 3 kinda sorta picks up somewhere after the end of God's Not Dead 2 in finding its story with Pastor Dave, ably played by faith-based cinema regular and Pure Flix co-founder David A.R. White, and yet the script, co-written by Howard Klausner and director Michael Mason, never really divulges some of the secrets left over from the previous film. Pastor Dave's church sits on the campus of a former religious-run university that has become a state-run college that aspires to shut down the campus church to avoid church/state concerns (because, of course, no "state-run" colleges offer churches <eye roll>). There's a growing build-up of faux controversy, or at least controversy that's never really controversial, as God's Not Dead 3 tries to sell the idea of a smalltown community that has suddenly turned against this church to the point of, eventually, burning it down.
When the school in question tries to keep Pastor Dave from rebuilding, Pastor Dave turns to litigation in the form of his atheist brother, Pearce (John Corbett), with whom he's estranged but when you've got a lawyer in the family and really want to sue someone I guess that's the kind of conflict that can be resolved.
As one would expect given this is a faith-based film, the story in God's Not Dead 3 really springs from the church's perspective and offers very little in the way of a balanced argument. There's truly never a single moment of doubt about which way everything will go, which relationships will be resolved and that, in the end, Christians will ultimately come away from the film inspired by Pastor Dave's assertion that "God is good all the time." To his credit, however, Mason nicely humanizes the story and adds a welcome layer of humility that is quite refreshing.
While there's no question I'm being a tad snarky when it comes to God's Not Dead 3, the truth is that there's much to appreciate about the film and, quite honestly, if you've loved the first two films there's no reason you won't love this one. While I've never quite understood the whole trend toward taking Hollywood's former A and B-listers turned G and H-listers and using them in your low-budget film, the reality is that the presence of John Corbett here is a huge gift to the film. In fact, John Corbett's presence is the gift that keeps on giving as Corbett's not only a quality actor but also a generous one who excels at making his scene mates look better. I tend to be a fan of David A.R. White's work and his scenes with Corbett here have an authenticity and sizzle that gives the film a major boost. Unfortunately, the film largely flails around when the two aren't on the screen.
Gun advocates will likely cherish the cameo by NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, while the film also features brief and appealing, or is that appealingly brief, appearances by the likes of Ted McGinley, who has made the official transition from jock to nerd, and child Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal.
D.P. Brian Shanley's lensing is strong throughout God's Not Dead 3 and it's a fair argument that this is easily the best looking and best produced of the three films. As has always been a strong point in these films, the original soundtrack is memorable and will unquestionably appeal to persons of faith.
The same discussion that I had in God's Not Dead 2 remains relevant for God's Not Dead 3. There are certain faith-based films that intentionally target cross-over markets and hope for mass appeal. Then, there are films like the God's Not Dead films that are clearly focusing their efforts directly on Christians and aren't particularly concerned about reaching a wider audience or, for that matter, getting positive reviews. God's Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness will receive unfairly scathing reviews because secular critics simply aren't able to to view the film through anything but their own experiential lens. Christians, however, will just as likely consider this review to be horribly fair and unjust despite the entire likelihood that it will be one of the film's more positive reviews and despite their own lack of knowledge that this "secular" critic is, in fact, an ordained pastor.
So be it.
God's Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness is a decent film, less involving than its predecessor but by far the kindest and gentlest and most genuine of the three films. While the story goes a bit long and becomes a bit cumbersome, it's a story that will inspire those of faith that God is, indeed, truly good all the time and even when the film is really pretty average.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic