God’s Not Dead – Thimblerig’s Review – Part Two

god is not deadIn part one of this review, I explained that God’s Not Dead has merit as a movie if you embrace the fact that it was made squarely for the Christian movie-going subculture. However, if you judge the film against other films being made for mainstream audiences, it comes up woefully short. I’d like to take this time to express what I liked about the movie, and where it failed me as a moviegoer.

Warning: abundant spoilers ahead.

What I liked about God’s Not Dead.

1. I appreciated the way the film attempted to take separate stories and bring them together.   This is a film style that can be very effective (thinking of Babel, Traffic, even Pulp Fiction – all films that did this well), and I don’t recall any Christian-made films attempting it before, and so it was a bit of a risk. I’m not sure that it succeeded in the execution, but kudos to the filmmakers for trying to do something a bit different in a faith-based film.

2. The cinematography. In my former two reviews, I complimented the cinematography, and this film was also nicely shot. It seems like one thing our tribe is starting to do well as filmmakers is to hire people who know what a film needs to look like to be taken seriously.  It was a well-shot film.

shaneharper23. The casting of Shane Harper in the role of Joshua Wheaton. Shane was a good choice, and he did a good job. In fact, one of the things I didn’t like about the multiple storyline idea was that it took away from Joshua’s story, and that was the story I wanted to see more of. I do think there was much more that could have been done with the character (more on this later), but the actor was earnest in his portrayal and he was very likable.

4. As a Christian, the film inspired me to not be afraid to stand up for my faith. For that reason, I’ll probably show it to my children to encourage them as they learn and grow. My guess is that this was a big motivation to the filmmakers for the creation of this film. In that way, they succeeded.

5. The filmmakers didn’t tie up all the loose ends. It is certainly to their credit that they avoided the temptation of having Amy miraculously cured of cancer, Dean Cain’s character repent and have a change of heart, and/or Ayisha’s father seeing a vision of Jesus and taking her back home.

What I didn’t like about God’s Not Dead.

1. The Christian celebrity cameos designed to appeal to evangelical audiences.

This was my biggest beef with the film.

Coming from southwest Virginia, I understand completely that Duck Dynasty is a cultural force. But seeing the Robertsons on the screen in this film just further reinforced to me that this film had been made solely for the entertainment and edification of the Christian audience.

korie-and-willie-robertson

Let’s say for a moment that Willie is the face of Christianity in America these days. Just how exactly did his inclusion help propel the storyline forward? It was an incredibly preachy, on-the-nose scene – from the obviously antagonistic questions asked by Amy to the junior sermon answers given by the Robertsons – it was just completely unnecessary except as a chance for the Robertsons to preach.

And this movie was already more preachy than it should have been, even without the Duck Dynasty scene.

(As a side note, if Amy really wanted to cause a stink then she should have asked Willie Robertson to explain the church of Christ theology on the role of baptism in salvation. That would have made lots of Lifeway bookstore owners a bit more nervous about carrying Duck Dynasty products in their stores! If you don’t know what I mean, just Google it.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 12.27.36 PMAnother example of Christian celebrity overkill was the Newsboys. I like their music, but I found that having a huge Christian band included so intimately in the plot at the end – when they hadn’t been involved up until that point – immediately brought me out of the film. After all, how many people actually get to have private one-on-one prayer times with Michael Tate and the boys? I know it happens (see my story of meeting Rich Mullins), but in God’s Not Dead, it just seemed forced.  Like the filmmakers wanted be able to say, “Hey!  We got the Newsboys!  Come watch our movie!”

Why didn’t they take Amy’s prayer in a more natural direction? It would been truer to the storyline to have Amy hear about Josh’s ongoing battle with Dr. Radisson and decide to interview him. Then, as she did with the Newsboys, she could let it slip about her cancer, and he could have been the one to pray with her. If they had done this, the stories would have been more closely interweaving, and someone we actually cared about could have been the one to do this pivotal action of praying with the dying journalist.

2. The generalized characterizations.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 12.38.35 PMThe generalized characterizations were disappointingly predictable for a faith-based film, and seemed designed for easy digestion by a pre-ordered faith-based audience.

Why, in Christian movies, do we so often have Christians portrayed as all good, wonderful people while the non-Christians are all narrow-minded moustache-twisters?

In God’s Not Dead, the exception to this was Josh’s weird and ultimately unlikable Christian girlfriend who breaks up with him for standing up for his faith. This was the most unpredictable thing that happened in the film, but it didn’t make sense based on what we saw of their relationship.

Here’s the thing about being unpredictable in storytelling – it must make sense in the context of the story! The way she suddenly began treating him and the subsequent breakup was out of character from what we saw at the beginning of the film, when things seemed perfect for the young couple.

Back to the portrayal of Christians versus non-Christians…. Haven’t we all known despicable Christians? Heck, I can be the most despicable! And haven’t we all known kind and loving non-Christians? And yet with God’s Not Dead, they were just a step away from dressing the non-Christians in black and the Christians in white to further drive home the point that Christians = good, non-Christians = bad.  This was an unfortunate and easy choice in the writing.

3. The weak writing with regards to Professor Radisson’s character development and arc in the story

This is the part that bummed me out the most, because I really like Kevin Sorbo, and respect the position he takes in public regarding his faith. I really, I really wanted to like his performance in this film.

And I did like him.

For a while.

I completely bought the character during the first and second classroom scenes, and felt like Professor Radisson was an interesting and real person who was simply antagonistic towards theists.

And then we had the ridiculous hallway scene after Joshua’s second presentation where Radisson confronts Joshua and threatens to make it his personal mission to destroy Joshua’s future if he continues to present his arguments. I felt like he was going to point a clutching hand at Joshua and as the kid starts choking say, “I find your abundance of faith disturbing!”

Darth RadissonThis was when the professor slipped from being an interesting character to being a not-so-interesting caricature.

And then there was the confession he made to Josh, about his mother dying of cancer.   I didn’t buy that he would admit that to his adversary.   And I also didn’t buy that the character from the first part of the film would ever admit that he hates God, because he denied God’s existence altogether!  And to admit it to the kid who is showing him up in class?  And to admit it in front of the class? I might have bought it if he’d admitted the fact to his girlfriend, but not Josh. That just didn’t make sense.

And speaking of the girlfriend…

Why did the professor spend so much time humiliating his beautiful girlfriend in front of his colleagues? Why would he bother dating an outspoken Christian in the first place? The dialogue seemed to suggest that they started dating when she was a student in his classroom, but why would she – as an outspoken Christian – date the professor who was reputed to be rabidly anti-Christian? Because of the multiple story lines, we never got to know or really even care about these two.

This was my complaint about the execution of the multiple storyline technique – while I admired the attempt, we didn’t learn enough about the supporting characters to care much about their situation.  The exception to this for me was the story of the Muslim girl who had secretly converted to Christianity.  I bought her storyline, and felt like it was well-executed and acted by both daughter and father.

But back to the professor’s relationship with his girlfriend… this was especially important, because it is apparently Radisson’s realized care for the girl that drives him to make that fatal run to the concert hall (and why didn’t he drive?). As it is, Radisson’s character arc seemed forced and contrived, all to get him to the intersection at that time.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 3.05.42 PMFinally, I was completely dissatisfied with the predictable fate of Professor Radission.   The characters arc seemed so – again – forced and contrived, all to get him to the intersection at the right time to be hit and saved.  I know that he was apparently in the middle of having a change of heart, but if all it took to push him back into faith was a little car accident, couldn’t Josh have just run the professor over ten minutes into the film and we’d have had a much shorter film?

In conclusion, while God’s Not Dead did some things right, it still didn’t achieve what a Christian film should – in my opinion – be able to achieve.  I still hold strong to my argument that the reason we keep coming back to this – film after film – is because of the handcuffs and lack of artistic freedom the American church gives to her artists to make a better product.  If an extremely well-made film doesn’t check all the right boxes, we won’t support it.  If a film checks all the right boxes but suffers in the writing or directing, rendering it a film that most non-Christians would never see, we’ll support it.

Church, when will we stop doing this?  When will we release our artists to do what they are trained to do?  God’s Not Dead was a decent made-for-Christians movie, but it could have been a fantastic made-for-everyone movie.  The ideas and motivation behind the film were laudable, but the finished product – being so handcuffed by oversensitivity to the Christian consumer – was far less than it could have been, and that’s a pity.

Christian artists – I know you have to be able to fund your films, and the evangelical American church-going dollar is mighty attractive, but just know that there are lots of us out here rooting for you, and looking forward to the day when you have the freedom to make such amazing, well-written, professionally produced films that we will proudly show them to our non-Christian friends.

And please cut out the Christian celebrity cameos when you make the films. Isn’t the idea of Christian celebrity counter to the whole idea of the Christian faith anyway?

Yes, Christian superstars, I’m looking at you.

But that’s the subject of another blog post.  For now…

Golden Groundhogs God's Not Dead

God’s Not Dead – 2.5/5 Golden Groundhogs 

 

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11 thoughts on “God’s Not Dead – Thimblerig’s Review – Part Two

  1. I’m impressed by your balanced review.
    Just curious, have you seen the films made by Sherwood Baptist Church with the Kendrick brothers? If yes, what did you think of those? And have you heard that they’ve re-made the left behind series with Nic Cage?

  2. Hi TP, I’ve seen Fireproof and Facing the Giants, and my opinion is about the same as with God’s Not Dead. What impressed me most about the Sherwood Baptist films was that they were grassroots efforts – true indy films. But, I’d contend that they were also not made for the world – but for the church. What about you? What do you think of them?

    As far as the Nic Cage movie goes – I’ll hold my opinion. I’ve heard that it’s not a strict adaptation of the book, and that the film takes place over the course of a day (like 24) – not sure if that’s true, but it could be interesting. We’ll see!

  3. Appreciate the insights. I think the cameos would be cool if they were hidden ones. One’s where their appearance was muted or almost invisible–but enough to conjure a “did you happen to notice . . . ” sort of thing. The way Jon Bon Jovi was in Young Guns II and no one can even remember WHERE.

  4. I’ll preface this by saying I only saw the trailer for this film, but just based on that, I had a feeling it was going to be pretty much what you’ve described: aimed squarely at a Christian audience, with fairly stereotypical characters and lots of Christianese and preachy moments. Shame. I was hoping I’d be wrong.
    You’re right, too many Christian-made movies play it way too safe and don’t really try to connect with a wider audience. I’ve noticed the same thing when it comes to books and TV as well. It’s a shame, because I’m sure there are plenty of Christians out there with great stories to tell, and if told properly, would attract massive audiences of all backgrounds.

  5. Thank you for writing such a well thought and provocative review of this movie. I am an atheist, but just because I am an atheist doesn’t mean I do not appreciate good Christian cinema. I only recently became an atheist, after the age of 40, and when I was growing up there were plenty of good Christian films that I would still enjoy today. There were also a few bad Christian films that I would enjoy more today than I did as a Christian.

    Personally I really liked God’s Not Dead, just not for reasons intended by its producers. Usually I am being at least slightly snarky when I say this, but I am completely sincere when I say it, I think God’s Not Dead would be better described as an unintentional atheist comedy than as a Christian film. The plot takes place in Bizarro World and the propaganda is so thick it is hard to believe anyone could take the movie seriously.

    I recently read an atheist review of the movie that I think you will appreciate. While it is critical of the movie it has a few good things to say about the movie. The author thought it brought up many interesting concepts and then dropped the ball. He thinks that this movie is very thought provoking, but again, not in the way that the producers intended. Maybe it is because I read your two reviews in as many days but your review very much reminded me of his. I would recommend you read it before showing the movie to your children. http://www.examiner.com/review/review-god-s-not-dead

    Also, while I see the movie as a failed attempt to insult atheists I understand that this movie does not represent the majority of Christians. When I was a Christian I had no desire to insult atheists and as an atheist I try not to be insulting to Christians. I don’t think Christians are stupid, I simply no longer share their beliefs.

    Thank you for being one of the good guys regardless of your beliefs.

  6. Well-written and extremely well-articulated. I agree with each of your points as well. As a follower of Christ with a film background, I get so disappointed by the heavy-handed, “on-the-nose” films that the Christian community at-large accept as “art”. …shouldn’t the point of evangelical films be to reach those who don’t know Christ? Although I found this to be a well-shot, well-produced affairs, & therefore, heads above the scores of Kirk Cameron projects, etc., & I as an “already follower of Christ” felt moved/ reaffirmed and inspired by some things, it was ultimately a sermon with poorly developed caricatures. (Along with your examples, I found Martin’s marvelling at the concert arena a bit of an offensive stereotype–fairly certain there are arenas on Beijing as well)…it’s hard that films like “Fury” ( written and directed by a phenomenal follower of Christ) are spurned by the collective “faith audience”–as this & other films present the themes of Christianity in extremely raw, well-written, & artistic ways. But, throw in an altar call & maybe some early 90s C-list actors & we should all watch these films & pat ourselves on the backs…I cannot think of a single “Christian” film that I could show my non-believing friends & find them receptive to/ not ridiculing the sloppy writing and black and white roles. It’s unfortunate that in film and in music, Christians who do not adhere to the faith-based labels & production companies are looked at as somehow less inspirational/ less worthy of support. My dream? To see a film made, starring Rya

    • Hi amessyheart, thanks for the thoughtful comment. And living in China, I can tell you that someone from Beijing would not be at all impressed by a large gathering of people – unless it’s the fact that they are all people who believe in God. Now that would impress someone who grew up being told there was no God.

      Regarding films you can show your friends – I’d invite you to read my review of Believe Me, and to give that film a try. The guys who made that film (Riot Studios) really did a great job, and I think non-believers would even enjoy it – especially if they have some background with Christians.

      Thanks again!
      Nate

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