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

god is not deadGod’s Not Dead… the movie that started it all for me.

Earlier this year, God’s Not Dead opened wide across America, and made a lot more money than anyone thought it could. This got the attention of lots of folks, including me.

I was in China, and so was unable to see the film. I read a review, and that review lead me to write “What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking”, a blog post that has been read over 100,000 times as people have apparently been asking the same question.

Tonight, I was finally able to watch the movie, and I’m extremely bummed to say that things are worse than I thought.

This is the film that American Christendom embraced, buying out countless theaters, taking endless youth groups, and ultimately helping earn the film over $60,000,000?

This is the film that The Dove Foundation calls a “powerful film“, holding it up as a high expression of Christian filmmaking, and awarding it a “faith friendly” seal?

This is the film that won the 2014 Epiphany Prize from Movie Guide and the John Templeton Foundation, a prize that named it the most inspirational movie of the year?  (updated information)

I’m sorry, folks, but if this is the best we can do – if this film is the most inspirational film of the year – then we are in big, big trouble.

On the one hand, I feel bad saying this because I know that the film was made by well-intentioned people of faith, and many of them are highly trained professionals working in the trenches of the entertainment industry, doing the best they can to make a film that will impact the world.  I respect that.  I really do.

I also feel bad saying this because many of my friends who I love and respect as Christian brothers and sisters absolutely loved the film, and I recognize that opinions are like belly buttons.  I don’t think I’m more correct than they are, nor am I coming close to suggesting that they need to change their opinion of the film.

But this film is such a keen example to me of the problem we have in 21st century creative Christianity and the things that we permit to be produced in our name, that I can’t NOT speak my mind.

Noah 1I need to pause here, and step back for a moment. A few weeks ago, I was finally able to watch Aronofsky’s Noah . I still haven’t written my review for Noah, but one of the huge things that I walked away from with that film was that Noah was not made for the church. It was a film made by a critically acclaimed atheist filmmaker – and he made it for himself, and for those people who adore him.

Do you hear that church?  Many of you got all upset over a film that really wasn’t meant for you anyway. This was a film made for the filmmaker and his ilk. It was an auteur expression on a blockbuster budget scale.

And this is why you didn’t like the movie.

I don’t blame those of you who were vocal of your distaste for the movie, because you were purposefully misled by lots and lots of people into going to see this film. The studio lied to you, trying to tell you it was just an interesting take on a biblical tale, and that if you don’t give it a chance, you’re close-minded and not savvy enough. Lots of Christian leaders who had advanced screenings misled you (purposefully?  I don’t know.  I’m not going to accuse anyone of being purposefully misleading), trying to convince you that it was made for you and working up resource materials for pastors, making the claim that the film would be a great way to engage the culture.

They were right in this one thing, that the film was potentially a launching point for engaging the culture, but they were wrong to encourage you that the film was for you. Because it wasn’t at all for you. Not even close.

And here’s the crazy thing – if you approach Noah with the understanding that it wasn’t made for Christians – you can find quite a bit to enjoy and appreciate about the film. This, in such the same way you might from other secular films also not made for you – such as Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, or Chariots of Fire.

Which brings me back to God’s Not Dead.

Christians, this is a movie that was made for you. It had the right language so that you would easily understand it, it had a conflict that would fire you up to just the right level, it had celebrity cameos that you would love, it had a resolution that might have made you weep with joy and relief, and it concluded with a challenge that – if you did it  – would make you think you were actually doing something meaningful.

God’s Not Dead is a classic example of a movie that was made to preach to the choir, and my criticisms of the film will revolve around that point.

Just like I didn’t mind watching Noah when I realized who it was made for, I found that I could enjoy aspects of God’s Not Dead when I realized who it was made for.  I’ll gladly show the film to my family, and we’ll talk about the merits of the film as well as the things that could have been done better.  However, I was also glad to know that I would be very strategic in choosing to show the film to a non-Christian friend because ultimately, it was a film that was not made for them.

I look forward to the day when we Christians give our filmmakers the resources and support that they need to consistently make films that we can be excited to watch with our non-Christian films.

Whew!  That was a heckuva a long intro to my actual review.  For part 2, click here!