God’s Not Dead – one of the many mainstream films to be released this year that central around religion – is a project that’s easy for select opinionated movie goers to pile on. With its earnest ambitions and its obvious preferences as to who the film is geared towards, some are ready to stamp Harold Cronk’s movie as manipulative pap just by viewing the trailer.
Well, curiosity got the best of me and I watched God’s Not Dead. It’s not what I would call a terrible movie, but it’s a scatterbrained misfire. There’s enough fishiness amongst its proud intentions that stops it from seeing any redemption.
For one, I wouldn’t label it as propaganda. Cronk is being really nice about the good word, but the film isn’t out to recruit or prove Christianity is the best religion around. God’s Not Dead is actually more of an inspirational story about standing up for what you believe in when the cards are stacked against you and threatening your scholastic fate.
The lead character of the film is hopeful, devout college student Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper). And, no, they don’t call attention to how close his name is to Avengers director Joss Whedon. Perhaps it’s a nerdy inside joke between screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.
Josh speaks out against his philosophy professor who asks his students to write “GOD IS DEAD” on a sheet of paper in order to bypass “standard” information during one of the introductory units. Standing off and treating Josh with condescension, professor Radisson (played to hammy extremes by Kevin Sorbo) challenges Josh to prove to the class that God had an existence of some sort. If he’s successful, Radisson will consider passing him.
Josh isn’t trying to convince his peers – his jury – to convert. If they do choose, it’s because they’ve made the decision on their own. They feel the need of a higher power in their own life. They are not jumping on board because Josh sold them on life affirming perks. If you replaced Josh with the late Geroge Carlin making a convincing case during his classic “I Pray to Joe Pesci” bit, those same students may walk away from the class inclined to agree with Carlin over a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
But, the lifeless class can be easily swayed, and that’s one of the problems God’s Not Dead has. Each student in this philosophy class looks to be regretting their decision to filling in background space on such a laborious, lumbering movie. And, if the students look like they’re willing to agree to anything in order to leave class, there are no raised stakes. According to the Internet Movie Database, Ross Britz played the role of “Bored Juror”. They must’ve cloned thirty different versions of Ross, and dressed some of them up as girls too.
But, I can’t blame them for looking uninterested. Being a background actor on God’s Not Dead and listening to multiple takes of these long-winded diatribes by Harper must’ve been the worst. Plus, adding Sorbo’s laughable turn as the evil professor makes matters all the more awkward. I hope these extras were at least well fed.
The film’s representation of non-belivers is when God’s Not Dead shows immature colours. God’s Not Dead’s Atheists are people who are professional scowlers and scoffers. Sorbo frowns his way through arguments, and even goes out of his way to bully Josh after class by patronizing him and getting his attention by grabbing his shoulder and spinning him.
It’s hard to take any of the film’s arguments seriously when Cronk shows his non-believers with such underdeveloped rage as they spit out apathetic dialogue. The idea of making a movie about younger and older generations debating religion with a final grade in limbo is a good start. A final classroom showdown between Harper and Sorbo lets us see the impassioned fire. But, this burst arrives too late since the filmmakers are often scared to give the opposing argument screen time and respect.
Konzelman and Solomon attempt to flesh out professor Radisson with more of a backstory later on, but it’s all too contrived. By the time the screenwriting duo wrap up the Radisson character, we see how they really feel about those who question faith and how those people can be effortlessly disposed of. Radisson is a jerk, but the tasteless twist of fate has the film going overboard.
God’s Not Dead crams too many characters into its spectrum. It wants to thematically connect different characters in the same way Paul Thomas Anderson expertly did in Magnolia, but instead comes across as Garry Marshall at church.
There’s a subplot featuring a Muslim family that doesn’t branch off well, and ends on an untied bleak note. There’s another subplot about a minister and his missionary who are just trying to get to a theme park that may-or-may-not-be Disneyland, but life keeps throwing them lemons. And then, there’s Marc (played by Dean Cain). He’s an obnoxiously arrogant businessman who couldn’t care less about his sick mother or his partner’s newly diagnosed Cancer. But, you see, he’s a non-believer. So, he has to be written like a jackass.
Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson shows up to add star power – I suppose – and alongside him is his wife Korie. But, I swear that’s Ross “Bored Juror” Britz disguised as the leggy blonde. How else could you explain her frozen screen presence?
Cronk is lucky that his film has been made with an honest heart on everyone’s part. It’s the life preserver that keeps it afloat. Like Josh, it truly just wants to state an opinion, take no casualties, and sit back down. God’s Not Dead isn’t overwrought with pummelling manipulation, it’s not trying to sell anything, and it’s not offensively assertive to a point where you feel its necessary to leave. It’s unintentionally careless, but it goes in one ear and out the other.
God’s Not Dead is one-sided mediocrity, with wishy washy continuity and a “lazy river” visual style you’ll only see in an infomercial about Diabetes. However, it’s not worth getting upset with because it doesn’t know any better.