God may not be dead, but I’d be willing to wager this movie at least gave him a faint wave of nausea. The first person I know who read the plot synopsis remarked, “This sounds like an April Fool’s joke.” After sitting through God’s Not Dead — in ever-increasing disbelief over what I was seeing — I only wish it was an April Fool’s joke. Any movie that wants me to take spiritual advice from Duck Dynasty‘s Willie Robertson (not once, but twice) is quacking from the wrong duck blind. I’m not even sure why I’m reviewing it. A movie like this is aimed at an audience who isn’t interested in whether or not it’s a good film, but merely whether or not it espouses ideas and agendas with which they’re in agreement. Of course, if the purpose really was to spread the word, they might do well to listen, but these movies aren’t about spreading the word; they’re about playing to a pre-sold audience. This is less faith-based than faith-pandering.
This one strikes me as more morally dubious and unrealistic than most. It’s firmly built upon the shaky premise that Christians are a persecuted minority in America. To prove this, the movie sets up a plot wherein out of a class of “about 80” students, only one student — our hero, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) — is sufficiently Christian to stand up against the sneering atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo) who is going to predicate one-third of the students’ grades based on their willingness to write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. Josh’s option? Prove that God is real to the class. I don’t know if I’m more alarmed by this straw-man setup or the fact that our professor thinks Ayn Rand belongs on a list of philosophers with Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. What is most remarkable is that all professors in his department are sneering atheists (all intellectuals are evil or suspect, just like in the McCarthy era). For that matter, everyone who isn’t a Christian in this movie is a card-carrying louse. There’s not much dramatic tension to be had. After all, we can safely predict that Josh and Jesus will prevail, and the professor will go down in flames and stand revealed as a sniveling little coward with a grudge against God. (The only surprise is how far down he’ll go.)
It doesn’t end there. The film seems to think it’s Altmanesque in its multistory structure. So we get the nasty atheist blogger (Trish LaFache) whose nasty atheist boyfriend (Dean Cain) dumps her when it turns out she’s dying of cancer. But then it turns out that he is the brother of the professor’s Christian girlfriend (Cory Oliver), who has about had it with the prof’s sneering atheist superiority. And then there’s the Chinese exchange student who’s being affected by Josh’s beliefs. Plus, there’s the Muslim girl (Hadeel Sittu), who gets caught listening to Franklin Graham podcasts and is slapped around and thrown out by her strict Islamic father. (I won’t even get into the presence of one of those Alzheimer’s victims who suddenly has a profoundly lucid comment.) The film also pulls a leaf from the old Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) propaganda playbook by citing nonexistent facts and facts that can’t stand scrutiny over the ending credits to convince the viewer of the “war on Christianity.” It’s like watching Fox News. It just costs more and takes longer.
All of this is kind of tied together by Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) — a character who makes Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley look deep. Frankly, Pastor Dave strikes me as wildly irresponsible. He urges Josh to risk his future, his family and his girlfriend to debate the professor because God wants him to. Bear in mind, this is at no personal risk to Pastor Dave. Later on, he counsels the now homeless Muslim convert girl about how the Bible teaches her to do without. An offer of a place to stay might be more practical. By the end of the movie, we have one death, one person dying of cancer, at least one broken family and a converted Chinese guy who puts his entire family at risk by texting “God’s not dead” to everybody in his phone book. But none of this matters because of “all the smiles in heaven tonight” over the conversions. Some will find this profound. Others may be less charitable. Rated PG for thematic material, brief violence and an accident scene.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.