Directed by: Harold Cronk.
Written by: Cary Solomon & Chuck Konzelman and Hunter Dennis.
Starring: Shane Harper (Josh Wheaton), Kevin Sorbo (Professor Radisson), David A.R. White (Reverend Dave), Willie Robertson (Himself), Korie Robertson (Herself), Marco Khan (Misrab), Alex Aristidis (Fahid), Dean Cain (Marc Shelley), Cassidy Gifford (Kara), Paul Kwo (Martin Yip), Trisha LaFache (Amy Ryan), Benjamin Ochieng (Reverend Jude), Cory Oliver (Mina), Hadeel Sittu (Ayisha).
On my most spiritually optimistic days I identify myself as an agnostic, on my least as an atheist. I say this off the top in the interest of full disclosure – and so the supporters of the film can simply dismiss me as biased and move on with their day. However, I do not think that I hated God’s Not Dead because I strongly disagree with its message – I don’t need to agree with a movie to find it interesting or entertaining. I hated God’s Not Dead because it is poorly written, directed and acted – and because the film so stacks the deck in its own favor that it simply becomes ridiculous and impossible to believe. Like a Fox News story, the film wants the audience to believe that Universities across America are anti-Christian, and want to turn their kids into atheists. It has a persecution complex in the extreme, whining about no one respects their religion or their freedom to practice it – while at the same time presenting the most clichéd and simplistically offensive vision of Islam as possible. I don’t have a problem with movies that have strongly Christian ideals – but I just wonder why so many of these movies have to be so, so bad. The movie clearly speaks to an audience currently being underserved by Hollywood – it grossed $60 million earlier this year – but shouldn’t audiences who want this sort of entertainment demand that the filmmakers produce better movies?
The plot of the movie centers on Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) an University freshman who signs up for a philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) – who in their first class lists a number of great thinkers – Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Ayn Rand among them – all of whom have one thing in common – they’re atheists. For this class he proposes that for the purpose of debate, they dispense with the tired argument of whether god exists or not and instead concentrate on what these men and women thought. That, by itself, is not inherently wrong. You wouldn’t want to waste time in a class about Christian or Jewish or Muslim of Buddhist or Hindu or any other religious thinkers debating whether or not their religion is “right”, would you? You would want to study what they thought. But Radisson goes way, way beyond that – insisting that every student in the class writes on a piece of paper three words – “God is Dead”. Josh refuses – he’s Christian, and cannot bring himself to do it. So Radisson makes him an offer – he’ll have three opportunities to speak to the class and “prove” the existence of God. If he fails, he’ll fail the course. The class will decide the winner.
An intelligent, well-written, well-directed and well-acted movie that hinges on the debate between science and religion could be great – it could be provocative, thoughtful and hotly debated by audiences and critics. But God’s Not Dead isn’t interested in that. It wants to make Josh into a perfect person – someone willing to become a Christian martyr, and sacrifice his entire future for his beliefs if necessary. And it wants to make Kevin Sorbo’s Radisson into a snarling, one dimensional, awful villain – and then, in a “shocking” ending have even him be converted when it matters. Along the way, it introduces other subplots. Radisson’s girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver) is a Christian, with a mother suffering from dementia, who is getting tired of being mocked by Radisson and his fellow professors for her beliefs. Her brother, Marc (Dean Cain) is a greedy, SOB who thinks of no one or nothing except himself – and thinks that proves that god doesn’t exist, because if he did, why would he prosper (his mother, in a moment of clarity, offers the answer). His girlfriend, Amy (Trisha LaFache), who writes for a website called “The New Left” specializes in “ambush” interviews – her latest target is Willie and Korie Robertson (from Duck Dynasty) – although judging on the evidence in the movie, she’s horrible at her job – who gets diagnosed with cancer, and goes on a spiritual journey. Martin (Paul Kwo) is a Chinese student in Josh’s class, whose strict father tells him not to question his professor, but he finds himself being drawn to Josh’s interview. And most offensively, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), is a young Muslin student, whose father forces her to wear a hijab, but who discovers Jesus – and gets thrown out of her house for her trouble. They are all connected by Reverend Dave (David A.R. White) who spends most of the movie either counselling these characters, or else having his travel plans with a missionary (Benjamin Ochieng) thwarted my faulty cars – but that’s all part of God’s plan you see, because they are needed outside a concert by a Christian rock group that brings all the characters together at the film’s climax.
I wish God’s Not Dead was a good film. I really do. I was looking forward to hearing the pro-religion and pro-science arguments in the film, which is what I knew the film was about. Unfortunately even these were ham fisted and phony. I think a more even handed movie would have more effective – one that acknowledges that one can study the work of atheists and not be turned into one. After all, there are many on the right in America – including many Christians – who love one of those thinkers on Radisson’s board – Ayn Rand. But God’s Not Dead is not interested in debate. It’s interested in delivering a sermon – into converting the masses. Even then, if it were a better, written or directed or acted sermon, it could have been a better movie. But God’s Not Dead is the worst of all worlds – a message movie that is ham-fisted in its execution every step of the way.