HUGE SPOILERS follow. You’ve been warned.
As a Christian, I joined the other millions of Americans around the country who have made this Pure Flix movie the #4 movie in the country (and an expanded release to a number of movie theaters that originally didn’t have it in their lineups). On a Tuesday night, two and a half weeks after its release, my family and I sat in what was a packed theater of all ages feeling good that a movie like this could have such a draw. Occasionally, people in the crowd cheered at moments when “zingers” were expressed and arguments against faith were shot down.
I, however, didn’t leave cheering.
I know. My Christian brothers and sisters are surely thinking me a traitor for such a statement. Don’t get me wrong. Faith movies have come a long, long, LONG way since the in-your face cheesiness and deadpan acting of the first rekindling of faith-based films through “Fireproof.” Coming from an artists’ church, I’m always shocked that they can’t seem to find women who can act for many of these movies as we could easily cast a film out of my own RiverGlen Christian Church of Waukesha, Wisconsin with higher caliber chops. There are some HUGE wins in this movie and I want to talk about them, but they also got some things very wrong.
I came to this movie, and come to all Christian movies and entertainment, with one thing in mind. I used to be an Atheist. I was a PROUD Atheist until I was 33 years old. I see Christian entertainment as serving three purposes for God. The first is to strengthen the faith of those who already believe. The second is to serve as a reminder of redemption to those who have walked away from the faith. The third is to bring people to the faith who have never believed. “God’s Not Dead” has a little bit of each. That being said, it seems to be a movie targeted to the third category and I believe it failed in this goal.
In full disclosure, I–of course–also come to this movie, and all movies, as a writer with a specifically focused mind on dialogue. The best movies, in my opinion, are those where the writer is at the head of the screenplay team (Hunger Games, for instance, including Suzanne Collins.) The worst lasting value comes from those with millions (or billions) invested in production and almost nothing spent on an unsurprisingly crappy script (think James Cameron’s Avatar with the same basic script as Disney’s version of Pocahontas!)
What the movie got right:
The acting! BIG Kudos to Kevin Sorbo as Professor Radisson, who had to run the gamut of emotions throughout the movie. Also bringing top-notch performances were Shane Harper (Josh Wheaton), Marco Khan (Misrab), Trisha LaFache (Amy Ryan), and Cory Oliver (Mina). The overall acting brought to this movie FINALLY made it stand up with “the big boys” in Hollywood. (Not that I expect any Oscar nods!)
Honesty! THANK YOU for finally having a Christian in a Christian film NOT be perfect. If my son were ever dating the likes of Kara (played by Cassidy Gifford), I think I’d lose my mind. This character was a demanding, controlling, snooty girl and I was glad she didn’t come back to Josh at the end of the film. Let her find somebody else’s puppet strings to operate.
Production! There was such a nice balance of emotional drama, humor, action, character, and connection with wonderfully designed scene changes. There were no notable moments of that B-rated quality of film work that has been known to all-too-often creep into (or take over) faith flicks.
This line! These words were spoken by the mother of Mark and Mina (an actress whose name is conspicuously absent from IMDB) to her son. Mark has asked her why she, who has prayed her whole life and been kind and good, is suffering from dementia, while he–an admittedly awful, power-hungry person–has a prosperous and successful life. In a rare moment of clarity, she responds: “Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.”
The debate! While (especially converted) Christians are aware of the countless SCIENTIFIC and HISTORICAL evidence for the bible and its related faith, it was nice to hear new information from a philosophical point of view. These were different arguments than those that others have used when taking on this subject. (Of course I still recommend their works . . . read on!) As this classroom discussion is the piece for which the film really was a tool, it’s nice to see that they didn’t get all feely, fluffy, and testimonial-driven during the debate. Maybe this movie, for those scenes alone, will send some viewers in the direction of Lee Strobel, C.S. Lewis, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, and others.
What, in my opinion, they got wrong:
Josh Wheaton–that name. Sure. Sounds nothing at all like Joss Whedon, famed Hollywood writer who is known to have been quoted as saying, “I’m a hard-lined, angry atheist.” Coincidence?
Not all Atheists are jerks. The over-the-top cruelty with which Professor Radisson and Mark (played by Dean Cain) treated their girlfriends was ridiculous. In particular, I note two scenes: 1) The scene in which Amy shared her Cancer diagnosis with Mark only to receive a cold-hearted dumping from him and 2) The wine-gone-bad bullying scene by Professor Radisson AND his guests to Mina. These were unrealistic portrayals to the point of off-putting. I get that these particular men are not good guys in the movie, but these bits made the actors seem more like caricatures than characters. Do you really mean to tell me that not one of the women professors at the dinner party would have leapt somehow to Mina’s defense, even in a back-handed way? And couldn’t Mark have left Amy, but in a less obviously stone-cold manner? Dial it back. We’re not too stupid for subtleties.
The vote. Not every student should have stood up for Josh’s side of the argument. There should have been a smattering of unconvinced fellow students after the three debates. That would have been much more realistic. Truthfully, with the exception of Martin (played by Paul Kwo), the change in the hearts and minds of Josh’s classmates is really never revealed.
Cameos are cameos. They’re in movies for fans of other groups, sports, etc. to draw extra audience from those bases. I get it. I don’t think those present in “God’s Not Dead” are any worse than those in traditional Hollywood movies, but–clearly–neither the Robertsons (whose show, “Duck Dynasty,” I haven’t seen) nor the Newsboys (whose music I greatly enjoy) were brought in for their acting abilities. I do like, however, how Willie Robertson used the same verse as that to which Josh refers (upon recommendation by his reverend) before making his decision to follow-through with the debate.
This line by Reverend Jude pointed out by my husband. “He’s broken several ribs and his lungs are filling up with blood. He won’t make it. He doesn’t have long now.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” Um . . . really? HOW exactly do you know? NEVER in the film did we get any indication that this visiting Reverend Jude from Africa (played by Benjamin Ochieng) had a history of medicine or trauma, but, for the sake of salvation, he’s suddenly the expert and the dozens of people gathered around the accident victim don’t even second guess it? This was lazy writing made convenient to allow the next scene, but it doesn’t matter that much because–to me–the number one thing they got wrong was . . . .
THE ENDING! Did the professor REALLY have to die??? I wanted a miracle. This is in no way a reflection on Sorbo’s INCREDIBLE performance during this scene, which was a well-deserved WOW moment. My new, rewritten ending goes like this: Accident is fast-forwarded just a few minutes in the timeline. Professor Radisson is crossing the street (from the other side so that he begins in front of Reverend Dave’s vehicle) when his phone beeps. It causes him to pause to see the text from Mina that “God’s Not Dead.” In that moment, a car hits him and takes him down with an injury, but not a fatal one. Reverends Dave and Jude get out of the vehicle and note that, had the professor taken just one more step, he’d surely be dead. Reverend Dave (played by David A.R. White) asks what made him stop, to which he refers to the text message. Salvation dialogue can still take place and Mina – at the concert – get’s a text back from him that either says, “God’s Not Dead,” or “I know.” He’s taken away in an ambulance.
It’s not JUST because I like a happy ending that I prefer my imagined approach. I wanted a miracle! My husband, after the movie, pointed out that salvation was the miracle and I don’t deny that, but guess what! God makes miracles in THIS life, too, and this movie seems to miss a lot of that. Our main transformations (Amy and the Professor) are both doomed to die. Then, the African Reverend Jude is calling it a day of celebration in heaven and everybody else is dancing and singing at a concert. They’re dancing, defiant of what the professor taught them, while he was dying. The whole thing felt a little, no, a LOT spiteful to me. (I get it. Writers get to kill people off. Don’t tick us off!)
(Oh – on a lighter note from my daughters . . . they both think that, during the credits, the two reverends should have finally been on their Disney roller coaster!)
I am THRILLED, as a Christian and an artist, that faith-based entertainment is making its way into the mainstream. I am even happier that it is finally drawing high quality acting and production. (Did I say FINALLY?)I think that Harold Kronk’s story is wonderful, for the most part, and he does well with the centerpiece of the film; the debate.
Looking at it from those converted Atheist’s eyes, though, I am offended at how atheist men are depicted as treating women and I am not at all motivated by the fact that it seems the only joy of a Christian comes from a better death. (By the way, I seem to see these sentiments being expressed again and again in anger on movie review sites. Atheists aren’t leaving with new-found faith . . . they’re leaving with new-found hate.) I would have loved to see some of that better LIFE that comes with the reality of a faith well-lived.
Later this year, I’ll be releasing my first faith-based work, a book and program titled, “Poison-Free 40; The Spiritual Detox of an Atheist.” Stay tuned.