Film Torments: God’s Not Dead (2014)

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THIS time on Torments, Dan takes a look at the vanguard of a new, exciting movement in terrible films.

American cinema is currently riding the wave of a renaissance in theatrically-released exploitation, but it’s not of the splatterhouse or action variety. For the past couple of years, a spate of religious-themed, almost exclusively Christian movies have seen national release; we’ve even featured some of them on Torments, the most notable being Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, a film so batshit insane and hilariously terrible it promptly reached No. 1 on the IMDB Bottom 100 within a month of its release.

God’s Not Dead is, debatably, the spearhead of this new wave and one of its most widely-known proponents. Grossing a staggering $62 million on a $2 million budget, it currently stands as the 8th most successful Christian-themed film of all time, its production company (Pureflix) weaving a plucky narrative of independent, devoutly Christian film-makers making a splash in Hollywood against all odds. The underdog story is reflected in the film itself, where a freshman believer named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), of all things, finds himself entangled in a theological debate with aggressively anti-theist Philosophy lecturer, Professor Raddison (Kevin Sorbo).

This would be all and well and thought-provoking if the film was any good. It isn’t. The direction is cluttered, burdened by a story with more go-nowhere sub-plots than Love Actually; the cast is a disparate group of monotone caricatures masquerading as characters, and the central premise is so riddled with straw-man arguments and logical fallacies a schoolchild could point out its flaws. Its focus is impaired by too many vaguely-connected plot threads, the music is saccharine and manipulative, and the conclusion is both absurd and rib-bustingly hilarious.

Hercules in New Jerusalem.

Hercules in New Jerusalem.

I could end the article right there, but there are so many jaw-dropping, what-the-fuck-did-he-just-say moments to document it would be remiss of me to do so. Just one of them is the sub-plot featuring Aiysha (Hadeel Sittu), a girl in a Muslim family who secretly listens to Corinthians on her iPod, which culminates in her being violently thrown out of her home when her strict father (Marco Khan) discovers this transgression, all while stirring piano chords and a woman’s “carry on” caterwauling blares on the soundtrack.

Elsewhere, another vague side-story (that is ultimately, hysterically, concluded in the sequel) concerns a Chinese student (Paul Kwo) converting to Christianity against the stern protestations of his father. Neither of these plots figure into the main plot, but they both provide examples of the film’s misguided stabs at diversity and borderline offensive interpretations of non-WASP families, secular or otherwise. In Ayisha’s case it absolutely is offensive, and her bathetic exile is handled with such ham-fistedness that laughter can be the only appropriate response.

It’s symptomatic of the film’s central problem: Preaching to the choir. God’s Not Dead isn’t trying to educate its audience, or provide alternative viewpoints to Christian dogma or rhetoric, as its academic setting would imply; it’s ratifying the beliefs of its evangelical target audience, who may as well be a congregation, and blithely dismissing anything to the contrary. The believers in the film are presented as fundamentally good, rational people who are unjustly persecuted, while the atheists or dissenters are shown to be passive-aggressive, condescending and, at worst, sociopathic.

Sociopathy in action.

Sociopathy in action.

Take Amy (Trisha LaFache), for instance. An “internet blogger”, Amy is an obnoxious personality who rudely interrupts Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson (the first among several egregious cameos) on their way to church with cookie-cutter questions like, “How can you preach about Jesus?” Minutes later, she learns she has cancer, to which she replies, “I don’t have time for cancer.” She breaks this news to her atheist boyfriend (Dean Cain) who, he stresses, has just made partner at his business firm. He responds to this news by rolling his eyes and saying, “This couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”

Of course, the most consistently reprehensible character in the film is Professor Raddison, a University academic who, in his very first lecture, demands his students write down “God is dead” on a piece of paper and hand them in, or he will fail them. This does not get him fired without notice. When Josh takes a righteous stand, Raddison snidely puts him and his “primitive superstition” down at every conceivable turn, even cornering him in a corridor to snarl, “There is a God in that classroom, and I am him.” At home, he verbally abuses his girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver), a Christian (of course), repeatedly humiliating her in front of dinner guests, all of whom are depicted as pretentious winos who live for the smell of their own farts.

Kevin Sorbo is far too good for this movie. His performance is full of thinly-concealed venom and unwarranted subtleties, helped by the fact that Raddison is one of the few characters to receive any kind of depth, as revealed in the “tragic” backstory of how he lost his faith. My other favourite character was Reverend Jude (Benjamin Onyango); paired with trendy Reverend Dave (Pureflix co-founder David A.R. White), Jude is a fortune-cookie in human form, deploying his “God is good” catchphrase with such regularity and conviction he may as well be looking straight into the camera. At one point, he very nearly does. The duo’s subplot, the 18th in the film, involves them waiting for a rental car that will drive them all the way to Disneyland. I’m deadly serious.

Newsboys aren't dead, they're surely alive!!

Newsboys aren’t dead, they’re surely alive!!

Every sub-plot converges at a Newsboys concert, with the Christian rock band appearing as themselves to help Amy pray the cancer away. Unfortunately, God’s Not Dead is not Magnolia, and Newsboys sadly fail to tie the whole thing together. There are so many things wrong, both in the absurdity of the scenario and its ultimate mean-spiritedness, that I hesitate to spoil it for the curious among you. I’ll say this much: One of the final lines is spoken by Reverend Jude in the middle of an inspirational montage featuring all the characters in the concert. “Something wonderful has happened here tonight,” he says, standing over a corpse. It is jaw-dropping.

I always try to focus on the technical aspects of a film as much as its plot or characters when writing these articles, but God’s Not Dead‘s technical aspects are so pedestrian and television-quality that they’re hardly worth discussing. All credit to the editor, Vance Null, who was forced to smash together around eight different storylines and try not to diminish any of them; Thelma Schoonmaker couldn’t make this hodgepodge work, so it’s impressive that Null manages as well as he does.

Technical limitations aside, it’s the narrative of God’s Not Dead that deserves the most scorn. It’s a pandering, ridiculous fable that slavishly caters to the small sect of American Christians yelling that everyone’s out to get them, even when it’s abundantly clear that no one is. This persecution complex would bleed into God’s Not Dead 2, an even more outrageously offensive film that transposes the academic battleground of the original to the very court halls of American justice. Both are hilarious, and fully deserve a viewing with drinks, friends, and flowcharts to map out the labyrinthine relationships between characters. Especially that last one.

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