Tuesday, 11 November 2014

God's Not Dead (2014) - Movie Review

I am not really a religious person, but I don’t identify as an atheist either. Since I don’t think what I believe falls under agnosticism either, I have taken to calling myself a ‘cynical spiritualist’. I believe that everyone is free to believe what they want without being persecuted. However, if someone uses their religious leanings (or lack thereof) as their reasoning for doing stupid/vile things, for example the Westboro Baptist Church, I believe that we are all well within our rights to mock them for doing so. Punish for what they do, not what they think. My own personal philosophies have been brewed over time from a mixture of tenets from different religions (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, Ancient Egyptian, Dudeism, among others), and they continue to build themselves over time. I have, at different points in my life, identified as a Christian and a rather militant Atheist, so I like to think that I can look at today’s film with some level of objectivity. Then again, talking about religion on the internet is like coating yourself in gasoline: You’re kind of asking for flames.

The plot: Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is a freshman in college who starts in a philosophy class led by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Radisson asks all of his students to admit that God is dead as part of his class and Josh, as a Christian, can’t bring himself to do it. Josh is then asked to, over three seminars, convince Radisson and the rest of the class that God isn’t dead, or else he will fail the class.

The acting is extremely bland for the most part, with only Kevin Sorbo bringing in an actual performance as a character. Sorbo, even if he has a penchant for not choosing the best material, is by no means a bad actor and proves here with serious conviction and charisma. The rest of the cast really phone it in, which is honestly fair enough given how most of the cast is made up of pretty unknown actors. The one exception to this is Dean Cain as Mark, Radisson’s brother-in-law, who ultimately gives the same performance he does with pretty much everything else he’s been in: Cardboard. It’s sad that he had more screen presence as the host of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not then he does here (or in anything else he's been in, for that matter).

We also have a few cameos in this film, like Willie and Korie Robertson from Duck Dynasty along with Christian pop-rock group Newsboys, and they are pretty standard in terms of “celebrity” cameos. The music, while pretty Hallmark-production quality, is passable for the production we’re dealing with here. We even get the lead actor singing on the soundtrack, where… he gives about the same conviction as his on-screen performance. The movie ends with a big concert by Newsboys, for very weird plot reasons, and honestly that concert was easily the best part of the movie purely because of the music.

Okay, time to bring the ugly stick and ugly is easily the best word to describe this truly reprehensible piece of propaganda. As you could no doubt tell from the plot, this film is very far removed from anything like reality, but it gets worse the further you dig into it. Radisson, the ‘Atheist’ that this film paints so vividly as a villain that even the blind can see it, is such a straw man caricature of what Atheists actually are that it’s kind of offensive, even as someone who doesn’t identify as that anymore. He’s totalitarian in the classroom, demanding that everyone agree that God is dead, constantly making snide comments about how BS Christianity is and how everyone who believes in such an archaic fairy tale are stupid. This is like saying that every Christian acts like Pat Robertson, in terms of horrific stereotyping. In the real world, this man would not have a) a job, b) a wife (who is a Christian, to make things even more surreal) or c) anyone willing to actually speak with him without throwing things at him. In fact, I reckon he would probably be in jail if he carried on like he does here.

And to make matters even worse, judging by how he’s carried himself off in interviews, this is actually what Kevin Sorbo thinks Atheists are like. He’s gone on record saying that Atheists just have to believe in God, or else they wouldn’t be getting so angry about him. Maybe that’s why he plays the role so well: He thinks it’s the reality… and if that is the case, I begin to suspect that his many years on the sets of Hercules and Andromeda have seriously warped his version of reality because, barring a few exceptions, Atheists are not like this in the real world, and even the ones who are aren’t so to this ridiculous of a degree.

If Radisson was the only putrid character in this film, then maybe this film could have limped on its way. But no, we get a few non-Christian bad guys in this film, the only other one coming close (or possibly surpassing him) in terms of being a bag of dicks would be Mark, a man so vile that he dumps his girlfriend after she says that she has cancer… seriously. We also get a couple of Muslims with Ayisha and her father; Ayisha is a closet Christian who hides it from her father, and from the look of things she was right to as he savagely beats her upon finding out. I’d be aiming all of my hatred towards the Christians for making everyone look bad, if they weren’t also making themselves look bad as well.

Here, based on how Josh Wheaton (God, what I wouldn’t give for Joss Whedon to be involved and make this at least a bit better) is portrayed as the hero of the story, Christians are shown to be hypocritical, self-righteous bigoted assholes with severe inferiority complexes. Through Radisson, they keep pushing this idea that Atheists are trying to dominate over Christianity and make them conform to their beliefs by force, an idea so stupid that even the depths of low-budget Rapture movies would call it out. Josh even says in one line that “God wants someone to defend him” when he’s asked why he doesn’t just leave the class and avoid all this idiocy. It’s kind of hilariously pathetic to think that, in a world where God-believing people vastly outnumber Atheists/agnostics/etc., there are some that feel the need to defend themselves against an enemy that doesn’t even care about their beliefs. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate the phrase ‘First World Problems’, but here I honestly can’t help but use the term ‘First Faith Problems’ to describe this mindset.

Worse still, even ignoring the theology of the script, the story is riddled with holes that you could drive entire fleets of cars through. In one scene, we have Josh debunking Stephen Hawking’s theory of the origin of the universe due to circular logic, and yet in another he says “Creation happened, because God said it should happen”. Anyone else want some cake? The entire point behind the debate is a whole other bucket of stupid, as Radisson’s stated reason for wanting them to deny God is to avoid debates of his existence in class. You know, even as someone who hasn’t gone to a philosophy class before, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing you would discuss in a philosophy classroom, but hey what do I know?

Also, we have three separate crises of faith to deal with here: Firstly, we have Amy (the one Mark dumped for being so selfish and not thinking about him while she went out and got cancer) a reporter who is also an Atheist, the only relatively sane one but that might be because she becomes born-again by the end of the movie. Now her story, in a vacuum, could have made for a decent movie all on its own, removed from all this ‘proving that God does/doesn’t exist’ nonsense, as the framework is solid enough: She starts as an Atheist, a rather militant Atheist but nowhere near Radisson’s level, but after learning that she has cancer begins to think otherwise about her beliefs. It’s been done before, sure, but at least it would have given something that isn’t as bankrupt as this.

The second is of Radisson himself, who it turns out was a Christian until his mother died of cancer (connection to Amy?) and he grew resentful of God. It is with this revelation that Radisson’s atheism, the entire reason for the main plot essentially, dissolves into a big puddle of poor ideas, but it definitely conforms to Sorbo’s own beliefs on Atheists, showing yet another weird bit of circular logic.

Lastly, we have undoubtedly the weakest of the three: Reverend Dave can’t get any of his cars (His own car, and then a few rentals) to start working. Don’t worry, though, it gets fixed once he and his friend pray to God for it to work, which it does. So, in this film’s universe, God is more of a mechanic than a healer. Good to know(!) God also apparently couldn't spring for decent sound effects for his universe, because the numerous cars that fail to start in no way sound like real car ignitions. The biggest issue is definitely the end ‘message’ that we’re supposed to take from it: You should have the freedom to believe whatever you want to. Noble gesture… completely ruined by your obvious Hobson’s choice in making everyone except yourselves out to be horrible human beings, but a noble gesture nonetheless.

All in all, short of quoting Deuteronomy, this ticks all the boxes for terri-bad religious propaganda, only it does worse than that by painting Christians themselves just as badly if not worse than it does non-Christians. What Reefer Madness did for marijuana, this film does for non-Christians. I could write my own book full of just how morally and structurally ugly this trash is, but I personally think that this review is long enough as is. What makes it even worse is that, buried somewhere deep inside this mess, is at least one idea for a film that could genuinely work.

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