Monday, 2 May 2016

God's Not Dead 2 (2016) - Movie Review

I doubt I will ever dread seeing a film for the rest of the year more so than this one. The first film was one of the first that I covered on this blog and… well, it is ugly on just about every level imaginable. As such, I spent two weeks prior to the film’s release to try and convince someone I knew, anyone I knew, to see this film with me. Needless to say, trying to sell someone else on a film that even you don’t want to see is a tall order. Thankfully, I did find someone else to watch it with and share the pain, but that kind of shows just how much seems to have changed over the last two years. Back then, I was that ill-prepared that I had to edit down entire pages worth of notes on the film out of some fear that I’d piss off Christians; now, I actually some confidence in being able to be non-biased and fair to this film. Does it deserve such treatment? Well, only one way to find out as we look at this inexplicably wide release; seriously, this is the biggest release I’ve seen for any Christian film in the last several years over here in Australia.

The plot: High school teacher Grace (Melissa Joan Hart), after answering a student (Hayley Orrantia)’s question about Jesus in class, finds herself under the threat of legal action for supposedly preaching in her class room. With her livelihood at risk, and plaintiff lawyer Pete Kane (Ray Wise) itching to make an example of her, it’s up to her and her lawyer Tom (Jesse Metcalfe) to stop this religious persecution before it becomes a precedent… like that is ever even remotely likely to happen.

There are a lot of recognisable actors in this thing, and while I would question how much these people actually believe in this material, Christian films are kind of the last rung in terms of acting gigs. Let’s not forget the Apocalypse series, which featured actors like Jeff Fahey, Margot Kidder, Howie Mandel, Gary Busey and even Mr. T at one point or another; usually, it’s agreed to because it’s the only work they can get. That said, there isn’t really a whole lot to complain about in terms of acting. The bigger budget and wider exposure for the film meant that they had to put actual actors in play, rather than the large gang of amateurs they did last time, and they do what they can with the material. Hart holds her own with the waif that they have given her and Metcalfe has a few 'atheists are still douchebags, guys' moments to placate the choir but he shows serious conviction in the courtroom scenes.

A. R. White stays in the background for the most part, thankfully, and while Orrantia has some real stilted moments with Hart, she is fine as well. Wise is just slumming it here, pulling off this despicably evil lawyer and making every word just ooze scumbag from every pore; much like Kevin Sorbo, he fulfils his strawman villain role quite nicely. Pat Boone as Grace’s father is kind of fun in the few scenes he gets (even if he delivers the single worst line in the film about Atheists having all of the pain and none of the hope of Christians), and regardless of context, it is good hearing Ernie Hudson’s awesome voice on the big screen again as the presiding judge. Given his last big-ish performance was in the woefully uneven Torchwood: Miracle Day, I’ll take whatever I can get from the guy.

With the last film, I had nothing but ill will for the filmmakers and furthermore had no guilt for wanting terrible things to happen to them because I like seeing the universe inflicting karma on the people that deserve it. I find myself changing my tune ever so slightly and, even if I didn’t express it so much in the other review, I no longer hold a personal grudge against these people. The reason for that is it seems that they have at least taken on board some of the criticisms made towards the first film (by much bigger critics, because I doubt they were among the 12 people who initially read my take) and made changes accordingly.

In the first film, we had not one but two morally reprehensible “””Atheists”””, one whom physically threatens people and openly mocks his loved ones and the other who broke up with his fiancĂ©e because she got cancer. Here, nothing nearly that outrageous takes place. The actions shown by the Atheist majority (yeah, figure THAT one out in terms of this film’s attempt at realism) feels like more of a collective mindset as opposed to individual actions, meaning that we don’t get any fundamentalist hogwash this time around. We only have one truly evil Atheist with Kane, and even he doesn’t push the boundaries too far. They also corrected a bit of “you might have missed it” racism with Martin and his father speaking in separate Chinese dialects, presumably because the filmmakers couldn’t tell the difference. Far as I can ascertain, and I welcome being corrected on this, it is normalised this time around and, given the religious persecution that goes on in China, it’s also the closest this film gets to poignancy. It doesn’t hit it, but it’s nearer the goal than anything else in this thing.

The plot is also a minor upgrade as, instead of having a college student argue the existence of God with his teacher, we have a plot with actual stakes as Grace could lose her job and never be able to teach again if she is found guilty. However, as much as I applaud nearing closer to actual relevancy, I find myself preferring Josh Wheaton on this one. He may have been an Evangelical fundamentalist who needed to be proven right for little more than pride (let’s not kid ourselves here), but at least he had urgency as a character. Grace, by contrast, is ultimately a scapegoat for the discussion of church and state to be made around without directly involving her too much. And speaking of the discussion, while this may have improved in certain cosmetic areas, we are still dealing with an unfathomably wrong-headed story and intent for production. As this is a more concrete debate than proving the existence of God, which is a goal that is fruitless regardless of which side you’re on, it needs more concrete talking points as opposed to just throwing bad science and bad gospel into a blender and forcing the mixture down our throats. Rather than debating God’s existence, they spend some time debating the existence of Jesus, which is already kind of a dumb question in that there is definite proof that Jesus the person existed but then again we’re not dealing with the best tools in the box.

These screenwriters are not particularly smart; rather than delivering reasonable (if intentionally weaker) arguments against their point, they manufacture dead simple platitudes that even non-believers would be able to correct. It sets up easy targets for the good guys to knock down, which is largely done by reiterating one of the most brain-numbingly basic issues with the plot itself: She answered a question asked in class, which is her job as a teacher; case closed. And yet somehow, because the system represents the Atheist aggressors, it takes an entire film to even hammer that point home. Hell, the point the case concludes on just involves Tom (who is pretty much converted by this point, so it’s okay to like him) facetiously telling the jury to convict her in a moment of… well, preachiness that is so over-the-top that I was seriously waiting for a heel-turn on his part.

But this is all ignoring the biggest problem with this film, and while I don’t abjectly hate the filmmakers, I do want to correct them on this issue: This isn’t real. This persecution complex, where people must be martyrs because the world is against them, is unwarranted. There is no Atheist agenda to wipe religion off the face of the map. They don’t care about someone else’s faith; a benefit of not strictly adhering to the printed word is that they don’t have to hate another group just because they were told to. Now, I understand the increase in volume when it comes to non-Christian ideals may have some people worried about the condition of their own faith, and while it is a real overreaction that potential feeling still has relevancy. I can understand having something you hold in such high regard being questioned and the emotional effect that can have; ask me about 2013’s The Great Gatsby and you’ll see raging betrayal in my eyes.

I can safely say, by that same token, that no one’s beliefs are at risk. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean the neckbeard invasion is happening, prayer not being done in school isn’t going to curse anyone’s souls, and simply having faith won’t save you from cancer despite what happens to Amy (Trisha LaFache) over the course of these films. Actually, her entire arc here is just a watered-down version of the first one, come to think of it. The previous film had some serious antagonism towards anyone who is non-Christian, and here they seem to have focused in solely on the Atheists and the apparent agenda possessed by them. But I reiterate: They don’t care. The only times that they do care are when people of a certain faith try to push it onto others by, rather than standing up for themselves, standing on top of others  in order to get their point across. Like, say, a film that actively paints Atheists as the enemy and Christians as the victims, not to mention the minority that they most assuredly are not. This is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy; if people keep making material like this and it gets taken seriously (someone openly applauded in our audience during one of the courtroom scenes, I shit you not), it will only fuel the same antagonistic behaviour.

All in all, this isn’t despicably heinous like the first one. However, that merely means that it is laughably awful instead of teeth-grindingly awful. The acting is alright, and for once the production looks cinema-grade, but the writing is ludicrous and the arguments presented are the most basic think-for-a-split-second dilemmas that only serve to make Atheists look like idiots. That, and aggressive dictators if you take this film seriously, but with how it replaces the woeful strawman bile of the original with just more ridiculousness, this is almost impossible to buy into. How fitting that a film where a woman is put on trial for preaching is absolutely nothing but preaching. Preaching to a choir that I know is smarter than to buy into this crap, but considering not only this film’s wider release and acknowledgement but its after-credits bit of sequel-baiting, only time will tell on that one. I do not think that the obvious conservatives who crafted this thing are vile human beings; I just see this, especially in contrast to the first film, as the work of a group that wants to express its own fears and anxieties about society’s reception of their faith. They’re just really, really shite at conveying that on film. Honestly, if you’re the kind of person who can laugh at how stupid fundamentalists of any ilk can be, I’d recommend streaming this for some cheap yucks.

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