Tuesday, 30 October 2018

God's Not Dead: A Light In Darkness (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After his family church goes up in flames, Reverend Dave (David A. R. White) finds himself at odds with the local university whose land the church stands on, who would rather tear it down than pay to have it restored. As Dave reconnects with his estranged brother Pearce (John Cobrett) to put together a legal case against the university, he finds himself questioning not just his faith but also his actions and whether he is as righteous as he once believed.

God’s gift to the Christiansploitation market David A. R. White has been given the lead role this time around, and while his reliably plastic performance is still on display, this marks the first time in a while that he’s actually come across as someone worth watching. Maybe not as attentively as he would have liked, but there’s something to like about this more humbled and broken version of the character responsible for some of this series’ biggest eyerolls. Opposite him, Corbett as his attorney and brother marks an unprecedented step for PureFlix as a whole: A doubting person who isn’t made to be an absolute monster. He has his issues with religion, and pushing religious agenda isn’t at the front of his mind when taking the case, but he doesn’t need to to know that his brother is in trouble and the case against him is unfair. There’s issue on the whys as to that unfairness, admittedly, but he still makes for the most likeable main-ish character I’ve yet covered in one of these films. Maybe it’s because we have Shane “Josh Wheaton” Harper reprising his role from the original to remind us of the previous lack-of-pedigree, but all the same.

Jennifer Taylor as the possible romantic interest Meg feels a bit Old Fashioned-lite, as in she is quite likeable on-screen but isn’t hampered by being in a completely godawful story, nor is she attached to a borderline-psychotic lead. Ted McGinley, AKA the TV sitcom guest star that alerted audiences that the studio had officially jumped the shark back in the 80's, is almost acceptable in his role as the head of the university board Thomas, save for a few too many lapses in narrative and thematic judgement that he ends up bearing the brunt of. Samantha Boscarino comes across somewhat generic, even in the face of the equally generic faces around her, but she manages to pull through evenly enough as the Christian at odds with their faith. Then again, that’s likely due to her proximity to Mike C. Manning as her boyfriend Adam, who serves as an almost-uncomfortably complex look at the other side of the aisle as far as religion is concerned, showing a non-believer who not only has his reasons to distrust the church but also goes through a character arc that might be the closest this series has ever gotten to true Christian forgiveness. Probably helps that said forgiveness doesn’t involve a complete arsehole being killed in a hit-and-run by an even bigger arsehole.

Okay, let’s clear up something quickly before we get started with the film proper: That after-credits scene from the second film is pretty much ignored entirely here, as Dave being arrested doesn’t end up amounting to much. Honestly, at first, I thought dodging that was a good move. After all, the last two films were primarily stuck in a legalese-spewing malaise that cared far more about message than delivery, so anything to avoid more courtroom or even courtroom-esque antics can only be good. But then again, that surprise is undercut by how this film is still sticking to the median of this series, just in a slightly tweaked way. Rather than focusing at any great length on Dave’s own struggles, seeing his family church get burned down, the death of one of his closest friends, and of course the media frenzy being whipped up over those two, the film treats the university’s potential court case as the really important part. Because heaven forbid one of these movies actually get into something more personal in its quest to make Christianity out to be the only moral group to be part of, since everyone else is so damn evil.

Okay, maybe not so much that last bit, and this is where the real surprise comes in. Even though this still preaching to its own choir as far as religious liberties and the right to one’s own faith, it seems like the filmmakers have heard at least some of the criticisms levelled at the previous films and actually took the time to hear them out. Given previous director Harold Cronk has stepped out with first-timer Michael Mason taking over as director and co-writer, that might have something to do with it. There are noticeably far less dispersions made against non-believers, with a few lines that even go as far as to say that the freedom of Christians to practice their faith isn’t just for them; it extends to Jewish and Islamic believers as well. We even get a scene between Dave and Pearce that addresses the Christian persecution complex (you know, that thing that all of these PureFlix releases seem to be soaking in?), which may end up being deflected a little too readily but shows that some self-awareness has been gained. Of course, neither of those examples hold a candle to a particular moment where Dave is talking with another pastor, involving Dave ranting about how the pastor doesn’t understand the persecution he’s going through. The pastor, a black man operating in the American South, promptly tells Dave that he cannot possibly be serious with that bullshit. Okay, those are more my words than the film’s, but this is pretty cool to see. It shows a willingness to make its point without having to tread on everyone else in order to do so, and considering how prevalent that trend is in this sub-genre, it’s nice seeing the godfather of the modern understanding of address it like this.

However, there is a major caveat that prevents me from being too happy about this turn of events. And much like the film itself, it all starts with a brick going through a window. This is going to involve discussion of *SPOILERS*, but this is something that needs addressing and right the hell now. So, the film is kicked off by Adam, in a bout of frustration that could just as easily be attributed to blue balls as it could to anything religiously-inclined, throwing a brick into the church and inadvertently starting the fire that burns it down. Dave initially wants him to get prosecuted for it, seeing it as murder of his best friend, but the learning process he goes through allows him to forgive Adam. That on its own is fine… until it’s contrasted with the actions of a few other people in this story. A similar instance occurs at Thomas’ house, with a brick through his window that thankfully doesn’t start another fire. He then goes to Dave’s house, assaults him and basically puts the blame of that brick and the death threats he’s gotten since starting the case on him. The film never really gets into who exactly threw this particular brick, nor did it really need to for narrative purposes, but then there’s the whole assault thing. I would normally attribute this to Thomas being the latest secular boogeyman for the film to take down, until we get the initial encounter between Dave and Adam, where Dave basically gets just as aggressive as Thomas did, and it ends with Adam being in jail, not Dave.

This seems like a minor thing to get stuck up on, but the attitude behind this kind of framing is incredibly suss from the offset. I have made the mistake in the past of thinking that these films were meant to convert non-believers into the fold, which honestly isn’t even close to the case. These films, not just God’s Not Dead but most of this sub-genre’s output, exists solely to comfort those who have already been converted. To pat them on the back that they chose the “right side”, vilifying the opposition to make it stick. Well, part of that exclusionary attitude also gives way to a certain assumption that not everyone has to follow the same rules. This gets hinted at with the inclusion of Dana freaking Loesch in a cameo that has her talking about inclusion and diversity like she’s ready to throw up all over her cleanly-pressed outfit.

That’s a pretty easy way to annoy me, hearing soapboxing from the queen of needlessly-aggressive metaphors, but her inclusion does bring up an uncomfortable point, and not in the film’s favour. She mentions inclusion as being all well and good for those they disagree with (“they” being the ominously-connected atheists, because calling them “The Left” would have been too obvious) but as soon as it’s asked of them, they back down. Ignoring how this film’s depiction of secularism is still banking on stereotypes and weapons-grade assumptions like always, knowing how this film is framed, it’s hard to take the notions of inclusion from this camp all that seriously. There’s some signs of a change in stance, but it’s still pulling the same intentionally-dividing tricks underneath what still remain some healthy moments of reflection. It’s duplicitous in the extreme, no better exemplified by how all the Christian characters may go through some change, but never actually brought to task for the bad things they do. Non-Christians, however, different story. Because nothing says equality like insisting that you are above the standards you judge others by.

All in all, while this isn’t the worst PureFlix film I’ve seen by a long shot, it may be the most frustrating one yet because it could have been better than that. The acting is still sub-par, but the characters they’re in service to show a surprising level of self-awareness and even complexity, making notions of faith and forgiveness to be far less cut-and-dry than we’ve seen previously. Hell, this is easily the closest we’ve gotten to one of these films not outright attacking those who don’t believe as it does.

However, there is still a heavy fog of underhandedness in how the story is presented, not aided by the inclusion of some truly heinous individuals to help push the point, that makes the core notions feel like a veneer to hide something more sinister. Not exactly hard to imagine what that sinister agenda is, given how upfront a lot of these films have been in throwing their bricks at people that disagree, but then crawling into the fetal position in a corner when they get backlash. It’s a step above the usual apologetics-playing garbage, but this still has some pretty serious problems at its center that are difficult to look past, regardless of the genuine improvements that have been made thematically.

It ranks higher than Night School, as this film at least has something that gives the sense this could be worth sitting through. God’s Not Dead: A Light In Darkness is an incredibly annoying sit, but far less annoying than either of its predecessors by a considerable margin. However, while this film has some definite bad qualities to it, it’s not the same kind of bad that makes for interesting discussions regarding said film. This may be the easiest to digest of the trilogy, but it also lacks a lot of the immediately-awful memorability of the others, the first one in particular. As such, it falls short of the Superfly remake, which is also not that good but it’s an artistically interesting kind of not-that-good, one that shows something worth discussing. Outside of giving David A. R. White a gold star for not being quite so terrible this time around in his mission, even this rather lengthy review feels like a stretch for a film this bland.

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