I popped God's Not Dead on the Netflix to have a laugh while I ate my dinner and scribbled in my private journal about how awesome I am. Now I can't look away. I have found Jesus. It comes right before the wide-eyed expression of disbelief and the "fucking ... (this is a really long pause) ... Christ, was that an asian joke?"
Now, I am a fairly vocal atheist, and I hear my social role is to get up in arms about how this movie portrays atheists. I'm over it: there are only so many times you can be told you're going to Hell before it becomes background noise. I'm not going to criticize this movie on the grounds that I don't agree with its worldview. What's more important to me is using my $100,000 film degree for something other than marking where I gave up reading Infinite Jest. So this is a review of the film according to the seven years' official education I had in film, plus the eight or so I spent studying it on my own. There's some significant overlap there since I didn't pay a lot of attention in college, so let's go with twelve years total. Maybe nine.
Opening. Actually pretty strong. The music is catchy, and thirty seconds in, I wouldn't be able to distinguish it from the annual indie feel-good movie. Two minutes in, we're still listening to the same song. This situation should only arise when the song is breathtakingly beautiful and the supporting visuals are at once nuanced and compelling. As it is, it's an 80s romance montage but twice as long with way, way too many establishing shots.1 Mercifully, the music ends, after implying something about angels in three verses.
We meet the protagonist and he's wearing a cross. I won't get into the dialogue, because I was too distracted by the chime sound effects following every line of the opening exchange. Structurally, this scene is sound. Establish your protagonist and the main conflict as soon as possible: God's Not Dead does it in the first minute or so, if you forgive them the overture, which I don't. But having somebody hit a xylophone after every (ding) single (ding) line (ding) is evidence that there aren't enough good jobs anymore. It takes the viewer out of the moment because it's beating them over the head with a sign reading "ARE YOU NOT AMUSED? HAVE YOU NOT HEARD OUR CLEVER BANTER?"
Then, woefully, we pan over to a girl who for some reason says, "What does PRC stand for?" to the asian student in front of her. Why she has or cares about this information is a mystery reserved for God, but she's clearly confused by it, so the asian student has to explain, "People's Republic of China" to which she replies, "Oh. Seriously?" leading to the clarinet-backed punchline, "Yes. Always serious."
Glad we've got our stereotypes out of the way.
Next, we have an interaction with a businessman withholding directions from his girlfriend because he's busy. I know this character is a chief villain, but give him something less unbelievably petty than him asking "What's in it for me?" in response to his significant other's request for directions. The entire exchange takes more time than it would take to give anybody directions from anywhere to anywhere. This is poor characterization because it overplays his hand. A better movie and a better set of actors would have played the exact same situation as flirting. This movie's message is already getting in the way of its execution, and, sorry Dean Cain, you're just not great at this job.
Seven minutes in.
It's physically difficult not to take cheap shots at this movie. The only black character so far has made an incorrect statement for the benefit of the teacher's speech, and introduced himself as g-dog to the approving titters of the class. That was not a cheap shot. That's what happened. And I feel like mentioning it is a cheap shot.
The class is "Introduction to Philosophical Thought" and the professor, Hercules, opens with a boring lecture on atheism, replete with an myopic list of philosophers and Sigmund Freud who said they were atheists.2
After our Christian protagonist refuses to sign a document stating "God is dead," Hercules threatens him with a failing grade unless he can win a debate on the subject. There's an important throwaway line here: the protagonist argues that the class should judge the debate, instead of the teacher, and the teacher says, "Why would I want to empower them?" Well, because THAT'S YOUR JOB. YOUR ONLY JOB. YOU'RE A PHILOSOPHY TEACHER. Every other teacher of every other subject except film theory is giving them measurable life skills. You're supposed to empower them. Anyway, This is where the movie fails basic fact-checking, and seems to have missed the last thirty years of legal precedent: Hercules would be fired immediately and the student would be well within his rights to sue the school into rubble after this exchange, especially with two hundred witnesses. There are plenty of protections for religious views. The picture of a public university being a bastion of secular intolerance could only be written by someone who's never been to one. It's true they're not allowed to push religion on you, but they're also not allowed to give you shit for already having it. In theory, no one's allowed to punish anyone for what they do or do not believe. In practice, life sucks, get a lawyer.
The more important thing about this scene is a random cutaway to other characters doing various uninteresting things, which means somebody told the screenwriter the classroom scene was too long. It also means that there will be no subtlety in any of the characters or relationships: each one will be designed to illustrate a single point via caricature.
Atheist girlfriend interviews Willie Robertson about his Jesus-banging. Relevant, I guess. I initially assumed he was a ripoff of a Duck Dynasty personality, but turns out he actually is a Duck Dynasty personality. When I assumed he was a ripoff, I was ready to lambast the movie for not having the balls to address the issue directly.3 They do address it directly by having him in the movie as himself, but it feels awkward having an overlap of real-world personality with the fictional narrative. It's still not dealing with the Duck Drama in its real-world environment; it's dealing with an actual, recognizable publicity situation in a fictional world designed to support the character. It would have been more digestible if the character was still regulated to his space as a public figure, something watched and commented on by our active characters. As a conceptual tactic, it's interesting, but it's poorly implemented, so it's jarring.
Twenty-seven minutes in. I missed some drama or something. Protagonist is getting inspiration from the Bible. The Bible4 tells him to struggle onward. He texts his reverend, saying he's going to face his teacher in no-psalms-barred GPA combat. The rev is the coolest character by far. He's the follow-your-heart character that pops up in every Doctor Feel Good flick, and he makes me feel alright. He texts back, "Don't try to be clever. Just tell the truth." I am absolutely behind this extremely reusable piece of advice that works in any context outside of politics, job interviews, and first dates. The rev is relatable. The "you do you" guy.
Okay. Atheist girlfriend of Dean Cain has just been diagnosed with cancer. The doctor says, "Look I know you're very important, and the world can't get along without you, but the world's getting ready to do exactly that." That's some quality bedside manner, right there. It so cleverly disguises accusations of hubris. "Stilted and transparently pedantic" seems too kind a description of this dialogue.
Back to the protagonist. No one understands him. He's on his own. His girlfriend doesn't want him to risk their future over a debate with his philosophy teacher. This is a solid scene for the 40s, or even an 80s flick.
First debate. Atheist argument basically skipped, so we know this is not a thoughtful, exploratory film: it's a hero and villain play. I have no problem with this, but it does seem like the villain is hamstrung when he has no grounding argument, and is limited to antagonistic arguments. Strictly speaking, that's the antagonist's roll, but we're dealing with some very pedestrian narrative design.
Oh, and the teacher's harassing the protagonist again. How did this guy ever get a job? I've had some shitty teachers, but this guy is personally abusive, and reporting him is an obvious course of action.
Protagonist's girlfriend, in the process of breaking up with him, says, "I don't even have words to describe what I'm feeling right now!" This is what screenwriters refer to as a "Dude, I'm pretty hungover, just, I don't know, come up with a synonym for je ne sais quoi or whatever. Do you speak French? I don't speak French. My ex went to France once. I never had enough money. But my ship's coming, you know man? My ship's gonna come" line.
Dean Cain breaks up with his girlfriend after she tells him she has cancer. Admittedly, he's been built up as a sociopath from his first scene, which I think was his only other scene, but since he's only had two (maybe three, it's hard to pay attention), there's no emotional umph here. His entire character is Bad Person, so it's not surprising, disappointing, or especially moving unless you were predisposed to hate Dean Cain. I watched the good seasons of Lois & Clark, so my takeaway is he just needed a paycheck. There needs to be some investment in a character before he or she betrays us. Anyway, he seems to still be in the movie, so there may be more points for him to lose.
"My intellectual rigor falls to pieces when I'm around you." Oh Hercules. You're so smooth with your student girlfriends.
And turning point! Exactly halfway through the movie, we discover the professor's girlfriend is Christian. That. Changes. Everything. I. Hope. It really doesn't, because the narrative is so divorced from the actual plot points. The lives and actions of the characters are all wearing the concrete galoshes of the movie's message. Curiously, the first time I tried to watch this movie, I had to turn it off and watch Nymphomaniac, which suffers from exactly the same problem: the dialogue's insistence on making its larger point5 interferes with the believability of the characters. And there are no explosions. Fundamentally, The Book of Eli made the same argument as God's Not Dead, and The Book of Eli was awesome. I got to the end of that movie shouting, "Fuck YEAH, God! Kick some motherfucking secular ass!" And The Book of Eli never once explicitly told me to think that: it was just a solid action movie.
More debate. Not letting this go: evolution never claimed to replace God, nor does evolution have anything to do with the origin of life. It has to do with the origin of species from a preexisting mechanism. Alright. I promised I wouldn't do this. Back to the technical review.
Now we get to the scene where the Muslim father kicks his daughter out for being Christian. The relationships in the Muslim family should have been the whole movie. This is the first serious emotion that I've seen in the film, if you can block out the soundtrack. This is people honestly conflicted between belief and family. When the father shuts the door on his daughter, everyone is torn apart, each trying to do what they think is right even as it destroys their lives. That's drama. This is the the best scene so far.6
So the protagonist makes an excellent point. The professor is teaching anti-theism, not atheism. Hercules admits he hates God, student drops a logic bomb with "How can you hate something that doesn't exist," big buildup, music swells, the students go all Dead Poet's Society, we have closure. Hercules, yet again, fails his final task.
About twenty minutes to go here, so back to Dean Cain. The odd thing about his character is it's so superfluous. His sole purpose is to make the atheist a hated thing, but we have that in the professor. I expect the difference is one is redeemable and the other is not. I buy that, even if it's no wushu drama. But if we have the unredeemable in a character drama where there is truth, we need to know more about the unredeemable character. What's their motivation to reject the truth? That's important not just narratively, but ideologically: what psychological pitfalls do I need to watch out for as a young Christian to stop myself from cozying up to the devil? I don't know. Apparently I need to already have everything and look like Dean Cain. And be a sociopath.
Oooo, a drummer joke. That's hip. Here the atheist girl converts after talking to the cool Christian band, because she's afraid and alone and dying of cancer.
The potentially redeemable Hercules gets hit by a car while trying to make peace with his Christian girlfriend (at least I think that's what he was doing). Cool rev tells him God's giving him another chance, by hitting him with a car, putting him in enormous pain, and making him afraid. He converts and dies. So that happened. Putting a character's primary personal revelation in the context of near-death is a copout. I love Star Wars, but no, Vader does not get a pass. The character should either go guns blazing or have to deal with the fact that they've wasted their life. Hercules doesn't even have to come clean to the protagonist.
The movie seems to want to have its cake and also run over its cake with a car. It sacrifices an enormous amount of screen time to supposedly reasonable arguments7 at the expense of exploring personal relationships, yet the big moments of conversion do not come from people being convinced by these arguments. Instead, they come from fear of death. So the movie is sort of about making a reasonable case for God in the form of poking holes in a strictly anti-theist argument, except it's actually about how everyone secretly believes in God, they're just hiding it because they're angry or greedy or Dean Cain.
All these failings get brushed aside because this movie isn't made for human viewers. This movie is made for God. The protagonist doesn't have to find closure with the antagonist, the Muslim girl doesn't have to reconcile with her father, the Chinese student doesn't have to deal with constant stereotypes. They only have to find God and trust that He is watching. Except Dean Cain. Dean Cain just has to keep forsaking God, so God can judge him appropriately, though he does it on camera, so it seems like we're supposed to pass judgement on him.
The movie works, in mysterious ways, no more or less than Pretty in Pink, with the caveat that there is an explanation for its shortcomings, we're just not divine enough to see it.
1 An establishing shot is a shot that says, "Oh, look where we are! It's a college or something," or "Hey, look at these people! They're having an interaction that tells you everything you need to know about them because nobody wanted to write a back story" in a wide angle.
2 The notion that the first class of an introduction to philosophical thought would involve a discussion of atheism an insult to philosophy. Atheism would come up quickly, due to the historical record and the Western hard-on for Socrates, but you don't get to start with it. Also, the question of a deity or deities and the arguments for or against and how they relate to thinking about our universe are some of the most interesting philosophical discussions there are.
3 In fact, I already wrote that paragraph and deleted it. This is the cost of not keeping up with pop culture.
4 The enormous Bible. Seriously. It's so big. Like the biggest Bible I've ever seen.
5 Men are fish? It was hard to tell.
6 Edit: it's the best scene in the movie.
7 Arguments everybody already knows and which have never convinced either side to change their mind.