Here’s the thing about Christian movies: I don’t like them. I think that I was pretty clear in my Christians in the Arts series how I feel about secular art vs. Christian art, and I was prepared to tear both of these movies a new one. Seriously, I already discussed how I feel about how certain Christian film can’t help but come off as propaganda, and the first of this movies is no exception.
God’s Not Dead is a film that one of those evangelistic messages that is wearing the guise of a movie. The plot of this film is that a student named Josh Wheaton (not Joss Whedon, the guy who directed The Avengers and numerous other cool stuff, oh, he’s played by Shane Harper) attends a philosophy class where the professor is a complete atheist, played by Kevin Sorbo (the guy that played on Hercules The Legendary Journeys). He’s one of the types that are really in your face on it, and even to the point of having his student literally writing on a form “God Is Dead”.
Okay, immediately I couldn’t suspend my disbelief here. I live in a college town, and I have had professors that were dismissive of Christianity, but this is going too far. Not only is professor getting away with this without any authority interfering, but he’s told his students that they can get some extra credit just by writing these three little words on paper. Maybe if this film had taken place in some dystopian future, I would have been down with this premise.
Of course, Josh ain’t going to play this game. He then challenges the professor to a duel where they debate the existence of God. Now, here’s the thing that I have noted about this movie: Josh is able to create very good presentations. Seriously, he’s good. Where is the conflict here? Wouldn’t it have been better if the professor had his presentations with wonderful tech and special effects, but Josh was limited to a whiteboard and a marker that was out of ink? Instead, the reverse appears to be true and I don’t hear much of what the professor has to say hardly at all, unless it is rebutting Josh.
I might as well just reveal that Josh wins. Seriously, did you expect anything else from a Christian film? He can’t lose, so there is no sense of anything at threat here. The ending is a combination of two endings from better films: the cool courtroom scene from A Few Good Men with the big tribute from Dead Poet’s Society. You wouldn’t think that these films would mix well, and guess what, they don’t.
Now, this isn’t the only plotline going on in this movie, as there’s like several others in this. In one plot, a lady reporter interviews one of those Duck Dynasty dudes, and I really don’t care about Duck Dynasty, and does anyone anymore? The reporter really grills him, and then she discovers that she has cancer. What is odd is how Dean Cain (the guy that played Superman for a while in the Lois and Clark era), is the reporter’s boyfriend, and he breaks up with her after learning of her condition. Wow, what a jerk. Oh yeah, the professor has a girlfriend, and he treats her like a jerk would. You see the theme in this film? People that aren’t Christians are jerks.
Then there is this plotline where a Muslim girl is becoming a Christian and her father doesn’t understand, and beats her. Seriously, how in the world did I not hear of this scene before I actually saw it? I’m surprised that some special interest group didn’t protest this. What’s sad is that there was a hint of sympathy for the father, but this is not developed. This is not to say this scene could have worked, but since there was so much already going on in this movie, this plotline sort of gets lost.
Oh, there is also these two preachers that can’t start their car. That sounds like a beginning of a joke, and I must say that the punchline isn’t worth it. Here’s the real joke: at the end of the film, Kevin Sorbo is hit by a black car. What’s funny is that Dean Cain is seen driving a black car later. So did Superman kill Hercules? That beats my fan fiction.
In addition to piggybacking on the success of Duck Dynasty, it also brings in the Newsboys, also playing themselves and playing at the end of the film, in some attempt to tie all these plotlines together.
So what went wrong with this film? I have nothing wrong with the main plot of this film, and it could have been interesting if both characters of Josh and the professor were sympathetic. This could have been a deep film, but it felt like so many people were giving input and plotlines to try and make this film life-changing and powerful. In the end, Duck Dynasty tells me to text “God’s not dead” to a few people. Are you serious? You are asking me to market your movie for you? Kirk Cameron’s speech at the end of the initial VHS release of Left Behind is back.
This is sad, because I completely agree with the theme, but this film was so un-apologetically apologetic that it couldn’t help but alienate secular audiences, but it must have made some money. Or I guess it did.
Now, let’s contrast that with Heaven is for Real. This is based on a true story, more than God’s Not Dead was (the end credits say the film is based on several court cases, which are shown in abundance as the credits rolled). Heaven is for Real is a film that had some very professional looking quality as it was directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart. It stars Greg Kinnear, who is an Oscar-nominated actor who never did quite become an A-list star, but I’ll always remember him as Captain Amazing from Mystery Men.
Kinnear plays Todd Burpo, a preacher who seems to do a lot but doesn’t seem to have a lot of money. He does seem to have a nice house, though. I guess real estate is cheap in Nebraska. By the way, the film’s setting looks just beautiful, so I will applaud the cinematography of this film.
Todd’s son, Colton, gets sick and doesn’t have one of those dying and being revived scenes. He does seem to have one those near-death experiences where he sees Jesus and other things about his family that he shouldn’t know. Unlike the God’s Not Dead film, I won’t spoil what Colton sees. It is done with some interesting minimal special effects, but I admire how the family handles the situation. The Burpo family feels real enough to sympathize with, and what would happen if a child claims visions like this.
The basic problem with this film was unavoidable: it hinges on the performance of a six-year-old boy. Even though the actor playing Colton looks like the kid from Jerry Maguire, he’s not. In fact, there are some times where he speaks about his heavenly visions in a low whipser, kind of coming across like creepy kid in a horror film. There’s kind of nothing that can be done about that, but given that challenge, the adaption of the best-selling book was well pulled off.
So, Heaven is for Real is pretty good, or at least decent by Christian film standards, which I have to say are currently low today. I cannot deny that these films inspired me to do some Christian things, but honestly, I would hope that I wouldn’t live on this inspiration. I raise this point because Christian films could use a big boost somehow, and I think we’re going to get to the point where they are accepted into the mainstream.