God’s Not Dead 2: The Tragic Irony of Christian Filmmaking
2 Out Of 5 Reels
Hey Everyone! Welcome to another review at Flickmuncher.com where we entertain food for thought.
I’ll be honest guys, this was a tricky film to review, for me personally because it strikes so many things that mean a great deal to me as a person and as someone who loves and reviews films. For that reason, let’s get right into the review.
Directed by Harold Cronk, the story of God’s Not Dead 2 revolves around a high-school history teacher named Grace Wesley (played by Melissa Joan Hart) who finds herself embroiled in a court case when her superiors find that she answered a student’s question by citing Jesus. With the eye of a major litigator (Ray Wise) intent on making an example of her case and her defender (Jesse Metcalf) uncertain of her innocence, Grace is faced with deciding between her future and her dedication to her faith.
I’m not really sure where to start with this movie. As someone who is a Christian and who does support the beliefs that are presented in this film, I probably favor it more than some and I applaud Pure Flix Entertainment and all the people who worked so hard to produce this film for standing by their beliefs and putting forth their right to express those beliefs, especially in a time when those freedoms seem to be more and more uncertain.
However, I’m not one to make political statements, nor is this the place to make one. This is a film review. The point of a film review is not to assess the validity of the film’s content but to comment on how such content is presented.
So, what are the good things about this movie? Well, it definitely has acting talent necessary to properly present it’s story. The cast is certainly small but not unqualified. Ray Wise is something of standout in that it’s easy to hate his character, as much because he is the epitome of a slimy opportunistic lawyer as he is the antagonist of the film. His performance is complemented by Jesse Metcalf who tries his hardest as the young-buck lawyer who finds himself severely out of his depth. The weak link in the main cast ironically is Grace herself. Melissa Joan Hart is the most experienced actor in this cast next to Wise with performances in the tv show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But her performance in God’s Not Dead 2 she just doesn’t land the way she should. We’ve all felt persecuted at some point, like nothing is going our way. This should make Grace a character who should by all rights be easy to relate to. Except, she isn’t. In spite of being faced with losing everything she has, Hart never gives the audience a good idea of the sheer strain that this situation has to be having on her character. She bears the entire thing with the fortitude of a Saint. While that’s all well and good as far as the movie’s message is concerned, it’s not a great way to build drama. Some of this must be attributed to director Harold Cronk’s direction and the writing staff. However, it’s still a disappointing performance given Hart’s known ability as an actress.
The story is also sadly lacking. The premise is good and courtroom dramas have proven to produce great stories, such as A Few Good Men (1992), in the past. The problem is that this movie’s story lacks the thing that all three-act narratives need: tension. Because of how Grace’s problem is presented in the first place, there is never any doubt in the audience’s mind, what the outcome will be. In some stories, knowing the outcome is allowable because we find the characters engaging and just want to see more of them doing whatever it is they do. This film doesn’t have that luxury because the characters in it are so straight-forward, on both sides. Ultimately it makes for a wooden and uninteresting narrative that feels tied down by the themes that the writers wanted to wrap their story around.
Speaking of themes, one of the most frustrating is tied directly to the movie’s title. I’m going come right out and say that I don’t think God’s Not Dead 2 was the title this movie should have had. The film goes to unusual lengths to justify it’s existence but just ends up making us wonder about it more. The previous movie had the title God’s Not Dead because that was the central question of the movie, so it made sense. Here, that question has no bearing on the plot or the characters. In fact, the only connection this movie has to the first is a few characters that are carried over and play only a minor role in the plot. So, why was this movie titled God’s Not Dead 2 again?
Anyway, those characters from the first movie are another thing that this movie didn’t need. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong having them in there. After all, if you want to have connective tissue between movies, continuing characters is one of the best ways of doing so. But if they get in the way of the main narrative that is being told, then they are not acting as connective tissue anymore. In this film, those recurring characters all have their own subplots, each of which takes our focus away from Grace’s story. That’s the last thing I want as an audience member. It would be a little more tolerable if these characters did anything but none of their subplots go anywhere and thus their inclusion feels completely unneeded.
Finally, and this is a minor pet peeve of mine, there’s the Newsboys and the Duck Dynasty plug-ins. I really don’t like it when a movie puts product placement in with its narrative, even when they are with products that I support (I’m not especially a fan of either Newsboys or Duck Dynasty but that’s beside the point). What’s especially irritating for me is the fact that this is the same stuff they did in the first movie. Sure there’s something to be said for thematic continuity, each film ending with a Newsboys concert for instance, but it feels so blatant that I felt pulled out of the movie when that happened.
This film is frustrating for me in sooo many ways that it’s difficult for me to put it clearly. On the one hand, as a christian film, it’s certainly better than others I’ve seen. The scenes are put together nicely and the cinematography is well done for what it’s intended to be and the performances of the cast help to make the underwhelming and unfocused narrative a little easier to deal with.
On the other hand, as a person who tends to put story and character first in a movie, this is just a tough movie to sit through, even with the uplifting message and good performances. The primary reason I gave it a higher score than Batman v Superman from last week was because of the overall feeling I had coming out of the theater which can be summarized as thoughtful indifference as opposed to the categorical dislike I had for the former movie.
However, I think this movie’s quality is indicative of a trend in Christian movies over the last few years that has become equally frustrating, where the movie’s are so preoccupied with offering the message of Christ and showing their faith on screen that they sabotage themselves by not taking advantage of a movie’s most powerful tool. Jesus told messages, yes. But he also told parables. People who aren’t Christians still know the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan because they are stories that struck an emotional chord with them. There are plenty of great stories that can be told about Christians. If you don’t believe me, look up The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, with Ingrid Bergman. That’s a fantastic story with memorable characters that shows the struggles of a missionary to China just before World War II. Chariots of Fire is another excellent example.
Story and character are the backbone of any good movie. I think if christian filmmakers remember that, then they can make films of equal, maybe even superior, quality to those of their more mainstream peers. If they remember that.
As it stands with this movie however, I can only say that, in my eyes at least, God’s Not Dead 2 is a hopeful but disappointing follow-up in a franchise that is itself an unfortunate disappointment.