2014's God's Not Dead has a loopy, auto-erotic concept that makes no sense, but I can vaguely see how, if you were so deep in the culture war trenches that you needed binoculars to see daylight, it might seem like its story of hostile academics trying to humiliate the Christ out of their students speaks to something important in the world. No such hedging for God's Not Dead 2 (for it is written, no segment of the film industry is so pure as to avoid the siren song of a sequel to massive hit, not even Pure Flix), a film with an asinine concept that hits me directly where I live. See, there's this high school history teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart, perhaps atoning for her seven years promoting paganism to children as Sabrina, the teenage witch), who is known to be a devout Christian. One of her students, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), has been kicking the wheels on becoming a Christian herself, following a sudden family tragedy, and has briefly discussed this with Grace. It happens to be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, and in discussing King's strategy of non-violence, Brooke asks if this might have been influenced by Jesus's teaching to "turn the other cheek". Grace's answer is, in essence, "Yes. For example".

This is particularly hilarious to me, because when I saw God's Not Dead 2 for the first time in April 2016,* I was literally just days away from analysing the "I Have a Dream" speech with a classroom full of college freshman, and as a committed atheist and left-wing graduate student (and who is leftier than a grad student?), can you guess what my feelings might have been about delving into Jesus and the Bible in discussing King's rhetoric? My feeling is that it would have been pedagogical malpractice not to minutely examine how the reverend doctor's Baptist faith directly influenced his political activism and speech writing. The idea that I might be targeted by the ACLU for spreading dangerously religious ideas - and at a publicly-funded university, no less! - felt about as real as the idea that I might be gunned down by Eliot Ness for running a moonshine empire. And if I had a student needling me in class about theology, I would have wept tears of pure joy that I had someone who wanted to talk, instead ofΒ  spending a whole fucking minute robotically looking back and forth at bored STEM majors asking "So, does 'dark and desolate valley of segregation' feel like an allusion to anything? A famous saying you might have heard? About a valley of shadow? Of death? Remember, he was a minister. It was in a book? I will also accept 'Gangster's Paradise'. Anybody?"

Anyway, the point is that the people who made God's Not Dead 2 - writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, director Harold Cronk (all of them holdovers from God's Not Dead) - have not, I think, ever actually spoken to a teacher, or ever been inside of a school.

They have also probably not ever been in a courtroom, to guess from what happens after Grace ends up being sued (by the ACLU, if I read it right - the school board almost has to sue her, but ends up letting "them" handle it instead, and I can't imagine who else "them" would be in context). I have, admittedly, not been in a courtroom either, but I have seen many courtroom thrillers, and this also seems to have been a level of research not conducted by the filmmakers. They do, to their credit, accurately use the phrase voir dire, and a significant plot point hinges on the difference between a peremptory challenge and a challenge for cause.

Another point in the film's favor: unlike the first movie, there is only one real plot this time, with none of the spurious add-ons jockeying for attention. There are, sure, little plot fragments tying up pieces from last time: cancer-ridden new believer Amy Ryan (Trish LaFache) is stunned to find her cancer has gone away, in some kind of inexplicable event that has no apparent cause according to the rules of physics, and she simply cannot articulate what could possibly be going on, because this franchise's conception of what non-believers can comprehend apparently supposes that the word "miracle" is some kind of shibboleth. Reverend Dave (David A.R. White, co-founder of Pure Flix, the production company whose reputation was largely made by the first film) is grappling with the problem of the government's recent demand to examine every sermon delivered by every preacher in order to censor them, or examine them for seditious content, or some other thing that has not come anywhere remotely close to happening in America in the lifetime of anyone now living; he also grapples with the problem of being too lazy to serve on Grace's jury. Also, recent convert Martin (Paul Kwo) shows up, though I cannot confidently say why. Hell, even the rental car guy (Tommy Blaze) comes back, for a somewhat longish, protracted moment that does an especially fine job of telegraphing how much fan service this film wants to perform. And the mere fact that God's Not Dead fan service exists is kind of spectacularly mind-blowing. But I digress, much like the film: all of these odds and ends aren't really for anything. They do not add up to the spiraling, out-of-control rat king that the first film had in lieu of narrative structure.

Even so, the more-or-less solitary plot that God's Not Dead 2 possesses still isn't a terribly good one. It's a courtroom drama, I said, but a weird one: Grace's atheist lawyer Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) - a surprisingly generous depiction of a non-Christian as someone who is basically good without having to convert first - has decided that the best way to prove her innocence is by demonstrating that Jesus did, in fact, exist historically, because this means that King was simply quoting from an extant philosopher. This is baffling on every level. For one, the Jesus Myth theory is a fringe idea even among movement atheists, and the idea that proving Jesus's historicity would be in any way controversial or radical could only conceivably make sense to the kind of ultra-conservative paranoiac who... well, who makes a God's Not Dead movie, I guess. Second, from a legal standpoint, it's thoroughly unnecessary; the strongest case you could possibly need to make is that Martin Luther King believed in Jesus, and therefore taking Jesus seriously is needed to take MLK seriously. Though that's still overstating it: we needn't really go any farther than observing that King was drawing from a shared tradition of stories and moral codes, and whether he or anybody else believes in Jesus is quite irrelevant compared to the fact that the Bible exists, and is widely-read. But this simply brings us back to the Ur-problem, that the conflict this film depicts could not exist in this way in reality.

Nevertheless, "prove that Jesus existed, in a court of (dirty, filthy, secular) law (where the witnesses are, nevertheless, sworn in on a Bible)" is to be our main conflict. Sadly, this is not achieved, Miracle on 34th Street-style, by having the post office bring in all their letters to God. Actually, it's not really "achieved" at all. Instead, Tom just starts ranting like a fucking lunatic, apparently to induce the jury to find in Grace's favor on the grounds that she had an irredeemably incompetent attorney & should be pitied, and when I say "apparently" this was the case, I mean "Tom proudly announces in dialogue that this was his specific plan".

This is all carried off in the most perfunctory way possible; unlike last time, Cronk has no delicate visual touches to share with us (though he is still not incompetent). The acting ranges from shrill (the many amateurs) to boring (Hart, Ernie Hudson as the judge), to sublimely hammy when we get to Ray Wise's serpentine expressions of self-satisfied evil as ACLU lawyer Peter Kane. It makes no real sense for the ACLU to be involved here - the case itself makes no real sense, given that the only thing at question is whether a school teacher who has not yet been fired can be fired, but that warren of rabbit holes is best left undisturbed, this late into the review - but if they have to be, and they have to be represented as pure, willfully malicious evil (and obviously, they do), might as well have an old pro like Wise smirking and glowering and stretching his lips so tightly that it looks like his cheeks might implode. It's the only sign of human life in this film that, like its predecessor, has no real sense of what human life outside of its very distinct bubble might look like. Human life as seen in a cartoon, sure, but it's best to take what one can get in a movie this utterly impossible and hapless.

Reviews in this series
God's Not Dead (Cronk, 2014)
God's Not Dead 2 (Cronk, 2016)
God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (Mason, 2018)

*"When I saw God's Not Dead 2 for the first time" has just become the saddest clause I have ever written.