God's Not Dead has become the stand-in in popular consciousness for a whole genre: the hectoring message movie designed exclusively for U.S. conservative evangelical audiences. And this makes a great deal of sense: it was a huge, shocking box-office success, making $61 million in North America from a $2 million dollar budget, which makes it the single best investment of any of these films. It came out as part of a cluster of three films in six weeks of 2014 (preceded by Son of God and followed by Heaven Is for Real, the last of which remains this genre's highest-grossing film, with $91 million) whose financial success made it seem like faith movies were about to become the next big trend, though this never quite panned out. Unlike the other two films, though, God's Not Dead wasn't made through a major studio, but from the previously-obscure company Pure Flix, giving it a veneer of grassroots filmmaking that makes it seem more "legitimate" in a way.

Even so, treating God's Not Dead as an exemplar of its form is kind of wildly unfair. One of the constant traits of these films is that they're terrible, but even so, God's Not Dead stands out as a uniquely incompetent piece of storytelling. Its ineptitude at depicting recognisable human behavior is matched only by its ineptitude at following any known rules of narrative. It aims to be a hyperlink film along the Crash/Babel model that had, by 2014, largely become the business of terrible Garry Marshall films, but it cannot aspire even to the level of competence of a Valentine's Day.* Writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (along with their co-scenarist Hunter Dennis) have figured out how to lay in connection between its characters, sort of; they have not, however, figured out how to make their individual stories tie together thematically, nor how to make them interesting in and of themselves. There is a considerable amount of screen time dedicated to the adventures of two bumbling pastors, Reverend Dave (David A.R. White, one of the co-founders of Pure Flix) and Reverend Jude (Benjamin Onyango), who have car troubles preventing them from getting to Walt Disney World. In context, the implication is that God keeps fucking with their car to keep Reverend Dave in town during the rest of the plot, but Dave's presence doesn't actually have anything to do with the outcome of the conflict by that point. So all we get is impossible mild wacky comedy, and the presence of a standoffish car rental agent (Tommy Blaze) who just wants to be an actor, which I think is somehow meant to be a dog whistle for how he's licentious or something, because for a throwaway moment, the film really calls attention to it. But anyway.

The film has many plots swirling and swooping around, but the one it cares about most is the one where college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) has a showdown with arrogant Prof. Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) of the philosophy department over the question whether God is, in fact, dead, as all the great philosophers in history have maintained. And setting aside everything else, I'd have grave reservations about a professor of philosophy whose list of the great philosophers includes none of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, or Thomas Aquinas, to name just the first ones that come to mind. Nor, for that matter, one whose reading of Nietzsche is apparently that straightforward. But anyway, Josh will not stand for this, because he is a Christian, which the film clearly means as a dog whistle. It is a dog whistle I cannot hear. I just know that it doesn't mean "someone who subscribes to the moral teachings of itinerant Nazarene preacher Yeshua ben-Yosef", and not "that, plus a belief in Jesus's literal divinity and symbolic-or-literal aspect as a redeemer of humankind's sins". It definitely has something to do with the conservative Bible Church branch of American Christianity - Josh didn't get the surname "Wheaton" for no good reason - and as far as I can ferret out from the movie, it could be "believes in Jesus, the literal truth of the Bible, thinks all atheists are lying about it, and attends Newsboys concerts". So in his smug, patronising way, Radisson challenges Josh to a series of three in-class debates, where Josh spits out apologetics that any high school atheist could bat down, and Radisson responds with horrible surface-level summaries of popular scientific articles, and we all end up being much dumber than when we started out. Josh ends up winning only because, like all atheists (the lying scum!), Radisson actually is a believer, he just hates God, and so the whole thing was moot from the first.

Fleshing this out - or, at least driving the running time up to a wearing 113 minutes - we also get the story of how Radisson is a complete ass to his religious girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver), caring for her dementia-ridden mother, and failing to shame her incredible monster of a brother Mark (Dean Cain) into similarly offering up any whisper of human feeling. Mark, by the way, is never dealt with in any fashion: he's just a screaming dick who makes everyone around him vividly unhappy, and then he's no longer in the movie. His solitary function is to meekly connect Josh's story with Amy's (Trisha LaFache); she's Mark's girlfriend, a crusading atheist/feminist blogger (the film does not seem to consider that you can have one without the other) who makes her name by randomly ambushing Duck Dynasty cast members with such probing questions as "Wait, God?" and "Seriously, though, God?" and "I can't even with God". Joke's on Amy, though: she's just about to learn that she has cancer, even despite her earnest claim, in one of the film's greatest lines of dialogue "I don't have time for cancer", merely one of the ways in which this film's skill at depicting character psychology reminds one of The Room.

Also, in a beautifully misconceived attempt at diversity, the film introduces us to Iranian Muslim Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), who has been a secret Christian for a year now, and as a result is disowned by her father; it also drags in Josh's Chinese classmate Martin (Paul Kwo), who keeps having excited conversations with his obviously-annoyed dad (Jesse Wang) about these "Christians", and how what they say makes a lot of sense. Let us not say more of Reverend Jude, a jolly Africa beaming with wide-eyed enthusiasm at America, than has already been said (okay, one more thing: he and Reverend Dave have a peculiar call-and-response: "God is good, all of the time. And all of the time, God is good". If one is going to use this kind of rhetorical reversal - and God's Not Dead is addicted them - shouldn't one endeavor to make sure that the two sentences aren't exact synonyms for each other?)

God's Not Dead could only have come out from a particularly overheated breed of right-wing Christianity, convinced that it is being persecuted from every corner; it's hard to imagine anyone other than the morbidly paranoid believing for a second that a professor who shared Radisson's ludicrous, first-day-of-class insistence on making every student sign a "God is dead" pledge could possibly exist in the wild. But it would be meeting the film on its own level to start that argument, and it doesn't remotely earn such respect. This is a thoroughgoing muddle: the subplots are linked more through a whimsical sense of optimism than any clear dramatic or thematic symmetry, and the only real sense that any of them exist in the same world comes because all of the good people besides the reverends end up at the same Newsboys concert at the end. Right after an incongruously melodramatic death scene that the film plays as a positive moment. It is acted without distinction across the board; Sorbo, probably the biggest name here (apologies to the Dean Cain fans) at least gets into playing a villain of such sneering arrogance that he'd have fit in fine on the Victorian stage, but Harper completely fails to hold his own, looking like a mildly discomfited puppy most of the time, and unable to project any emotion that doesn't involve raising his speaking volume. Better not to speak about any of the supporting characters, though special props to White for playing Reverend Dave as an Oliver Hardy-esque buffoon, which would not at all seem to be the correct angle for a person who takes this so seriously that he founded a company to make movies just like it.

Anyway, it's a top-to-bottom disaster, excepting that every so often, director Harold Cronk will whip out a surprisingly effective shot that somehow visualises the emotion of a moment, or provides a little visual joke. It is not incompetently directed, nor shot, and that's not always true for these conservative Christian movies, as any habitué of the Kirk Cameron filmography can attest. Still, it more than makes up for the occasional directorial grace note, with its stupefying lack of awareness of how humans think or behave outside of the self-selecting bubble of its assumed audience, and its deadening lack of narrative momentum, or narrative structure, or anything else that starts with the word "narrative". The good news, at least, is that it's giddy fun as a result of all this, and the next time you and a bunch of your infidel buddies want to get shitfaced, there are probably a dozen ways to turn this into a hell of a drinking game.

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)

*It is, however, not any worse than New Year's Eve.

†Of course, the makers of this film are probably also the kind of people who take it for granted that all Catholics are going to Hell.

‡Newsboys are an Australian Christian rock band, and in this film universe, they are the most beloved Christian rock band of all. This does not appear to be the case in any other established reality. The band's most direct connection to the material is the 2011 single "God's Not Dead (Like a Lion)", which presents the stirring and overprecise argument "My God's not dead / He's surely alive". Surely.