So I saw God's Not Dead last night.
It had taken me a while to see it. My aunt first mentioned it to me, since she knew that I had taken a lot of courses through Briercrest that dealt with theology and philosophy, and the topic of proving God's existence intrigues me. And, had I not gone with a bunch of friends, I probably wouldn't have. This may seem very odd, since most people who read this are well aware I'm a Christian and God's Not Dead is very much a Christian film, but I have seen more than my fair share of poorly-acted Christian movies that focus more on the message instead of the means of telling of that message. Luckily, those films are becoming a thing of the past, especially in recent years.
This movie was really good, though. There were several moments where I choked up, and any movie that gets you to connect with the characters emotionally is doing a pretty good job (in my opinion). Now, I won't reveal too many spoilers, but if you're planning to see it, proceed with caution. I'm bad with secrets. The movie is about a college freshman who enrolls into a intro-level philosophy class with an especially impassioned atheist professor. The first class begins with the prof handing out a blank piece of paper and explaining that the sooner the class accepts that "God is Dead", as many of the recent philosophers have, and write this declaration on the paper given to them, things can progress much easier in the class. However, this one freshmen, named Josh Wheaton, can't, because he's a Christian. The prof then tells Josh, who is still in his first week at post-secondary education, to lead three lectures defending the antithesis, that God is NOT dead, and fully expects to fail him afterwords. And not saying that I have all the answers or even know what I'm talking about half the time, but the arguments presented by Josh seemed really good and well researched. He really represented his faith well in comparison to atheist claims. Though I was little disappointed with the ending (which I can't really say why...significant spoilers), I though it was well-made and overall an enjoyable watch.
HOWEVER, it still had issues. IMDB gave it a 4.9, which is a bit harsh, but only a bit. And since while at Briercrest I also took some video editing courses, I feel that I can give my opinion on how it should have been made.
(Now I'm not restraining myself in regards to spoilers. So go watch the movie, then come back. Go ahead, I'll wait.)
Alright, good to see you back. Let's start, then, shall we?
1. Waaaaaaaay too many stories
In the movie, the obvious main character is Josh, followed closely behind the professor, Mr. Radisson. This is the main story line, in which Josh is challenged by his professor to defend his faith. You then have his crazy girlfriend (like, super crazy), who doesn't support Josh in his struggles, and a Chinese student in the class who ends up accepting Jesus at the end of the movie (he's one of my favourite characters). Really, that's all you need as significant roles, and you could probably just give the girl a minimal role, since she dumps him pretty quickly after he starts spending almost all his time preparing for these lectures.
But then there was the pastor and his friend who want to go to Disneyland and learn a lesson in faith, the girlfriend of the professor who also happens to be a Christian and a former student (the heck!?) who eventually leaves him because he's a huge jerk, the Arabic student who has no connection to Radisson or Josh, but is in the same school and is hiding her Christian faith from her conservative, (I'm assuming) Muslim father, a left-wing blogger who ambushes Christians and discovers she has cancer, her businessman boyfriend who is another huge jerk (he breaks up with her because she has cancer) and is the brother of Radisson's girlfriend, and then their mother who has dementia. Then you throw in the Newsboys at the end (I miss Peter Furler) who have a hand in converting the reporter with cancer, and Willie Robertson, though it's more of a cameo. The Arabic girl only interacts with Josh in the final minute of the movie, and she said one line to him. So that's THREE separate story lines, each with a main character(s) and supporting cast. Most movies like to stick with one.
I have found that Christian movies can sometimes make the mistake of trying to show too many faith journeys and how God is working everywhere. Though this is true, it takes away from the main story line and therefore the quality of production, leaving the audience with a bunch of mediocre stories instead of one story done very well.
2. More focus on Josh and Radisson
My suggestion: forget the other stories. Sure, they're interesting and uplifting, but I think the movie is primarily about Josh and his struggles against a professor who hates everything he believes. That story just oozes with potential, most of which was not exploited. Instead, we're gonna show a pastor trying to start a car 7 times. Yaaaaaay.
So keep the pastor, but forget his story. It's not important to Josh. Forget the Arabic girl, and the reporter, and the businessman and his mom. I'd keep the sister, simply for to show the opposite side of Josh- she rejected her faith and wrote the declaration for a forbidden romance with Radisson. She cowered; Josh took the challenge. Also, I'd keep the Chinese guy because Josh had a direct hand in his story. Essentially, strip away everything that doesn't have to do with Josh, Radisson, or the philosophy class. That's the most interesting and important story in the movie.
Side Note: I'm not saying the other journeys of faith were meaningless, but in the essence of making an entertaining and thought provoking movie, I think it would be the best to focus on the main story, making it the most important.
3. Josh as THE protagonist
The actor who plays Josh is actually fairly accomplished and has decent chops; he's a regular on the Disney Channel's "Good Luck Charlie", which is one of the more well-made Disney TV shows.
Stop judging me. I have a younger sister.
So he can act. Awesome. Use that. Show the struggle of trying to figure out how to defend his faith. Revealing the mental anguish and fear that Josh is having would better connect his character with the audience. In the movie, you don't get to see him research and look for sources to prepare for a 20-minute lecture. Have you ever tried to write a philosophy paper?? A week is hardly enough time to find what you're looking for in the plethora of material that is out there. Where do you even start?? I wanted to see how he found what he was looking for. That's where you could bring in the pastor, and MAYBE even his missionary friend, depending if he was portrayed as a highly educated man (as in several years of higher education in a seminary, which is not necessary to be a missionary. Buckets of faith, yes; to know everything there is about Thomas Aquinas, not exactly). He would have to be play a minimal role, though. Too much of his back story, and it starts to take away from Josh.
And definitely keep the girlfriend, as she adds a new difficulty in trying to prepare for these classes. She wants him to write on the paper that God's dead, in order to protect his (essentially her) future. So she forbids him to go through with his defense of faith, which is a major red flag for a Christian girlfriend. If a girl says that to you, run. Run fast and far away.
She also claims that "everyone" thinks that this is stupid. Who is everyone? Family? Close friends? Does Josh have little support from those around him? Develop that! What kind of struggle would that be for him? Defending your faith is never easy, but try throwing in rejection and scorn from those you care about. Now tell your professor, who hates you already, that this faith is worth keeping.
That already is causing me pain. Which means it would be an AWESOME movie aspect.
4. More Radisson as the antagonist
So this is basically along the same lines as #3, but he makes some interesting comments that would be fun to expand on. Specifically, he threatens to destroy Josh's hopes of ever getting a law degree if he continues with the challenge after Josh's first lecture. But nothing ever comes of that. Instead, we learn that some girl got cancer, which was super emotional and really raw emotionally, but had nothing to do with Josh or Radisson. Did Josh go to the school board? Was Radisson punished? WHAT HAPPENED??
He also decides to "switch things up" in Josh's last lecture, which I assume meant that he stood at the front of class to offer criticisms and commentary. But he barely did that. He just stood there. That moment should have been the climax. This lecture would make or break Josh. Yet the movie didn't give a good sense of that. It was always kind of assumed that Josh would win. No major build up. Minor build up, yes, but there could have been so much more.
5. Really amp up the intellectual debate
This movie was filled with references to well-known thinkers in the philosophical and intellectual world. The stuff Josh said was pretty intense, and I found it entertaining to follow along with his arguments in class, as well as Radisson's rebuttals. But there could have been more. I think it can be too tempting to dumb down the intelligence of the movie in favour for a wider audience, and this happens in a lot of other Hollywood movies. Expendables is a great example: It's awesome, full of explosions, guns, and fighting, and I love them, but it sure don't make me think while watching it. With God's Not Dead, the director could instead have tried to appeal to the more educated crown, who could follow along (or found it fun trying to) the in depth arguments that were present in this debate, because it's incredibly complex. It's been debated since Plato and Socrates, and there is still no unanimous decisions. If there's no resolutions after them, then it's doomed to debate for eternity.
If you think that this might be too risky, there are a ton of movies, like A Beautiful Mind, Dead Poet's Society, and Good Will Hunting, that have dealt with more intellectual questions, and have done very very well. So delve into those philosophical debates. Not all the way, that will hurt most of the audience, but enough to see that the debate is real. That way, it will make Josh's victory that much more momentous because it will be against very real and seemingly insurmountable odds.
6. The Ending (my last point)
Like I said, the ending was disappointing. It had everyone at a Newsboys concert, Josh with his new Chinese friend who wants to follow Jesus, and they gave a shoutout to Josh for his good defending skills, then asked everyone to text all their friends, "God's not dead." Then the screen went dark, giving the theater audience the same call. That was it.
I know I'm a little cynical with things like that, but it seems like the movie is playing too much with the emotional state of the audience. Without context, a text that says, "God's not dead," would be really confusing to a non-Christian. But I also know that some people will find this movie very helpful for them to witness to friends. Most of my friends are Christians, and I would tend to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the movie with them instead. So I don't condemn the movie for that. I think it kinda had to end with a call to action, in some way. I just am very aware that it's easy to feel the "spirit of God" when you're in a very emotional state. Everything seems more real and important. I make really bad decisions in an emotional state. But I'm not everyone. The rest of the movie spoke more to me than the ending, and that's fine.
The biggest problem with the ending was that Radisson dies.
I TOLD you there would be spoilers.
He, of course, has had a life changing experience, and decides to go to the concert to get his girlfriend back, but on the way, gets hit by a car and dies, but not before giving his life to God in the presence of the pastor from before (who finally got his car to start and learned about having faith in small things. Yaaaaay). It just wrapped up really quickly. Radisson was dead, no one was sad because no one knew. Everyone else was happy and worshiping at the Newsboys concert. I dunno. it's just a bit too pretty, like one of those professionally wrapped Christmas presents with the fancy ribbon and bow and no wrinkles anywhere. He didn't get to adjust to a new life, to apologize to Josh, to make amends with anyone. Nope, just kill him off, it's easier and cleaner. I think good movies aren't afraid to show struggle, though. Real life has struggles. Hollywood makes it seem like you can solve them in 2 hours, where most of us know that it takes at least twice that.
Anyways, though I enjoyed this movie, I think it still had a lot of untapped potential. A few changes, and this movie would have been very engaging. But nothing is perfect, and I'm glad that I got to see it.
PS: I almost have 2500 views on my blog. That's super cool.