GOD’S NOT DEAD, US, 2014, Starring Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, David A.R. White. Directed by Harold Cronk. Rated M (Mature themes). 113 minutes.
This is more a film for believers rather than being an effective means for change of mind or for conversion. It is a faith-based film from faith-based production companies – and, at the end, there is a very long list of court cases, federally and in various states of the US, where universities and colleges have been challenged because of their bans on the activities and meetings of Christian groups.
The plot is quite straightforward illustrating its title. A young man, Josh (Shane Harper), enrols at university for pre-law courses. He is interested in a philosophy course but is warned about the hard line of the lecturer. The lecturer is Professor Grandison (played by Kevin Sorbo who has spent a lot of his careers portraying invoicing Hercules in television films and series and in animated films – and who has weathered the years much more successfully than Arnold Schwarzenegger). The professor is anti-God, exceedingly hostile, not afraid to voice his opinions with some arrogance and who requires everyone in the class to write on a piece of paper, God is dead, and initially it and hand it in.
The point is that Josh hesitates, decides not to sign to the chagrin of the professor. Josh is to be allowed three 20 minute sessions after the lectures in order to make a case that God is not dead. At the front of the lecture room is a list of prominent thinkers of past and present who were or are atheists, including Richard Dawkins.
There is pressure on Josh to drop his case, his rather demanding fiancee walking out on him (perhaps lucky escape) and his parents disapprove. Nevertheless, he gets books from the library, reads to prepare, goes to church and encounters a sympathetic pastor, and, with some growing success, he makes his three presentations. It is here that the screenplay incorporates a lot of of philosophical, scientific and religious argument.
There are several sub-plots: a Chinese student who attends the course, meets Josh, listens attentively and is persuaded that God is not dead, shocking his Chinese father back home who is definitely not a theist; a young woman who visits her mother in a residence, the mother having dementia, turns out to be the girlfriend of the professor who is very controlling of her, which she resists, and professes her faith, and discusses things religious with the pastor; a young Muslim girl is taken to work by her devout father, she removes her veil when out of his sight, works in the canteen, hears Josh talking about his case – and then she is revealed as having been a Christian for a year and is ousted by her father; it is also the story of the pastor who wants to go on a break with his visiting African missionary friend, but his car and rental cars won’t ignite and he remains at home, encountering those in need – and hearing his African friend always saying, in every circumstance, God is good. The professor’s girlfriend has a very worldly brother, very successful in business, fulfilling all his desires, but who is grossly arrogant towards his girlfriend, a journalist who has been diagnosed with cancer. This brother does not want to visit his mother because of her dementia but, ultimately, does so and suddenly she makes a lot of very telling statements that have an effect on him.
This is one sequence which works particularly well dramatically, the mother saying all the challenging things, which might seem impossible – and then she turns to her son and asks who he is.
At times, the script is somewhat sermonising, which tends to alienate non-religious and unsympathetic audiences. To that extent, the film is preaching to the converted, a rather fundamentalist converted, who are wary about challenges to the Bible by science. This is where comments about challenges to such writers as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking are incorporated into the screenplay.
There is something of a shock ending for one of the central characters, a deathbed conversion so to speak, which does not work particularly well as drama but as a high-intentioned illustration that God is good, no matter what. Everyone ends up at a rally with a religious music group, The Newsies, singing and giving good counsel to the journalist with her cancer interviewing them.
[A glance at the Internet Internet Movie Database indicates that there are over 400 bloggers commenting – a huge percentage of them expressing themselves in very hostile entries.]
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Five Loaves Entertainment.
Opens August 21st 2014.