Kevin Sorbo, the former TV “Hercules” now a busy producer-star primarily in the faith-based entertainment industry, makes his feature directorial debut in the latter mode with “Let There Be Light.” More polished than many of its ilk, perhaps due to executive producer coin from the inimitable Sean Hannity — who gets third billing for a shamelessly self-promoting late appearance — this drama about the spiritual awakening of “the world’s most famous atheist’” is predictably simplistic and maudlin in content. But it should satisfy the target demographic with an inspirational family-values message wrapped in a sudsy narrative.
Sorbo plays Dr. Sol Harkens, a takeoff on Richard Dawkins and others among the world’s small supply of shrilly outspoken public atheists. He’s quite the caricature of what some evangelicals believe is plotting against them: a smug, obnoxious cynic first seen rudely interrupting a cleric (Gary Grubbs) during a town-hall debate, his latest book called “Aborting God.” He scoffs at any notion of religious belief, telling the cheering audience, “Don’t look for any meaning in life, because there isn’t any,” while saying his personal faith lies in “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” He ballasts this showboating performance by questioning that if God indeed exists and “is love,” why did He take away Sol’s child via terminal cancer at age 8?
For all his rock-star swagger, Sol goes home to drink alone in front of the TV set in his luxury apartment. He’s divorced from Katy (Sam Sorbo), who resents his public exploitation of their son’s death — particularly since she and their surviving two sons (Shane Sorbo, Braeden Sorbo) remain steadfast Christians. Passing involvements with women like vapid Russian supermodel Vanessa (Olivia Fox) hardly assuage the spiritual emptiness he won’t cop to.
Driving home drunk from his book launch party, he smashes into a wall, experiencing a vision (while clinically dead for four minutes) that finds him “going toward the light,” seeing his deceased son and being given the titular message by the latter.
Naturally, the media is very curious about his having had a near-death experience, and whether he saw any “other side.” But Sol’s agent (Daniel Roebuck) and publicist (Donielle Artese) are equally eager that he stay on message at a moment when he’s poised to become “the next Bill Maher” — and not undermine his entire public persona with an “Oops! There is a God after all” turnabout. But despite some resistance (as well as a lot of vodka), he cannot keep the “light” he’s seen from leaking out for long, endangering his career while significantly repairing relations with Katy and the boys.
The script by the director’s co-star spouse (née Sam Jenkins) and veteran screen scribe Don Gordon lays it on pretty thick in various departments, particularly using her character as a holy scold in the first half and a smiling-through-tears heroine worthy of a 1930s weepie in the second. The latter element is ramped up via a melodramatic turn that is too much, but then “Let There Be Light” wasn’t built for subtlety. Sorbo’s confident direction does smooth over some of the excesses of rhetoric and contrivance, though he can’t do much with the ludicrous figure of “Pastor Vinny,” an ex-con who’s such a wiseguy cliche he actually says “bada-bing” — even if thesp Michael Franzese actually is the born-again offspring of a famous mobster.
The eventual approach of on-screen Hannity is heralded by various characters parroting some of his usual talking about ISIS, and his wackier conspiracy-theorist side is presumably represented by the bizarre notion (supposedly Katy’s) of a phone app that somehow beams Christian messages from your cell phone into heathen hearts of darkness like Pakistan and North Korea. But he’s not the only celebrity shoehorned into the narrative: Dionne Warwick appears as herself in a wedding scene (performing one of the soundtrack’s several decent hiphop-flavored gospel pop tracks), while country star Travis Tritt appears as one of the world’s less likely oncologists.
Performances are understandably variable, with denizens of the “secular” world encouraged to emphasize loud shallowness. While the elder Sorbos clearly enjoy working together, however pat the psychological dimensions here, their sons probably should have been given less screentime (and precocious dialogue) given a too-evident lack of acting experience.
Very few who bother seeing Alabama-shot “Let There Be Light” will be inclined to argue with its message, let alone point out that the grating initial notion that Christians are being persecuted by smarty-pants atheists is being somewhat contradicted by many politicians’ seeming movement towards dismantling “separation of church and state” for a de facto Christian theocracy. But the Sorbos, and benefactor Hannity, eventually soften their scare tactics in old-school tearjerking and a tech/design package that’s above-average for the genre.