Judging by the success of “Son of God,” and the bounty of religious-themed pics scheduled to follow it into theaters over the next 10 months, it would seem that the Almighty is alive and well, at least at the box office. But that doesn’t stop Christian evangelical pic “God’s Not Dead” from delivering the hard and heavy sell. Of course, one doesn’t exactly look to such fare expecting enlightened or even particularly well-informed debate (of Christian theology or any other issue), but even grading on a generous curve, this strident melodrama about the insidious efforts of America’s university system to silence true believers on campus is about as subtle as a stack of Bibles falling on your head — or the third-act deus ex machina that hits one Doubting Thomas like a car speeding through a rain-slicked intersection.
Produced by Christian shingle Pure Flix and cannily pre-packaged with endorsements (and cameo appearances) from “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson and venerable Christian rockers the Newsboys, the pic could build on its projected $8 million opening weekend to become the biggest Christian indie breakout since the $34 million-grossing “Courageous” in 2011.
Though you wouldn’t exactly guess it from the surveys that repeatedly show upwards of 80% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, “God’s Not Dead” wants us to know that Christianity is under attack in the old U.S. of A. — attack from the liberal, “Duck Dynasty”-hating media, from titans of industry leading lives of wanton decadence, from observers of non-Christian faiths, and worst of all from the world of academia, with its self-important evolutionary scientists and atheistic philosophes. (The pic takes its purported inspiration from dozens of real-life court cases, indexed in the end credits, in which Christian groups have battled universities over the right to assemble, disseminate literature and be officially recognized.) Camus, Chomsky, Freud and Foucault are all on the hit list here — and on the blackboard of the movie’s resident bogeyman, freshman philosophy professor Radisson (former TV “Hercules” star Kevin Sorbo, slimmed down to mortal proportions).
Lacking only glowing red eyes to complete the effect (rather like the Jews in the wartime Nazi propaganda films), Radisson sinisterly strokes his goatee while lecturing his impressionable students on the triumph of science and reason over the ancient “superstition” of Christianity. When a lone dissenting voice emerges in the form of fresh-faced prelaw student Josh (Disney Channel alum Shane Harper), Radisson hands him the ultimatum that sets the rest of the rickety plot in motion: Either Josh drops the class, or else he has to take to the podium and try to prove the existence of God to Radisson and his fellow students over the course of the next three sessions.
To sweeten the pot, director Harold Cronk and screenwriters Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman (all vets of multiple prior Christian pics) add in a chorus of other nonbelievers, including a popular lefty blogger (Trisha LaFache) who ambushes Robertson and his wife, Korie, with hand-wringing lefty concerns about the ethical treatment of animals and the conservative values espoused on their TV show. This happens shortly before said blogger is diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, to which she responds, “I don’t have time for cancer!” Neither, it seems, does her equally godless, corporate-big-wig boyfriend (Dean Cain), who promptly ditches her upon hearing the news. He shows scarcely greater concern for his dementia-stricken mother, but at least she has a good, God-fearing daughter (Cory Oliver) to look in on her — a daughter who just happen to be the put-upon mistress of a certain hard-line philosophy professor.
Meanwhile, back on campus, Josh begins mounting his defense of the Lord in a fashion that might be called “Christian Apologetics for Dummies,” countering the bad professor’s scientific reasoning with his own citations from theistic scholars who suggest that Scripture and science can exist harmoniously side by side. Well, sometimes those forces sync up more harmoniously (the Big Bang) than others (evolution), but never shall the twain really meet — at least not with this milquetoast Abercrombie model at the stand, making his arguments with all the passionate conviction of a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation report. Played by Harper as a nice, clean-cut kid who doesn’t really want to ruffle anybody’s feathers, but who comes to believe that “God wants somebody to defend him,” Josh just might be the Almighty’s worst advocate since William Jennings Bryan.
The movie’s risibly myopic worldview is further evinced in the depiction of two secondary characters: an overachieving Chinese emigre (Paul Kwo) who arrives on campus to be asked by a wide-eyed registration official, “What does PRC stand for?”; and the daughter (Hadeel Sittu) of a strict Muslim father, who steals away in her bedroom to listen to podcasts of Franklin (son of Billy) Graham — in this house, the sure equivalent of the devil’s music.
Less-than-heavenly production values show through the shot-in-Louisiana pic at every turn.