Back in the day (around the fifties), Biblical and faith-based films were box-office behemoths. That popularity waned, though, through the seventies, eventually relegating these types of films to the niche and straight-to-video markets. But over the past decade or so, faith-based films have made a comeback, attaching themselves to a hungry, dedicated audience. This year alone has already seen several Biblical or faith-based films. In Risen, an atheist (before atheism was really a thing, I think) has his faith tested when he witnesses a man he knows was executed rise from His grave; a mother has her faith tested when her young daughter is stricken with a terminal disease in Miracles From Heaven; and in God’s Not Dead 2, a high school teacher’s faith is tested when she’s put on trial for having the audacity to answer a question about Jesus in class. (For the record, I didn’t see The Young Messiah, so I can’t comment on the specifics of that film — but I do believe a character’s faith will be tested at some point. If anyone saw it, tell me if I’m wrong.)
I know what you’re all thinking — boy, these movies are all the same. On the surface, yes, but there are very clear differences between all of these films that deliver on the execution of their distinct plots. Of the three, Risen is the weakest, but still delivers an interesting debate about the resurrection of Jesus as seen through a non-believer’s relationship with Him. The best of the bunch is Miracles From Heaven, which, even though the studios ruined the whole movie in the trailers, is a heartbreaking — and heartwarming — true story that deals with how hard it is to believe in a compassionate God when someone you love is threatened and there’s nothing you can do but watch them deteriorate. Neither of these take the approach of God’s Not Dead 2, which like its predecessor, tackles the politics of God and drive home a very serious and divisive idea of not only God’s place in the world, but what freedoms have been given us as part of the Constitution and how current politics have distorted His life and the importance of His message.
Where the original film pit God against science, and looked at the possibility of how God could exist as an aspect of science (as in, the two don’t necessarily have to be separate; they can in fact be one and the same), the sequel pits God against man’s perception of Him, and the unmitigated fear some people have over hearing His name — as if the only thing Christians think about is indoctrinating or converting others to their “silly”, or fictional religion. But as they clearly note in the movie, despite whether or not one believes Jesus was the son of God, there’s been enough evidence unearthed over the years to prove a Nazarene named Jesus did exist and was crucified by the Romans some two-thousand years ago. So when Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) answers a question from a grieving student (Hayley Orrantia) in history class regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights speech and whether his promotion of non-violence was similar to Jesus’s teachings, how is that not okay to discuss, from a historical stand-point, in a history class? In fact, not only was King a reverend himself, but Gandhi, a Buddhist, was being referenced in the same context, but no one seemed to have a problem with that.
The argument stems from the old proclamation of separation of church and state, a bogus argument since, as Grace’s lawyer (Jesse Metcalf) clearly states, that phrase is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. It was originally used by Thomas Jefferson to assure people that the government would not create its own church or religion, and that anyone was free to practice their own religion as they saw fit. The main actors do a very good job in balancing both sides of this matter building a nice foundation for the film. Arguing for the side of secularization is the ACLU, headed by Peter Kane, played magnificently by Ray Wise, a genius bit of casting since I still remember Wise’s awesome portrayal of the Devil from CW’s very underrated Reaper. He combines just the right amount of slime with a gentle ounce of humanity hidden under his menacing exterior. He may go a little overboard at times, making his glint of evil far too blatant (marking him and the ACLU as pure evil), but the audience for the film will still find him a perfectly entertaining foil for Grace.
In other news (and as a way to connect the sequel to its predecessor), David A.R. White returns as Reverend Dave, who helps Paul Kwo’s Martin Yip to explore his confusion of Christianity. Reverend Dave ends up having to become a part of the jury in Grace’s case, a plot point that, even though it ends in a minor plot twist that could have happened without Dave’s existence, doesn’t seem to go anywhere. In fact, the majority of scenes that don’t deal directly with the core story seem pointless and tacked on simply to help elongate the film. There’s nothing within them that help compound the main issues, making it feel as if those sequences jumped over from a completely different film.
God’s Not Dead 2 is far from a perfect film. It’s not as well-developed as the first movie, there are several performances that seem extremely lazy, and most of the courtroom scenes are rushed and don’t seem to go quite as far as they could. But regardless of these very noticeable flaws, God’s Not Dead 2 hits all the right notes where it needs to. It stays true to its convictions and gives us all, believer or not, enough to discuss and debate.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include The Jungle Book, Criminal and Barbershop: The Next Cut. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.