Move over, The Hunger Games and Divergent. There's a new dystopian movie series in town. Granted, if you're only just now hearing about God's Not Dead, which grossed 30 times its budget in 2014, you're probably not part of the series' target audience. And if you are part of that target audience, you almost certainly won't agree that its premise resembles science fiction.
Which means that this review won't be of much use to anyone except the curious and those seeking a reason to send Seven Days hate mail. But I was curious about God's Not Dead 2, so bear with me.
The God's Not Dead series takes as its thesis that God is Public Enemy No. 1 in the American educational system. In the first film, an atheist college professor tries to bulldoze a Christian student into renouncing his faith. In this one, public high school teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) must fight for her job in court after she's caught bringing religion into the classroom.
Has Wesley been proselytizing to her students? Nope. Here's the extent of her "offense": When a student asks her to link Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings to those of Jesus, she quotes an appropriate piece of scripture. Speaking as a former teacher who frequently mentioned the Bible in intellectual-history contexts, I have trouble imagining even a hard-core atheist objecting to this bland acknowledgment of a core text of Western culture.
But the atheists in this film seem determined to rewrite history — chief among them the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer (Ray Wise) who takes the case against Grace. A slimy-smiled, spiffy-suited fellow who actually proclaims, "We're going to prove once and for all that God is dead," he appears to have come straight from hell itself.
Could the right director make a great, chilling film from this strange material? Probably. But in the hands of returning director Harold Cronk, God's Not Dead 2 is more like a preachy sitcom, with an occasional misty aerial shot of the setting (Little Rock, Ark.) to add cinematic value.
The script's focus jumps among several characters, some carried over from the previous film, but its methods of characterization remain constant. Devout characters are relatively fleshed out and human — Rev. Dave (David A.R. White), Grace's biggest ally on the jury, is introduced with a series of would-be comic pratfalls, the better to endear him to us. As Grace's questioning student, whose "free-thinking," materialist parents insist she never hear the name of Jesus in school, Hayley Orrantia gets less wooden as her character grows stronger in her faith.
By contrast, the characters who defend secularism in the public sphere are a tight-lipped, inhuman, sound-bite-spouting bunch. Grace's nonbelieving lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) is the exception, though his main function seems to be listening to his client with the glistening eyes of someone ripe for conversion.
It's worth noting that secular films have all too frequently portrayed religious folk as caricatures comparable to the atheist zealots here. While turnabout may be fair play, it doesn't make for good art or mutual understanding. But then, neither of those seems to be the objective of God's Not Dead 2. This is a film designed to rally the faithful against a perceived systematic persecution campaign, complete with end credits listing cases that inspired the story.
Some of those cases hinge on an issue that is never broached in God's Not Dead 2: the disputed right of Christian business owners not to serve same-sex couples. Perhaps if Grace had been vocal on that question in the classroom, the court case and the film would have had more substance. Instead, Cronk leaves viewers with the impression that there is no middle ground between espousing Christianity and ruthlessly eradicating it. For those of us who prefer to do neither, that's a dystopian scenario indeed.