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A week before Noah hits multiplexes across the country, a much smaller religious-themed movie is sneaking into a few theaters. God’s Not Dead seems unlikely to provoke the controversy that Noah is generating in some conservative religious circles, since it was produced by a company called Faith Family Films, among other backers. As the title and the producing entity suggest, the film is clearly designed as propaganda to counter Hollywood’s more typical “godless” efforts. But is it effective propaganda? Sometimes it is, to be honest, but it will speak mainly to those who already define themselves as true believers.
The film is slickly produced, with a competent cast, and although it sometimes stacks the deck shamelessly in defense of its credo, it does allow a few dissenting voices to slip into the debate. The protagonist, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), is a freshman at the fictional Hadleigh University in Louisiana, who locks horns with an atheistic and dictatorial philosophy professor. On the first day of class, the haughty professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) asks that all students sign a paper affirming that “God Is Dead,” so that he will not have to spend time arguing with traditional believers. Josh refuses to sign, and the professor reluctantly offers to let him have a portion of three classes to try to win the other students over to his devout point of view.
While it may be true that some college professors challenge religious conservatives, it’s a stretch to believe that such an atheistic pledge would actually be a course requirement anywhere. Nevertheless, when Josh and Radisson begin their debate, it’s somewhat refreshing to hear intellectuals like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins quoted and discussed. Radisson is a pretty one-dimensional tyrant, though it helps that Sorbo gives such a smooth, effective performance. When a third-act revelation provides personal motivation for his fervent atheism, the plot gimmick is pretty tacky. It cheapens the issues to suggest that anyone who doubts the existence of God came to that conclusion because of a personal trauma.
Although the heart of the film is this argument between cynic and believer, the film introduces quite a few characters and subplots, padding the running time unnecessarily. We have a journalist with a cancer diagnosis, a brother and sister caring for a mother with dementia, and a Muslim girl who defies her overbearing father by embracing Christianity. This last subplot is seriously offensive in suggesting that Muslims are the only religious group intolerant of other faiths.
Despite its dubious theology, the film is well paced, even if it makes some editing blunders, like intercutting daytime and nighttime scenes that are supposed to be occurring simultaneously. Harper makes a likable, low-key protagonist, and Sorbo a vigorous antagonist. Trisha LaFache as the stricken reporter and David A.R. White as the college pastor both give engaging performances, and Dean Cain is convincing as a corporate hotshot without much of a belief system. Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame appears as himself, and the film climaxes with a musical performance by the Christian rock group Newsboys. The film has entertaining moments, but these are clearly secondary to its proselytizing intentions.
Opens: Friday, March 21 (Freestyle Releasing).
Cast: Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, David A.R. White, Dean Cain, Trisha LaFache, Paul Kwo, Cory Oliver, Hadeel Sittu, Willie Robertson, Korie Robertson.
Director: Harold Cronk.
Screenwriters: Chuck Konzelman, Cary Solomon.
Story by: Hunter Dennis, Chuck Konzelman, Cary Solomon.
Producers: Michael Scott, Russell Wolfe, Anna Zielinski, David A.R. White, Elizabeth Travis.
Executive producers: Troy Duhon, Robert Katz.
Director of photography: Brian Shanley.
Production designer: Claire Sanchez
Music: Will Musser.
Costume designer: John H. Smith.
Editor: Vance Null.
Rated PG, 112 minutes.
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