The Christian Crusade has hit the multiplex in force this Spring. No sooner did Darren Aronofsky's brooding, complex, environmental cautionary Noah see dry land, than three new, more conventional religion based movies stormed the box offices: God Is Not Dead, Son of God, and Heaven is Real.
Unfortunately, Godsploitation movies generally require a leap of faith that hardly leads to redemption. For a fleeting moment, God Is Not Dead seems like an earnest attempt to place religious faith in modern life. But the credits have barely faded from view before we are bombarded by cardboard characters mouthing leaden lines in a very un-Christian implausible tale..
College freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), against the warnings of his classmates, signs up for Professor Radisson's (Kevin Sorbo) Introduction to Philosophical Thought. Radisson is a preening bully who requires students to sign a pledge that they don't believe in God, threatening to shame and penalize them if they believe. Was the script written by someone who never attended college or had no knowledge of college professors, codes of ethics or legal classroom behavior? Grounds for professorial termination would come as quickly as the revocation of Sorbo's Screen Actors Guild membership for this acting performance!
Wheaton forsakes his girlfriend to engage in a series of in class debates with his professor. And miraculously, by citing only a few passages of scripture, is able to win the entire class to his side. Meanwhile the other true believers in the movie triumph over the weak minded non-believers. Even Professor Radisson's live-in girlfriend, a student whom the professor constantly mocks, finds the faith to leave him.
Ancillary characters and subplot lines are ineptly shoe-horned into the primary plot to bolster persecution fantasies or illustrate miraculous powers of faith. Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson appears briefly without much reason other than his being a right wing, religious cause celebre of the moment. A Christian rock group's concert winds up the film partially providing the backdrop for the atheist professor's fatal car accident, presumably his punishment from God. Another subplot shows a Muslim young woman who abandons her faith to embrace Christianity. Her father is portrayed as a vicious, uncaring fundamentalist because he cannot abide her change of faith. Yet he is treated as unsympathetically by the movie's Christians as he treats his daughter.
For all its attempts at depicting the modern appeal of Christian religion, God Is Not Dead reveals a coldness at its heart that is more typical of the unforgiving God of the Old Testament. Atheists are killed; Muslims are dispatched as evil. Only by embracing their brand of Christianity is one saved.
While God Is Not Dead tries to dress up the old deity in modern garb and song, Son of God is more an old fashioned sand and sandals epic. Certainly the title itself, "Son of God" sounds more like a sequel than an original. Though Son sticks to the conventional story that we know of Jesus life, the acting is no better than in God Is Not Dead. The ironically named Diago Morgado is featured as Jesus. Morgado should have the role down pat, having starred in the History Channel's The Bible. Unfortunately, the film could use less Morgado who showed no ability to bring Jesus back to life. His performance alternates between beatific stares of joy and horrific other worldly stares of what seems to be excruciating pain. It seems that Morgado sees something beyond the camera that he's not quite able to share with the audience.
The voice over narrative by the disciple John provides the unifying framework of Jesus life. Disciples John (Sebastian Knapp) and Joseph (Joe Coen) are portrayed by veterans of Biblical (Samson and Delilah, Jesus, The Bible) and less than Biblical epics (City Rats, Forest of the Damned 2, Beyond the Rave, Aliens in the Family). Unfortunately for the viewer, the over-earnest, over acting and cut rate sets and CGI make a cineplex orphan out of Son of God.
Of the God fare on screen, Heaven is Real, based on the book of the same name, is the most real. Heaven succeeds on a combination of good writing, sparkling acting, approaching religious catechism with doubt, earnest questions and a surprising degree of pluralism. Unlike its brethren, Heaven features strong ensemble acting by the principals Greg Kinnear, Kathy Reilly, Thomas Haden Church and the inestimable Margo Martindale. At the center, where child actors often bring the most sublime projects back to earth, Connor Corum is charmingly more than plausible.
Minister Todd Burpo (Kinnear) leads a small town Nebraska congregation. His faith is called to question when his four year old son Colton (Connor Corum) almost dies. The by-product of Colton's near death experience is Colton's brief visit to heaven. After his life is saved, Colton recounts his experiences to his family and others. But these accounts are greeted with skepticism and derision, ultimately leading to an exploration of faith that neither "God Is Not Dead" or "Son of God" is able to countenance.
Heaven Is Real gives us real characters in the clutches of painful real life dilemmas. Although its CGI views of heaven are limited, they are framed by the local brick and mortar church and seasoned with humor, ambivalence and a more reasonable discussion of the super natural than strictly faith based dogma.
Heaven Is Real may not be a great movie. But at least it raises religious issues in a semi-critical context. Unfortunately, other religious fare are unable or unwilling to do this. Despite some surprising box office success, the spate of religious films have been critical disappointments. It seems that as with action films, audiences seek out simpler films to reinforce established orthodoxies. One is left with the ultimate question that if there were a "God", wouldn't there be better films?