Friday, 28 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead - A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God's Not Dead retrospective! In today's entry we're covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out...


The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one - visually, it's a far more interesting design.

God's Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool's joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been... contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God's Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God's Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that "We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don't just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies." Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of "Michael Mason" was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film's leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha... sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave's estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave's love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O'Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film's production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of "A Light in the Darkness", but that the "the" was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix's marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn't just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of "Michael Mason", as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the "Michael Mason" pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a "Christian director". Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it's also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film's director listed as "Jonathan Michael". Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it's really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million - less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series' reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God's Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It's also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God's Not Dead retrospective! In today's entry, we're going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God's Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God's Still Not Dead, c'mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out...

...eh, I don't really like this poster much. I mean, it's fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God's Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film's leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film's success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God's Not Dead 2, I've been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don't want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn't as much information about what actually inspired God's Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix's association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie's website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix's audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply "Christian" films.

It's also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God's Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze "It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? [...] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true." I... what?


David... you know that people get annoyed by lies too... right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can't see anything else? Sigh... I think I'm starting to understand why the "logical" arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Retrospective: God's Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God's Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy... Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I've heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in - I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we're going to start this at the beginning, with 2014's God's Not Dead.

The film's poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there's a certain evocative element to this design which I can't deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film's story... Good job, I guess.

God's Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God's Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That's the official story at least. I can't be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the "atheist professor" while growing up in the church. God's Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God's Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren't similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God's Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects - the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn't even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The "Other" Cinematic Universes

When it comes to cinematic universes, we all know the story: Marvel's only getting better as they go, DC has struggled to get any sort of consistent quality going, etc. However, with as much attention as these franchises get, it's easy to forget that they're not the only ones making their mark on the cinematic universe trend. There are actually quite a few current cinematic universes out there now, some several films deep, that have continued to grow without the attention and scrutiny that Marvel and DC seem to inspire. There are also many more on the way (keep an eye out for Hasbro, they seem to be pushing the hardest), but even after 10 years of Marvel dominance, most have failed to actually get underway. With that in mind, let's look at the less-appreciated landscape of cinematic universes.

Note: I'm only going to be looking at franchises which are still ongoing. To determine if it constitutes a cinematic universe, I'm only looking at major releases (for all I know, The Asylum has a Mega Shark cinematic universe, but I'm sure as hell not going to go digging for turds like that). I'm also looking for franchises which aren't just following a normal, linear progression from film to film. Spin-offs don't necessarily constitute a cinematic universe either, although if there are multiple spin-off films in a franchise then it could apply. Oh, and goofy cameos and tongue-in-cheek jokes don't count either (so no, Transformers and Friday the 13th aren't in the same universe). Ultimately, it's all down to my discretion. Got it? Great, let's buckle in.

Honourable Mentions:
Star Wars (image source): Again, this is down to my discretion, but I don't feel like Star Wars is quite at "cinematic universe" level yet, at least in the way that that label gets applied anyway. For the most part, Star Wars in the cinematic landscape consists of films which follow on from one another (whether as prequels or sequels). Even the spin-offs we've had in Rogue One and Solo were just prequels to the events of the main stories and given less prominence, so I'm struggling to really count these on the same level as, say, your average Marvel or DC solo film in their respective universes. Now, with the groundwork laid by The Last Jedi and Disney's desire to milk this franchise forever (...those are mutually exclusive ideas, I swear), we might actually be getting to a point in the next couple of years when Star Wars is an interconnected universe of various divergent characters and storylines, but until then I have a hard time viewing it as more than a very epic saga.

Alien vs Predator (...vs Blade Runner???) - I'm only not counting this one because there has been basically no official word on whether these franchises still are, or ever were, truly linked in the first place. Basically every Alien and Predator film since has ignored the continuity established by the AVP movies, although they have never completely separated. To make matters even more confusing, the Alien prequels went and made it official that Blade Runner takes place in this universe as well. Considering that all of these separate franchises take place nearly 100 years apart from one another, it makes the continuity pliable, but it would be awesome if we could give AVP another shot at greatness.

The Tarantinoverse(s) - Yes, these films all technically take place in the same universe (click the image on the side to see the entire, complicated breakdown as to how), whether as actual events (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, etc) or as films within that universe (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Proof, etc). There are also a number of characters who are related (most notably, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction). Here's the thing though: none of these connections really matter. I mean, is Vincent affected in Pulp Fiction by Vic's death? No, it's just an easter egg for fans, and that's what everything in the Tarantinoverse is - there's no actual crossover or overarching plot (especially when you can just say "eh, it's a movie in that universe!"), so I'm not counting it. Like I said, my discretion.

And so, let's move onto the actual cinematic universes, shall we?