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.



The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because... well, we aren't really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave's jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm - however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce's help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave's lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave's life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he's hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he's accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is... actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It's truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries - in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it's easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he's crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he's holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he's mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward... but just how big was that step? Let's take a closer look...



One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you've seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let's focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university's chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I'm wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave's, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam's arrest... and we're definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God's Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they've conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam's girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it's the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she's seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is "tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting." While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they're often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.


The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave's brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful "older brother" routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it's obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family's faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of "playing the victim". Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents' hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn't portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that's left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he's introduced. This might seem like old hat for God's Not Dead, but it's a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we're given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the "rules" aren't nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that "the whole world knows what the church is against, but it's getting harder and harder to know what it's for." Their experiences certainly don't represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I'm not sure that the filmmakers "get it" yet - they still don't seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it's supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.



The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus - the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That's a textbook example of Christian "persecution" which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave's arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building's presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it's better to build a student centre in the long-term. There's no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they're going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it's also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we're even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there's absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God's Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It's a weird scene, because it's either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity... except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I'm not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in "one truth", which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:
Dave: "What's important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I'm tired of being pushed around. I'm tired of turning the other cheek. [...] I'm just saying that I think it's time that Christians stand up for themselves." 
Roland: "People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David." 
Dave: "This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you'd understand a little better if you were the one being attacked." 
Roland: "Brother who do you think you're talking to? I'm a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. [...] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don't forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness."
The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn't necessarily "get" it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film's title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film's fundamental messages, and honestly it's a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God's Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.


For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I've alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don't quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can't ignore how their lingering issues taint this film's attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film's cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn't really add anything to the film. Despite this film's efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie's efforts to improve Christian and non-believers' relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie's efforts entirely because they are "two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable" and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:
"Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who "smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding [...] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth." When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a "so much for the tolerant left" line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: "It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening." What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right".
The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film's other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn't strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that "I don't think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda" and that "my beliefs are the foundation of change" because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that "Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior"... whoo boy. What "oppressed people" are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don't have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being "social justice warriors" and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It's one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it's another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film's ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we've got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. "Let's stop shouting at each other and start listening. It's the only way that things will get better" could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film's ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there's no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, "stop shouting, start listening" suggests that the people you're shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.


A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It's a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God's presence without requiring words. It's the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers' refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film's message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being "inspiring" enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it's almost too bad that we're probably not going to get a fourth film - I'm extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn't backslide after this film's tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness - 5/10
2) God's Not Dead - 4/10
3) God's Not Dead 2 - 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

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