The biggest new movie release this week is, of course, a sequel. But it’s not another superhero romp, nor a YA entry, nor even a family film — the genres Hollywood now makes with any regularity. It’s “God’s Not Dead 2,” whose predecessor was a very, very surprise hit two years back. It’s the fourth religious movie of the new year alone and, like many of them, it wasn’t screened for critics. But if it’s anything like “God’s Not Dead 1,” it’s probably terrible and horribly depressing.
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At this point there are more Christian-driven movies than at any other time in history — even more than when Hollywood devoted its biggest budgets to religious epics like “The Robe,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” (The latter is getting a blockbuster remake this summer, though the trailer paints it more like a cool, roided-up tale of vengeance and chariot racing than a work of solemn piety.)“The Passion of the Christ,” another shock blockbuster, opened the floodgates for faith-based cinema, both in Hollywood and among tinier, more specific evangelical markets.
Or that was the idea, anyway. Instead, quantity has trumped quality, and not merely because many are amateurish and lumpy, even the ones with name stars and money behind them. They tend to depict faith either blandly or as a paranoid, black-and-white battle between nice believers and mean doubters. These films havefanned the flames of a culture war that has been so greatly exaggerated that, with the rise of Trump,the imagined has finally become real.
The worst offender isn’t, perhaps surprisingly, the Kirk Cameron vehicle “Fireproof,” which raked in some fine cash in 2008 while peddling bad messages about women knowing their place in the household. It’s the original “God’s Not Dead.” In the over-the-top drama, former “Hercules” he-man Kevin Sorbo plays a mean philosophy professor — it’s called typecasting, people — who berates and threatens to destroy the college career of a nice Christian boy (Shane Harper) who refuses to sign a paper on the first day of class saying God does not exist.
This is the kind of imagined threat that says more about the filmmakers than what’s actually happening on college campuses. But it’s one of the least of the movie’s offenses. Its worldview isn't just anti-"elitist" — that whistle-hound word regularly peddled by far-right Breitbart columnists. It'sof the cruel Old Testament kind, meaning its driven by a sense of victimization and even dark, sometimes pitiless vengeance. Sorbo’s character doesn’t meet a nice end, but there’s also — among the film’s surprisingly Altmanesque number of characters and subplots — a hissable Muslim father who beats and evicts his teenage daughter for listening to Bible verses.
No, the film doesn’t tread on touchy subjects mildly, though this arc fares better than the one about a secular female journalist (read: triple evil) who questions “Duck Dynasty” bro Willie Robertson about his belief that wives should be submissive to husbands. The screenwriters reward her with a diagnosis of cancer. (She’s also named “Amy Ryan,” presumably having nothing to do with the excellent, Oscar-nominated actress.)
Few other faith-based movies can touch “God’s Not Dead”’s dark soul — not even an even bigger hit: last year’s “War Room,” in which believers are encouraged to go into a/the closet to pray their problems away. Most of them, in fact, are largely anodyne, though even the bigger Hollywood religious entries — and therefore the least likely to offend a broader audience — usually leave some room for persecution.
In the new based-on-a-true-story drama “Miracles from Heaven,” Jennifer Garner prays her face off until her sickly daughter unexplainably gets better. But the climax features rude monsters charging that she’s only trying to make money off her claim that her daughter was saved by a divine hand (perhaps through a bestseller and a movie starring Jennifer Garner). Our hero says nothing and looks sad, and her put-upon silence is supposed to make us like her — and side with her beliefs. A similar scene happens in the in-many-other-ways similar “Heaven is for Real,” although that at least can boast a genuinely terrific and even moving turn from Greg Kinnear, in a film that doesn’t deserve him.
Even when faith-based films largely refrain from painting believers as victims and secular types as their enemies, they don’t have much else going on. “The Young Messiah,” the one about a button-cute, ever-smiling seven-year-old J.C. from March, is singularly dull and uneventful, with bad attempts at jokes. “90 Minutes in Heaven,” with Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth, has enough filmmaking craft to inadvertently stress how little has happened, and not quickly. “Son of God” was nothing more than a super-sized version of the Christ section of the miniseries “The Bible,” offering cutrate versions of the New Testament’s Greatest Hits as well as a Messiah played by a pretty but vacant Portuguese model, who has rightly come to be known as “Hot Jesus.”
The best of the recent batch, “Risen,” has a legitimately strong first half, plus a disarming lack of pretension. It’s the Resurrection story told from the Roman side, and is essentially an episode of “CSI” with sandals. It even has one of the best screen crucifixion scenes, on where director Kevin Reynolds (of “Waterworld”!) almost entirely ignores the dying Jesus (Cliff Curtis), who’s actually called the more historically likely “Yeshua.” But once our cynical soldier hero (Joseph Fiennes) has flip-flopped and joined up with the Apostles, it’s a slog en route to a shruggy non-ending.
It’s not even worth pointing out that most of these films don’t make much money, that their successes might simply be flukes. Perhaps even “God’s Not Dead 2” will fail, much as Kirk Cameron’s “Fireproof” chaser “Saving Christmas” dropped dead in 2014. Christianity has been on the (very slight) decline since 2007, their numbers apparently replaced by those who now identify as religiously “unaffiliated.” That may partly explain why some faith-based films tend to act as though what’s still the nation’s number one religion is under assault.
But as in any form of cultural debate, the shrillest tend to be the loudest, and the films Christians get tend to only be about coercing more of them towards extremes, making them feel persecuted by demons, like the one played by the former Kull the Conqueror in “God’s Not Dead.” The everyday Christian, like any group, deserves movies that speak directly to them. And right now, far as movies of both good quality and worthwhile messages go, they’re being screwed.