Released: 30th March
Seen: 8th May
Before we begin the review properly, I’d like to get some disclosure out of the way so that everyone knows where I’m coming from before I talk about the movie. For starters, I’m an atheist, I mentioned this in my review of The Star but that means that a movie about god and religion has to work a little harder to get to me. It either needs to be self-critical or just so good that I’m able to put my feelings on the religion aside. It can’t just be an hour and a half long sermon or else I’m not going to be kind to it and that’s a bias I have that I recognise and I wanted to state right at the top of this review because if that makes you think you’re not about to trust my judgement, I get that. It’s because of that known bias that we must come to my second point, which is that I didn’t see the first or second movie in this series. I know about them, a character from one of them is a major character in this movie so I have a decent idea of the quality of those ones but I can’t judge them without seeing them. Fortunately, you do not need to see those movies in order to understand this one… unfortunately, understanding this one does not mean you’re going to like it.
God’s Not Dead 3 is about Pastor Dave, played by David A.R. White who has apparently been in all three of these movies and, judging from his IMDB page, can’t decide if he’s Pastor Dave or Reverend Dave so I’m going to call him Pastor Dave just because I can. He runs the church that happens to be surrounded by a University, one that they later point out was built AFTER the church. This is the cause of some controversy in the area because some people (see: Atheists) believe that there shouldn’t be a church on the grounds of an educational facility. The Pastor has just gotten out of jail, where he was held for contempt of court charges after he refused to have government officials look over transcripts of his sermons before he gives them. That is something that is a clear violation of the first amendment, is a thing that just does not happen in this circumstance (Yes, I know about Dr Eric Walsh. In his circumstance those sermons were requested because he was potentially going to be working in a major government position… Pastor Dave wasn’t, Pastor Dave was apparently just asked to hand his sermons over for no reason and THAT doesn’t happen) and all of this is something that is never brought up again after the opening scene… not even once.
Shortly after his release from prison, Dave and his friend Jude, played by Benjamin Onyango, end up going to the church and due to a series of events that are ripped straight from a Final Destination movie, there’s a gas explosion that ends up causing great damage to the building and ends up killing someone. From that point the university that is surrounding the church claims that it can use Eminent Domain, which in this context it most likely can’t since that would be violating that churches First Amendment right to freedom of religion and the Fifth Amendment saying that the land can’t just be taken, unless for Public Use and with fair compensation and a dorm at a university isn’t public use (If I’m misunderstanding that amendment, please correct me, I’m not an american legal scholar but even I thought their claim to eminent domain was stupid). So with all that in place, Pastor Dave decides to sue the university for the right to keep his church while the cops are trying to find the person who started the fire, even though that fire has been always burning since the world’s been turning.
This film has a persecution complex that is staggering to behold. There are sometimes when I absolutely get why the film would suggest that this specific pastor might feel persecuted, he very clearly is being persecuted for his beliefs right at the beginning of the film and his church get’s burnt down so him having that feeling is something I get… the fact that they try to make it about all Christians though is where I kind of raise an eyebrow and wonder if they’re for real. I’m not even suggesting Christians aren’t mocked for their faith, it happens BUT this film tries to pass off the idea of questioning faith as persecution and I’m sorry, no. There are entire scenes where the Pastor is upset at his atheist brother because his brother left… even though his brother pointed out that his losing the faith made his home life hell. The film points out these issues but it never has the self-awareness to point out that the religion it’s preaching has had some problems of its own. When it does bring those up explicitly by having the atheist brother say things like “Why does God let bad things happen?” or have him bring up victims of the church, the main character brushes those off like they’re absolutely nothing and it get’s to be annoying. It goes from a film about a priest trying to deal with the loss of his church into pure propaganda where the only good people are the ones who believe in god, and the bad people are the atheists who will only become good people once they are handed a bible. I’m sorry, not only does the real world not work like that, good storytelling doesn’t work like that.
The idea of the asshole atheist is a popular one, Dawkins and Hitchens are kind of prime examples of that but let me be clear, most Atheists aren’t assholes… but in God’s Not Dead 3, every atheist is an asshole. Every single one. The brother character is an atheist and a hilarious asshole, but still an asshole. There’s a kid in the movie called Adam, played by Mike Manning who is one of the best actors in the film, and he’s an atheist and also an asshole… he’s the one who throws the brick that starts the fire, that’s how bad he is in this movie and he is only seen to be forgivable when he is handed a bible. His friends are all asshole atheists who laugh at the very notion of faith in such comically evil fashion that it requires the twirling of a moustache and they only become decent people after a sermon. This happens throughout the film and it’s beyond bad. There isn’t even another person of a different faith, it’s just the Christians vs the obvious Atheists who are evil and hate them. For the record, no we don’t hate Christians. We just like sleep on Sundays.
When I said that Mike Manning was one of the best actors in the film, I say that because he’s one of exactly three people who is even trying to do something interesting with their performance. Ted McGinley plays Thomas Ellsworth and he plays him wonderfully, he’s a conflicted man of god who is well aware of the controversy that the on-campus church brings and has to decide between that church and his job and his performance is spectacular. Now, granted, that curse of Ted McGinley clearly lives on because this film has not done well at the box office at all, but still, he is pretty good in it. Finally, there is John Corbett as Pearce Hill, the asshole atheist brother who gives the character a lot of heart and genuinely funny moments. He has some great scenes with Pastor Dave that make you want the entire movie to just be about those two brothers. I would gleefully sit through a road trip movie where Pastor Dave and his asshole atheist brother Pearce go on a road trip and rib each other while occasionally talking about theology, there’s something there, but it’s wasted because the brothers sub-plot just doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Other than those three actors, that’s it. Everyone is either bad, bland, unmemorable, or a gratuitous cameo from Judge Jeannine Pirro and Dana Loesch… yeah, the NRA woman is in this one, so when either of them talk about the Hollywood elite I just want you to know that they’re in a pretty major Hollywood film (The God’s Not Dead series is pretty damn huge for what it is, you don’t get to make 3 of these for no reason)
One of the strangest obsessions that this film has, on top of the persecution complex, is its fascination with a fire metaphor. It opens with images of sparks and a monologue that’s badly dubbed over poorly edited footage that goes between these random sparks and the setup for the movie. They repeatedly suggest how hard it is to walk through the fire, they bring up candles as a major metaphor, they talk constantly about lighting a spark and other bad fire metaphors… after the plot itself begins with someone dying in a fire (A fire made of some of the worst CGI I’ve seen) it might not be a great idea for you to have your bad actors do repeated fire metaphors. It’s just not polite, that’s all I’m saying.
What’s somehow worse than the CGI fire that this movie tried to sell us on is how awful the camera work is. How hard is it to buy a tripod? How much could it possibly cost to just get one tripod to hold a camera still for when you want to have simple dialogue scenes between two people? If your camera is constantly moving throughout these still shots of dialogue, there’s a problem there. There are also just some spectacular bits of framing that I think are trying to be dramatic but end up just being bad, including one shot that’s trying to make a dramatic crying scene look intense but is clearly framed to try and hide the fact that the actor in question can’t cry as the scene requires and can’t even pull up enough emotion to do something close to it. It’s a shame because there are some shots in this film that genuinely work, some incredible drone shots that are genuinely beautiful and give a good sense of space. Some of the lighting is perfectly chosen, albeit stylised as hell. There are some amazing looking church scenes where the entire interior of the church is bathed in a warm glowing golden light and it feels inviting, then there are party scenes that are meant to have implied debauchery and sin with a sinister red light. Yes, this films best visual asset is coloured gels you put in front of tungsten lights but at least it created something visually interesting… that was sadly rendered useless due to poor framing and shaky camera work.
There was a good film in here somewhere, somewhere deep in the bowels of this movie there was something that could potentially work. A story about a priest that has his church burned down and has to turn to his estranged atheist brother for help and ends up repairing their relationship in the process is a compelling idea for a narrative that should be able to work, and maybe someday someone will make it work. This can’t possibly be that film because, in order for a film like that to work, you have to be willing to treat those with different beliefs as though they are good people who just have a different belief. You also, just in general, probably need a decent script, cameraman and cast but that would just be silly. If you’re already a believer and you just want a film that is preaching to the converted, then you might get something out of this… but honestly? I doubt it because this film just doesn’t want to try and be anything beyond bad propaganda and, at some point, we should be able to say no to that.