Up next in my series on the worst films of 2016 is the ultra-evangelical follow up to the 2014 hit God’s Not Dead: God’s Not Dead 2.
The plot of God’s Not Dead is loosely summarized on IMDb as follows:
When a high school teacher is asked a question in class about Jesus, her response lands her in deep trouble.
The lion’s share of the crew for God’s Not Dead 2 are holdovers from the first God’s Not Dead film, including director Harold Cronk, co-writers Chuck Conzelman and Cary Solomon, music composer Will Musser, cinematographer Brian Shanley, and editor Vance Null.
While there are few new faces at work behind the cameras, the cast features quite a number of new additions to the franchise. Gone are previous stars Kevin Sorbo, Shane Harper, and Dean Cain, but present are newcomers like Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, Leviathan, Congo), Ray Wise (RoboCop, Twin Peaks), and Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All). While a few bit players provide connective tissue between the films, God’s Not Dead 2 is not so much a sequel as it is a spin-off, telling an entirely new story in the same (very) fictional universe.
The lion’s share of God’s Not Dead 2 was filmed in Little Rock, Arkansas. This was a change in setting from the previous film, which was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, primarily on the campus of Louisiana State University.
God’s Not Dead 2 was the final film of Fred Dalton Thompson, who died in November of 2015. While he was best known for his work in the Law & Order television franchise, he also had a handful of film roles in features like Baby’s Day Out, In The Line Of Fire, Days of Thunder, The Hunt For Red October, and the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear.
The production budget for the movie was estimated at $5 million. As with the first film, it wound up making a profit at the box office, taking in somewhere between $21 million and $24 million worldwide in its lifetime theatrical run. However, this paled in comparison to the profits for the original God’s Not Dead, which took in $62 million on a $2 million budget.
Critically, however, God’s Not Dead 2 didn’t do nearly so well. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 9% from critics and 63% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 4.1/10.
Of all of the critical reviews that I read of the movie, I think that the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus line best summarizes the essence of God’s Not Dead 2:
Every bit the proselytizing lecture promised by its title, God’s Not Dead 2 preaches ham-fistedly to its paranoid conservative choir.
Honestly, I can’t even begin to talk about all of the problems with the plot to this film. There are too many misconceptions, half-truths, straw men, and flat out lies to list out without it dominating the entire review. Frankly, that is why I didn’t review the original God’s Not Dead: I want to talk about a movie, not a paranoid treatise built on a foundation of sand. So, I am going to focus on other aspects of the movie, and leave the debunking to other folks. I can recommend reading reactions and reviews over at ThinkProgress, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s legal intern, and at Godless in Dixie.
As with the first film, one of the biggest weaknesses of God’s Not Dead 2 is the dialogue. Characters don’t speak organically, often sounding rigid and artificial, which further emphasizes the bloated, exaggerated caricatures that inhabit the cartoonish, simplistic story. At best, characters sound like they are delivering sermons. At worst, they just seem wooden and stilted.
The story itself, concept aside, is weighed down by the ensemble concept that provides its framework. Unlike the first film, the various plot threads and characters never really tie together in the end, and don’t much impact each other, which makes a lot of the movie feel pointless. In particular, a number of the loose connections to the first film could have been jettisoned to help the pacing of the story, like the Chinese student and the buddy priests. As it stands, the movie feels longer than it actually is because of the perceived lack of progression: the constant cutting between characters and plot threads makes following along feel like plodding through molasses.
One thing that I noticed quite a bit in the screenplay was a consistent ire directed at Stanford University. While Stanford is certainly a prestigious school with a liberal pedigree, I’m not sure why it wound up being the specific target of the film’s disdain for liberal higher education. Why not Harvard or Princeton? I would have assumed that the Yankee, Ivy league elite would be the go-to targets of extreme conservatives.
In regards to performances in God’s Not Dead 2, there is a pretty wide range to be found. While most of the cast sleepwalk through their dialogue, like the typically charming Ernie Hudson, Ray Wise in particular embraces his role as a God-hating, moustache-twirling attorney. The movie lights up just the tiniest bit whenever he is on screen, and he provides some much needed energy for the courtroom sequences.
All in all, God’s Not Dead 2 feels more like a fan film than a sequel, which is really odd given how much of the creative team returned from the first film. The whole affair feels chained to the previous movie, going so far as to force the title into the dialogue unnecessarily. That said, I actually think some of the technical craft is improved, though my memory is a little fuzzy in regards to the previous film.
As far as a recommendation goes, there is unfortunately not enough entertainment value here to enjoy the experience. It is just too dull and plodding to make sitting through it fun at all, despite Ray Wise’s performance and a handful of notable moments of complete disjointedness from reality.