I genuinely look forward to most Christian movies that are released, especially if I know they will be released in theaters and especially if I know that there will be an actual budget behind it. As some of you might know, Christian movies have had many hurdles to jump in the past 20 plus years when it comes to quality. One of those hurdles has been budget. Now, as I have said in previous posts, I am not saying that Christian movies need to get budgets of $50 million in order to be successful but what I am saying is that the budget needs to match the story that is trying to be told. For example, if you are telling an end times story with all sorts of natural disasters and you are trying to show all this on a budget that is not even in the millions then all you are doing is setting your movie up to look low budget and cheesy before you even get to the story. The second hurdle has been acting. Some of the worst acting in movie history has appeared in Christian films. After you get past the hurdle of actually not revealing that your movie is low budget from the very first shot due to low production quality you then need actors who are good enough not to turn viewers away as they deliver their first line. A third hurdle has been writing, if you are going to make a movie, writing is where you should actually start. Yes I listed it last but it is because it is the last one noticed, but it really should be the thing you build the rest on.
Now, with all that laid out, I want to give a little background on the movie Do You Believe? I like to put things into perspective when I am judging a movie. Here is the perspective; God’s Not Dead came out last year. They did a fantastic job of marketing the film, connecting the film to the Newsboys who where the hottest band at the time having had two very successful albums just released. They advertised appearances by members of the Duck Dynasty family who were extremely hot at the time and they showed a very simple story, a sort of David and Goliath story set in the classroom of a mainstream university. All this lead to the film making over $60 million at the box-office and I am sure even more in home rentals, sales, church licenses and a Netflix deal all for just a $2 million dollar budget! I am sure that you can see that the margin of profit is large. Even after you take the theater’s portion out of that total which I have heard is an estimated 1/3 (it is more complicated than that and I am sure the truth is much different but lets run with it.) also taking out of that the money used for promotion which is anyone’s guess as to how much was spent on that. The bottom line is still that God’s Not Dead made big bucks and placing it as the title holder of the largest grossing independent Christian movie not made by Mel Gibson of all time.
I was not overly enthused with God’s Not Dead but I can’t say that I didn’t find it at least enjoyable on some level but when I saw these final numbers, my mind was set! Pure Flix (the studio that brought you God’s Not Dead) All eyes are on you, with one film you have gone from the studio that makes a ton of low budget, cheesy movies each year to being the big juggernaut of the Christian film industry! Your next film needs to blow us away! This means that Do You Believe? Was really the movie to see if there would be an improvement. Now, I do want to say that it is very possible that there is no God’s Not Dead money funneled to Do You Believe? As I do not know when production started. However, it still stands that with such a big hit you need to follow that with something better to let people know you are serious. So, How did Do You Believe do?
It has not been reported yet how much Do You Believe actually cost, all that has been said is that the cost was higher than God’s Not Dead. That means the budget was more than $2 million. It is hard to say exactly what the budget was but if I were to venture a guess, and I am just guessing and I wouldn’t even call my guess an educated guess, I would say around $5 million… Prue Flix… was I close? In the ballpark?… anyway. From the very first frame I could tell that the look of the film was going to be improved. It looked pretty solid! Some good camera work, some nice looking shots. The picture looked crisp and clear. I was pleased with this aspect of the film from the very beginning. I very good step in the right direction! Whatever the budget was, it looked as though it was enough to do the script justice. Well done to the team on this one, also, good job to the director Jon Gun who has not directed a lot of movies but in 2000 he directed his first film Mercy Streets which, at a time when Christian movies were downright terrible, Mercy Streets always stood out to me! Unfortunately not a whole lot of people saw that film as I did not even know about it until I was introduced to me my first year in college by a good friend who I know reads this blog. I don’t know how much you had to do with story development, sometimes directors have a lot to do with story and sometimes they have nothing. For the purpose of this review I am not going to add anything about story here, other than the director did, in my opinion, a great job at piecing together a very difficult story. First hurdle cleared by Do You Believe.
All you need to do is look at the list of actors in this film. There are some pretty big, or once big names in this movie. Cybill Shepherd, Ted McGinley, Sean Austin and Lee Majors! Hey, you look at that list and I can already see that the ingredients are there to make a movie with decent acting! As a whole, the acting was just that, decent. I feel that Ted McGinley, who played the pastor in the film did a very good job and Lee Majors… well, what can I say about former Steve Austin himself (that is the Six Million Dollar Man, not the wrestler) Lee Majors elevated every scene he was in! His wife was played by Cybill Shepherd and I think she… well… did not. I don’t know if it was that Lee Majors performance that made Cybill’s look worse or if Cybill was just phoning it in, not even trying. Either way, I know for a fact that Cybill is capable of far better. Now, please do keep in mind I am not saying any of these actors deserve an Oscar for there performances but at least this movie has the talent to give it credibility. I like the direction that Pure Flix is going in with the actors they are hiring for their projects. Second hurdle cleared!
This film was written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, a couple that doesn’t give me any assurance of a good film. They wrote God’s Not Dead, if that movie has any strong points it is not in the writing. They wrote another film for Pure Flix called What If… which, isn’t actually that bad for a direct to DVD Christian film, The Book of Daniel which is one of my favorite stories in the Bible made into one of the most boring low budget Christian films I have seen. Before turning their pens towards Christian films they wrote Earth vs. The Spider which is a low budget creature feature. Over all their writing has not been high quality and this story will not help! In the very beginning moments we hear that the story will revolve around 12 characters whose lives will intersect under the cross, right from that moment I went “ut oh.” Why? Because it is difficult for a writer of high quality to write a story about 12 characters that don’t have much to do with each other but intersect at some point and actually make me care about those characters. What follows is zero character development beyond the light bulb moment conversions, you know the type I mean. “Jesus wants to save you!” “what? He does? How do I let him do that?” “all you have to do is repeat after me.” (sinners prayer) “Yay! I am saved.” Some of my readers may not be bothered by this. You might think to yourself “but, I enjoyed the movie.” That is ok. I enjoy old monster movies like Godzilla and Gamera, does that mean I am going to try to convince you they are well written movies? No. Since there is no time for character development the story relies on a series of events that amount to little more than emotional manipulation. It is a film that knows it’s audience, as Christians we do love movies that show people getting saved from traumatic lives. We love to hear in church the testimony of the man who was once a gang banging drug dealer but accepted Christ and then turned his life around. The problem is, this movie is not a testimony, it is fiction. I am sure that if you looked into the life of the former gang banging drug addict there would be a much deeper and more complex journey that eventually lead him to a place where he found refuge in the merciful and loving arms of Jesus Christ. Yes, when he tells us his story on a Sunday morning he glosses over all that because he has a limited time to speak and just wants to get to the important part that he is changed but if we are going to sit down and watch a story for two hours we need to see more of the journey. I feel like some of you might not believe me, or might totally disagree or think I am being too hard. I am reluctant to share specifics for anyone who still would like to go see the film. However, for those of you who have I am about to go into detail so if you do not want anything ruined for you, do not read the next part after “Spoilers” and just skip down to “Conclusion.”
Why do I call this film “emotional manipulation?” Ever death ends with a deathbed conversion. Every person who once hated Christians sees how great Christianity really is and decides there must be something to this. The reverend and his wife can’t have children and because they where Christian’s to a pregnant girl she ends up giving her baby to them as she dies minutes after delivery… but not before he deathbed conversion. The gangbanger who ran into the church near the beginning of the film while running from the cops, prays to God the cops won’t see him… and they don’t. Which allows him to try to convert his gangbanging friend named Kriminal only to be killed while taking a bullet for his friend WHILE witnessing to him. His friend is shown at the end with tears in his eyes as he is asked “Are you the man who goes by Kriminal?” only to say “I was.” The only character with the unhappy ending is the Doctor who gets offended by people praying silently in a restaurant or patience who thank God for being healed instead of thanking him.
However, the one that takes the cake is Joe’s story. Probably the story most well fleshed out. The character I feel they did the best job of connecting the audience with. Showing Joe as the do gooder who really touches a homeless woman and he daughter. He is the picture of selflessness. All that is fine! I enjoyed the story. I thought it was the most well written story in the entire movie. Then comes the twist. He is dying. It was revealed with the cliché coughing into the white handkerchief to reveal blood. I personally would have cut that out, you already had him at the hospital and giving up his spot for the little girl. You already had him leave the hospital without being checked out by a doctor. You already had him coughing throughout the film. Cutting out the blood on the handkerchief portion would have allowed the audience to find out about his dying when he reveals it to the homeless lady (who he delivers a note to while she was at Lee Major’s house before she had the chance to tell anyone she was there.) That reveal would have been better I feel. BUT all this is my example of the glimmer of good writing in the film… and I hate to even use a word as strong a glimmer. The worst part is, after setting up this emotional moment at his death bed. The only death bed scene that did not have a conversion connected to it… after you have him pass and you have the doctor come in and examine him and sign his birth certificate, you suddenly have the heart beat monitor beep again, then again… He’s alive! The doctor comes back in and wants to explain this because he will not accept miracles. He tells the nurse that he wants to find the nature of this infection. To which the recently resurrected man says “You won’t find any.” How does he know that God not only resurrected him but also healed him of his leukemia and of the infection that caused his death? Maybe he met God in heaven and God told him… I guess that is what we are meant to believe.
So the question of the movie stands and faces me. Do you believe? Do you believe God can heal? Do you believe God can resurrect the dead? Yes, I believe all this. However, do I believe God fearing, Bible believing Christian’s die every day and don’t come back to life? Yes! Do I believe that the Jesus of the Cross died on that cross so that we could be saved from sin and not just so that this temporary body can be healed for another 20 to 50 years only to meet the same fate down the road? You see, my problem is not that I don’t believe that God does these things because I do. The problem is that when you insert this type of a story into a fictional story it robs from the true stories. If you want to tell a story like that, go and find someone who has had that kind of experience. Make a movie based on their lives and label it a true story. Don’t cheapen their experience by writing it into your story because you want the people watching to praise God for resurrecting a fictional character when he is very capable of resurrecting a real person!
*****************spoiler is done*********************
My conclusion is, that though this film moves forward in many places when it comes to quality it is still lacking in the most important aspect of the film. The story. Pure Flix, please, don’t let these writers write anymore. You now have the money to go and hire real talent. Read over the millions of script summations I am sure you get. Maybe, just maybe there is one in there worthy of being a movie. Please, don’t just settle for sowing together a bunch of emotionally manipulating scenes just to get the Christian to cry but find or write stories that actually show a journey of faith. Keep stories a little simpler. God’s Not Dead was a simple story of one college student going up against his teacher and how it impacted his friends who watched it happen. Simple. We understood what the movie was about from the trailer. Focus on Character development. Not conversion moments. Character development can lead to a conversion moment and I promise it will be more impactful when it does. Try not to make none Christians such jerks. I know, some of them are… but a lot of them are not. I would not recommend this film. If you want to see it fine, but I warn you. Wait for redbox or even Netflix next year. There are still more Pure Flix movies on their way. I am excited and haven’t given up hope. However, they need to do better than this.