Everything a potential viewer might want to know about the faith based drama Let There Be Light – the feature directorial debut of actor and star Kevin Sorbo – can be gleaned from the first thirty seconds of the film. Over archival footage of various terrorist attacks and atrocities committed around the world, and sandwiched amid a slew of cast members with the last name Sorbo, one gets to see the name of third billed actor, Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity (who also serves as an Executive Producer), transposed over a shot of the Twin Towers on fire. Immediately settling into a tone that shouts “you’re either with us or against us” right into the viewer’s face, Let There Be Light then settles into a boring groove about one man’s not terribly exciting, implausible, and horrifically clichéd tale of religious redemption.
Sorbo stars as that man, resolute atheist Dr. Sol Harkens, the best-selling writer of the hilariously titled “Aborting God,” and an academic so pedantic that part of the film’s opening debate against a clergyman finds the doctor (of what, we’ll never know) explaining to a hooting and hollering university audience how punctuation works. Part of Sol – short for Solomon, because of course it is – denying the existence of Jesus and God stems from the death of one of his young sons from cancer several years earlier. The strain of such loss has sent Sol into a spiral of grief and shame that breaks up his marriage, finds him dating disinterested looking Russian models, living in a loft where only pictures of him adorn the walls, and drinking vodka like it’s going out of style. After one of Sol’s benders causes him to crash his car and have a near death experience, the doubter starts to question if he’s been wrong about the power of Christ’s love and mystery all along.
The first twenty minutes of Let There Be Light are so incredibly over the top thanks to Sorbo’s scenery chewing performance that briefly the film becomes something so awful that it’s unintentionally hilarious. Watching Sorbo ranting about how life is meaningless, God doesn’t exist, and espousing his love for sex, drugs, and rock and roll – via a Wayne’s World reference of all things – is goofy, fun, and I’m sure not at all what Sorbo the Director wants us to think about the character. It’s very clear that unlike any number of recent faith based films that want to invite people into religions instead of pushing them away, Let There Be Light is aimed squarely at the converted masses that are chomping at the bit to boo and hiss an atheistic blowhard off the screen.
The script from Sam Sorbo – Kevin’s wife, both on screen and off – and Dan Gordon (who has a career so varied that I almost don’t believe it) could have dealt with themes of grief, loss, faith, and the delicate art of reconciliation with some degree of class, dignity, and nuance, but instead of developing characters naturally, the Sorbos decide to hit only the high spots and throwing any sort of storytelling acumen and logic to the wind in favour of easy to digest pabulum. There’s no sense of pacing of escalation here. The events documenting Harkens’ return to God could take place either over the course of days or years, but it all moves so quickly towards ham-fisted epiphanies that it’s hard to tell. Things don’t happen because they would logically happen, but because they need to happen in a certain amount of time.
Sol’s questioning of where God was when he was at his lowest ends abruptly thanks to the addition of health problems that are raised once and never brought up again. It makes no sense that Sol’s possibly gay-slash-possibly-British publisher (Daniel Roebuck) would fire his prized cow, especially when the writer’s potential conversion opens up a previously untapped market of Christian consumers if it can be spun properly, making Roebuck’s already cartoonish character the stupidest one in a cast full of over the top personalities. It only takes one meeting with an ex-con turned pastor (Michael Franzese) to make Sol believe again and almost immediately get baptized. Mere minutes after that scene, Sol mends the previously frosty relationship that he had with his wife, Katy, and his remaining sons (played by the Sorbos’ real life kids, Braeden and Shane). Not long after Katy and Sol reconcile and hatch a multi-media plan to spread the gospel, a plot twist so manipulative and ill advised pops up to send the film headlong into a third act that’s indistinguishable from every Hallmark Movie ever made, but one that also curiously forgets about the journey the characters had been on prior to that moment.
In short, Let There Be Light is narratively and performatively incompetent, repetitive, and so furiously focused on showing one man’s conversion to Christianity that it forgets to convert the audience to its point of view. Instead of trying to tell a story that earns its emotional beats, it preaches only to those who already believe with the depth of Wal-Mart flyer. There’s a way to tell this kind of story properly and patiently in a way where the religious underpinnings can remain intact, but no one involved with Let There Be Light is skilled enough to make such a film.
Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that I’m not sure if Sorbo even knows what kind of faith based film he has made. The film constantly forces itself to mention ISIS approximately every five minutes or so to remind people that there’s evil in the world coming from other religious zealots, but Sorbo never stops to actually show what makes his branch of Christianity so much better than others. Even stranger, Let There Be Light also doesn’t get hateful or racist enough to use ISIS as anything more than a buzz word and catchall shorthand for all the evil in the world. Even the religious baiting (which I can’t say is racial, since Sorbo does populate the film with a fair number of actors of colour) just lies there, doing nothing, no matter how many times they say ISIS.
At about the halfway point when Sol has fully converted – which is way too early and causes the rest of the film to be a slog – any semblance of nay-saying has been dropped, save for Hannity’s snarky, disingenuous cameo towards the end. A weird subplot involving a bunch of infomercial hawked cleaning supplies that Sol bought in a drunken stupor serves as a weird mirror for how many times the characters say the film’s title (almost as many times as they say ISIS), which happens to be a phone app and product the main characters create to bring God’s message to the people of the world. These aren’t the techniques employed by a filmmaker keen on spreading the gospel, but rather the work of a pitchman forcing a hard sell on people who already own the product but want more of it in their lives. Let There Be Light won’t teach Christians to be better Christians or bring atheists into the light because it wants to make pre-existing Christians MORE Christian.
And I’m certainly not suggesting that films expressly aimed at Christian audiences shouldn’t give them some warm feelings about their chosen religion, or that all such films are bad. I’m saying that Let There Be Light is a terrible film and a terrible example of the genre because it’s an awful film by any standard or metric, with the exception of the cinematography and lighting, which is actually very well done. Redemption stories – regardless of what the character is seeking redemption for – need an arc that earns its catharsis, not spikes designed to just get on with things and rush into conclusions the audience already knows are coming.
Let There Be Light opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, February 9, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Let There Be Light: