Review: HEAVEN IS FOR REAL Is Filmgoing Hell

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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Review: HEAVEN IS FOR REAL Is Filmgoing Hell
Eternal paradise is all well and good, but the notion of spending the afterlife floating on clouds while wearing white gowns, halos and playing the harp doesn't thrill people like it used to. Even organized Christianity, a wide swath of society not known for picking up on shifting cultural cues, are keen to this fact. Book studies, Bible studies and a general re-prioritizing of the promises of the afterlife versus the value of focusing upon the here and now have come about, apparently rejiggering deep-set notions of heaven within the church. The new Christian-baiting studio release Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear as a small town pastor grappling with what the realities of heaven might be, attempts to key in on this. 

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Meanwhile, Christian films still suck. At least, that's what everyone thinks, a perception quite largely brought upon themselves. I don't know any Christians who are excited to see Heaven Is for Real. And considering that Christians are its one and only target audience, this could be perceived as a problem. But, never mind that Heaven Is for Real is in fact not at all worth seeing - people are seeing films of this ilk. Recent surprisingly decent box office totals prove it, as several other recent Christian movies to have done surprisingly well. (God's Not Dead, Son of God, Soul Surfer, etc.) And just to be clear, by "Christian movies", I mean the kind of pedantic, faith-driven, based-on-a-true-story wholesomely bland comfort food for the flock, designed to be "inspirational","uplifting", and maybe momentarily convicting in that way a good sermon is. It's enough to make us lament out loud, "God help us, this is still what happens when Christians pick up movie cameras??" (For the record, it's not necessarily. The documentary Blood Brother, is just one off-the-radar example of a competent film of Christian conviction; it stands as one of the best of 2013.) 

After 100-plus years of the trepidatious, antagonistic dance between cinema and institutional Christianity, the church has been intuitive enough to understand the appeal and powerful potential of narrative movies. Some churches have cultivated a cottage industry, churning out morally upright visual tracts, many of which star Kirk Cameron. Not that there's anything wrong with making movies to appeal to specific people groups - it's long been Hollywood's true bread and butter, even as the most massive of mass appeal is the grand goal. This is just one way that the movies and religious practice resemble one another. 

But this brand of Christian cinema, as perpetually stunted as it is, fails to truly engage its core audience, opting instead for "preaching to the choir". If tough questions are asked, they'll be answered by the end. If the film is like Heaven Is for Real, they will be answered by the film's title. Then, for the climax of the film, they'll be unpacked from a church pulpit for good measure. (Ironically, Heaven likely runs the risk of being labeled too etherial, too indefinite for some staunch fundamentalists.) 

For all its talk of heaven, the movie is in actuality about depicting a comfortable, familiar and agreeable version of reality - in this case, a sprawling midwestern flyover utopia made up of salt of the earth congregants who exist on the same spiritual page (including Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale). And although a question about the validity of heaven is kicked around for much of the film's running time, it's never really about that question. The challenges of good cinema are forsaken in the interest of the challenges of the church. But Heaven Is for Real is, technically speaking, a movie... 

heaven-is-for-real.jpgExcept, it's not. For the reasons detailed so far, and more, Heaven is a series of events placed in a particular place and time, eventually gathering moss with the fallout of one event. That event is a lucid near-death experience of a cherubic four year old boy, Colton (Conner Corum). During an intense (and out of left field) surgery sequence, Colton nearly dies (but doesn't), visits heaven, meets Jesus (who looks like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips), and comes back privy to all kinds of familial knowledge and private moments that could only be the result of the supernatural. ("I saw you yelling at God by yourself in that empty hospital chapel", he tells his dad, detailing a scene from only moments earlier in the film.) Colton innocently details moments he wasn't around to witness, and recalls a very specific Great Beyond. His father, pastor Todd Burpo (a real guy who wrote the book that this is based upon, and is played with an impressive professional commitment by Kinnear) is compelled to share his son's testimony publicly, even though he himself for some reason is struggling with it. The resulting uproar causes a schism in their church, and some sort of non-specific crisis of faith within Todd. 

And this, among its many weaknesses, is the grand failing of Heaven Is for Real: On the yardstick of dramatic journey within the story, this character's arc moves him only about a half inch. He goes from being a devoted Christian family man and pastor to being a devoted Christian family man and pastor who believes his son saw heaven. For good measure, he repeats the account a lot, retelling the story to his wife (Kelly Reilly), then his buddy, then to the entire church in his sermon. For sure, having the patience of a saint may come in handy in making it through this film. 

Screenwriter and Director Randall Wallace (who long ago got an Oscar nomination for writing Braveheart) never for a moment allows us to doubt that this angelic little tyke might be making it all up or hallucinating. Not once is it expressed or shown that Colten has an active imagination, which would cast reasonable doubt to his story, and maybe a lair of dramatic tension to the whole boring thing. But imagination isn't exactly a lauded virtue in this idealized world. 

Like so many Christian films before it, Heaven Is for Real is "Based upon a true story". Sigh, sigh, exhausted sigh. After all this time of having the device of cinema - an apparatus that is capable, via the wonder of the moving image and persistence of vision, of allowing us to communicate the mysteries of our God-given psyches and our dreams, filmmakers of faith continuously refuse the potential that movie making offers, instead clinging to a maudlin something that trepidatious audiences of faith (those people skittish about venturing into a movie theater to watch a screen that very well may've housed the images of who-knows-what only a week prior) might find palatable, recognizable, safe. A perplexing fear of fantasy and the fantastic runs deep in this alarmingly strong segment of the faithful, so much so that every story told MUST bear that reassuring qualifier that it is, in fact, true. (Meanwhile, major Hollywood studios sidestep this people group altogether in adapting goldmine film versions of fantasy by Christian writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis - the Lord of the Rings films and the Narnia films, respectively.) They may profess that all truth is God's truth, whatever genre it arrives in, but they refuse to break out of the confines of "Based upon a true story". 

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Although Heaven Is for Real is unquestionably one of the worst films of 2014 so far, let's be thankful for its small mercies. For one thing, the film does display a modicum of courageousness in the way it visually and thematically grapples with the supernatural. For standard film audiences used to Noah, its etherial depiction of Colton's vision of Heaven won't likely register. But for the sheltered target demographic, those wispy clouds and flying angels might look awfully weird, maybe even dangerously speculative. Somehow, they got into this movie anyway. 

Also, it's unafraid of showing a Christian marriage that has a sexiness about it. Amid moments of crisis and doubt, the couple find time to seduce each other, go out on a date - her wearing an eye-opening dress - and to flirt, a lot. Again, this may not exactly qualify as hot under the collar for mainstream audiences, but if this mild loosening up in the marriage department proves to be Heaven Is for Real's primary contribution to mainline conservative Christian culture, it can be considered a welcome baby step.
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Christian filmGrag KinnearHeaven Is for RealKelly ReillyRandall WallaceTodd Burpo

Around the Internet

polyscifiApril 16, 2014 11:48 AM

I didn't think this was the greatest movie ever, but this review is as judgmental as a blue-haired church lady ever was. Unfortunately it misses a real strength of the movie in that it provides one of the most realistic portrayals of Christian people Hollywood has ever put on screen. The reviewer would have you believe the stereotype, and seems upset the movie showed Christians as real people. In this case, the movie deserves the credit.

The misses here come in rapid fire. I'm not sure much got "unpacked" in the final pulpit scene, but if having the main character spell out what he's learned and the perspective he has gained is poor movie making, then every movie that ends with narration (a substantial amount of them do) or every Seinfeld episode that ends on the comedic stage should also be condemned. Since the main character was a preacher, it's only natural for him to have this scene come from behind a pulpit. It would look weird for him to be at comedy club or driving down a beat up highway in a post-apocalyptic world. Just saying.

And maybe I'm missing something, but facing bankruptcy, termination of employment, the death of a child, medical bills, and the near death of a second child is not what is usually described as a "comfortable, familiar and agreeable version of reality." Perhaps this is just assumed because it's a Christian movie, and Christian movies often go for something idealistic. This movie is far less idealistic. Yes, yes, yes it ended with hope, a bane to most movie critics, but should we honestly argue that the audience who enjoyed the movie was hoping it would depart from the book at the very end and declare there is no God? Perhaps Lord of the Rings should have ended with the Dark Lord Sauron wiping out Middle Earth? That would have sold so many more tickets.

That brings up a key problem with the review. To criticize a film by saying it doesn't appeal to its core audience and later follow that by criticizing the movie for sticking the book that made it popular AND happens to be the most basic hope of the core audience, is the sort of contradictory complaint that people make when they need anti-depression medication and counseling.

Other examples: When the preacher is called to a meeting of the church board because some are offended by his message, I'm not sure it's accurate to say the congregants "exist on the same spiritual page." Nevertheless, one would think the leadership of a local church would all be on the same page in many things including the existence of God and heaven. To portray otherwise would have been clueless.

The reviewer was on a popcorn run a few times as evidenced by the saying the movie "never for a moment allows us to doubt that this angelic little tyke might be making it all up or hallucinating. Not once is it expressed or shown that Colten has an active imagination," This is laughably not true. The wife specifically told the husband the little tyke's stories were coming from his active imagination, a counselor makes the arguments for hallucination, and church leaders openly doubt and criticize the account.

Of course, unsurprisingly, the final rant of stereotyping and criticizing -in an impressively ignorant way- anyone who is a Christian would make Bill Maher proud. (perhaps this is the movie's original sin to the reviewer, that it portrays Christians as normal people who like rock n roll) but it demonstrates with enormous force that the reviewer has no idea about the core audience of this film and therefore cannot know if the film hits the core audience or not.

So I'll just disagree by saying I thought the movie was actually pretty enjoyable. The theology is watered down, but the characters are real people who have fun together, yet also struggle with real questions for which they don't pretend to have all the answers. For the characters alone, the movie is a refreshing departure from the usual Hollywood stereotype.

mizkittyApril 16, 2014 12:30 PM

"Christian-baiting"..? I thought it was a christian movie...

davebaxterApril 16, 2014 6:09 PM

I've met many, many, many Christians in the real world. None of them are as simple or straight forward as the characterizations in this movie. Real people are always more complex than this. It's poor characterization when characters in sci-fi movies or action films are thus simplified. And so it goes in Christian-themed movies too.

And of course this review is "judgmental". It's a review. Which is an assessment of the thing it's reviewing. Assessment is synonymous with judgment.

owenApril 16, 2014 8:53 PM

The Exorcist is the best Christian film ever made

Joshua ChaplinskyApril 17, 2014 11:33 AM

Brilliant review title.

Howard SchumannMay 2, 2014 11:28 PM

This review is unquestionably one of the most offensive film reviews I've ever read. This spiritually-challenged reviewer who obviously knows nothing about the fully-documented scope of children's near-death experiences should inform himself on the subject so that he might be able to treat the experience with at least a hint of sensitivity - no I am not a Christian.