Heaven is for Real
Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly and Thomas Hayden Church
Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat)
Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations
This is not going to be your normal film review. I think it is expected for most film critics to slam a Christian film, regardless of being an independent or studio pic. But most are doing it from an atheistic or agnostic point of view. What you are about to read is from a Christian point of view. Before I start, I have to admit that I loved the book this movie is based on. Todd Burpo’s account of his son’s apparent journey to Heaven is a wonderful, awe-inspiring tale that had me excited and thrilled through every page. Unfortunately this movie did the book a great disservice.
Opening up with a little girl from Eastern Europe painting what will eventually be a very controversial and chilling portrait of Jesus, the film starts out the right way. While this version of Burpo’s story isn’t exactly true to the book, the differences are at first acceptable. After the first sermon Burpo preaches in his church, however, I thought it unusual that he didn’t really discuss God or Jesus or anything very Christian. But then I thought “hey – it’s coming.” After all, it’s a book about Jesus. How can he not get there?
I do not mean for this to be a spoiler, but I think everyone knows that the book is about Burpo’s son Colton and what happened after he almost died and came back from the operating room telling stories of his time spent in Heaven. But here the almost-tragedy of the novel was not close to being apparent. In the book, Colton was mis-diagnosed and it wasn’t until his father illegally took his son from a poorly-run hospital to a children’s hospital in a nearby large city that you find out his life really was in danger and that he almost died. Here, though, Colton gets a fever and he is quickly diagnosed with appendicitis and operated on. This is too common and you really don’t get the sense of danger aside from the father getting angry at God and the town praying. If I hadn’t read the book I would have thought that these people are really overreacting. What a bad choice the filmmakers made here as this was some riveting drama grossly overlooked or ignored.
I will say that Colton’s stories are visually told well and do send some nice shivers, but then the damage comes. While there is a lot of talk of God, the Christian message is completely brushed over. A big example of this is when Todd is talking to a lady in the church and explaining that her son, who died overseas in the military, is in Heaven. The rationale that he proposes is that “if God loves my son, don’t you think he loves your son too?” Paraphrased of course. This is extremely contrary to Christian teachings, no matter what denomination you belong to. The message I got from this film is that God loves us all and that we will all will go to Heaven, regardless of anything. At least they got the first part right. I believe this to be a dangerous viewpoint and completely contrary to any teachings Christ or of any Christian church out there. And to make matters worse, none of the preceding sermons discuss how to get to Heaven or who Jesus is, just that we will all get to meet him someday. It just amazes me that a Christian film would try so hard not be Christian. In a film like this I would think that most people would expect a strong message and a little preaching.
So you might say that this is not really a critical review in the sense of is the reviewer discussing if this is a well-made film or not. To sum up the basics, the acting is phoned in by all of the talented cast and you get the sense that no one involved really took the time to get to know their characters or the world they live in. While the production values are fine, the directing and screenwriting feel like folks who needed a job rather than individuals with a vision. I would also counter that for a film to be good it must have integrity and be brave enough to stand by its convictions and be true to the actual story. If it were a Muslim film or a Jewish film or a Buddhist film I would hold it to those same standards. While watching, I couldn’t help but think of the studio execs in the background whispering in the filmmakers ears “does it have to be so religious? Can you make it any less… Christian?” Had they done what they should have and ignored these voices, the film might have been a head-turning powerhouse that could have made a difference. Instead we get this rather cowardly adaptation of a story that has changed people’s lives throughout the world. F