Movie Review: Heaven Is for Real (2014)


When I read Heaven Is for Real by pastor Todd Burpo (and Lynn Vincent) last year (review here) , the movie trailer for the adaption had just been released. It looked pretty good, but I was curious as to how they would tackle some of the book’s trickier elements.

I got my answer recently when I grabbed a copy of Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear as Burpo, Kelly Reilly as his wife, and with Randall Wallace (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Braveheart) directing and co-writing the script. I still don’t know if heaven is for real, but I do know if there is a hell it would involve watching Heaven Is for Real on loop for eternity.

Look, it’s not a bad film, strictly speaking, but it’s so obviously directed at a certain group of audiences — Christians who already have their minds made up or desperately long for confirmations like this one — that it leaves no room for interpretation or imagination. Leaving aside the debate over whether the experience is real or not (something I don’t want to get into because it has little to do with the merits of the movie), I found the film much less effective than the book. The characters didn’t convince me and the depictions of heaven and Jesus were as awkward as you’d expect them to be.

From what I remember, the screenplay follows the book quite closely. Burpo is a pastor hit by a string a bad luck, from his personal health to finance problems. During a family trip his four-year-old son, Colton, falls perilously ill and requires surgery to save his life. Even though the surgery report suggests that he did not have a near-death-experience (both his heart and brain were fine), Colton starts to tell his dad that he went to heaven — where he hung out with Jesus, angels, the whole shebang — and came back to tell the tale. He also saw some deceased family members he never met and witnessed some things when he was floating around.

Burpo, despite being a pastor, has his doubts about what Colton says he experienced, though he seems like he wants to believe the little boy. His wife, on the other hand, pretty much dismisses it as a child’s imagination. When the story gets out, others are naturally not so kind and give the family a hard time.

The positive things I can think of about this movie are…well, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, and the kid who plays Colton (Connor Corum) is cute, even though the way he spoke sometimes made it hard to understand what he’s saying. Wallace also does a fairly good job with what I call the John Edward moments — ie when Colton says something about the dead he couldn’t have known! Apart from that, I can’t really think of anything nice to say.

I understand the source material is difficult to adapt to the screen, which is why I thought they might tinker with it to make things more subtle and leave room for viewers to decide for themselves whether what Colton experienced was real, made up, or a hallucination. Give us the pros and the cons, make us think and question our beliefs, wherever they may lean.

This is what Jesus apparently looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by Lithuanian prodigy Akiane Kramarik
This is what Jesus supposedly looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by American prodigy Akiane Kramarik

Instead, the film takes a very straightforward approach and essentially presents Colton’s story as real, complete with a visual retelling of his experience, such as seeing angels, chatting with Jesus (face covered by shadows, but still, with the white robes and sandals and all), hanging out in “Heaven park” and so forth. It’s more vague in the book, but in the movie, we have no choice but to be shown what it’s like, and the results are lamer than I anticipated. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it tacky, but I was laughing for the wrong reasons. Rather than making the experience more real and tangible, the depiction had the opposite effect of making it less believable.

OK, so a decision was made to appease the target audience by shoving Colton’s experience in our faces so we’d believe him, but then why make his parents such unreasonable skeptics? This was something that just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe I am overestimating the faith of American pastors, but I thought it was odd for Todd to be so desperate to search for a “rational” explanation to his son’s experience. He’s in church every Sunday trying to convince everyone how wonderful God is, so if anyone was to jump to conclusions, he’d be the perfect candidate. And he’s actually the person most willing to take a leap of faith. It made even less sense to me that his wife — who married a pastor, goes to all his sermons and sings (terribly) regularly in the church choir — would so readily dismiss Colton’s experience and refuse to even contemplate the possibility that his experience could have been real.

Is the whole point of this to tell Christians that it’s OK to have doubts but you still ultimately need to have faith in God? Or are the filmmakers so naive that they think this approach would connect with non-believers or fence-sitters and convince them to start believing? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit by thinking that the film is aimed only at Christians and wannabe believers.

And I don’t know if it is because I had read the book and already knew what he was going to say, because I didn’t find any of the drama particularly engrossing. They tried to add in some extra conflict that wasn’t there, and it showed. It wasn’t as trite as it could have been, but it was intentionally sappy and had a TV-movie vibe to the heavy-handed execution.

Notwithstanding everything I’ve written here, I didn’t hate Heaven Is for Real. It’s a film that knew what it was doing and who it was catering to. It’s just not very good and not very convincing. All things considered, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been, and it’s certainly not as good as it had the potential to be.

2 stars out of 5

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