Heaven Is For Real, in theaters today, is based on the mega-bestseller by a pastor whose four-year-old had major surgery, after which he knew things he couldn't possibly have known, and also claimed to have met Jesus. But what's surprising about the film version is how little impact this experience actually seems to have. Spoilers ahead...
Roger Ebert famously described his approach to reviewing films as "relative, not absolute." By this he meant that he always tried to review a film with respect to the target audience's expectations, not his own taste.
Applying Ebert's Principle to Heaven is for Real, directed by Braveheart and Pearl Harbor screenwriter Randall Wallace and starring Greg Kinnear, is simple enough. The intended audience appears to be people in medically induced comas who enjoy Nebraska-themed screensavers and who think that Michael Landon had a little too much "bad boy edge" on Highway to Heaven.
Kinnear plays Todd Burpo, handyman, volunteer fireman, pastor of the local church and the real-life author of the book on which this movie is based. Todd is a good family man, a good community man and evidently a crappy, crappy businessman — who is in the habit of hauling people's garbage away in exchange for the privilege of installing new garage doors for them.
When their four year old son, Colton, falls ill with a 104 degree fever, Todd and his wife Sonja immediately rush him to the hospital four days later, where he undergoes surgery for appendicitis. Upon waking Colton claims that, while under the effect of anesthesia, he visited Heaven, met Jesus and also met Jesus' horse. One could be forgiven for suspecting it was, in fact, Michael Landon all along.
What follows is truly a baffling exercise in trying to determine what, if anything, is at stake here. When news of Colton's evident contact with the afterlife gets out, complicated, for some reason, by the fact that he did not actually flatline on the operating table, the townspeople rise up in a moderate display of mild-mannered concern over whether their pastor accepts his son's After Effects-enhanced visions of the divine. Beyond these occasional expressions of mild concern and some financial worries, there is almost no conflict or drama in this story whatsoever.
For his part, Todd believes strongly that, well, you know, his son had some sort of experience and that, well, possibly it could be Heaven. But not, you know, the same Heaven as God makes for everyone else. Because, wow, God. He said a thousand years could be a day. Didn't Einstein also say that? He might just make a different Heaven for everyone. What do you think? To be together in. But hey, who can say what really happened? But whatever happened, he believes Jesus has a plan. Maybe for him. Or not. Maybe some of you out there today. Who can say?
Kinnear is trying here. He really is. To paraphrase Tropic Thunder's Les Grossman, watching a star of his caliber work this material is like watching a dying sun orbit a black hole. Burpo struggles with his own faith as well as the idea that God is speaking to him through his son, but the audience is left wondering "so what if He is?" It's not like there's anything Burpo can do about it if it's true, and he shouldn't be worrying too much about it if it's not.
And so Kinnear is left hanging in scene after scene with nowhere to go, because whether he chooses to believe his son met Jesus in Heaven or not, the plan is the same: support his child and try to be a good father.
Most oddly, the film doesn't seem to be aware of the myriad ways it debunks itself. It's important to note that this is not a criticism of religion or anyone's personal beliefs. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, whatever your beliefs about the spiritual truth of divine contact, or the theology of the afterlife, you really should be able to integrate the idea that a four year old raised in a religious household might have a dream about Jesus while he's under general anesthetic. It wouldn't be baffling or disturbing, no matter what you think of the underlying truth.
That said, Heaven is for Real feels like a drivers' safety film for critical thinking. The obstacles are clearly marked and the hazards are obvious.
It is difficult not to notice, for example, as the film approaches the event horizon of what would normally be the third act, and time seems to extend into the eternal void, that the Burpos stood to gain financially from their son's notoriety. Why there is any notoriety remains a mystery for the ages, but the film makes enough of a point of their financial worries that it's difficult not to raise the question of possible ulterior motives.
While in Heaven, Colton does seem to see a few real world events he would have no knowledge of, and meet a few real dead people he had never met — which is spooky in a Danny Torrance kind of way. But the film never mentions how many things he said he saw in Heaven that don't ring a bell with anyone back on Earth. Colton's hit/miss ratio is never brought up.
Colton is also routinely fed the answers to the questions he is asked about Heaven. Todd shows Colton a picture of his great grandfather at a young age and he confirms that it's the same man he saw in Heaven. Colton, of course, does not describe his great grandfather before being shown this picture, only confirms his identity after.
Toward the end of the film, a Lithuanian girl is shown on the news painting pictures of Jesus who she says she met after having an experience similar to Colton's, and he looks sort of like Wolverine. When he sees the picture on TV, Colton naturally identifies Wolverine Jesus as the Jesus he met while unconscious. But since the film never includes any stakes or challenges for the family, you're left wondering why a child's private religious experience is such a big deal, anyway.