Heaven Is for Real movie review: extraordinary claims, no evidence

Heaven Is for Real red light

You’d think any movie that an all-powerful deity had a hand in would be awesome, right? Turns out, not so much. There’s barely even a story here.
I’m “biast” (pro): always want to love Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly

I’m “biast” (con): total atheist

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Heaven is for real? Proven by a movie?! Well, no. At best, this cinematic sermon almost humbly acknowledges that even Christians know their fairy tale about a heaven of fluffy white clouds and Jesus in a bathrobe sounds like, you know, a fairy tale that is hard to accept at face value. At worst, it’s a shameless money grab by a family in desperate financial straits cashing in on the fantasies of their little boy. I don’t see how either option — or anything in between — is meant to be particularly inspiring to believers or convincing to nonbelievers.

Based on the number one New York Times bestseller, which purports to be nonfiction, this is the supposedly true story of little Colton Burpo (newcomer Connor Corum), who before he is even four years old undergoes emergency surgery for a burst appendix and wakes up to tell of visiting the Christian heaven. Heaven is like Nebraska, Colton reveals, which, by a wild coincidence, is where Colton lives. Also: Jesus rides a rainbow horse! And he looks like Kenny Loggins. And angels refuse to sing “We Are the Champions,” though they do chuckle at the suggestion when Colton asks them to.

Did Colton have a near-death experience, a well-studied neurological phenomenon that is often interpreted through a religious lens? Is Colton just telling stories drawn from the religious environment he is steeped in? His father, Todd (Greg Kinnear: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Movie 43), is a pastor, after all, and his mother, Sonja (Kelly Reilly: Flight, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), leads the church choir: the kid is surrounded on a daily basis by talk of God and the Bible. Such possibilities are raised but ultimately dismissed. For a family that went on to write a book about their son’s alleged experience, Todd and Sonja here are portrayed as remarkably reluctant to let anyone know what Colton has been blabbering about. But it’s impossible not to wonder if the real Colton actually said much of anything at all, or if he did, whether he wasn’t inspired by witnessing — as depicted here — twice within the space of a couple of weeks, his own father get injured so badly that dad is crying out in pain in public. That could certainly make a scared little tyke start to wonder about pain and death and maybe wonder if Daddy is going to this heaven he has heard so much about. The movie completely ignores this possibility. And then there are the tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills that they can’t pay after first Todd’s medical issues and then Colton’s. (Jesus loves America, it seems, but not so much that he can get his people universal health care.) Medical bills that a sensational story about an adorable little blond boy visiting heaven could certainly help clear if sold to a gullible audience desperate for validation of its collective fantasy.

The real sin of Heaven Is for Real, though, is that it’s just not much of a movie. There’s barely any story here, and what there is doesn’t get going for a good 40 minutes in. I almost had a little hope that nuance was springing when a board member of the church where Todd preaches, Nancy (Margo Martindale: Beautiful Creatures, Secretariat), worries that Todd talking about Colton’s trip to heaven will turn their church into a circus, and frets that the concepts of heaven and hell are used as tools of fear and oppression — this is an astonishing thing for such a film to admit! But then it turns out that Nancy is supposed to be what passes for a villain here, and later apologizes to Todd for being “bitter.”

You’d think any movie that an all-powerful deity had a hand in would be awesome, right? Turns out, not so much. His angels could at least sing some Queen for a little kid who asked nicely.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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