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Not inspiring many to believe

By Jingyuan Fu
On April 21, 2014

For some reason, religious movies are on the rise. This spring saw the release of "Son of God" and "Noah" in quick succession, and now "Heaven is For Real"-an adaptation of a book about four-year-old Colton Burpo's brief experience in the afterlife-has made its way to theaters as well, just in time for Easter. Much like "Son of God" and very much unlike "Noah," the movie plays it safe with audiences, churning out a safe story that manages to proselytize plenty nonetheless.
Perhaps the film's most distinctive feature is its stellar cinematography, which features an expansive exterior setup full of light colors that contrasts with the tighter interiors of the small town church that serves as the centerpiece of most of the action. Veteran cinematographer Dean Semler has obviously devoted an impressive amount of effort to making this film a quality feature, transforming many filming locations into an authentic prairie environment.
Unfortunately, none of the other people who worked on this movie seemed to share his dedication. The lackluster script starts with a cliché: small town Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is struggling with the needs of his family and his faith, before the highly anticipated incontrovertible proof of afterlife is delivered to his lap in the form of his son, who announces after an appendectomy that he has been to heaven. A better film might have been able to properly explore the thematic implications of such a scenario, to flesh out the conflict between fact and faith and underscore the necessity of both in the grand scheme of things, but outside of a few obligatory scenes this is never engaged by scriptwriter Chris Parker.
The result is that despite earthshaking revelations like "Hey, the Christian God may in fact be the end all be all and his son Jesus may in fact have blond highlights and blue-green eyes," "Heaven Is for Real" is a very boring movie. There is very little conflict to be had at all; Colton delivers his first-hand description of heaven-done with an air of impressive authenticity in one of the better parts of the film-and everyone reacts with awe. There are no true skeptics in "Heaven Is for Real," and the only friction in the film exists as a series of minor disagreements between Burpo and the church board members, who worry rightly that Todd's dogmatic statements may draw unwanted attention to their church. Luckily for Todd and unluckily for viewers, this tension never escalates to anything serious.
Nor does the cast try particularly hard to make the movie work. Greg Kinnear is likeable as beleaguered main character Todd, but in such a flawed movie likeable is simply not enough, particularly since his supporting cast is (with the exception of Margo Martindale) only passable at best. In the end, "Heaven Is for Real" should perhaps be lauded for trying to make its message applicable to a great variety of Christians, but in the process has excised all of its chances at making a good movie, producing a bland cross-promotional fluff piece.
 


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