DVD review: Heaven Is for Real (dir. Randall Wallace, 2014)

The first thing you notice, when you pop the Heaven Is for Real disc into your player, is the trailers. Four of the five trailers that kick things off are for “faith-based” films of one sort or another, all of them co-produced by Sony’s Affirm Films division. (The films in question are When The Game Stands Tall, Moms’ Night Out, Courageous and Soul Surfer.) But nestled in the middle of that pack is a trailer for… The Amazing Spider-Man 2. One of these things is not like the other, right?

The funny thing is, the inclusion of that ad makes perfect sense — and not just because the Spider-Man films are also distributed by Sony. If you’ve seen Heaven Is for Real, then you know that Colton Burpo, the boy whose near-death experience the film is all about, has a toy Spider-Man. Indeed, the book on which the film is based mentions this toy a few times, and on page 33, the toy is explicitly described as “Colton’s favorite toy, his Spider-Man action figure.” (The bulk of the book takes place in 2003, i.e. one year after the first Spider-Man film.)

So the presence of Spider-Man on this disc isn’t just a case of corporate synergy. Even so, the inclusion of this detail, combined with the exclusion of other, more pertinent details from the book, serves as a helpful reminder that this film is no mere independent Christian film, but reflects a major studio’s effort to cater to the “faith-based” market while appealing to the broadest possible audience.

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How the movie Heaven Is for Real contradicts the book

Is Heaven Is for Real a “Christian movie”?

The question may seem like a no-brainer, since the film is based on a best-selling Christian book and there has been a lot of talk in the media about the Christian faith of writer-director Randall Wallace and some of the film’s producers, including megachurch leader T.D. Jakes and studio executive DeVon Franklin.

But the film is still a product of corporate Hollywood, and as such, it alters the story in ways that are designed to appeal to a mass audience. The film thus lacks the authenticity of independent Christian films like, say, God’s Not Dead.

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Boy has near-death experience in Heaven Is for Real trailer

Noah isn’t the only movie with a religious hook that released its first official trailer today. Behold this sneak peek at Heaven Is for Real, an adaptation of the book by a pastor named Todd Burpo, which describes how his four-year-old son said he visited heaven while he was undergoing surgery. The film is directed by Randall Wallace, the C.S. Lewis fan who worked with Mel Gibson on Braveheart (1995) and We Were Soldiers (2002), and it stars Greg Kinnear as Burpo himself. You can watch a video of the real Burpo and his wife and son here.

Will Smith getting biblical with it… maybe.

There has been so much buzz lately about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and various other biblical projects in the works, that I almost forgot that Will Smith was attached to star in a movie about Cain a couple years ago. Yesterday, however, Deadline Hollywood brought it back to mind by reporting that Smith might not only star in the film, but direct it as well. (If he does, it would mark his feature directorial debut; his only previous turn in the director’s chair, as far as the IMDb is concerned, was for a 2006 episode of All of Us.)

There’s a twist, though. Two years ago, the movie was called The Legend of Cain and it was said that the film would be an “epic re-telling of the Biblical sibling tale, this time with a vampiric twist.” Whether that meant Cain himself was going to be the vampire, or simply someone who battles a lot of vampires (a la Smith’s similarly-named film I Am Legend), was never clarified, as far as I can tell.

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‘Contemporary Christian cinema’ needs talented, prophetic artists

THESE ARE interesting times for Christian film buffs. Nearly three years have passed since The Passion of the Christ rode a wave of controversy to the top of the box office, and studios have been looking for a way to replicate that success ever since.

The key thing about The Passion may be that it was self-financed. Unlike, say, the big-screen version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — which toned down the book’s Christian elements to appeal to as wide an audience as possible — Mel Gibson’s movie was bold and uncompromising, all because he paid for it himself.

No one expects the next big Christian movie to be anywhere near that big a hit. But increasingly, secular studios are coming to realize that the best way to sell movies to Christians may be to pick up the movies that Christians are already making.

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