Saturday, 25 June 2016

90 Minutes In Heaven (2016) - Movie Review

It’s religious cinema time again! I want to point out that I am not doing this because such films are generally easy targets; sitting through God’s Not Dead 2 was anything but easy. No, I maintain that I want to see really good religious cinema come to theatres around here. One of my favourite films is Kevin Smith’s Dogma, something that affected me so deeply as to completely shape my views on theology to what they are today, and I’d give anything for someone else to be similarly affected by a recent release. The problem is, between the preachiness, toxicity and just plain banality that fills an awful lot of these kinds of releases, it doesn’t look hopeful. Not that I can guess who will be influenced by what; I’m just saying that, if there are people who sees something positive and enlightening in something like War Room, I’ll be happy for them from a very, very safe distance. So, on my quest to find a Christian film that doesn’t suck on toast, I came across this fairly recent release featuring Hayden Christensen. Well, that optimism was nice while it lasted.

The plot: Pastor Don (Hayden Christensen), on his way home, gets into a terrible car crash and is declared dead on arrival. However, rather miraculously, he is rescued from the wreckage and brought back. As he lies in hospital, recuperating his severely injured leg, he tries to struggle with the fact that, when he died for those 90 minutes, he went to Heaven... and then had to come back down to Earth and experience the pain he’s in now.

The cast here, especially considering what they are more widely known for, is surprisingly decent. The scenario of watching Hayden Christensen in a medical drama, complete with voice-over, is something that has already been inflicted on unfortunate audiences back with Awake. You can understand, between that and last time we looked at one of his performances with Outcast, why I was somewhat dreading him in this movie. However, credit where it’s due, it seems that he has learnt hospital bed acting in the 8-year interim between films. A lot of it has to do with how his character is framed, admittedly, but he still manages to get the audience to look past his greasy porn-stache and make us connect with him.

Opposite him is Bosworth, and while I have some real grievances with her character, she is still capable of portraying said character, making for some very nice moments next to Christensen. The late Fred Thompson, whom also had a small role in the previously eviscerated God’s Not Dead 2, helps to ease his own memory as probably the single most supportive character in the film. I’d chalk that up to anomalous writing rather than the acting, but he pulls through nonetheless. Dwight Yoakam’s turn as lawyer Beaumont is incredibly awkward, not to mention full of enough jawing to fill the next several Blue Collar Comedy Tours, but in the one thankful scene that he’s in, he ascends into bizarrely watchable. Easily the best actor here is Michael Harding as Dick, who gets a seriously powerful moment when he prays next to Don’s body after the wreck. Not only that, the guy stays consistent throughout, both in terms of ability and likeability.

I’m not exactly in the position to be cynical when it comes to near-death experiences. I usually treat such matters like I do with most theological questions: Divine matters are hardly the place for a kid who can barely tell if he even believes in a God in the first place. As such, there will be no scepticism here about the factual nature of the story. Besides, it seems appropriate to keep those questions to the side when it seems like even the film treats the afterlife as an afterthought. For the most part, the plot plays out like a standard medical drama, following Don as he goes through recuperation and learns to deal with what the wreck ended up doing to him (in the physical sense, at least). He makes occasional mention of his vision of Heaven here and there, and then at the end it’s as if the film itself just remembered what it was even about and focuses on that aspect for the remaining 10-15 minutes. Honestly, maybe it’s the more secular side of me peaking through, but I don’t really have an issue with this method. It keeps in enough theological elements to make it suit the target demographic, while also being grounded enough to possibly invite non-believers to see it. True, the title alone might turn some people away and make some question the discrepancy between it and the film proper, but anything to help make this sub-genre less niche than it unfortunately is is a step-up.

However, it would help perhaps if the medical side of things was shown with a bit more sensitivity in mind. Given how this is a religious film, and how most of my experience with that ilk has been shaped by the God’s Not Dead series, I was expecting this film to show the medical community as these unfeeling curs in much the same way that most of these personify non-Christians. Well, that is both true and untrue: True, because there are moments where people in this movie are rather cold in relation to Don’s condition; untrue, because it isn’t delegated to the non-believers. In fact, I’m not even sure if there are any non-believers in this movie. While Don is in hospital and trying to get over his physical trauma, pretty much everyone around him acts like he is disrespecting them by being socially non-responsive.

Okay, in a way, I get the angle they were going for here: Don is essentially having an existential crisis and they want him to rise above it and become stronger for it. Noble endeavour, don’t get me wrong, but maybe try to make it happen without belittling him while he is potentially dying. With some characters, it has some sense why they are being so callous with him: His wife is distraught, which leads up to an unintentionally hilarious scene where she breaks down at a McDonald’s drive-thru speaker (accompanied by a snarky response from the employee), and while his doctor is firm, he obviously has Don’s wellbeing in mind. For everyone else, they can’t seem to understand that after being clinically dead for an hour and a half after being a nasty car crash, that person might not be in the mood to talk to anyone.

That said, disregarding the lack of bedside manner for the most part, the actual recovery arc for Don is handled rather nicely. I suspect that the inhumanly dickish behaviour going on around him was an intentional move because that just ends up making us sympathise with Don even more. I still maintain that Christensen isn’t the best actor, but he seems to have stumbled upon a role within his abilities. And no, that’s not just because he’s stuck in bed for most of it; that was the same case as Awake, and yet his voice-over narration in that film pretty much ruined any possibility for legitimate enjoyment.

He works here because he actually manages to convey just how much pain his character is going through, both physically with his broken leg and mentally with coping after his divine encounter. The awkward attempts at comedy hinder his progress somewhat, which along with the aforementioned McDonald’s incident also involves him getting his leg brace stuck to the toilet seat... insert your own joke about why men stand up to use the toilet here. However, whether it’s his anguish while being bed-ridden or his elation at being able to walk (albeit collapsing right afterwards), the guy sells it. Hell, he even manages to work through the very Suth-urn ak-sent he’s been saddled with. This all culminates in a rather touching moment where he gives some advice to someone who could certainly use the comfort, and then the actual Don Piper gives a sermon that, while a bit jarring, leaves the film on a pleasant note.

All in all, this is yet another step forward for the Christian film scene. However, unlike Miracles From Heaven, I don’t feel the need to supplement that with “Still not good enough”. Don’t get me wrong, this movie isn’t amazing or anything and that is due to it not only being a bit overlong but also how unnecessarily cold the supporting cast can get, but for what it is and what it sets out to do, it’s a nicely inoffensive feature. After what I’ve seen, that is worthy of praise. If you have any kind of tolerance for Lifetime drama with all of the soft focus, it’s worth a watch if it comes on TV.

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