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Family Movie Review: 90 Minutes in Heaven (PG-13)

90MinutesInHeaven ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 121 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 14+. The film focuses on a car accident that kills a man before he mysteriously comes back to life; there is the head-on collision itself, which is a stressful scene, and it comes up again in various nightmares throughout the film. There are also numerous shots of the main character’s gory injuries, including his bloody body in the car, his extremely bloodied face and black eye, and his struggles to walk and regain use of his body afterward. Could be too intense for younger tween viewers.

’90 Minutes in Heaven’ takes a patient, methodical look at its central miracle of a man coming back to life after dying in a car accident. The film takes its time in a respectable way, but lacks emotional punch.

By Roxana Hadadi

The faith film genre scored a major win last week when “War Room” won the Labor Day box office. But that film’s messaging was exclusionary, whereas this week’s genre release, “90 Minutes in Heaven,” is more patient and inviting. The film doesn’t have a real emotional punch when it should, but its Christianity is more inclusive, and its performances more convincing.

The film is based on the same-named book by Pastor Don Piper, who supposedly died for 90 minutes after being hit head-on by a semi-tractor truck on January 18, 1989. During that hour and a half, Piper says he was in Heaven, and he wrote a same-named book about his experiences that became a major bestseller, translated into dozens of languages and read by millions of people. But before writing the book, he struggled with his return to Earth and his recovery, he claims, and that period of time is what is focused upon in the film version of “90 Minutes in Heaven.”

This isn’t a very preachy kind of film, unlike “War Room,” and it isn’t very condescending, unlike the similarly themed “Heaven is for Real” from last year. Instead, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a quieter affair that traces its characters’ journeys, both emotional and physical, in a slow, methodical way. It would be a stronger film, though, with stronger actors. Although Hayden Christiensen, reappearing here years after his starring role in the “Star Wars” prequels, and Kate Bosworth are recognizable faces, neither of them brings much nuance to their performances. They’re either mumbling or screaming, and there’s very little middle ground.

The film begins by introducing Don (Christiensen) and Eva (Bosworth, of “Still Alice”), a happily married, middle-class couple; he’s a pastor thinking about starting his own church, she’s a schoolteacher, and they have three children. They’re the kind of people who consider McDonald’s (which receives a lot of product placement here) a romantic date and who talk the same time on the phone every night when they’re apart, which they are when Don goes to a Houston suburb to attend a church conference. “I believe in a great God” is the sermon Don is practicing on his way back from the event when he gets hit-on by a semi-trailer truck, which not only smashes into him but also drives over his car, trapping and crushing him inside.

The callous, and clearly meant to be nonreligious, emergency-response walkers brush off Don as dead on the scene. But when a pastor comes upon the accident and asks them to let him pray over Don’s body, he realizes the man is alive: “We got a pulse!” they rejoice, and triumphant, faith-filled music is played.
But just because Don is alive doesn’t mean he wants to be. His body is shattered – missing inches of bone, a shattered pelvis, tons of bruises and blood loss, practically destroyed lungs – and his recovery will be an uphill battle. Eva is trying to be a source of strength for him, but what is she to do when Don refuses to fight for his own life? And how is she supposed to react when she realizes Don might resent her – and everyone – for pulling him out of what he thinks was Heaven?

“90 Minutes in Heaven” uses a combination of filmmaking strategies to put you in Don’s shoes, and some of them work (POV shots from his vantage point on his hospital bed during surgery) and some of them are tedious (narration from Don that often repeats exactly what another character previously said about his condition), but all of them try to give you Don’s perspective first and foremost. That’s an admirable thing when the film is asking you to believe the same things Don believes, and it’s nice that the film takes its time guiding you through that execution. This isn’t a “I’m saved immediately, join my church!” kind of speedy transition, and the film’s patience and restraint are admirable.

But there are the stumbling blocks, so often seen in films of this genre, of character development still getting in the way. The Don and Eva relationship is built well, but them as individuals – Christiensen’s performance becomes his moustache and Bosworth’s are her pursed lips. They don’t have likes, dislikes, interests, hobbies, or any other defining characteristics outside of their marriage and Don’s injury. There is a distance, no matter how hard the film tries, between what they’re going through and what the audience will experience because of that lack of character development.

Nevertheless, “90 Minutes in Heaven” tries. It tries to portray a believable marriage, it tries to portray a believable religious journey, and it tries to portray believable reactions from the family and friends of someone who claims they were in the presence of God. “90 Minutes in Heaven” doesn’t bully you into believing, and it lets you make your own decisions on the strength of its content. For a film of this genre, that’s remarkable indeed.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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