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Hollywoods views of heaven arent very heavenly
A grandfather looks at a photo album with his grandson in the LDS short film "Man's Search for Happiness" (1964). - photo by Chris Hicks
Cinematic depictions of the afterlife have always intrigued me, so resistance was futile when it came to 90 Minutes in Heaven, based on the best-selling memoir by Baptist minister Don Piper, who died for an hour and a half in a car crash then came back to life with a story to tell.

Though, in the movie anyway, it takes a while to get there.

How you respond to 90 Minutes in Heaven depends a lot on how patient youre willing to be with a well-intentioned but seriously flawed faith film. Personally, I found the first hour which deals with Pipers (Hayden Christensen) injuries, his excruciatingly painful hospital stay and rehab, and all-too-familiar dealings with insurance and lawyers to be the most interesting aspect.

And there is a worthy message about taking the leap of faith required to allow yourself to accept help and assistance, no matter how independent or self-reliant you may be.

Sadly, 90 Minutes in Heaven is also self-reverential, ponderous, aloof and way too cold at its core, with some performances (Im looking at you, Kate Bosworth) that are positively glacial. And if youre going to pace youre film sluggishly, 90 minutes might seem more like heaven than a full two hours.

Still, I wanted to see how the titular 90 minutes in you-know-where would be portrayed. As it happens, we never see Piper inside of heaven per se, since the pearly gates are off in the background as hes greeted by deceased relatives/friends, and thats about all thats shown.

Of course, since it is an independent production, it isn't really an example of how Hollywood depicts heaven. For that, lets pull out some popular movie examples.

Back in 1941, the comedy-fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a mix of traditional views of heaven and angels, and reincarnation. Prizefighter/amateur saxophonist Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) dies before his time and is sent back to Earth to reclaim his body, but its too late as the body has been cremated. So hes given a different body. We dont see heaven but rather a heavenly way station made up of voluminous clouds, where a dual-prop passenger airplane awaits to transport deceased persons to the next level.

In 1978, Here Comes Mr. Jordan was remade as Heaven Can Wait, co-written, co-directed by and starring Warren Beatty. This time, Joe Pendleton is a Los Angeles Rams quarterback/amateur saxophonist, and while the way station is again filled with clouds, the plane has been updated to a Concord jet.

Another remake, Down to Earth, came along in 2001, this time a more vulgarized, dumbed-down version. Co-writer/star Chris Rock is bicycle messenger and wannabe stand-up comic named Lance Barton. After his death, he comes out of the clouds and arrives at heaven (not a way station), which is a huge mansion housing a nightclub, where couples are dancing and dining as scantily clad women saunter by. Hes told that its heaven baby, the food is great, the women are beautiful, and the music, Lance, the music is hot. Yessir, the fun never stops. Yikes!

Of course, Hollywood movies dont always go in that direction. Many are enjoyably warm and winning, from A Guy Named Joe (1943; remade in 1989 as Always) to The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) to A Matter of Life and Death (1946, aka Stairway to Heaven) to Carousel (1956) to All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) to Heart and Souls (1993) and many more.

But, lets face it, a lot of them are pretty weird, owing more to The Wizard of Oz than the Bible.

In my experience, the quirkiest and most bizarre are What Dreams May Come (1998), that shows an afterlife that is alternately dreamlike and nightmarish, with one sequence set in a squishy oil-paint world, and Made in Heaven (1987), which starts out in black and white on Earth, then switches to color for paradise, where everyone is telepathic, can float or fly, and can travel anywhere in heaven by simply concentrating on a person or place. Or, as someone explains, if you prefer, you can catch a cab.

On the other end of the spectrum, my personal favorites are Wings of Desire (1988, remade in 1998 as City of Angels) and Defending Your Life (1991).

Wings of Desire is a German film about two angels serving in Berlin, where their world is black and white as they try to influence humans for good. About halfway through, when one of them chooses to become mortal and falls to Earth, the film switches to color. This one is a warm, tender, gentle and artful view of how angels serve humans and how communication can sometimes unexpectedly go both ways. Only children see the angels, but some adults can feel their presence. This one also exults in how precious and wonderful life can be.

Defending Your Life is a comedy written and directed by Albert Brooks, who also stars as a man whose death brings him to a way station where he must defend the life he led on Earth. A panel of judges will then determine whether he can go forward to heaven. After viewing a few moments of his life that demonstrate how timidly he lived, he begins to feel rather discouraged. And that only gets worse when he meets a woman (Meryl Streep) whose selfless life has pretty much made her perfect. It's a hilarious and touching film that has something profound on its mind about how we should not let fear stifle our earthly sojourn.

Interestingly, the common denominator in all of these films is love.

Its all about finding and then figuring out how to spend eternity with your one true love.

Hollywood films about heaven may create variations on a theme, they may ignore biblical revelation and steal liberally from other movies, and they certainly offer a less-than-orthodox view (no church will likely ever endorse any of these as doctrinal).

But no matter how offbeat or strange these fanciful depictions of the next life may be, in the end they tend to shed their cynical shell and go straight for romantic love.

And really, thats not such a bad thing.