Review: The Other Side of Heaven (D)

The Other Side of HeavenFirst, a disclaimer: I know Elder John H. Groberg (currently in the Presidency of the Seventy), on whose life this movie is based. I’ve met him (had dinner with him, in fact) and heard him speak many times.  He might rank among my top five Church speakers of all time.

As anyone who’s heard him speak can tell you, Elder Groberg mentions his experiences in Tonga, both as a missionary and later as a mission president, quite frequently.  While other talks by general authorities tend to be [DOCTRINE] [DOCTRINE] [SCRIPTURE] [DOCTRINE] [DOCTRINE] [EXPERIENCE] structured, Elder Groberg has a more informal, unstructured way of speaking, full of a seemingly random assortment of experiences, stories, and memories from his days on Tonga and elsewhere.

When he visited our mission in Taiwan, Elder Groberg spoke in a series of zone conferences…and gave a different talk each time, with each talk seemingly created on the spot containing whatever thoughts and stories he felt like sharing right at that moment.

Please note, however — and this is the point — despite the somewhat loose organization, Elder Groberg never, EVER rambles aimlessly.  While unstructured, his talks are never meaningless . He shares a story from his days in Tonga, then immediately explains why the story is significant and what he learned from it.

In other words, Elder Groberg’s stories have a point.

Someone will need to explain to me, then, why we have The Other Side of Heaven, a purported “tribute” to Elder Groberg, dramatizing events from his two and a half year mission to Tonga…but with all the spirituality and meaning removed.   Put simply, The Other Side of Heaven is a dull, pointless mess of a movie that commits the unforgivable sin of being completely unfaithful to the spirit of the man that inspired it.

The movie is, for lack of a better word, ‘content-free’.  Things happen in the movie, of course, but unlike Elder Groberg’s stories, they don’t have any point. They are random events strung together without any meaning or direction.

I genuinely do not understand what the filmmakers’ goal was in creating this movie in the first place. Elder Groberg himself writes in the introduction of his book on which the movie is based that “the main purpose of this book is to emphasize the overwhelming need for faith in our lives“. Strangely, then, the filmmakers decided to remove all specific LDS references (presumably to attract a more general audience) but then continue on and remove virtually all traces of religion and spirituality as well. (After all, it’s not like the main character of the movie is a church missionary or something…)

You might ask (and I will) how could the filmmakers stay true to Elder Groberg’s own admitted purpose of ’emphasizing the need for faith’ if all religious content was taken out of the movie from the very beginning? Excellent question! What *was* the filmmakers’ goal with The Other Side of Heaven? Elder Groberg (the movie version) is the same person at the end of his mission than at the beginning, and so is seemingly everyone he came across while he was there.  There’s no growth in ‘faith’ or ‘testimony’ because those are alien concepts within the movie. One wonders, then, (based solely on the movie) what the point of serving a mission is supposed to be…

Scene after scene in the movie go by without any purpose or meaning. Let’s look at some of these individual scenes:

Branch president’s daughter gets a ‘job': In the middle of the movie, some ‘piratey’-looking people land on Tonga and essentially offer to trade alcohol for Tongan women.  The branch president’s daughter goes along with them. 

From the beginning, this scene is not explained very well.   Is she going as a servant?  A prostitute?  Both?  Is this a temporary ‘position’, or permanent?   Later in the movie, she reappears again washed up on the shore.   Again, not explained: how did she wind up on shore? Was her job finished? Did she escape? Was there a shipwreck?  After being discovered on the beach, her character IS NEVER SEEN OR MENTIONED AGAIN FOR THE REST OF THE MOVIE.

Which raises the question, what was the point of this sequence?   If she’s supposed to be a counter-example to living a gospel life — you have to discuss why that’s the case. Why introduce her character at all if the movie is not going to do anything with her?

Elder Groberg has a discussion with his counselors: Late in the movie, Elder Groberg is preparing a boat along with his two counselors. One of them mentions something similar to what happened to the branch president’s daughter — Tongan women are being pressured by elements of native Tongan culture to sell their virtue, essentially.

I got my hopes up at this point, thinking now at last the movie was going to discuss a specific characteristic of Tongan culture and how it conflicted with the traditional moral values espoused by the Church. This was a great opportunity for the movie Elder Groberg to discuss the moral issues involved as well as talk with his counselors as to how the Church should deal with this conflict.   However, immediately after bringing it up, they argue for a second and later the counselor apologizes. The issue is NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN.   The point?

Elder Groberg meets his mission president…two-thirds into the movie, who chastises him for not keeping up on record-keeping…and then apologizes…and then leaves. He’s never seen again the rest of the movie. Again…the point?

Elder Groberg gets ‘propositioned’ by a Tongan girl, and later scolded by her mother for not accepting: This is actually one the better written and acted part of the movie, and it would be one of the movie’s (few) high points if it weren’t for the false doctrinal lesson.  The mom asks why Elder Groberg wasn’t willing to sleep with her daughter. The real answer is “in our Church we believe in the law of chastity which states that there should be no sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage.”, but the movie (which, remember, systematically avoids all references to specific LDS doctrine) has Elder Groberg answering “because I have a girlfriend at home and I want to be faithful to her” which, of course, implies that if he DIDN’T happen to have a girlfriend at home, it would be okay.   Close enough, you say?   If a non-member saw this movie, would he/she be able to say afterwards that Mormons believe in no-sex-before-marriage?  Or the opposite…?

Many of the problems of the film seem to result from a common but flawed assumption — that true events in the life of a great man are automatically worthy of dramatization in a movie.   Maybe a typhoon really hit Tonga when Elder Groberg was there as a missionary, and the supply ship was late bringing food afterward as portrayed in the movie. So what? What did he learn from the experience? What did anyone learn from the experience? Maybe Elder Groberg really did have an encounter with his mission president as portrayed in the movie. So what? Just because it really happened doesn’t mean it’s worth putting in a movie, unless it serves some purpose in storytelling or portraying the movie’s theme. (Does this movie have a theme?)

(Note this conference talk from October 2004, where Elder Groberg shares specific experiences that were portrayed in the movie, and immediately explains what meaning he derived from them.  He put more spirituality and meaning in two sentences of explanation, than the movie did in two hours!)

Why portray the life of a great man, if you’re going to consistently ignore what made him great in the first place? Elder Groberg’s life contains many, many experiences that are instructive and spiritually uplifting.   I’ve heard them.   His book has them.   Why didn’t the movie portray any of them? Why waste everyone’s time with a cinematic experience that has nothing to offer spiritually or emotionally?

Final Grade: D

(Admittedly, I am biased on the matter — objectively, it’s probably a ‘C’ movie instead.)

  • Larry Ogan

    Enter your comments here… I couldn’t disagree more with your review.  I’m not sure we saw the same movie.  I found it well made, inspirational, a good story and certain scenes make me cry..

  • Red

    Seriously, do you have some kind of personal vendetta against The Other Side of Heaven? You rated this worse than the Book of Mormon movie, a “film” so bad that it made me ashamed of my faith? Worse than Mobsters and Mormons, which literally made me groan? I think you need to explain the reasons for your interpretation of this film a little better than  “it had no point” to give it such a brutal rating.

  • KevinB

    My “vendetta” is the fact that I know Elder Groberg personally, and I thought the film was not just a waste of time, but a betrayal of the entire spirit of the man who inspired it.  I’ve met plenty of people who liked the movie, so I know I’m in the minority, although none of those people have really been able to defend it in terms of what they learned from it, or how Elder Groberg in the movie progresses as a person from the beginning to end.

    I should mention that this is one of the first movie articles I ever wrote back in 2004 — it might be different if I were seeing it for the first time in 2010.  As mentioned at the end, if I were unbiased it would be a “C” (higher than the Book of Mormon Movie), but I’m not.  How you described being “ashamed of my faith” and “literally making me groan” applies to me when I saw The Other Side of Heaven.

    I’ve had plenty of disagreements with Church members over this movie since 2004, so I welcome anyone who wants to defend the movie in a more analytical fashion here in the comments…

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  • kevin

    I think that I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the movie. It is a very watered down version of the book. I was dissapointed. I didn’t like Anne Hathaway jumping in the water and “saving” the missionary. I did like Feki.
    I have seen the movie over again over the years and my opinion of it has changed. Elder Groberg does have a character arc. He is pretty petty when he arrives in Tonga and at the end he truely loves the people. I especially like the part when the girl who tried to seduce him gets baptized, because her baptism is contrasted to the other girl’s choice to get seduced by pirates. And she is shown seen at the end of the movie giving her farewells to Elder Groberg. While there was an effort to make the religious aspects more universal, there still are those moments and they are effective. I think that the movie was publicized well and did raise my expectations of finally seeing a movie that does the Church justice, unfortunately it did not meet those expectations. Good movies are made with a little something for everyone, and I think that this is a good movie and just a good movie. Certainly better than a “D”.

  • Texan

    It’s been a while since I saw this movie, but I think from a thematic standpoint, one theme is that perseverance through trial will pay off, and in the end one will earn respect.  Also, that even in the most far-flung of circumstances, once you work together with one another, we can come to truly love each other.
    The mission president’s visit only serves as another trial which might discourage the young missionary, when we would expect a mission president in such a loose structure to be more understanding initially.
    I agree that the incident of being propositioned by the Tongan girl could have been better portrayed.  I think we are to believe the young Elder Groberg was just explaining his refusal in the way she would accept, but certainly there should he been a more clear explanation.  Of course, not having read Elder Groberg’s book, I don’t know how the incident was handled at the time.

  • Geoff Groberg

    Wow. A “D” for this film. That’s harsh.
    I’ve read the book and seen the movie. I also need to say from the get go that John H. Groberg is my uncle. So I can appreciate the perspective of the film falling short when compared with the book or with talking with the real John Groberg.
    But a “D” rating for this film seems too low.
    My honest impression of this film is that it stands out among so many LDS films as an example of the real deal. It rises to a level of excellence in film making where most LDS films don’t. Some will say this is simply because of the budget. In fact, the budget is driven by the vision of the film makers. Are they producing something that can truly appeal to a wide audience? Most LDS films fail to reach beyond a small niche. This film broke the mold.
    It didn’t find wider appeal just because of a higher level of technical excellence. It found wider appeal because the vision from the beginning was not to make a film for Mormons, but to make a great film.
    I need to say that I’m certainly not praising this film because it’s about one of my relatives. As far as I’m concerned it could be about anyone. It’s a good film – far better than most LDS films. Reviewed among LDS films, it deserves higher than a D grade.
    One of your main criticisms of this film is that we see stories and events, but you ask yourself, “What’s the point?” That’s the perfect question. I’m guessing the film maker chose this mode of storytelling in order to respectfully allow the viewer to ask and consider that question, instead of providing a preachy answer.
    Kevin, you’ve reviewed a lot of LDS films since you wrote your review of this one. How has your understanding of film changed and grown? I think it would be cool if you re-reviewed this one with any new perspectives you’ve gained. I’m hoping that having seen so many poorly made films, and even having made some short films yourself, you will appreciate this one a little more. Is this one really worse than Passage to Zarahemla?
    I applaud Mitch Davis for making a great film about a Mormon, instead of just making a Mormon film.
    Regarding whether the film is true to Elder Groberg as a person: I would say that although I probably know him better than most, I don’t think I can answer that question perfectly. I’ve talked with him about the film. He seemed very happy about it. I know he was careful and took an active part in how events were portrayed by the film makers. I also believe that he knows and understands that it was just a film, and that it can never perfectly and accurately present something as complicated as a real human being. But as far as films go, it did a very good job in my opinion.
    One final note: Kevin, I think your harsh grade has a lot to do with the high level of respect you have for Elder Groberg. That’s nice. But I still think you should re-review this one, thoughtfully considering just the film and its merits (or shortcomings). Consider the craftsmanship, technical achievement, acting, story, inspiration, artistic approach and everything else in this film when compared to so many mediocre LDS films.

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