“Some folks think heaven is a far-off place among the clouds where people sit around playing harps…Heaven is all around us, just waiting for you to come in when the time is right.”
So begins Heaven’s Door, a film about life, death, and heavenly gifts written and directed by Craig Clyde (A Christmas Wish) and available on DVD or through Netflix streaming.
As the film opens, 12-year-old Riley is already reeling from her parents’ sudden separation when her grandfather is felled by a heart attack. Her grandmother attempts to console her by talking about the great peace available to all in the afterlife, although Riley’s mother says that’s just a belief people tell themselves to feel better about death.
Soon after, Riley discovers a ‘mystic portal’ of sorts, out in her backyard. After her experience encountering “the other side”, she finds she can lay her hands on animals or other kids and heal their sicknesses and handicaps. Her friends encourage her to use her ‘gift’ to earn money, although her grandmother shoots this idea down immediately (“You can’t charge for heavenly gifts!”) Pretty soon her parents find out…as does the local media. Where did Riley’s gift come from, and what is her ultimate mission? Can she heal non-physical problems, like the rift between her parents, as easily as she heals the neighborhood dog? What are the responsibilities and consequences of sharing her gift with the world?
Heaven’s Door has an interesting idea at its core: what if someone has a gift of taking away the physical handicaps and maladies of other people…except it doesn’t “heal” them outright, it just moves those physical conditions onto the healer instead? Does she have a moral obligation to share this gift regardless of the consequences — essentially sacrificing herself for the benefit of others?
The direct scriptural parallel is to “scapegoats” – goats that were used in Day of Atonement ceremonies of the Old Testament Israelites to take upon the community’s sins before being sacrificed. (See Leviticus 16:8) Those sacrifices are considered in Christendom to be the precursor to Christ’s atonement for mankind (See Alma 34:10: “For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.”) However, without possessing Christ’s infinite power, Riley seems destined to be the ‘goat’ unless she makes some difficult decisions. What should she do when she meets a girl dying of cancer? What’s the correct moral decision if one of the two of them needs to die of cancer regardless? Who can make that choice?
It’s a compelling concept for a film. Unfortunately, Heaven’s Door doesn’t fully develop this idea, nor is it brave enough to follow it to its logical conclusion. The cast is composed of TV vets — Charisma Carpenter (Buffy/Angel) and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) — and a handful of familiar faces from LDS film (Michael Flynn, Jaci Twiss, David Nibley) but they don’t have much to work with in a screenplay containing banal dialogue and an inconsistent religious message. Being a “family film”, the narrative is compelled to wrap the story up neatly in a happy ending, although how the characters arrive there isn’t adequately explained (nor consistent with the film’s theology).
The “fantasy” elements of the movie — the “portal to heaven” and Riley’s healing ability — are part of the premise that you just have to accept, although even under the movie’s own rules, the theology is confusing. Does Riley receive her gift accidentally or deliberately? Why does the portal switch locations randomly? Why do some of the people Riley heals start backsliding for no given reason? Riley’s explanation of why she received her gift (“Adults can’t interfere with divine directives.”) only raises more questions that the film is unprepared to answer.
Heaven’s Door is clearly presented as a “pro-faith” film, but faith in what? By the end, Riley’s parents believe in Riley’s gift and in the supernatural, but after they see the pretty incontrovertible evidence of the heavenly door in their backyard, it would be hard not to. That isn’t really “faith” at that point, is it?
Whether miracles like healings or contact with the afterlife happen today are open questions even among the actively religious, although they certainly don’t happen in as direct and obvious a fashion as in this film. Is Heaven’s Door supposed to encourage viewers to have faith in God and the afterlife, even when the characters in the film have markedly different evidence that viewers presumably don’t? Ironically it may support the atheist / agnostic point-of-view more: that if God or spirits DID exist then wouldn’t they make themselves known in direct ways like in the film? (And if they don’t…then maybe they don’t?)
I suspect that isn’t the point the filmmakers were trying to make, but then how do we connect the dots between the happenings of the film and the day-to-day faith in the unseen that viewers are ostensibly supposed to develop? Heaven’s Door — like other “spiritual” films that provide numerous supernatural elements — may be undercutting its own purpose by presenting what religious believers wish would happen to those with great faith, rather than what actually does.
Heaven’s Door has one compelling idea, which is one more than many other films have, so that’s something. The idea of a modern-day ‘scapegoat’ deserves something more ambitious than a made-for-TV movie with stereotypical family struggles and a muddled religious message, though.
Final Grade: B-
Random Notes and Other Comments:
(1) Dean Cain (Riley’s dad) is notable for having played Joseph Smith before, in September Dawn, the distinctly anti-Mormon take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (See the late Roger Ebert’s zero star review) I suppose his presence in a pseudo-LDS film could thus be considered “controversial” among Mormon audiences…if September Dawn had been seen by more than approximately six people, and anyone cared.
(2) Riley’s grandmother says after her husband has died, “I’d like to think that Nate and the whole family are standing here beside me.” A common thought, especially among those today who’d like to believe departed loved ones are always close at hand. If there is an afterlife, however, wouldn’t you think the spirits there are busy living their own celestial existence without spending all their time hanging around their earthly family members? If heaven is so boring that spirits have nothing else to do than just hang around and watch people on Earth do things without any possibility of interaction, that doesn’t sound much like “heaven”, does it?
(3) Dialogue that sounds funny out-of-context: Riley’s mom to Riley — “Promise me you’ll STOP helping people!”
(4) Dialogue that sounds dumb, whether in context or not: Riley’s mom — “What is it about models that men find irresistible?” (Um…other than the obvious?)
(5) Dialogue that doesn’t quite follow logically: Riley’s grandmother — “Divorce is like a death — they’re both pretty permanent.”
(6) Dialogue exchange that doesn’t quite represent effective missionary technique: Riley’s grandmother talking with Riley’s mom — “You used to believe when you were younger!” ”You told me I should believe what I wanted to believe!” ”I was WRONG!” (“You should believe what I TELL you to believe!”, I guess? Good luck with that line of persuasion, grandma…)