Not all stories are created equal. Amazing true stories can be remarkable for their sheer wonder and seemingly unbelievable qualities — but those details might not translate into an amazing movie. This is the case with 90 Minutes in Heaven, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Don Piper. Based on his own incredible life story, the film adaptation, written and directed by Michael Polish, is an all-too-faithful rendition of this spiritual tale, where minor details get mistaken for crucial moments.
For Christian audiences, the premise alone will be enough of a draw. In 1989, Don Piper (Hayden Christensen), a minister and married father of three, was in a head-on collision with a big rig on a bridge in driving rain. Paramedics could find no pulse at the scene, and his body was left underneath a tarp, presumed dead, for 90 minutes, until another pastor prayed and sang over him. Don miraculously was revived, but not until after he had a vision of the heavenly glories. Upon returning to his life on Earth, Don endured a long, painful path to recovery that tested his faith, family, and self-worth.
It's certainly a remarkable story about the perseverance of the human spirit, and the lessons that one can learn in a near-death experience. However, the film is a little too concerned with the veracity of its own details, sacrificing satisfying cinematic storytelling in the process. Certainly, many of the moments can be seen as moving in some way, but when they are treated with overly heavy doses of meaning and then dropped, without paying off down the line, the story loses all momentum.
Scenes with Don's father wishing he were in his place, or a network of prayers organized in his honor, or his wife Eva (Kate Bosworth) letting out a primal scream of frustration in the McDonald's drive thru certainly help to color in the real experiences of these characters. But they are all treated with the kind of soaring dramatic strings that signify Something Important is happening, but then are promptly abandoned. If every moment is treated as important, then none of them are, really.
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It's not a traditional movie structure, more like a series of vignettes that detail Don's journey. For a film that promises 90 Minutes in Heaven, it's pretty scant on the heaven — it's more like Two Hours in a Hospital Bed. Moreover, the effects that illustrate Don's vision of heaven are a letdown, done with a cheesy pearly gates effect and a parade of Don's loved ones who have passed on.
For fans of Piper's book and audiences of faith, 90 Minutes in Heaven will be a welcome treat, with high-quality filmmaking and legitimate stars in Christensen and Bosworth. But as a cinematic story, it fails to create a satisfying narrative with a true arc that pays off; it's too caught up in explaining its minor details to focus on the big picture.