ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
starring Christopher Gorham, Anne Hathaway, Nathaniel Lees, Joseph Folau
written and directed by Mitch Davis
by Walter Chaw To call The Other Side of Heaven "appalling" would be to underestimate just how dangerous entertainments like it can be. The film positions itself as "based on a true story" and "based on a memoir" without understanding that the two are often mutually exclusive. Then, without apology, it proceeds to manufacture scenes for maximum manipulation, everything from the messianic to the mundane. An opening dance sequence set in a Cleaver American Fifties features more stunt people, professional dancers, and trampolines than Cirque du Soleil, its artificiality setting the tone for the rest of the film, while the scene's conclusion (with the picture's hero trapping the celebrants in a giant dance hall, dooming them to death should a fire break out) serves as a pretty succinct summary of the film's feckless themes and carelessness.
John Groberg (Christopher Gorham) is a graduate of Brigham Young University sent on his obligatory three-year mission, assigned to Tonga in the Cook Islands. Leaving behind a heavy-browed love (Anne Hathaway) and gaining a caricature of a man Friday, Feki (Joe Folau), the picture follows in Groberg's tireless quest to bring a Christian God to the savages. Offensive? At least. The only benefit of The Other Side of Heaven is that it reminds that Bruce Beresford's Black Robe remains arguably the only "missionary" film to give any kind of equal footing to the beliefs and religions of indigenous peoples.
Paternalistic racism of the noble savage variety makes absolute sense for a picture about a religion that is paternalistic and racist. Sending a Great White Hope into the "unenlightened" parts of the world is a practice as antiquated as it is sickening, but making a film about it so one-sided that it equates the refusal to accept a Mormon deity with getting turned to prostitution by Australian pirates is deplorable. There is such a thing as artistic license, of course, but The Other Side of Heaven takes an already proselytizing piece and makes of it something so sanctimonious and virulent that the biggest surprise is that it's not a product of Anshutz Entertainment. Indeed, criticism of John Purdy's Joshua serves as canny criticism of The Other Side of Heaven as well: The film, a fearful and patronizing sermon delivered expressly for the sake of children and fanatical shut-ins, believes that those not of the faith are dimwits while being entertaining only for those of the faith who are. It's for an audience who reads "The Good News Bible" instead of "The King James", folks looking for faith in small words, comforting images, artless emotions, and simplified theologies.
DisneyDVD presents The Other Side of Heaven in a 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer that preserves DP Brian Breheny's vibrant colour schemes and the loveliness of the Pacific Island scenery. The picture is handsome--particularly an early shot of a giant moon stolen from It's a Wonderful Life. Minor edge-enhancement crops up now and again, but not enough for me to have kittens about it. The Dolby 5.1 soundmix is surprisingly agile, with the quiet rustle of a Polynesian island forever in the rear channels. A feature-length commentary by first time writer-director Mitch Davis is almost as big a snow job/avalanche of bullshit as his film: talking out of both sides of his mouth at all times with the earnest gravitas of an idiot grandfather.
According to Davis, The Other Side of Heaven is at once a movie of deep faith and not religious, a film true to the facts while cribbing the facts, and after a screed on how the film isn't at all preachy, Davis preaches on for a few minutes about how "in a time of darkness, we need hope and God." Velvet-tongued, Davis would be much better off owning up to his intentions rather than presuming that non-Mormons are idiots unable to figure out when they're being given a free Bible in not-free DVD form from a stranger in a tie who thinks you need some help. A rote "making of" featurette is the usual collection of obsequious platitudes; one of those entirely worthless still galleries rounds out the exercise. Originally published: June 4, 2003.