Some spiritual topics simply can't be done seriously in movies very often. I wrote recently about how Adam and Eve have never been depicted very seriously in film (other than a couple of times), and it seems heaven is the same way. Like Adam and Eve, we can't get our head around what the reality of these spiritual topics may be, and we're probably not supposed to in the grand scheme of life. In the movies, translating the ineffable means bringing plenty of irony, and the depiction of heaven has had plenty.
Even though heaven has had plenty of tongue in cheek, one recent film finally took it seriously. It may have kicked off a new wave of more serious heaven depictions that we're seeing now with "Heaven is for Real."
The Satires on Heaven:
Since the earliest days of films, depictions of heaven have always shown us an ethereal and cloud-filled place with literal winged angels. For years, we only saw a literal pearly gates rather than taking us in there to see more of the real estate. "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" in 1941 showed us a little bit more, and it extended all the way to the remake of the same film ("Heaven Can Wait") 40 years later. In the heaven of "Heaven Can Wait", we see the slightly tongue in cheek nod to bureaucracy in heaven for ironic and comedic value.
Movie simply couldn't resist showing departed souls checking into heaven as if herded cattle. That means long lines and then being transported through a luxurious method to a new destination. It seems that Albert Brooks was the only one who decided to explore that higher destination and see how similar it might be to the real world.
In Brooks' "Defending Your Life", we see a heaven that's typical in any of Brooks' movies. It's filled with irony of seeing many of the strange pastimes we see on earth, except we're able to have as much as we want of them. The comedy view always took the idea that heaven allows us much as we want of things that don't disrupt the common good. And yes, that's much funnier than a logician would probably take in a heaven allowing only moderation in everything.
By the time the 1990s arrived, depictions of heaven were becoming so ironic that they became almost became unintentionally funny. "What Dreams Will Come" with Robin Williams showed a heaven so colorful and over the top that it was more unbelievable than the one concocted by Albert Brooks.
The Dramas on Heaven:
In 1989, we saw "Field of Dreams" showing a heaven playing out within the confines of earth and in a cornfield no less. Whether you'd want to call it time replaying itself rather than an actual heavenly realm, it really doesn't matter. It was probably the most magical depiction of a heavenly environment ever depicted without needing to be ironic, satiric, or dramatically over the top. It was a lesson to keep it simple if you're going to depict a dimensional world of the afterlife, plus keeping it mysterious rather than so literal.
"The Rapture" came just a couple of years after "Field of Dreams" in a seemingly new direction of depicting heavenly worlds here on earth. In this one, we're to believe there's a purgatory where the character of Sharon (played by Mimi Rogers) goes to atone for her previous sins.
Perhaps the most daring cinematic depiction of heaven ever done to date was "Tree of Life" in 2011. Even though it's cited as being a depiction of heaven, it doesn't necessarily mean it's in the heaven we usually think of in a literal sense. It gave hints that the resurrection of loved ones was in a very earthly environment, mainly a beach. Leaving it wide open for interpretation, it left the possibility that heaven for most of us may be eventually here on Earth.
"Heaven is for Real", however, seems to take us back into another life after death tale of going into a real heaven away from Terra Firma. It's the first time we're seeing a film about heaven based on a real experience. Regardless, with so many life after death tales (and everyone involved seeing different things), the human mind may be creating our own movies of heaven in order to reduce the incomprehensible reality.
As with most cinematic depictions of heaven, we're better off making it literal to help us get a start on processing what we'll all likely see down the road.