Pure Flix // 2010 // 118 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 2nd, 2011
What if God gave you a second chance?
The Bible is a bestselling book for a reason. Some would say that's because it's the divinely revealed word of God. Granted, but it's also filled with great stories and wonderful poetry. More Christian-oriented filmmakers need to learn The Bible's lesson: tell a good story well to get across your moral. What if... is a perfect case in point. It's a rehashed version of a pseudo-remake that's had some extra Jesus added. Maybe the faithful will turn to it instead of its secular counterpart (maybe), but to everyone else it offers a trite plot with carpe diem message.
What if... opens in a small-town bus depot. There, Ben Walker (Kevin Sorbo, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) is about to head to the big city to further his career. At the depot with him is his dutiful girlfriend Wendy (Kristy Swanson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and he promises to come back to her so they can start their ministry. The film then cuts to fifteen years later, when Ben is a successful executive with Wendy nowhere to be seen. On the day he closes a big deal, Ben buys a car and take it for a drive. It suddenly stops working and an airbag pops out, knocking Ben cold. When he awakes, he's greeted by Mike (John Ratzenberger, Cheers), an angel who tells him he's been chosen for a special program. He's going to be allowed to live the life with Wendy that he's turned down. Confused, Ben finds himself in the shoes that might have been his, as husband, father, and newly minted preacher.
There are several companies out there dedicated to making what have been dubbed "mockbusters": films that borrow the plot and title of blockbuster films to ride some of the publicity of a Hollywood film. Think Transmorphers. I wonder if What if... is a kind of Christian version of that, where the filmmakers take a Hollywood plot, add a bit of God into it, and call it done. That's basically what What if... does. Except, instead of ripping off a recent or forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster, What if... plays out as a Christian remake of the Nicholas Cage vehicle Family Man (which itself was kind of It's A Wonderful Life in reverse). This time, instead of laughing at Nick Cage changing diapers, we're supposed to think about the spiritual ramifications of our decisions.
I'm not Christian, and I don't fault What if... for being Christian. I fault it for being boring and predictable. From the second the film cuts from the young lovers in the bus depot to the obviously-not-ministering Ben, it's obvious how the film is going to go. Ben is going to have to end up back in the town, he's going to have to come to terms with the life he left behind, and he's going to be returned to his normal life to show us what he's learned. The movie is essentially redundant.
On the plus side, the movie isn't totally a waste (though at almost two hours it might test the faith of even the most stalwart of its audience). There are a few amusing incidents throughout the film, like Ben delivering his first sermon, or trying to go back to his old job. The cast, too, is surprisingly strong given the atrocious dialogue they're given (it's all exposition or heartstring-tugging sugar, with a few rare exceptions). Kevin Sorbo does an amazing job transforming from executive Ben (who's a bit of a jerk but still likeable) to preacher Ben (who's much more upstanding now). Kristy Swanson as the long-suffering Wendy is also commendable. She manages to keep her cool despite Ben's behavior and come off as something other than a nagging shrew. I even wish John Ratzenberger had a larger role in the film, as he brought his trademark earthiness to the role of Mike the mechanic angel.
Verdict was only sent a screener of What if..., so final specs may differ. From what I say the transfer is only ho-hum. Colors are bright and accurate, but there was more noise and shimmer than I expected. The stereo audio kept dialogue clear, but without much directionality. The screener had no extras, but the box promises a featurette, a commentary, and a trailer. I'm having trouble with the idea of sitting through What if... again for a commentary.
What if... isn't a bad movie, per se. Instead, it's just a film that's been done before. There's nothing new here, so I can only imagine this product is designed to appeal to Christian communities who want a bit of religion in their feel-good films. In any case, this flick is almost certainly not going to be welcome outside the faithful, and even in that group its success will depend entirely on the audience's ability to stomach something they've seen before.
What if... is guilty of remaking a film that was only so-so in the first place.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Pure Flix
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG