'Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults': TV Review

Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults
Courtesy of HBO Max
Delivers some empathy, but rarely insight.

Clay Tweel's four-part HBO Max docuseries explores the titular suicide cult beyond the 'Star Trek' obsession, cheap website and matching Nikes.

Even if it hadn't been the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil, the deaths of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in March of 1997 would have been attention-grabbing.

Every aspect of the cult and its demise — from the fascination with Star Trek to its eerie bald leader to the matching death uniforms including Nike Decades to the associations with the Hale-Bopp comet to a rudimentary website that remains up today with its '90s design — was kibble for both serious media attention and late-night comic mockery.

Arriving in a cult-obsessed media landscape that may just be grateful for something that isn't NXIVM-related, HBO Max's Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults is sure to initially frustrate and possibly even bore viewers with an appetite for the salacious. This is probably the intention of prolific documentarian Clay Tweel (The Innocent Man, Finders Keepers), who spends the first two parts of the four-part series emphasizing all of the ways Heaven's Gate was, relatively speaking, "normal" or at least "typical" for the particular moment of its founding. It's an interesting de-stigmatizing process, but one likely to cause many viewers to skip ahead to the third and fourth episodes, where the sensationalistic stuff is lurking.

After an opening quickly reminding you of the 1997 mass suicide, The Cult of Cults goes back to 1975 and introduces us to Marshall Applewhite — the crazy-eyed bald man familiar from the videos — and Bonnie Nettles. He was an aspiring opera singer turned mental patient. She was a nurse with big ideas. Calling themselves "Do" and "Ti" — The Sound of Music was one of many big pop culture influences — they crafted a belief system around the idea that they had been sent to help followers shed their human bodies ("vehicles") and ascend to literal UFOs that would then take them all to heaven.

The first two episodes largely trace Do and Ti's extensive town-by-town recruitment process and show how the Heaven's Gate spiritual system was, once you get past the whole "UFO" thing, fairly consistent with a number of New Age cults popping up in the '70s and '80s. These so-called "Millenarian" cults blended vaguely Christian beliefs with end-of-the-world theology and operated with similar isolating and brainwashing methodologies to what you might have seen in any documentary about Jonestown or NXIVM.

Heaven's Gate was solidly ahead of the curve when it came to filming their informational sessions and, for all of the shock expressed in 1997, the cult's early days received a reasonable amount of news coverage, which gives Tweel a lot of primary source material to work with. In the place of reenactments, Tweel uses whimsical animated sequences set against black backgrounds to visualize the more science fiction-y aspects of the cult's creed.

For entirely self-evident seasons, there aren't an unlimited number of former Heaven's Gate members available, but Tweel makes solid use of poignant figures like Frank and Sawyer, who both left the cult but neither with exactly the perspective you might expect. There are several featured family members of acolytes, including Bonnie Nettles' daughter, several religious scholars — Reza Aslan is the biggest name, though he contributes little beyond introductory material — plus a pair of sociologists who went undercover with Heaven's Gate in the '70s. That undercover investigation, responsible for triggering the cult's first burst of widespread media attention, yields far fewer stories than one might hope for and neither sociologist has, 40+ years later, all that much insight into either of the group's founders.

Bonnie is almost a complete mystery after four hours, and Marshall is reduced to a simplistic portrait of a gay son of a fundamentalist minister who turned his repression into a self-hating ideology. If you can't really nail what made Do and Ti charismatic, you can't really nail what made them powerful, and maybe the banality, despite the bizarre trappings, is what was so insidious? You've seen the footage of Marshall's taped lectures and you may remember the Will Ferrell performance from Saturday Night Live. Somehow after four hours, the Heaven's Gate leaders are reduced from larger-than-life status without quite becoming human-scale.

One of Tweel's documentary fascinations is trying to find empathy with extremes that could be cartoonish. It's one thing for Tweel to want to humanize the members of Heaven's Gate and give the cult an identity beyond the headline-grabbing.  But I'm not sure there's much insight to glean here that doesn't make Heaven's Gate interchangeable with whatever your cult of choice happens to be. I think that there's going to be an assumption that the series' subtitle is meant to capture the circus-like plethora of quirkiness tied to Heaven's Gate, when instead it nails its sameness.

Still, the dullness of the first two hours is meant to ground the outlandishness of the last two and it largely works. Frank and Sawyer's respective stories are poignant and muted enough that when tawdry aspects like Marshall's interest in castration — again tied to his repressed homosexuality — come into play, the conversation is disturbing, but less driven by shock value than you might fear. While bits and pieces that the media latched onto after the suicides are touched on and maybe explained, Tweel doesn't wallow, and there will absolutely be details you'll want to learn more about that are either ignored or glossed over.

HBO Max is following in the HBO mothership's footsteps here of not quite matching quantity (or quality) of documentary material with running time. Instead of four "episodes," The Cult of Cults surely could have been three (with the first two episodes combined into one) or perhaps a two-hour movie — which still makes it significantly less padded than McMillions or The Vow. By the end of the four hours, I felt some emotional connection to the cult members and their families and that was Tweel's primary intention, I'm guessing. Getting me to feel that this exploration was ultimately especially perceptive, though, is where Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults falls short.

Premieres Thursday, December 3, on HBO Max.