Releasing today on HBO Max, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is a four part docuseries about the religious group Heaven’s Gate. Originally formed back in the mid 1970s the group was formed by the two founding members Marshall Applewhite (Do) and Bonnie Nettles (Ti). The group’s basic belief system was based around humanity just being a vehicle for a higher level of understanding. If you got rid of your human desires and worked towards enlightenment, you would shed your human form and be transformed into your next level form where you would leave Earth on a spacecraft. The series follows the formation of the group to its ultimate conclusion as the largest mass suicide in US history.
What initially intrigued me about Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is that it sounded like an interesting topic for a documentary. Growing up in the 1990s I was a kid when the reports of what happened at Heaven’s Gate became news so I only had a vague idea of what actually happened. I thought the idea of a documentary about one of the most famous cults in history could have made for an interesting documentary.
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults consists of four episodes and for the most part follows a pretty straightforward path from the group’s beginnings until its tragic ending. The first two episodes mostly focus on the general beliefs of the group along with its formation and early years. Beginning with the third episode the show focuses more on what lead to the ultimate end of the group. Finally the fourth episode mostly deals with the aftermath.
I am far from an expert on the topic of Heaven’s Gate as I was only a child when everything came to its end. That said it seems like a lot of care and detail went into trying to portray what it was like being a member of the group and what ultimately happened. I would say that the series is mostly comprised of three different elements. First are actual recordings of the group in public as well as home movies shot in private. Some of these videos have never been seen by the general public before. Second there are interviews with a few former members of the group as well as family members of other group members. Finally there are interviews with experts in the field of religious studies, sociology, and cults.
After watching the series I have to say that the one word that comes to my mind is tragic. It is truly sad what happened to the people of Heaven’s Gate. When a lot of people first hear of what the members believed in they might think that it is a joke. Their beliefs in many ways felt like a combination of Christianity and aliens. Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults does a good job dispelling this feeling. The show doesn’t portray what happened as a joke. Instead it focuses on why it was truly tragic what happened, and how it ended up happening. This includes discussions on how cults form and how they can attract people that you wouldn’t typically expect to join a cult. The members of the group truly believed in their teachings and were lead astray by the founders. The series in general is quite sad as I felt bad for the members of the group.
I found Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults to be a compelling series about the Heaven’s Gate group. While I only knew vague information about the group before watching the series, I left the series knowing quite a bit more about the group. In many ways the series shares a similar style to a lot of the other HBO docuseries that I have watched. The production quality is quite good and it does a good job telling the story in a compelling way. In many ways the series is pretty much what I expected it to be.
The biggest issue that I had with the series is that the episodes do feel a little long at times. The episodes are all around 50 minutes long. I wouldn’t say that this is overly long, but the show does drag a little at times. Because of this I think the episodes could have been trimmed down a little. I think five to ten minutes probably could have been cut from most of the episodes without significantly changing the series. This extra time doesn’t ruin the series in any significant way, but it does lead to a few slow points.
Ultimately I was glad that I watched Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults. I found the series to be quite informative while doing a good job presenting a pretty tragic true life story. A story that many people took as a joke when it first occurred is presented in a way that shows something that was far more complex than a little news story could ever portray. It is truly sad what happened to the members of the group. I will say that the series is a little long at times where it probably could have been streamlined a little more.
Basically my recommendation for the series comes down to your feelings on the topic itself. I thought the series was interesting, but I don’t know if it is enough for someone that doesn’t really have any interest in learning about Heaven’s Gate. Those interested in the topic though should find the series to be interesting enough that they should look into checking it out.
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults released today (December 3rd, 2020) on HBO Max.
We would like to thank HBO Max for the screeners used to watch the series for this review.
Rating: 3.5/5 (I was very close to giving the show a 4/5.)
Recommended For: People who are interested in learning about what happened with the Heaven’s Gate group.
Appears On the Following List Posts: None at the moment
Watch Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults: HBO Max
TV Completionist is our never-ending TV series review journal where the ultimate goal is to watch, write about, and curate as many shows (both new and old) as humanly possible. For more information on this post series and a list of shows already covered, see this post.