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Exploring the Afterlife in Movies

What happens after we die? The fear and fascination of this unknown post-mortem void has driven many fictional works, but what better a medium to explore the notion of an afterlife than film? Depictions have ranged from fantasy worlds to mirror image societies where one must come face to face with his or her life decisions.

But even more so is the way that death affects relationships. Much afterlife-based fiction has involved a “crossing over” between our world and the next, where two people, usually lovers, are separated by one’s death. The loss of loved ones is a universally human tragedy that befalls all of us at some point, so for many artists to turn their own struggles into prose or art that fantasizes about a second chance or reunion with someone deceased does not come as a surprise — nor should the fact that these stories appeal to us regardless how well the film is made.

Legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood takes us back to this deeply human theme in his new film Hereafter, which expands to 2,200-plus theaters Friday. Written by Oscar-nominated scribe Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), the film follows three stories in which people deal with some form of death and the medium (Matt Damon) they seek out in desperation to reconnect with those they’ve lost. Despite an early luke-warm reception, this theme warrants some exploration as many afterlife-focused movies have had a prominent impact on the motion-picture medium (no pun intended) over the years.

The earliest notion of this motif comes in the Greek myth of Orpheus, one of the more powerfully tragic stories in Greek mythology in the amount of sympathy and empathy it generates.

An incredible musician and player of the lyre, Orpheus’ song was enchanting and known for taming even the most fearsome of creatures in addition to pleasing the gods and everyone else. He fell in love with and married a woman named Eurydice, but just after they were married, she was bitten by a snake and died. Distraught, Orpheus was determined to do what few mortals so much as dared: travel deep into the Underworld and come back alive — bringing his deceased wife with him.

Orpheus’ song was so mesmerizing and winning of sympathy that the ferryman Chairon took him right across, Cerberus the three-headed dog became submissive (there’s where Harry Potter got that from) and Hades also caved in, agreeing he could leave with her so long as he didn’t look back at her until they left the Underworld. After a long trip back, right at the end as light could be seen, Orpheus began to wonder if she had truly followed him all this way, turned back, and Eurydice faded away.

The story was moving enough that it became one of the first operas ever in Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo. This notion that if we care deeply enough for someone we’ve lost that we can seek them out and bring them back is a powerful one. It’s so alluring that we’re convinced Orpheus will succeed every time — then the bubble is burst and reality settles in.

The most similar movie to this exact story and theme is the 1998 film What Dreams May Come starring Robin Williams. Received with a mixed reaction as most of Williams’ dramatic lead roles are, the film centered on a man who’s died in an accident and discovered he’s gone to heaven, but his death has devastated his wife and she’s committed suicide, placing her squarely in hell. Like Orpheus, he loves her too much and goes to hell to bring her back. It’s a very Christian notion of heaven and hell, but that’s most people’s belief involving the afterlife, so it provides a sense of familiarity.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the afterlife motif is that it crosses genre lines. Excluding horror movies from this conversation, most of these films do have a romance element, but not all are central.

Take last year’s anticipated but critically unimpressive fantasy drama The Lovely Bones based on the Alice Sebold novel. Young Susie Salmon is abducted and killed by her neighbor and finds herself in an afterlife called “the In-Between,” a fantastical ever-changing purgatory designed by the mind of Peter Jackson. Susie’s family deals with her loss while still feeling some kind of connection to her through this “middle” world. Her father (Mark Wahlberg) continues to investigate and her sister becomes more preoccupied with her inclination about the neighbor (Stanley Tucci), all of which grows from a familial love and a sense of incompleteness (and slightly revenge). Normally, films deal with characters who lose mothers or fathers, but the other way around — sons and daughters — can make for a different and more profound dynamic when it comes to depicting the relationship between living and deceased and the consequent impact.

But the most conventional use of the afterlife in film is not necessarily creating a supernatural plane or separate worl , but in characters obtaining second chances after death here in our own. There are many classic “second chance” films such as A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, where flawed protagonists are shown alternate versions of their world by supernatural beings without having to die first, but the first to deal with this in death terms was Warren Beatty’s 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait.

Beatty created and starred in the film about a pro football quarterback named Joe Pendleton whose star is rising when he “dies” in an accident — only it turns out he was removed before death had been confirmed by an angel. Wrongfully placed in heaven before his time, Joe gets a second chance but must enter the body of someone else recently deceased, in this case a disliked rich businessman named Mr. Farnsworth. He initially uses this second chance for selfish purposes, but begins to see things clearer (with a little help from a woman). This concept was adapted once more in Chris Rock’s 2001 comedy Down to Earth.

It’s surprising that the afterlife motif took so long to become part of the comedy genre, although “Heaven” is equal parts drama and romance in many instances. In my opinion, the film has a shoddy story structure, but it was nominated for a whopping 9 Academy Awards, winning one for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration — a testament to its popularity and wide appeal. Similar ghost-human interaction comedies have been spawned in recent years to minimal applause such as Just Like Heaven with Reese Witherspoon and Ricky Gervais’ Ghost Town.

Other genres have had varying takes. The sports drama Field of Dreams is one of the most beloved films of all time, dealing with second chances in the form of unfulfilled father-son relationships as seen through one of the sports that bonds those relationships the most. The 1998 family film Jack Frost brings Michael Keaton back to his son as a living snowman. It’s non-traditional, but same idea.

Also starring Michael Keaton is Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s 1988 film with a totally off-kilter approach to the afterlife in a husband and wife couple discovering they’re deceased and trying to scare the new family out of their house to unexpected results. Beetlejuice has great fun thinning the line between the living world and the supernatural death world in its creating of portals in between and mixing dead normal people with crazy spirits like Beetlejuice. The film points out just how flexible the interpretation of the afterlife can truly be.

Other films such as The Crow (1994) put a revenge spin on returning from death experiences, transitioning the motif to action films. Ghost, which won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar for playing a medium, told a love story in the midst of a thriller as Patrick Swayze tries to communicate with his girlfriend (Demi Moore) through Goldberg as she’s being hunted down by the men who killed him. Very recently, the 2006 indie Wristcutters: A Love Story, starring Patrick Fugit, imagines a similar-to-reality purgatory where suicide victims are clumped together (against their will, naturally). The film explores the idea of whether death is truly an “escape.”

Then there’s the one horror film that deserves to make this list: The Sixth Sense. The film was a game-changer for horror and instantly made M. Night Shyamalan the household name we now come to scrutinize. It starts as a horror/thriller and reveals itself to be about second chances or more importantly, “unfinished business.” The idea of a deceased soul never being at rest until he or she can resolve the issues that troubled him/her in real life is a common one and no film better demonstrates it, at least from an entertainment standpoint.

Similar to that concept is the 1991 Albert Brooks film co-starring Meryl Streep, Defending Your Life, which explores the concept of judgement in the afterlife as Brooks’ character is being evaluated in a courtroom-type procedure to determine whether he lived life to the best of his ability. Taking place in a purgatory type setting, this film is concerned less about relationship and more about personal reflection and coming to terms with one’s decisions.

There’s no doubt fiction will continue to churn out new visions of life after death as no question is as unanswerable as what happens when we die. What’s interesting to note, however, is so few of these films are heralded works of cinema. Other than The Sixth Sense, Field of Dreams, and maybe Ghost, these are not the most well-received. Those three films are all very much grounded in the real world, which suggests that the total lack of a reference point for what the afterlife “realm” is like has caused a number of issues for films such as The Lovely Bones and What Dreams May Come. As intrigued as we are by their concepts, these films have the hardest time establishing the “rules,” often drowning in overdone fantasy imaginings of the afterlife.

The true heart of what makes these concepts appealing or successful is the way death upsets the relationship dynamic and greatly changes our perception. As living people, we can only go about our business, try to do good and hope that being the best we can be in this life will bring goodness in the next (if one indeed exists) and that those we’ve lost (and those who will lose us) will endure in some positive, peaceful way. These films give us the chance to think about how we’d handle a situation in which we were confronted with the answer to this mysterious central life question and what we’d fix if given a second chance. But at the least, death is scary, losing people we love is scary and the longing to create our own fictional scenario to alter it makes the characters experiencing it on screen infinitely interesting. As curious as we might be about the afterlife, as a motif it highlights the power of and need for sympathy and empathy in film and the reason we turn to this medium (once again, no pun intended) to help make sense of our vague and sometimes frightening lives.

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