Cinematic Journeys to the Afterlife

by | Apr 26th, 2011 | 8:25PM | Filed under: Movie Lists

“The afterworld, a world of never ending happiness–U can always see the sun, day or night… [But] in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld–in this life, you’re on your own.

—–– Little Purple Philosopher

“Do you believe in the hereafter? Then you know what I’m here after!”

—–– Reuben Dalton Bodhi Swayze pitchin’ woo to Helen Hunt in Next of Kin

In Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, the afterlife looks like the usual rush of white, beatific, New-Agey light–a well-lit place where you sit around all day hoping Matt Damon will take your call. (Reserve Hereafter at redbox.com)

That got me thinking of other cinematic depictions of the Great Beyond, ranging from the somber to the weird to the downright silly. Whatever you believe (or don’t) about life after death, it’s always fascinating to see what film writers, directors, and art departments come up with when imagining the Afterlife.

 

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Who’s Passed On? 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) at the hands of the neighborhood serial killer.

The Afterlife Looks Like: The In Between, sometimes a pretty national park, and sometimes a sparkling, colorful CGI fun house where you can play dress-up all day. While sorting out your unresolved feelings about having been murdered while still a virgin.

Only Problem Is: Repressed emotions tend to manifest as haunted lighthouses and broken ship bottles. Also, no boys to kiss.

After.Life (2010)

Who’s Passed On? Christina Ricci, a schoolteacher who was in a fatal (?) car accident

The Afterlife Looks Like: A stark, sterile funeral-home preparation room run by mortician Liam Neeson.

Only Problem Is: You might not really be dead. And if you’re not dead, you’re in a relationship with Justin Long.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Who’s Passed On? Robin Williams in car crash and then later his wife, Annabella Sciorra, commits suicide. (She must have missed all the wacky voices.)

The Afterlife Looks Like: Heaven is a Renoir painting. Hell is a sea of faces you have to step on, sort of like an other-worldly mosh pit.

Only Problem Is: Cuba Gooding Jr is your afterlife guide. If you’re really bad, he makes you watch Snow Dogs and Boat Trip.

Heaven Can Wait (1978 remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan)

Who’s Passed On? Warren Beatty, a second-string NFL quarterback for the L.A. Rams, dies in a car accident

The Afterlife Looks Like: The usual–clouds, dry ice, an airplane to Heaven. Angels resembling Buck Henry and James Mason in business suits.

Only problem Is: The Rams? Really? You gotta get back to the Earthly plane so you can play for the Rams?

Defending Your Life (1991)

Who’s Passed On? Albert Brooks (another car accident–either the danger of car wrecks looms large in our collective American subconscious or we really are a nation of awful drivers).

The Afterlife Looks Like: An office building and corporate park full of middle managers, including Rip Torn, and other recently deceased folk like Meryl Streep.

Only problem Is: Middle managers means more bureaucracy! You must prove you’ve used your life well so you can move on to a higher level of existence in your next incarnation. Oh, and you’re Albert Brooks, so that’s going mean some neurotic hand wringing.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Who’s Passed On? Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in (yep, you guessed it) a car wreck.

The Afterlife Looks Like: A tacky DMV waiting room full of Burton-y freak-accident victims.

Only problem Is: To have some posthumous peace and quiet you need to scare the new family out of your former home. And do to that, you need to hire Michael Keaton. The funny, manic ’80s Michael Keaton, not the moody, brooding ’90s version.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Who’s Passed On? Kevin Costner’s dad, Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley, Ray Liotta and the banned 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox.

The Afterlife Looks Like: A cornfield near Dyersville and Dubuque, Iowa.

Only problem Is: You’re not in Heaven, you’re in an Iowa cornfield. Hey, maybe instead of playing ball all day, how about doing a little detasseling?

Enter the Void (2010)

Who’s Passed On? Oscar, a young slacker hippie druggie (Yahtzee!) living in Tokyo

The Afterlife Looks Like: Tokyo and a lifetime of memories as seen through Oscar’s trippy, floaty, ghostly, gauzy point of view and interpreted via The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Only problem Is: Oscar wants to reincarnate as his sister’s child, but she’s not exactly living a stable life conducive to positive procreation. At least I think that’s what’s going on — it’s a little hard to tell most of the time.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Who’s Passed On? Thanks to the salmon mousse, Geoffrey and Angela and their dinner guests, Jeremy and Fiona Portland-Smythe, and Howard and Debbie Katzenberg from Philadelphia.

The Afterlife Looks Like: A Vegas floor show with half-naked women in Santa suits and Tony Bennett singing that it’s Christmas in Heaven — every single day!

Only problem Is: Death is kinda grumpy: “You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say ‘let me tell you something’ and ‘I just wanna say this.’ Well, you’re dead now, so shut up!”


41 Responses to “Cinematic Journeys to the Afterlife”

  1. gloriawandrus
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 11:02 am

    “Resurrection” for any Ellen Burstyn fan.

    A thought provoking exploration of afterlife, the subsequent acquisiton a spiritual gift. Story snowballs into speculation as to the source of the gift, small town reaction and suspicions; and neatly stirred scientific investigation.

    Drama, twists, very engaging beginning through end.

  2. Leslee S
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

    How about “Always” (1998) with Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Audrey Hepburn? And “Frequency” (2000) with Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel? And “Lake House” (2006) with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock? There has certainly been a variety of these films.

    Also, for the survivors, “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (1990) with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson and “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” (1996) Peter Gallagher and Michelle Pfeiffer – two films that helped me grieve deeply after the sudden loss of my own husband.

  3. Leslee S
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 11:09 am

    to Sheri – City of Angels was that film (1998)

  4. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Oh yes, if we start going with “ghost” movies, then DEFINITELY Truly Madly Deeply! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xONNm3X_rok)

    I actually did think about City of Angels, though it doesn’t really deal with humans passing on — and I prefer the original, Wings of Desire :)

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Resurrection with Burstyn, but I need to.

    Always and Frequency are good ones, too! Keep ‘em coming, folks!

  5. Nicole
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    The movies listed are all good, but they are forgetting about several others:

    “Always”: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter: the afterlife looks like Yellowstone Park;
    “Switch”: Ellen Barkin, Jimmy Smits: in this afterlife, a guy dies and is brought back in the form of a woman and is told he has to find one woman who truly loved him when he was alive in order for him to gain entrance into heaven;
    “Passengers”: Anne Hathaway: a therapist who tries to help a group of plane crash survivors that are one-by-one disappearing and each of the survivors are seeing people from their pasts that are dead;
    “Flatliners”: Julia Roberts, KIefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon: med students who deliberately zap themselves into near-death experiences in order to gain knowledge of the afterlife and perspective of their own lives and troubles;
    “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”: Jon Voight: TV movie that portrays the afterlife as an amusement park and that five people from the past come to help you understand the meaning of life and to realize that our lives really do have a purpose.

    As for “The Lake House” and “Frequency,” I don’t think those two movies could be catergorized in afterlife. Those are more along the lines of time travel, changing the past-type movies.

  6. cherie
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I think the movie is called DRAGONFLY,its very much a story of a communication from the other side!a wife has a very importnt message to her hubby.The ending is sooooo painful,beautiful,happy,touching,heartwarming!I don’t recal a scene depicting the aftrlife. Sorry!Still very worth the time and focused totaly around the aftrlife,loved ones see us,keep up with us!without giving away too much of the movie…I strongly suggest this one! :) Cherie

  7. cherie
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    I think the movie is called DRAGONFLY,its very much a story of a communication from the other side! a very importnt message to hubby.The ending is sooooo painful,beautiful,happy,touching,heartwarming!I don’t recal a scene depicting the aftrlife. Sorry!Still very worth the time and focused totaly around the aftrlife,loved ones see us,keep up with us!without giving away too much of the movie…I strongly suggest this one! :) Cherie

  8. Lisa L. Bentley
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    What about “Ghosts” with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? Whoopi Goldberg was great in the movie as well.

  9. Kimberly Cortez
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    “Wristcutters: a love story” is also a good one. Although it’s more doing with purgatory than heaven or hell.

  10. jerwander
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    One of my favorites is “Made in Heaven”.
    Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis. Plus a
    great cast. It’s a 1987 movie.

  11. Sydney Hart
    Posted on May 3, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I have seen all the movies mentioned so far. They are invaluable in tapping into grief and helping formulate a plan on how to manage the unmanageable. My son died in 2001. My father, May 3rd–a year ago today. My Mom–Dec. 17th after Dad. Last night when my son came over and I opened the front door to greet him, the porch light went out. When he left, we went out the back door under the carport and as we walked out…the light went out. Believe…they are still with us and nudge us every once in a while to let us know they are okay.

    The movies mentioned (some, at least) can be of great aid, but two books helped me even more–QUIT KISSING MY ASHES (I forget the author) and The Dalai Lamas’ ADVICE ON DYING. For those grieving…embrace the pain. Know that sounds ludicrous…but lessons in loss are the greatest in life’s journey. And accepting the fact that the loss is only an illusion…is another. There is nothing to fear in death. Life is the scary part.

  12. John D
    Posted on May 4, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Are we all forgetting SIXTH SENSE?? One of the better ones of the hereafter.

  13. showndaniel
    Posted on May 5, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I personally liked Danny Boyles “A Life Less Ordinary”. It depicted the afterlife as a bright white office building where Gabriel was in charge and the way he got his orders from “On High” was when god would actually call him(like getting a call from your corporate office)! Gabriel portrayed by Dan Hedaya was amusing in itself, but the story is about the fact that god hates that there is no love left in the world and they send 2 angels”Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo” to earth to spark love between the 2 most unlikely candidates for it”Swan Macgregor and Cameron Diaz”! Not the best movie ever but still one of my favorites………def worth a look!

  14. showndaniel
    Posted on May 5, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I personally liked Danny Boyles “A Life Less Ordinary”. It depicted the afterlife as a bright white office building where Gabriel was in charge and the way he got his orders from “On High” was when god would actually call him(like getting a call from your corporate office)! Gabriel portrayed by Dan Hedaya was amusing in itself, but the story is about the fact that god hates that there is no love left in the world and they send 2 angels”Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo” to earth to spark love between the 2 most unlikely candidates for it”Ewan Macgregor and Cameron Diaz”! Not the best movie ever but still one of my favorites………def worth a look!

  15. Lise
    Posted on May 21, 2011 at 11:32 am

    For the younger folks, there’s a bit in “Charlie St.Cloud”. I am sure there are plenty more films that could be mentionned. I find this intriguing & I’ve compiled my own list. Did anyone mention “The Others” with Nicole Kidman? Was the true account of “20 Minutes In Heaven” made into a film?

  16. Judy Collier
    Posted on January 9, 2012 at 11:57 am

    I want to thank Sydney Hart for mentioning my book concerning many after-death communications with my son… “Quit Kissing My Ashes.” I am blessed that my son’s story has been able to help so many grieving people and open people’s minds to the reality of the spiritual world.