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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Have the movies (or TV) ever gotten the afterlife right?

We get yet another cinematic vision of the afterlife this weekend in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: Percy and pals go to Hell… the underworldly realm of his uncle Hades, and it’s the usual sort of Hell, all sulfurous air and flames and chicks in S&M gear. (Steve Coogan as Hades is the best thing about the movie, but alas, he has mere minutes of screen time.)

Coincidentally, Anne Billson in the Guardian yesterday lamented how boring movie afterlifes tend to be:

“It’s heaven!” says a dead girl as she drifts through one of the CGI landscapes in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. To which you feel like replying, “Duh, no. It’s a field of corn.” What is it about fields of corn? There was one in the afterlife in Steven Spielberg’s Always as well, though at least that had Audrey Hepburn in it.

You wouldn’t catch me dead in a cornfield, which I’d worry was just waiting for creepy children, crows or crop-dusting planes to roll up. Jackson hedges his bets by piling on dozens of other backdrops, ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to The Sound of Music, but like most film-makers’ visions of the beyond, they’re all corny. It’s as though their imaginations have all got stuck at Bosch’s triptychs.

Movie heavens tend to be rural, because everyone’s been brainwashed into thinking cornfields are preferable to, say, Paris or Berlin. But do they have to be so boring?

I’d personally much prefer a Parisian afterlife to an Iowan one. (Oh, and yes, I may still review The Lovely Bones at some point…)

Have the movies (or TV) ever gotten the afterlife right? Which, if any, movie or TV hereafter looks like somewhere you’d actually be able to endure spending eternity in?

I’d say that Milliway’s, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, looks pretty good, except that Arthur Dent was wrong: he wasn’t dead and it wasn’t the après-vie

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Rob

    The movie had its problems, but I thought the painting-influenced heaven in What Dreams May Come was marvelous.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Uh, how would any human be able to answer that question? By definition, we are the living, not after life, and so we cannot say what comes next. Oh sure, the religious will tell you what to expect, but they can’t even get the story straight among themselves. For all anyone knows, there is no afterlife. Or if there is, we sure don’t know what it would be like.

  • LaSargenta

    I’m w/ FunWithHeadlines. How could a movie get it right? I’m even one of those people who had a “near death experience” and my experience is not the same as others who’ve also had the same thing happen. No two descriptions of it are the same. By its very nature, if we can be back here and talk about it in the land of the living, we are filtering and processing it through a mortal and possibly limited mind … and language…and metaphor.

    Too, those were “near death”, not actually death. So, we didn’t get to the “afterlife”.

  • question of the day: Have the movies (or TV) ever gotten the afterlife right?

    As FunWithHeadlines noted, how would you know?

    Personally, I always thought that the afterlife depicted in the 1980 film Resurrrection–the one with Ellen Burstyn–was the most convincing I’ve seen on-screen thus far.

    But this is definitely very much a case of YMMV.

    That said, I wouldn’t mind too much doing my postmortem hanging out with Emily in Corpse Bride, Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time or Geena Davis in Beetlejuice.

  • doa766

    I’ll tell you when I die

    but I think the best description is on the wonderful spanish movie “Mar Adentro” (The Sea Inside) by Ale Amenabar

    Javier Barden’s character wants to die and he’s asked what he thinks it´ll happen afterwards and he says: ” nothing, it’s the same as before you are born”

  • I’m with Rob. What Dreams May Come (especially the book version) has the afterlife I want to go to.

  • Rachel Hartman

    I’ve always been fond of the afterlife pictured in Made in Heaven. Instead of rural simplicity or endless clouds, we got cities, homes, parks–a wide variety of locations, where you could spend your afterlife reading all the books you wanted, or painting, or singing, or programming computers (yes, really!). In short, you could do anything you’d enjoyed on Earth, or never gotten around to doing on Earth. As a bonus, part of the storyline was that ideas developed in Heaven eventually make their way to Earth. If there is an afterlife, that’s how I’d like to spend it.

  • Mathias

    I thought one particular episode of America Dad showed how i used to think of heaven before i evolved into an athiest.

    There’s an extremely long corridor of identical doors and each door is perfectly modified to suit your own particular needs, wants and fantasies.

    Everything you’ve ever wanted to experience, everywhere you’ve ever wanted to go, everyone your’ve ever wanted to meet, and every question you’ve always wanted the answer to would be waiting for you.

    But then it all turns into a nightmare, as you suddenly find yourself bored of things you couldn’t ever imagine being bored of. After all, what’s worse than experiencing everything you’ve ever wanted to experience and still having infinity to look forward to?

    Sounds like hell to me.

  • Alli

    “This is my corn. You people are guests in my corn.”

    I think we’re being a bit too literal about MAJ’s question here. She’s just asking how you would like to see it portrayed. I like how Field of Dreams suggested it was a place where dreams come true. So that’s how I’d like to see it: everyone living out his or her dreams.

  • LaSargenta

    Ok, the afterlife is by definition eternal…well, unless there is reincarnation…but let’s set that aside. I think that if I were to choose an afterlife, it would be Beethoven’s Vienna without tuburculosis and without Napoleon’s visit but with excellent public sanitation.

  • jennie

    I like to think that “Defending Your Life” would be an appropriate use of cosmic space for an after life. At least until you could prove you deserved to go higher or it was deemed you needed more time on Earth to learn your lessons.

    “To be able to eat as much as you want, never gain an ounce and feel great. Please. ”

  • Hank Graham

    The Japanese movie, “After Life,” is quite splendid. It manages to deal directly with the subject and NOT get schmaltzy.

    The premise is that everyone in the film is given one week to consider what one memory they want to keep, and that’s where they’ll stay throughout eternity.

    If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

  • Lisa

    Rachel Hartman – I liked Made in Heaven too just simply because they were exactly the same people dead as they were alive.

    What dreams may come was pretty but booooooooring!

    but we all have different definitions of the afterlife anyway.

    A friend of mine once said that he thought hell would be like floating in the dark – I said that sounds really relaxing!

    I liked the suicide secretary in Beetlejuice too.

  • Jester

    Agreement with jennie. Defending Your Life is one of my favorite movies, and my favorite movie dealing with the afterlife.

    Wondering if that movie has any truth to it will probably be one of my last thoughts. ;-)

  • Knightgee

    One of the more interesting renditions of the afterlife I’ve seen recently was in Marvel’s The Incredible Hercules comic. Purgatory is actually a casino and the dead can gamble in order to win their lives back, (or conversely, win enough coins to get a boat ride across the River Styx into the underworld/Elysian fields. But like most casinos, it’s rigged to keep them gambling. This manages to also explain why superheroes seem to come back from the dead so often.

  • Brian

    Has anyone depicted Valhalla on film yet? I’m sure someone must have, but I can’t remember any examples. A giant mead-hall where you hang out with the baddest of the badasses until the final show-down . . . now that’s an afterlife.

  • Paul

    Technically, every media Christian representation of Heaven and Hell are Biblically inaccurate. No one is supposed to go to Heaven or Hell until Judgement Day, which is when Jesus sends you there. This mistake is so old it goes back to Dante, so it’s hard to say how it happened, except it doesn’t make people feel better and doesn’t make for great stories.

    And as someone who grew up in Iowa, well, I haven’t lived there in over nine years. It’s a nice place to have a family and raise kids in a politically and culturally moderate climate and immoderate actual climate, but it is a little boring.

  • Another vote for What Dreams May Come–Matheson made an afterlife I actually wanted to go to, and the movie pulled that off (more or less). Oh, that library!

    Judgement City in Defending Your Life wouldn’t be a bad place to go either. I love that movie for sentimental reasons.

    And I’d like to see how Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Brief History of the Dead” would do on screen in capable hands.

  • peter

    I thought one particular episode of America Dad showed how i used to think of heaven before i evolved into an athiest.

    There’s an extremely long corridor of identical doors and each door is perfectly modified to suit your own particular needs, wants and fantasies.

    Everything you’ve ever wanted to experience, everywhere you’ve ever wanted to go, everyone your’ve ever wanted to meet, and every question you’ve always wanted the answer to would be waiting for you.

    But then it all turns into a nightmare, as you suddenly find yourself bored of things you couldn’t ever imagine being bored of. After all, what’s worse than experiencing everything you’ve ever wanted to experience and still having infinity to look forward to?

    Sounds like hell to me.

    that sort of sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone I vaguely remember watching, where a crook ends up in what he thinks is heaven…i seem to remember part of it being a casino where he always wins. In the end he’s so sick of his every whim being catered too that he says he wants to go to hell instead, and the ‘angel’ he’s with says that this is hell.

  • Kenny

    “It’s the same as before you were born” Seconded.

    I really dislike the idea of an afterlife. Sure, I’m an atheist, but does anybody here really appreciate what eternity means?
    The moment I see an afterlife depiction in film, I wonder…

    “Could I deal with that from now, until all the stars have guttered away to nothing, and the Universe is dead and black, then an infinite amount of time beyond that?”

    The answer is invariably a shudder.

    So in answer to MAJ… NO! Arg! Give me oblivion! PLEASE!!!

  • Ken

    The Sopranos finale.

  • Victor Plenty

    What Dreams May Come is of particular interest to me because, if I recall correctly, it is made clear that the portrayal of life after death seen through the eyes of its main character is not presented as THE afterlife, but only as HIS afterlife – that each person would necessarily experience something different in their own afterlife.

    Of course I have no direct knowledge of any afterlife at all, but if there is one, my intuitive sense is that it would likely have a lot more individualized variability than our physical life.

    A question like this about “getting it right” in movies or TV, is often more about how things feel to us on an intuitive level than it is about hard facts. None of us have hard facts about the afterlife, but really, how many of us have hard facts about all the other things that movies seem to constantly get wrong? For instance, we don’t have to be factory workers ourselves to tell whether a movie’s factory workers are a collection of flat stereotypes or a set of realistic well rounded characters.

    Another portrayal of the afterlife that rings true for me is in the recent independent film Ink, although I still have not been able to put into words the exact reasons why it works. It just feels right on a number of levels, odd as that may sound.

  • Christina

    I’d love if it turned out to be like that sappy poem “The Rainbow Bridge” that I’m always appalled to admit makes me cry – all the pets I’ve ever had and lost, waiting for me, in the prime of health and happiness, and we’ll all live together forever. Most of the people I’ve known in my life I can live (or be dead forever) without, but the pets? Bring ’em on…

  • Bluejay

    Christina: I have to admit that I find the idea of an afterlife that reunites me with all my pets very, very appealing. Great, now you’re making me miss them. *sniff* Thanks a lot.

  • Ciel, c’est les animaux familiers.
    –Jean-Paul Sartre

    ;-)

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