Movies About the Afterlife

August 17, 2004 | 41 comments
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There have been some particularly heavy discussions here lately, so I thought I’d offer up something ultralight. Now I like books as much as the next person, but I’m not one of you bring-a-book-on-a-date-so-I-have-something-to-read-while-she’s-powdering-her-nose guys. I will, however, admit to viewing some 37 movies in the last six months (according to my Netflix records). Anyway, I was ruminating this morning about the best movies about the afterlife.

I am including in the category only those movies which depict the existence of an important character after his or her death. (I exclude “The Others” and “The Sixth Sense” because the protagonists in those don’t know they are dead.) It’s actually a fairly small category of movies, so the pickin’s are pretty slim. Here are my top five:

5. What Dreams May Come (cheesy, sappy Robin Williams vehicle, but some interesting ideas and visuals)

4. Heaven Can Wait (I know it’s a remake of some inevitably better movie I haven’t seen, but it’s a classic in its own right)

3. Beetlejuice (yuppies in purgatory)

2. Defending Your Life (as a kid, this is exactly how I imagined Judgement Day)

1. Field of Dreams (heaven as a ballpark; a game of catch as a redemptive act — perfect)

Any quibbles? What are the great movies about the afterlife that I haven’t seen? Do I need to rethink the deep meaning in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”?

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41 Responses to Movies About the Afterlife

  1. Kaimi on August 17, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    I can’t believe you left Happy Gilmore off the list . . .

  2. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    I actually kind of liked Ghost, though I hate to admit I liked any flick with Swayze or Whoopi G. in it.

  3. Davis Bell on August 17, 2004 at 5:05 pm

    “All Dogs Go To Heaven” has a lot to offer.

  4. Derek on August 17, 2004 at 5:15 pm

    “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Okay, so it doesn’t actually take place in the afterlife, but close enough.

  5. Steve Evans on August 17, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Greg:

    1. Thanks for TOTALLY giving away 6th Sense and The Others!!!

    2. ‘What Dreams May Come’ was really schlocky. Visually nice, but schlocky.

    Another pick you might put on there is After Life. Japanese film – very intriguing. People must choose one memory from their lives to take with them into the life to come.

    — do Jesus movies count as afterlife movies?

  6. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 5:23 pm

    Any good movie version of Hamlet. I’m still waiting for Branagh’s version to come out in DVD form.

    Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
    And now I’ll do’t;–and so he goes to heaven;
    And so am I reveng’d.–that would be scann’d:
    A villain kills my father; and for that,
    I, his sole son, do this same villain send
    To heaven.
    O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
    He took my father grossly, full of bread;
    With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
    And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
    But in our circumstance and course of thought,
    ‘Tis heavy with him: and am I, then, reveng’d,
    To take him in the purging of his soul,
    When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
    No.
    Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
    When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
    Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
    At gaming, swearing; or about some act
    That has no relish of salvation in’t;–
    Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven;
    And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
    As hell, whereto it goes.

  7. Dan Richards on August 17, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    What about movies about the undead? There are quite a few, but I assume those aren’t what you have in mind…

  8. Bob Caswell on August 17, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    What about the central theme in Gladiator that Maximus will some day return to live with his family? I liked that.

  9. Dan Richards on August 17, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    What about movies about the undead? There are quite a few, but I assume those aren’t what you have in mind…

    From dictionary.com–“undead: No longer living but supernaturally animated, as a zombie.”

  10. clark on August 17, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Don’t forget Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. My favorite section on death from it.

  11. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    Pirates of the Caribbean.

  12. Jordan Fowles on August 17, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    What about The Ring? If I remember correctly, that girl was actually dead, right?

    Maybe some element of the Spirit Prison stays on earth to haunt people by jumping out of their television sets. (Hope that didn’t sell the farm re: the ring!)

  13. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    Speaking of ghosts and television sets:

    Poltergeist.

  14. Jordan Fowles on August 17, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    Add a few “life after death” chickens and you’ll have a poultrygeist.

  15. Greg on August 17, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    Steve:

    I do apologize for the two spoilers, but how surprising could they be when they are the same? I was already hesitant on What Dreams May Come, but you are right — it must be dropped from the list. I just can’t bring myself to put a movie with Whoopi Goldberg on the list in its place. (Whoopi vs. Robin — that choice is its own kind of hell.)

    Scary movies with hauntings (Poltergeist) or zombies (Evil Dead) aren’t really in the category I’m going after here. And Jesus movies seem to be in a different category as well — its got to be the afterlife of regular folk (though I include Shoeless Joe in that). I guess Hamlet is a bit tougher, because Hamlet’s dead father shows up several times and is central to the plot, but I would exclude it because it doesn’t really try to show what the dead king’s afterlife is like.

    Kaimi: you’ll have to remind me about Happy Gilmore. There must be some apparition I’m forgetting.

    I haven’t seen The Ring, After Life, All Dogs, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so I can’t say about those. But I am shocked that there no fans of Ghost Dad!!

  16. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    Greg,

    I appreciate you putting out some more directives about what you’re talking about. I was kind of realizing in my brainstorming that I was probably helping to stretch the limits a bit much.

    Lighthearted or not, this is an interesting topic. :)

  17. Jordan Fowles on August 17, 2004 at 6:20 pm

    What about that movie with Michael Keaton coming back to life after he died as his son’s snowman?

  18. Greg on August 17, 2004 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks, Jordan. I think I remember that from the Oscars a few years back. But I’m confused by your quick plot summary: if he only died *as his son’s snowman*, was he therefore still alive in some other sense? Very intriguing.

  19. Nathan on August 17, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    How about Spielberg’s “Always”? The conclusion is always good to get Mormons talking, since it seems to be saying that one must give up one’s “soulmate” in order to be happy in the next world — something that very feww of us would be willing to concede.

  20. Jordan Fowles on August 17, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    Sorry- i parsed that sentence ambiguously. It should read:

    …Michael Keaton coming back to life as his son’s snowman after he died.

    And I was being facetious. I should probably try to contribute something real to this conversation.

    One movie that I always liked which sent a message to me about having faith in things unseen (or seen by others but not be me), such as the afterlife, is Contact.

    And I really like the movie Windwalker, which has a very touching and poignant scene at the end about the afterlife- it was great food for thought and very inspiring.

  21. Greg on August 17, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    Jordan, I forgot to put in an winking emoticon, but I thought your ambiguity made it sound much more interesting…
    Also, we’ve had a bit of discussion about Contact. Check it out here.

  22. Kaimi on August 17, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Greg,

    How could you forget the scene from Happy Gilmore, where the old golf pro is playing the piano? It has to be one of the more touching and tear-jerking scenes in all of modern cinema.

    Okay, maybe not.

  23. Jordan Fowles on August 17, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    OK, OK, I should have known better than to bring up Contact in this context, much to what I imagine would be Nate’s chagrin. ;)

    But I do like what Ben said about it back then:

    I thought Contact (film version) made the point well that not all knowledge is conveyable. Madame hard-science, who always demands evidence, has an experience, she knows she’s had it, yet can’t convince anyone of it. She learns that lack of proof can’t invalidate her experience. That in itself was refreshing to me, as it seems that much of our religious convictions come from personal experiences that are non-transferable.

  24. danithew on August 17, 2004 at 7:11 pm

    Kaimi,

    Don’t forget the alligator, Abraham Lincoln and the old golf pro all together (all of who have passed away) above the mom’s house in the final scenes. It was so touching! (wipes away a tear)

  25. Keith on August 17, 2004 at 8:34 pm

    The French/English-subtitled film “A Pure Formality” with Depardieu and Polanski is interesting with respect to after-life.

  26. Bryce I on August 17, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    Another vote for “Afterlife” (which is actually titled “Wonderful Life” in Japanese, but was changed for obvious reasons in its US release). It’s actually more a film about filmmaking more than anything else. Each character in the film has recently died, and is asked to select one memory to take with them. The memory is then preserved by making a cinematic representation of it.

    Some of the best parts of the movie are the interviews with elderly Japanese people who are asked the question which memory they would like to take with them. The interviewees are not actors — their responses are not a part of the plot development, but rather provide insight into the question.

  27. gst on August 17, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    Howzabout Wings of Desire? I guess those angels aren’t post-mortal, so perhaps it’s not an afterlife movie. But worth consideration.

  28. Greg on August 17, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    Wings of Desire is one of the all time greats, but as you suggest, Damien and Cassiel are immortal angels that that become mortal for the first time in the film (and its unfairly maligned sequel, Faraway So Close).

  29. Jack on August 17, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    2001: A Space Odyssey

    Wuthering Heights (Lawrence Olivier)

    Derek: Clarence, the angel, lived upon the earth at one time and therefore is experiencing an afterlife. For me, that’s a good enough justification to include one of the all-time greats on this list. :)

  30. Silus Grok on August 18, 2004 at 12:12 am

    Danithew: I, for one, _hated_ Branagh’s Hamlet.

    Jack Lemmon was wooden… and the ghost of Hamlet’s father looked like a reject from Buck Rogers.

    I will say, though, that the battle seen was lovely.

    Everything else that Branagh has touched, though, is absolute gold.

  31. D. Fletcher on August 18, 2004 at 12:31 am

    The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with a splendid score by Bernard Herrmann.

  32. Greg on August 18, 2004 at 1:15 am

    Jack, we must have a different ideas of what happened to David Bowman in 2001. Are you suggesting the scene is the bedroom is a depiction of his afterlife? Or are you referring to the Star Child as his reincarnation?

  33. Jack on August 18, 2004 at 1:47 am

    Greg: There are as many interpretations of 2001 as there are frames in the film – much to Clark’s consternation. (though I wouldn’t be suprised if Cubrick found some delight in that fact) Some have suggested, as visually portrayed at a certain point in Bowman’s journey through the monolith, that he could be likened unto a sperm which fertilized the cosmic egg. Hence, the starchild, or the beginning of life on a grander scale.

  34. Jack on August 18, 2004 at 8:49 am

    As I was drifting off to sleep last night it came to my mind that I spelled Kubrick with a “C”. Oops. I further noticed this morning that I left the “e” off of the end of Clarke. So much for throwing around big names to look cool.

  35. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 18, 2004 at 9:07 am

    Always was interesting, and if you identify with the first guy it does create some interesting LDS issues (especially given what we are told about being faithful and letting God work things out and the thousand years it takes after the Second Coming for the temple work to be done to clean everything up).

    What the heck, I enjoyed the Robin Williams _What Dreams May Come_, with all of its sappiness and everything else.

  36. cje on August 18, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    a movie buff lurker here

    American Beauty is told entirly from the perspective of a dead person.

    As is Sunset Boulevard

    cje

  37. Kaimi on August 18, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Greg,

    I can’t believe you left off one of the only movies ever to earn, what was it, 11 Oscars? That classic of classics (with its macho hero), Titanic.

    Don’t you remember Thayne mocking the afterlife scene? He had a good point, too. She’s back in the boat, and Leo comes to meet her, and music swells, and tears flow . . .

    . . . and then her husband of sixty years comes walking up and says, “who the hell is this twerp?”

  38. Last_lemming on August 18, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    How about TV episodes? There was an episode of St. Elsewhere in which Fiscus (played by Howie Mandel) had a near-death experience and visited hell (a rowboat in the middle of Lake Powell), purgatory, and heaven (where he got to meet God, played by…Howie Mandel). Better than any movie I’ve seen dealing with the afterlife. (Especially What Dreams May Come. Bad, bad movie.)

  39. Charles on August 19, 2004 at 1:03 pm

    I really enjoyed What Dreams May Come. I think I would place it at the top of my list just under Defending Your Life.
    I also enojoyed a movie called “Made in Heaven” Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis. I remember seeing it often on HBO as a kid and maybe that has tanted my memory of it but I found it very entertaining and interesting.

  40. Ann on March 17, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    I’m trying to find a movie I saw maybe 15 years ago. The story revolved around a group of people who died, traveled to some afterlife place in a bus and then each went to a viewing area to review their past lives – flashed on a large screen in front of them – then they went on to their next life. I can’t remember much more, no famous named actors. If anyone knows the name of this movie, please email me at ann@traversegroup.com. Thanks !

  41. lacenaire on April 2, 2006 at 9:02 am

    I’m trying to find a movie I saw maybe 15 years ago. The story revolved around a group of people who died, traveled to some afterlife place in a bus and then each went to a viewing area to review their past lives – flashed on a large screen in front of them – then they went on to their next life. I can’t remember much more, no famous named actors.

    It’s “defending your life” with meryl streep.