“In heaven, your father is a boy and your dog can talk.”
– Johnny Scanlan (Bob Hoskins); Passed Away, 1992.
One of the great services that cinema has done for mankind is to provide a vision of the unseen. Whether that be intricately-detailed recreations of our distant past, explorations of societies and natural wonders as they exist today or exciting glimpses into an imagined future, movies have given life to landscapes and journeys of which most of us can only dream.
Filmmakers have had plenty to work with when constructing these images – historical records and documents, modern camera technologies, scientific indicators. There is only one true frontier that is entirely open to artistic interpretation; one final, vast landscape that every living soul contemplates but which only a select few have seen and lived to tell of the experience – the afterlife.
It seems vaguely ironic that Hollywood immortal Clint Eastwood should finally explore 'The Beyond' in his latest film, Hereafter. Eastwood focuses on the relationship between the living and the dead from the point of view of Matt Damon's reluctant earthbound psychic (an oft-used character device, most notably in Jerry Zucker's Ghost, 1990).
Communication with the deceased via mediums is one of the major examples of modern evidence for what happens when you die, according to Victor Zammit. The Sydney-based author of A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife, a bestselling account of the empirical evidence-gathering techniques used to determine the validity of afterlife experiences. Zammit tells SBS Film, “These kinds of direct experiences of a psychic nature have led people of every culture that ever existed to understand that life continues after physical death.”
Psychic movies have proved enormously popular with audiences. Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990) won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar for her performance as Oda Mae Brown, the trans-medium who reconnects the recently-deceased Patrick Swayze with his earthly love Demi Moore; the film was a blockbuster success and remains an audience favourite to this day. Another cultural phenomenon, M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999), explored the co-existence of the deceased and the living on this earthly plane and gave us one of moviedom's most famous lines, “I see dead people”; Cate Blanchett's ethereal backwood's seer helped solve the murder of Katie Holmes in Sam Raimi's The Gift (2000); Robert Downey Jr's is tormented by his wacky not-dead-enough new friends in Ron Underwood's Heart & Souls, (1993); the late Zelda Rubinstein created an iconic psychic who opened a window into the afterlife to save a little girl's life in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982).
Another key factor in Zammit's study of the spiritual world is the recollections of those that have seen beyond and returned, otherwise known as near-death experiences (NDE). “Those who have glimpsed beyond mortal life, either through a near death experience or an experience of oneness or a significant after death contact, are totally changed,” says Zammit. “They lose all fear of death and start living in a very different way.” An Australian study, conducted by world-renown researcher Cherry Sutherland of 50 NDE survivors, found a correlation in the life-changing attitudes of the participants.
Filmmakers have credibly drawn upon the spiritual and psychological legacies of the near-death experience: a lack of interest in material success, coupled with a newfound curiosity for spiritual development (Peter Weir's Fearless, 1993; Joel Schumacher's Flatliners, 1990); a heightened interest in alternative healing (Bruce Joel Rubin's My Life, 1993); newfound psychic abilities (Lewis Teague's Saved by the Light, 1995); an overwhelming sense of empathy and kindness towards the plight of others (Daniel Petrie's Resurrection, 1980). Says Zammit, “Those people who have experienced a life review as part of a near death experience know that they will one day experience the effect of every thought and action on others – which means they would have to be careful what to do, what to say and how to relate to other people. I learnt that positive selfless service will raise the vibrations of our 'etheric' body – which is the spiritual duplicate of our physical body; our place in the afterlife will be directly related to the level of vibrations on crossing over.”
But what exactly happens when one is 'crossing over'? (Warning: plot spoilers ahead.) “Most people report seeing a being of light – some interpret that as Jesus, others as Krishna, others as Father Abraham,” says Zammit, who references British scientist Dr Robert Crookwell's landmark tome The Supreme Adventure (1961), which “painstakingly and objectively examines the evidence, [is] internally coherent and provides hypotheses consistent with a great mass of factual evidence.”
Director Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) is a searing tale of one soul's redemptive passage to the afterlife, its hypnotic two-hour narrative spun from the final moments of a soldier's death in Vietnam; Hirokazu Koreeda's Wandâfuru raifu (After Life, 1998) combines 'Second Age' Buddhism beliefs, memory and immortality in a charming story of the choices a spirit must make before moving on; Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void (2009) follows the journey of a character's soul on the night of its transient journey (the film adheres to principals found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead); Warren Beatty refuses to board the plane to Heaven then successfully argues for his return to Earth in the Oscar-winning hit Heaven Can Wait (1978); David Niven pleads for his life before a celestial council in Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death (1946); wife-beater Charles Boyer discovers his passage to eternity is an unfriendly local court/police station in Fritz Lang's adaptation of Ferenc Molnár's play, Liliom (1934); and in Robert Milton's Outward Bound (1930), purgatory is an ocean liner full of the recently-deceased, all awaiting the fate to be handed to them by 'The Examiner' (Dudley Diggs).
Eastern religious tenets that focus on the soul's ongoing journey until an all-knowing enlightenment has been attained have featured in many films from all corners of the globe. Agustín Díaz Yanes' Sin noticias de Dios (Don't Tempt Me, 2001), starring Victoria Abril and Penelope Cruz, features an overcrowded afterlife where souls are sent back to Earth to redeem or condemn new spirits; Albert Brooks tries to convince a court his soul deserves another chance in the hilarious Defending Your Life (1991); Ka-Fai Wai's Joi sun ho (Written By, 2009) reincarnates its leading man as a character in his own daughter's novel; Nicole Kidman begins to believe that Cameron Bright is the returned spirit of her late husband in Jonathan Glazer's Birth (2004); Tony Au's Meng zhong ren (Dream Lovers, 1986) captures the romance of a love story that spans 1000 years; and William Butler Yeats' Theory of Reincarnation, a quantum physics-based theorem which speaks of multi-layered grids that exist as simultaneous universes, is thought to be the very inspiration for the Wachowski Brothers' Matrix trilogy.
Now, we arrive at our final destination. For some, it will be the burning pits of Hades, as envisioned by filmmakers as varied as Woody Allen (who rode an elevator to meet the Devil himself, Billy Crystal, in Deconstructing Harry, 1997), Tim Burton (where Hell is an under-staffed waiting room full of the recently deceased, in Beetlejuice, 1988) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who had the Devil and Saddam Hussein jitterbugging together in 2000's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut). As far back as the 1930s, European filmmakers were depicting Hell, most notoriously in Benjamin Christensen's witch-hunt epic Häxan (1932).
The other option, of course, is the vastly preferable Heaven. Whether it be the pixilated panoramas of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones (2009) or the Vegas-style nightclub indulgences of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983, where “There's great films on TV/The Sound of Music twice an hour/and Jaws 1, 2 and 3”), Heaven is the ultimate blank canvas for the imaginative filmmaker. There is no discernible commonality regarding imagery and iconography to gel across continents; Zammit says, “The Christian religion hardly says anything about the afterlife – except using general terms such as 'heaven', 'hell', and, for Catholics, 'purgatory'. But there is nothing about exactly what happens when one crosses over. Both Islam and traditional Christianity say that a person stays unconscious in the grave until the last judgment – something that has been totally contradicted by the modern evidence.”
Otakar Votocek turned the decadence of the Chateau Marmont apartments into a heavenly metaphor in Wings of Fame (1990); Douglas Trumbull envisioned Heaven as a floating angelic existence of random recollections in Brainstorm (1983); Lloyd Kramer's adaptation of Mitch Albom's bestseller Five People You Meet in Heaven (2004) created Heaven in the eye of the beholder (Jon Voigt); Mimi Rogers is denied passage into a distant Heaven when she refuses to forgive God for his shortcomings in Michael Tolkin's gripping The Rapture (1991); Indonesian experimental filmmaker Faozan Rizal creates a heaven on Earth, overseen and commented on by the faraway voice of a deity, in the muted love story Aries (2004).
Undoubtedly, the film that most spectacularly represents the beauty of Heaven and the despair of Hell is Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come (1998, pictured). An adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Robin Williams film was derided by critics upon release but it snared a Visual Effects Oscar for the stunning visions of the Afterlife; nowadays it is more highly regarded. Calling the film a “spiritual adventure,” interfaith website Spirituality and Practice, noted that the film starts as “an exploration of the imagination, [yet] ends with an eloquent statement about compassion.” Some Christians reacted to the film's blend of Eastern reincarnation themes and Western religious motifs – Christian Spotlight on Entertainment website, observing that the film “sadly propagates the New Age concept that we create our Heaven and our Hell,” condemned Ward's vision as “an erroneous and terribly deceitful concept.” Ultimately, though, it achieves a vast yet intimate sense of otherworldly wonder; Roger Ebert wrote of the film as if describing Heaven itself: `What Dreams May Come' is so breathtaking, so beautiful, so bold in its imagination!...It is a film to treasure.”
For Victor Zammit, the film that comes closest to conveying what he understands the world beyond to be like is Ghost. “The principles involved are most relevant and accurate,” he says. “For example, on crossing over, our etheric body survives with all its emotions, memory and character; the etheric body will still have feelings. Also, that we are met by loved ones; that white light comes to those with the right vibrations.”
It's a hopeful, joyous interpretation of the mysterious void that exists beyond the human condition. It is a short wait to see if Mr. Eastwood shares an equally ebullient view of the mysteries of eternal existence.