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10 High-Concept Movie Visions of the Afterlife

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: Shannyn Sossamon in “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” After Dark Films, 2007]

In Goran Dukic’s “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” opening this week, suicides find themselves in an afterlife much like the world they sought to escape, “only worse” — all the jobs are menial and the landscape looks a lot like industrial L.A. (The horror!) Fortunately, though limbo seems to be a place where nothing really happens, the inhabitants are quirky and cute, and even death can’t put a stop to the movie meet-cute.

Clever representations of the afterlife are a treasured topic of cinema, whether they be budget constructions like “Wristcutters” or extravagant versions like Peter Jackson’s upcoming $65 million adaptation of “The Lovely Bones.” Here are ten high-concept movie imaginings of life after death.

After Life (1998)

Director by Hirokazu Kore-eda

The afterlife is: a social worker-run indie movie studio.

In Kore-eda’s bittersweet, extraordinarily charming vision of what waits after death, souls are processed to regional offices where a group of caseworkers helps them choose the happiest moment of each of their lives, in which they’ll then live for eternity. The counselors guide the dead through this decision, coaxing a young girl away from her fixation on a visit to Disneyland, and giving an elderly man videotapes of his life to prod his memory. Once the moment has been picked, the counselors adorably recreate it, home movie-style — a pilot’s account of flying is done with cotton ball clouds and fans, and we never see what becomes of some of the surely more salacious choices — and that movie, screened, sends the soul off. The civil servant nature of office makes this set-up work — the afterlife is mundane, pragmatic, a little shabby and deeply human, particularly once we learn that each of the caseworkers is him or herself a soul passed on from life, one unable to choose a memory on which to settle.

Beetle Juice (1988)

Directed by Tim Burton

The afterlife is: a “Jackass”-style prank war.

Maybe I’m as crazy as a bio-exorcist, but I find Tim Burton’s concept of death strangely reassuring. Sure, if you’re Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis), your two-week vacation at home turned into a 125-year prison sentence after you drove the family station wagon off a bridge, and now you’re powerless to stop your house’s new tenants from transforming it into a postmodern nightmare. And, yes, it’s true that no one likes to deal with the sort of impenetrable bureaucracy that keeps Burton’s afterlife running smoothly (hilariously, all fresh corpses are issued a handbook for the recently deceased, but it’s so poorly written no one can understand it well enough to follow its advice). Plus, you’re forced to contend with Michael Keaton’s titular prankster, who vows to exorcise your unwanted guests but is mostly interested in banging their daughter. But, on the positive side, you get to spend all of eternity with your spouse, you can cut off your head or flay off your skin without any ill effects, and you get to chill with a super-gothy Winona Ryder, who I had a total crush on in this movie when I was eight years old. Like I said, I’m crazy.

The Crow (1994)

Directed by Alex Proyas

The afterlife is: a music video for a goth-metal band.

Eric Draven, guitarist for the band Hangman’s Joke, gets brutally murdered on Devil’s Night along with his fiancé Shelly and reincarnated by a magical crow one year later as an invincible rock god superhero to take revenge on the thugs who murdered him. (It’s based on an old goth saying.) It’s sort of like “Jaws: The Revenge” as directed by Gene Simmons — director Alex Proyas combines brutally violent gun battles and brutally weepy power ballads without even a hint of irony, and the namelessly ghoulish city that Draven returns to is so unrelentingly bleak it’s practically a hell unto itself: endless rainstorms, perpetually smoldering fires and crime rates that make New York in the 1970s look like Disneyland. Basically, Draven’s afterlife is the most macho death fantasy a goth kid could possibly imagine: he’s so damn sensitive he kills the bad guy with emotional suffering rather than his fists. Star Brandon Lee’s death on the set of “The Crow” only enhanced the film’s undead aura and added yet another eerie note to a movie that decries unjust murder while celebrating gun violence.

Defending Your Life (1991)

Directed by Albert Brooks

The afterlife is: New Age in sentiment, yet strangely litigious in practice.

In this film written, directed by and starring Albert Brooks, a yuppie named Daniel Miller who wrecks his new BMW and finds himself in Judgment City, where the dead gather, and, with the help of a defense attorney, argue in hearings with supplemental video footage that they lived their lives to the fullest. If they win, they move on; if they lose, they’re sent back to give life another try — it’s a sort of Buddhism lite, with “letting go of fear” replacing “letting go of attachments” (this close to the ’80s, everyone was still very attached to attachments). “Defending Your Life”‘s purgatory looks not unlike a corporate campus in which everyone has to wear long white gowns and take buses, but its nightlife offers something about which your average health-conscience exec could only dream — when you’re dead, there are no calories, and you can eat as much as you want.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

The afterlife is: a front row seat to America’s pastime.

As much as it explores America’s long twin love affairs with baseball and nostalgia, Phil Alden Robinson and W. P. Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” is primarily about rectification, fixing the things in death that the characters had never been able to get right in life. Even people who’ve never seen “Field of Dreams” can recite its famous ghostly refrain — “If you build it, he will come,” — but the moment that will always linger in fan’s memories is when he, meaning Ray’s (Kevin Costner) dad, appears on that beautiful cornfield in Iowa to finally have that catch they’d never shared when he was alive. “Field of Dreams” features ghosts, but it’s more concerned with their impact on the living, and the movie suggests that redemption lies not in grand gestures (like ripping up your crops to build a baseball diamond) but in taking the time to slow the world down to bask in life’s simple pleasures before we’re no longer around to enjoy them. It gets me sniffly just thinking about it.

Human Nature (2001)

Directed by Michel Gondry

The afterlife is: very white.

Lots of books and movies have featured ghosts narrating their own story — “Rashomon” springs to mind as a particularly famous and interesting example — but Michel Gondry’s lamentably underrated first feature “Human Nature” from 2001 puts a particularly distinct visual spin on the idea. Rhys Ifans is a kind of real world Tarzan, a human who grew up in the wild with an implacable libido; Patricia Arquette, through a freakish twist of fate, suffers from an inordinate amount of body hair; Tim Robbins is the scientist who falls for Arquette and eventually discovers Ifans and attempts to teach him to adapt to civilized life. Like “Rashomon,” “Human Nature” lets all its main characters tell their story, even the dead one. And so Robbins shares his portion in an all-white room, dressed in an all-white suit, with a bullet hole in his head and a trickle of blood seeping into his eyes. It’s a striking image, one that could only come from that dementedly fertile Gondry brain, where hell is a room that will never be fully dusted.

Liliom (1934)

Directed by Fritz Lang

The afterlife is: a police station.

“Liliom” is based on a play by Ferenc Molnár that’s been adapted to the screen many times, the first, unfinished, in 1919, the most famous a cheered-up, musical incarnation from Rodgers and Hammerstein — “Carousel.” But it’s Fritz Lang’s take, shot in France between when he fled Germany and when he headed to Hollywood, that’s the most memorable imagining of the dark tale, in which the womanizing, wife-beating carnival barker of the title (played by Charles Boyer) kills himself to avoid getting caught by the police when a hold-up he takes part in goes wrong. The bleak joke is that the afterlife is exactly like the legal system he hoped to escape, except more bureaucratic, less sympathetic and way expressionist. Everyone working in the heavenly way station sports a pair of insultingly meager white wings, and the heavenly court has film footage of all of Liliom’s wrongdoings (a familiar theme on this list), with his thoughts as an optional commentary track. “Even in heaven, there’s only justice, nothing but justice!” Liliom yells. Well, mostly — the film still gives him a pass for that whole wife-beating thing.

Outward Bound (1930)

Directed by Robert Milton

The afterlife is: A slow boat to circumstance.

A group of passengers, among them Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., wake up on an fog-encased ocean liner bound for nowhere in Robert Milton’s adaptation of a Broadway play of the same name (remade in 1944 with a WWII twist as “Between Two Worlds”). They’re dead, but not all of them know it — this being originally intended for the stage, they’ve got to talk it out quite a bit before they arrive in the presence of the Examiner (Dudley Digges), who’ll tell them if they’re ending up in heaven or hell. Suicides get the worst of it in “Outward Bound” — Fairbanks and Helen Chandler play a couple who assumed death would be the only way they could be together, but, being not quite dead, are given another chance. The ship’s steward, on the other hand, turns out to be a successful self-offer doomed to sail around forever — here’s betting he only gets paid in tips.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Directed by Vincent Ward

The afterlife is: an interactive art gallery

Vincent Ward’s vision of the great beyond (based, with some significant alterations, on the novel by Richard Matheson) is best known for its intense imagery, from the pastoral beauty of Robin Williams’ heaven to the abject horror of of Annabella Sciorra’s hell. But the ultimate message is less about how things look after death and more about how we see them. Sciorra’s character Annie is sent to hell not because she chose to commit suicide after the death of her children and her husband Chris (Williams) but because those who commit suicide are so utterly despondent that they cannot accept the reality of their own death. It’s only by coming to grips with her own mortality that Annie can escape her fate and rejoin her husband. Of course, after all that effort, they decide to get reincarnated anyway, and do the whole living thing over again from stem to stern. Obviously they were a very sequel-minded couple.

Wings of Fame (1990)

Directed by Otakar Votocek

The afterlife is: the Chateau Marmont.

In Otakar Votocek’s film, a famous actor (Peter O’Toole) and the fan/frustrated writer who murdered him (Colin Firth) both end up an afterlife that looks a lot like a very swank hotel. Why? It turns out that there’s a special place in heaven reserved for the famous and infamous, as long as they remain that way amongst the living, and regardless of whether they’re renowned for a great painting or an egregious war crime. Of course, such a place might just be a very subversive version of hell, particularly when your standing and the service you receive depends on your current level of fame, something over which the resort’s inhabitants no longer have any control.

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