It’s a theme that has occupied man from the dawn of civilization: what comes next? And if there is a “next” what’s it like. In fiction, the afterlife has appeared in stories for almost as long as there have been stories, such as Orpheus descending into the netherworld to rescue his love Eurydice. Dante tried to envision the Medieval Catholic view of judgment and the three-tiered afterlife in his Divine Comedy. Charles Dickens touched on it in his popular “A Christmas Carol” with its story of a second chance to change fate. There have been plenty of movies with afterlife themes since the creation of the cinema. Many of them have been bad or mediocre, but a few have handled the subject with insight or humor or heart-tugging drama. The following, in no particular order, are my choices for the best of the genre.
Warning: It’s unavoidable to have spoilers here since with some of these films the afterlife aspect is tied in with the climax of the film.
Heaven Is For Real (2014)
Sadly, the words “Christian” and “Movie” rarely are combined with “Good.” Too many are painfully simplistic with stick characters while some try to scare people into belief, such as the “Left Behind” series. Heaven Is For Real avoids those pitfalls and does a decent job communicating honest faith. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly play the parents of a young boy who goes through a serious illness. When he recovers, he begins to describe visiting Jesus in Heaven during the illness. The movie doesn’t gloss over the struggles the family has, especially for Kinnear’s character who’s a minister having a crisis of faith. It likely helped that the movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask).
Field Of Dreams (1989)
“Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Iowa? I could have sworn this was Heaven.” Existential philosophy meets baseball, and magic is made. Through the filter of baseball the movie deals with the connections between our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) spends the movie thinking he’s helping others, only to discover at the end he’s helped himself reconcile with his father. One interesting side note: Doc Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) was a real person. There were some minor changes made – his lone game was in 1905, rather than the end of the 1922 season as stated in the film – but the stories about Doc Graham in the movie are based on interviews with people who actually knew him.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
What if you meet your soul mate after he’s dead? That’s the conundrum at the heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1900, the young widow Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) rents an oceanfront cottage only to discover it’s haunted by the previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). At first they’re antagonistic, but then it becomes growing respect and interdependent. Then a mistake drives them apart. But years later, when she’s old and frail, the Captain returns. When Mrs. Muir passes from this life, she’s freed from her broken-down body and we see her spirit, young and beautiful again. The afterlife is where they can experience together the joy that was denied them on Earth. That’s a decent description of Heaven.
Between Two Worlds (1944)
The play “Outward Bound” premiered on Broadway in 1925 and ran for 144 performances. It was filmed in 1930 with much of the original cast, including Leslie Howard in the lead role. The remake in 1944 was retitled Between Two Worlds and it incorporated WWII into the story. The main role went to John Garfield, though the supporting cast featured many outstanding Warner Brothers contract players, including Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwen. The story deals with several Londoners who are killed in an air raid and then awaken on an ocean liner on their way to either Heaven or Hell. Their stories are told in flashback. It is a product of its age, with the emphasis on judgment and fear of damnation. One interesting sidenote: the original version’s star Leslie Howard had volunteered for the British Army after the war started. It’s believed he was on an assignment for British Intelligence when a plane he was on, bound for Lisbon, was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Howard along with everyone else on board was killed, the year before Between Two Worlds came out.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Like Between Two Worlds there’s an element of judgment and damnation in What Dreams May Come, but it also incorporates an element of grace and reconciliation. With the death of Robin Williams, this movie has become quite poignant. It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who’d had a hand in 16 episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” as well as numerous novels and short stories that were adapted as movies (including Duel, I Am Legend, and Stir of Echoes). Williams plays a doctor whose two children die in an accident. Later the doctor also dies and awakens in a Heaven that’s created from his favorite painting done by his artist wife. He meets two helpers as he adapts to Heaven, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Leona (Rosalind Chao). Later he discovers that they are the spirits of his two children. They chose how he’d see them based on offhand comments he’d made to them. But in an echo of Orpheus, Williams must leave Heaven and negotiate his way through Hell to save his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who has committed suicide in despair after losing her entire family and been condemned to Hell. The movie won an Oscar for its special effects including the painted Heaven (with wet paint), other visions of paradise that look like Maxfield Parish paintings, and a Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.
Ghost could be viewed as Dante lite. When you die, you go towards the light, get dragged to the depths, or get stuck in between for a while. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gave the audience a powerful love story – one that turned pottery making into an erotic exercise. But when Sam (Patrick Swayze) is shot in a robbery, he forgoes going to the light to stay close to his love Molly (Demi Moore). The life-and-death drama and some truly scary scenes are balanced by Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning comedic turn as a medium who discovers she’s not as fake as she thought. Ghost became the worldwide box office champ of 1990, and such success guaranteed it would be parodied. However, it retains its power, and the ending gives an affirming and deeper view of Heaven than most movies. As Sam finally walks toward the light, his last words to his love Molly are, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.” That’s a desire for many people.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a good movie in its own right and could have qualified for this list, except that this remake which is superior. You have a script co-written by Elaine May (with Warren Beatty) along with an uncredited polish by the legendary Robert Towne. It became the 5th highest grossing movie of 1978. Along with co-writing the film, Beatty also produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry) and starred in this comedic fantasy about a saxophone-playing pro-football quarterback for the LA Rams who’s spirit gets pulled out of his body just before a serious accident by an overzealous angel (Henry). After an extended and hilarious search the head angel, Mr. Jordan, finds a millionaire who’s just died who’s body becomes a temporary vessel for Beatty’s soul until Jordan can find a suitable athletic body as a permanent placement. The cast is incredible, with Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. Like Ghost, the movie turns on Beatty’s connection with his love Christie that transcends his move to other bodies. Is love a glimpse of the eternity of Heaven?
Steven Spielberg remade one of his favorite movies, the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, but switched the story from World War II to a contemporary setting with aviators battling forest fires. Richard Dreyfus’ hotshot pilot dies while making a water drop. He meets a Heavenly messenger who gives him an assignment – help the pilot who has replaced him to succeed. It turns out he also has to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on as well. The movie was noteworthy as the final film appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the Heavenly Hap. Always is the opposite of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait because rather than undying love, the lesson here is you must let go of what was in order to be ready for the eternal. As Dreyfus’ character says near the end, “I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” In Always, holding onto what was corrupts and ruins our good memories.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
“I see dead people…They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” M. Night Shyamalan created a sensation with his first movie – unfortunately it was downhill from there. But The Sixth Sense remains a fascinating story of spirits caught in limbo and the young boy who can see them. It’s one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, and one of the best twist endings ever put on film, though when you know the see the movie again you see the clues salted through the script. It actually expands on the lesson of Always. To break free and move on, the dead must stop seeing only what they want to see. Their holding on creates a delusion in which they remain – they are truly haunted. The Sixth Sense would have been the top grossing movie of 1999 except for a certain movie called Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This is the second Bruce Joel Ruben screenplay on this list, and it’s quite different – and much more powerful – than Ghost. Strangely enough, both films were release in the same year. However it took 10 years for Ladder to get made, even though it was acclaimed as the best screenplay in Hollywood that hadn’t been filmed. That changed when Adrian Lyne chose to direct it after doing the hits Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. In Ladder Jacob Singer is a soldier wounded in Vietnam. Fast-forward to 1975 and he’s now a postal carrier in New York who’s separated from his first wife and family. Haunted by the death of his youngest son, Jacob finds his grasp of reality threatened by increasingly bizarre experiences and horrifying visions that revolve around his experience in the war. The movie wasn’t very successful when it was released, different from Ghost, but it became a cult hit and was a major influence on other movies. The cast was headed by Tim Robbins as Jacob, and also starred Danny Aiello and Elizabeth Pena, but it had several supporting actors in the cast whose careers took off after the movie, including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember and S. Epatha Merkerson. If you’ve seen this movie, it stays with you forever. After increasingly horrific experiences, in the end Jacob becomes reconciled to what happened to him in Vietnam. When that happens his youngest son appears and leads his father by the hand up a staircase toward a brilliant light. We then discover that Jacob’s wounds in Vietnam were mortal and the years of life he seemed to experience was all in his mind as he fought to live – the years took place in days. Life will end for us all, but rather than viewing it as an enemy, it may come as a loved one to release us from pain and let us enter the afterlife with joy.
Honorable Mentions: Defending Your Life, The Others, Heaven Can Wait (1943)