Why is it that films about the afterlife, with some notable exceptions, rarely work? I’m really thinking about What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones and, to a lesser extent, It’s A Wonderful Afterlife.
Is there something so secular about us now that we can’t bear to see heaven or anything resembling it soiling our screen as we worship at the altar of the supermarket or finger-fiddle with our smartphones?
If you take the sweeping scenes in What Dreams May Come and The Lovely Bones, there’s a sense that, while evocative and vivid, they don’t connect well with the rest of the film. The characters who enter the unseen are people who’ve already been on a lengthy narrative journey and when they get to the great beyond, we don’t really buy the turn of events or believe the seismic change in mood, atmosphere and impression.
There are other films that cover similar themes with patchy success (or some may argue, now success at all) with The Tree of Life, Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth all offering up themes on spiritually and death.
In Malick’s The Tree of Life, there is a case to be made that we have a decent, compelling narrative going on already so why ruin it with philosophical musings on something we can’t see, experience or feel? Because we’re all drawn to mystery – the ultimate one being why we’re here.
And this is the reason why I feel depictions of heaven, hell and the afterlife don’t quite work in films – because they become fixed. The mystery disappears and our imaginations are restricted. We can roam no longer in our dreams. Heaven is up there on screen, so you have to believe. But maybe, we don’t want to believe because we have our own interpretation of the world, universe and the galaxy?
But the depiction of the afterlife that, I feel, does get close to authenticity is in Powell/Pressburger’s classic A Matter of Life of Death. This is because it is restricted, it’s the afterlife in monochrome with no colour, life or extravagance to speak of. The special effects, as it were, are all on earth. Too many modern films throw special effects at heaven and hell and come up short. The PP combo have shown how it should be done. Life is colour, death isn’t.