‘A Life That’s All About Death’: A Review of Hereafter

by Gary Westfahl

Young filmgoers, accustomed to seeing big-budget science fiction, fantasy, or horror movies opening almost every week, may struggle to believe that there was a time, not so long ago, when major studios and stars almost entirely shunned fantastic films in favor of realistic stories set in the past or present. Indeed, only two sorts of contrafactual dramas were considered acceptable mainstream fare: what are now termed technothrillers, involving modestly innovative inventions deployed in otherwise conventional adventures, and what are now termed posthumous fantasies, involving dead people who carry on their existence as ghosts or in some anodyne afterlife. And these very different genres uncoincidentally have one thing in common: they are completely unthreatening to the status quo. Technothrillers suggest that new scientific discoveries will either fit neatly into established patterns of behavior or, if they could have a revolutionary impact, will be easy to permanently eliminate; while posthumous fantasies implicitly argue that there is no real need to worry about improving social conditions or extending the human lifespan, since we all have always been destined to end up in a pleasant place. In contrast to such comforting visions, it takes a bit of work to make genuine science fiction and fantasy stories seem similarly unthreatening, which is why they once made Hollywood uneasy; and even today, decades after producers have mastered the art of profitably domesticating the fantastic, there remains some lingering resistance to these genres.

Consider Clint Eastwood. Coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, he must have absorbed the attitudes of his day, so he could not have been happy when circumstances compelled the neophyte actor to take uncredited roles in the films Revenge of the Creature (1955) and Tarantula (1955). Thus, after television and film westerns made him a major star and director, he has scrupulously avoided all varieties of science fiction and fantasy except for those deemed respectable in his youth, namely technothrillers – Firefox (1982) and Space Cowboys (2000) – and posthumous fantasies – the “Vanessa in the Garden” episode of Amazing Stories (1985) and, now, Hereafter. (Incidentally, since these occasional excursions are the only aspect of Eastwood’s career that I find interesting, my efforts to analyze Hereafter will necessarily be unable to contextualize the film as part of his vast and often admirable oeuvre; so, if you are eager for explorations of how this film extends and amplifies concerns earlier visible in, say, Mystic River [2003] or Million Dollar Baby [2004], you will have to look elsewhere, since I have not seen those films.)

For his first major venture into the posthumous fantasy, Eastwood has chosen a script by Peter Morgan (previously noted for offbeat redactions of recent history like The Last King of Scotland [2006], The Queen [2006], and Frost/Nixon [2008]) which, even by the standards of the genre, plays it unusually safe; for its version of the afterlife is almost exclusively based upon the well-known reports of people who have had near-death experiences. In the opening scenes, a vacationing French television journalist, Marie LeLay (Cécile de France), nearly drowns in a tropical tsunami and sees a bright white light and some presumably dead people standing around, as if to welcome her to the hereafter, before she is jolted back to life; and when retired psychic George Lonegan (Matt Damon) reluctantly contacts the dead relatives of a few persistent clients, he briefly observes similar images. In the film’s nearest approach to an infodump, LeLay later interviews researcher Dr. Rousseau (Marthe Keller), who insists that the unusual consistency of these visions proves that these are actual glimpses into another world, although skeptics have offered more mundane explanations, including the recent theory that these are illusions caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide in one’s bloodstream.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with suspending one’s disbelief and assuming that near-death experiences are authentic as the premise for a story, but science fiction and fantasy readers may be frustrated by Hereafter because of its obvious reluctance to develop this premise in the manner they would expect. Among other things, science fiction and fantasy are all about world-building, using a fantastic idea to construct a fully-realized portrait of an alternative environment and the way of life it would engender. A science fiction or fantasy writer, pondering these accounts of the afterlife, would craft answers to various questions: precisely how are the consciousnesses of deceased people transferred to this new realm? What happens to them there? What are their new lives really like? One result of such inquiries might be a film like Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991), which amidst its comedy does endeavor to provide an imaginative and comprehensive picture of the fate that awaits the dead; in contrast, Hereafter is reluctant to go beyond the minimal information one can glean from its fleeting images. The only additional data offered, such as it is, occurs in Lonegan’s climactic contact with the dead (I won’t reveal which character it involves, but it should come as no surprise), when the deceased person describes his new life by saying “You wouldn’t believe how it is – you can be all things, and all at once. And the weightlessness….”

The film’s visualization of the afterlife is equally disappointing: given that near-death experiences are central to its story, and that the film’s director has the clout to command whatever financial resources he might wish, one would expect that its visions of death would employ state-of-the-art special effects to be breathtakingly spectacular. In fact, they are perfunctory: there is bright white light, which to this eye looks like a simple effect of overexposure, and rather blurry, bluish images of people standing on a nondescript plane, which might have been achieved simply by adjusting the camera’s focus and color. In other words, these are visual effects that could have been created fifty years ago. Furthermore, since both Rousseau and that one talkative dead person speak about the “weightlessness” of the experience, it is particularly incongruous that all of the deceased people observed are standing as if in normal gravity.

In response to such complaints, though, one can argue that the film’s lack of verbal and visual detail about the afterlife is entirely appropriate, given its central theme: namely, that it is best for the living to stop focusing on dead people and instead get on with their lives. This is announced early in the film, when Lonegan explains to his profit-hungry brother Billy (Jay Mohr) why he abandoned his career as a psychic to work in a San Francisco factory: “A life that’s all about death is no life at all.” The messages from dead people conveyed by Lonegan support this position, since they merely apologize for any harm they might have caused and urge their living relatives to stop grieving for the dead and to instead focus on living their own lives. And coming to this realization constitutes the film’s narrative arc: as its three interwoven stories begin, there is one character, Lonegan, who has already renounced any interest in the afterlife, while there are two characters who are developing precisely such an interest. LeLay, because of her own near-death experience, can no longer work as a journalist and feels driven to research and write a book about the afterlife; and a British boy named Marcus (Frankie McClaren and George McClaren), saddened by the accidental death of his twin brother Jason (also played by both actors), seeks out one fraudulent psychic after another in an effort to contact him. It is hardly a “spoiler” to reveal that these three protagonists in three different countries will eventually come into contact with each other, and without revealing any details, LeLay’s and Marcus’s interactions with Lonegan will put both of them back on the right track: Marcus, previously distinguished by an almost catatonic remorse, is all smiles as he walks toward an inevitable reunion with his mother Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal), while LeLay is beginning a satisfying relationship which will clearly involve no attentiveness to dead people.

Essentially, then, in response to the question of what happens to people after they die, the film’s final answer seems to be, “There are some things man is not meant to know.” And this is another way in which Hereafter does not fulfill the expectations of science fiction. Considering the film’s premise – a man who, in the words of his website, “genuinely talks with the dead” – a science fiction writer might contrive a conclusion in which Lonegan, LeLay, and Rousseau join forces to conduct a thoroughgoing investigation of the afterlife, carefully recording all the information that Lonegan can garner from various contacts with dead people (perhaps leading to a film not unlike Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm [1983]). An interest in dead people would not be rejected as a harmful obsession, but would rather be seen as a desirable intent to scientifically study a new world. Or, accepting the logic of science fiction that important new discoveries will always have the effect of permanently transforming society, one could take the story in another direction and consider what might happen if Lonegan, rather than repeatedly rejecting his “gift” as a “curse,” enthusiastically accepted his role and created a world in which people could have frequent contact with dead people. Scientists might even attempt to duplicate the conditions that apparently granted Lonegan this ability – a childhood bout of encephalomyelitis that led to an eight-hour operation and several near-death experiences – to see if others could gain his powers and thus offer people unlimited opportunities to obtain useful information from a higher plane of existence. How would our lives be different if we could regularly consult with our dead relatives? (Brian W. Aldiss’s 1966 story, “Amen and Out,” offers one science-fictional perspective on this scenario.)

However, writer Morgan and director Eastwood have absolutely no interest in pursuing such radical possibilities – because, after all, they would be threatening to the status quo. Their film’s attitude toward a potential world of George Lonegans is provided in the scene where Lonegan resists helping his new girlfriend Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) contact a dead relative: “Knowing everything about someone seems nice,” he tells her, but “Some things you should hold back.” Finally relenting to her request, he reaches her dead father, who provides the shattering revelation that he had molested his daughter. The stunned woman, now recognizing the drawbacks of “too much knowledge,” rushes out of his apartment, breaks down in tears, and never sees Lonegan again. Clearly, the film suggests, if everybody could have a session with Lonegan, they would obtain too much information about each other’s lives, and they would all be unhappy as a result. Thus, the incident bluntly validates Lonegan’s desire to permanently stop talking with the dead and argues that having no contact with the deceased – the status quo – represents the best of all possible worlds.

Interestingly, the film itself suggests that information about the afterlife might be upsetting to society, by means of an underdeveloped political subtext: Rousseau warns LeLay that pursuing her research into life after death will be a “lonely field to plow”; her publishers reject her shift from writing about François Mitterand to writing about her new obsession; her old producer and lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic), says he cannot rehire her because she has “lost [her] credibility”; and the subtitle of her book, “a conspiracy of silence,” indicates that there has been a deliberate effort to suppress studies of this subject. The irony here is that the film’s explorations of the hereafter are actually so shallow that, as indicated, they could not possibly be disconcerting to anyone.

If all of these comments suggest that I wish Hereafter had been a different sort of film, that is both true, and irrelevant; for the ultimate task of the reviewer is to evaluate a film on the basis of what it is, not what it might have been. (The problematic temptation, from the critic’s perspective, is that nowadays, all too often, the film one can imagine seems more interesting than the film one is watching.) So, ignoring its dishearteningly conservative stance, let us celebrate Hereafter for what it is, which is a well-made and involving film. Morgan’s script artfully intertwines its three stories, staying with each protagonist just long enough to spark our interest before shifting to another character. While one inevitably will regard Lonegan as the central figure (since he is portrayed by the film’s biggest star), all three of the plot threads receive equal attention and have intriguing nuances. Lonegan is devoted to Charles Dickens in general and David Copperfield (1850) in particular, and while some academic may someday attempt a point-by-point comparison of Copperfield’s story and Lonegan’s story, it may simply be that Lonegan is attracted to the saga of a boy who endures a troubled childhood and adolescence to ultimately achieve happiness. In addition, since he will eventually lead everyone to a sweetly saccharine conclusion, it seems fitting that he is employed in a C&H Sugar factory. When LeLay, after her near-death experience, takes a break from her job and finds she has been replaced by another attractive woman, both on television and in posters advertising Blackberries, we effectively get a picture of how society adjusts to the absence of a dead person: someone else takes her place, and life goes on. And given her eventual obsession with what happens after death, it is striking that she initially proposes to write a book about a dead person, François Mitterand. Jason’s formulaic funeral, with mourners for the next scheduled event waiting outside the door, subtly suggests that society does not always do an especially good job of helping people cope with death, and Marcus’s unhealthy fixation on his dead brother is signaled by the fact that he constantly wears Jason’s cap. When it falls off, however, he is able to avert death, and as he happily reconnects with his mother, he is no longer wearing the cap.

Also, if the film’s special effects depicting the afterlife are uninspired, the tsunami in the opening scene is brilliantly realized; and the performances – one of Eastwood’s strengths as a director – are consistently excellent. (Although one is inclined to single out Frankie McClaren and George McClaren for special recognition, a cynic must note that, for most of the film, all they are required to do is to maintain a sorrowful, passive expression, which is not a particularly difficult feat of acting.) As for my minor complaints: having also noticed the problem in Never Let Me Go (2010), I am similarly impatient with this film’s trick of contrived, unconvincing tears, possibly computer-generated, designed to bludgeon viewers into an emotional response; and while one cannot question Eastwood’s skills as a director, he should be advised to hire someone else to write his scores (much too often, the background music in this film simply doesn’t work).

Finally, examining a film about life after death, one is compelled to speculate: could there possibly be a sequel to this film, if it is successful, that might confront some of the issues raised here? The problem is that these filmmakers do not want to go very far beyond what we already know about the afterlife, based on the eyewitness accounts of those who have had near-death experiences, and that knowledge seems destined to forever remain limited. As with research into UFOs, that is, there are provocative reports, and suggestive patterns in those reports, but there is no tangible evidence for scientists to examine, so the only avenue for further inquiry is speculation. And while science fiction and fantasy writers delight in such speculation, others – like Clint Eastwood and Peter Morgan – obviously do not.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), and the forthcoming co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future.

7 thoughts on “‘A Life That’s All About Death’: A Review of Hereafter

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  • October 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    “A science fiction or fantasy writer, pondering these accounts of the afterlife, would craft answers to various questions: precisely how are the consciousnesses of deceased people transferred to this new realm? What happens to them there? What are their new lives really like?”

    Albeit in a completely different cultural context, Zero to Hero 阴差阳错 does just what you ask for the Chinese version of the afterlife.

  • October 20, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    You neglected to mention Eastwood’s first fantastical film, High Plains Drifter (1973). It could also be argued that Pale Rider (1985) was his second.

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  • October 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    What about Connie Willis’s _Passage_, which is undoubtedly SF?

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  • October 25, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Gary Westfahl completely misses the point of Eastwood’s film. This is not a film about life after death. This is a film about people’s reactions to various possibilities of life after death. So, in fact, Westfahl is indeed reviewing a film that “might have been” instead of the film that exists. And the film that he wishes “might have been” is considerably less interesting.

    I recommend Roger Ebert’s review, which is right on target.


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