Hereafter: Is There an Afterlife?

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Adding to my collection of movie reflections (like The Invention of Lying and Brüno), I have some thoughts to share about the new Clint Eastwood/Matt Damon film, Hereafter. Needless to say, this post will have some light spoilers, so do not read below the poster if you don’t want to know anything about it

I’m sure there will be plenty of people who disagree with what I’ve written below, so please feel free to share your comments and feedback!

Quick spoiler-free reaction: It’s a beautiful film but I couldn’t stand the content.

Let me set a tone: Is there an afterlife? No. Now stop wasting time thinking about it and get on with your life.

If what I just said offended you or you strongly disagree or object, you’ll probably really like this movie. It’s a meditation on the idea of what comes next, following a French woman who has a near-death experience, a San Francisco medium (Matt Damon) haunted by the voices of others’ lost love ones, and a British boy who loses his twin brother. You’ll admire the woman for her pursuit of deeper understanding, you’ll respect that the medium struggles with his gift but still uses it for good, and you’ll feel extreme sympathy for the boy trying to reach out to his twin from beyond. You’ll leave the theater feeling inspired and all the more eager to consider questions of the afterlife.

If you totally agree with what I just said, the movie (though not explicitly) will actually validate how you feel. You will see that each character is plagued by the afterlife, struggling as humans do to find answers to avoid the grieving process. Rather than see the medium as supernatural and compassionate, you’ll see him as a schizophrenic shut eye who has convinced himself his delusions are something greater. You’ll see the woman as obsessive and in need of counseling. You’ll pity the young boy that has no one interested in helping him grieve, which is why he seeks his own answers. You’ll be glad that the movie shows the misery of obsessing over the afterlife, but simultaneously annoyed that the movie celebrates the characters’ struggles and ultimately rewards them for struggling.

In fact, if you’re in the latter group (like I am), you’ll actually be pissed about a lot of things. You will be incredibly frustrated by how much cold reading happens in the movie, and you’ll see little difference between the fake cold reading and the “real” powers Matt Damon’s character has. You’ll be similarly pissed about the patronizing atheist hospice doctor who just can’t get over the fact that everyone’s near-death experiences were similar. It’s gotta mean there’s something more! No, Dr. Uncritical, it could just mean that all brains function a certain way when dying. You’ll be pissed the film doesn’t include any real skeptics who offer real counterarguments to the idea of an afterlife. And more than anything, you’ll be pissed you just wasted $9.50 and two full hours of your life thinking about the afterlife, which you already probably feel you’ve wasted enough of your life on as it is.

I don’t know what Clint Eastwood (who’s now 80) wanted to communicate in the film, but I didn’t learn anything new about the idea of an afterlife. I saw three people whose lives fell apart because they were obsessively thinking about death. They moved on when they finally got it out of their system, but there’s no real acknowledgment that any of them were having problems. Frankly, I think the film sends a negative message about mental health, suggesting that it’s okay to humor delusions and obsessions in lieu of grieving or getting proper counseling.

Still, for people who see value in pondering an afterlife, they will love the way the movie strokes their egos. It’s a shame because aside from the content, it’s a lovely movie. The slow literary unraveling of the three stories is actually quite gripping, making it feel shorter than its 126-minute running time. The tsunami that opens the film and leads to Marie’s near-death is extremely well directed, with a stark absence of music.  I really appreciated that the music wasn’t constant, allowing for a lot of source cues, but strategically introducing leitmotifs unique to each character that begin to overlap as the characters stories come closer together (guitar for the medium, strings for Marie, and piano for the boy). It truly is a beautiful film, and arguably the ability for people to get very different messages from it is part of that beauty.

In The Invention of Lying, the film assumes there is not an afterlife and offers a witty commentary on the comfort people can get from believing there is. Contrastingly, Hereafter assumes there is an afterlife (or that it’s at least worth considering) and then essentially spends two hours meditating masturbating on the idea while downplaying the one decent point it makes: life goes on when you stop obsessing over death.

So is there an afterlife? I still say no, and I still say it’s not worth contemplating. Eastwood wants you to care, but honestly, don’t waste your time.

For those who’ve seen it, I look forward to your comments and discussion. Surely there are some folks who totally disagree, so let’s hear from you.

Here’s a clip from Penn & Teller hitting home that mediums (media?) are nothing more than bullshit.

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There are 4 Comments to "Hereafter: Is There an Afterlife?"

  • Ahab says:

    A hard-hitting review of HEREAFTER, I must say. Personally, I found that when I stopped believing in an afterlife (Heaven and Hell), I had much less fear of death, and I could experiencing life here and now with greater fullness.

  • Allison says:

    I saw the TV commercials, and yes it does look beautiful…and I thought it was some fantasy/alternative reality kind of thriller, not that the “hereafter” was somehow literal.

    At any rate, @Ahab, I saw a study a few years ago that showed atheists dealt with terminal illness much better than believers because they could come to peace with the reality of their illness and take the time to connect with loved ones, etc. before dying. The religious folks were more fearful, and spent a lot more time/money/effort on life-prolonging tactics. So much for “it’s all in god’s hands!”

  • I agree that those who have a death anxiety should seek professional counseling and not ride the euphoria of this movie or any of the others about the afterlife – and there were some good ones such as “At Heaven’s Gate”, “Fearless”, “What Dreams May Come”, “Defending Your Life”. That being said, I believe that most people are fearful of the unknown and that is what drives people to panic about death and dying. To just not think about it and stay in the present may work for some people, but in my experience as a psychotherapist I could tell you that most people do think about their future, what they are going to leave behind as their contribution to mankind, and naturally wonder what is next. We would have to be exteremely cynical to believe that this life, with all its trials and tribulations, is all for naught once we breathe our last breath. For all the evil that exists, all the dangerous people out there, the terrorists, those who seek to make other’s lives miserable – it is hard to imagine that there isn’t any retribution for them. There has to be a system of reward and punishment. And if we don’t merit to see evil rooted out in this lifetime, then perhaps they’ll get their due in the afterlife. It just doesn’t make sense to think that good, upright citizens share the same fate as those who promote evil. Therefore, the more we know about the afterlife, the wonderful spiritual places one can reach, the fact that life does continue and it isn’t lights out, the more we can be at ease and enjoy this life more. Dr. Bernie Kastner (

    • ZackFord says:

      Yikes. Such archaic logic. And kind of evil too… your life isn’t meaningful if others don’t get retribution? How petty, and honestly disturbing that you promote this kind of “live for another life” nonsense to your clients. You should be ashamed of peddling such pipe dreams instead of encouraging folks to actually make the most of the time they have.

      People need to stop proselytizing their shit on my blog when they clearly oppose the very points made here. Pathetic.

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