What lies beyond the grave? Human cultures across space and time have imagined many kinds of afterlives, from the attenuated shades of Hades to the lush paradise of the Islamic Jannah to the merger with the infinite anticipated by mystics. From a theological perspective, it’s not the descriptive details that matter but rather the functions played by these portrayals. What we expect to happen after we die affects how we choose to live.
In other words, most concepts of the afterlife are really all about this life. (What isn’t?) Despite the infinite horizon of eternity, which from a quantitative standpoint shrinks our earthly threescore-and-ten into insignificance, almost all popular images of immortality hang from the framework of our brief mortal lives. Perhaps our ultimate destination is determined by our deeds or moral standing: the compensatory afterlife, wherein just deserts possibly denied or escaped during life are executed eternally in heaven or hell. Or the reverse: the wheel of karma deposits us back into existence, over and over again, at the level to which we managed to rise or fall in our last go-round. The questions we tend to ask about the afterlife are revealing: Do people in the next life remember their earthly existences? Recognize those they knew? Watch us from the great beyond? The hopes and fears of believers have never stopped revolving around the relationship of this life to the next one.
That’s also true about films set in the afterlife. Although they reflect the particular time and place of their making, movies that take us through the veil typically find some way to keep their feet firmly planted on Earth. After all, it’s the finite resource of time that makes human life precious. If you’re going to tell a story with characters who change and grow, and real stakes, you either need that valley of the shadow of death or some extradimensional re-creation of it.
That’s why the most prominent afterlife movies involve the newly dead arguing that they need to go back. Call the subgenre Heaven Can Wait, because that’s (a) the title of the 1938 play by Harry Segall that provides the source material for a handful of them and (b) a succinct description of the plot outline these movies follow. Someone dies right before the big fight (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941) or the big game (Heaven Can Wait, 1978) or the big slot at the Apollo (Down to Earth, 2001) or the big gig at the jazz club (Soul, 2020). They need to return to Earth so they can fulfill their destiny.
Conveniently—and this is a theme for many movies about the afterlife, including Albert Brooks’s sublimely pleasurable 1991 comedy Defending Your Life—the Heaven Can Wait movies only have to show the antechamber to the great beyond. This enables them to elide most of the big theological questions about what actually comes next. No judgment, no eternity—just an in-between where the newly deceased are sorted and sent on to their “final destinations.” The first glimpse of the afterlife we see in both Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait is the dead queueing up to board a plane while a transport manager checks names against a manifest. The initial conflict in this plot comes when our heroes (the boxer, quarterback, stand-up, musician, whatever) argue that there has been a mistake. That it wasn’t their time. That they need to go back.
Two themes emerge from this well-worn plot. First, the dead are souls. They are spirit selves who have left behind their bodies like a suit of clothes. This is convenient for cinema, because when they go back, they can inhabit a different body and still be themselves. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan and its remakes, the afterlife manager scours the world to find a suitable replacement body for the soul that wasn’t supposed to be taken. Romantic subplots in these movies posit that, even though the mistakenly dead protagonists look like someone else, their spirits still shine through.
Another commonality about the afterlife, in these movies about getting back to Earth, is bureaucracy. The films imagine the complexity of a worldwide stream of the dead arriving for their eternal lives, and kick off their plots by introducing some mistake—or at least allowing the protagonist to protest that there has been one. Perhaps the greatest afterlife movie of them all, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), centers on an error that allows a World War II British airman (David Niven) to somehow survive a plane crash and fall in love with a radio operator (Kim Hunter). Before the judge, jury, and opposing counsel, the pilot’s advocate argues that this failure to collect the soul in a timely fashion means that new obligations have arisen—that the life of an entirely different person, the radio operator, is now entangled in the matter. At the climax of the film, the court descends a giant staircase to the operating room where the pilot is undergoing surgery, to hear from the supposed-to-be-deceased and his newly beloved directly.
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