I have seen the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Hereafter and have been surprised by the extremes in reviews. Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars and an “A” rating. On the other side of the spectrum is Peter Ranier of The Christian Science Moniter who accuses the movie of “quackery” and gives it a C- rating. Other ratings ranged anywhere from a numerical rating ranging from a low of 56 to a high of 100. A similar phenomenon was seen with the initial release of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, which is almost universally recognized today as an innovative classic of the horror genre.
Hereafter is the story of a dissatisfied medium, George Lonegan (played by Matt Damon), a French journalist, Marie Lelay (played by Cecile de France) who has a near-death experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and an English schoolboy, Marcus (played by both Frankie and George McLaren), whose brother Jason (also played by both Frankie and George McLaren), who come together at the London Book Fair in circumstances that seem almost providential, but which could also be attributed to chance. A similar ambiguity is found in the movie Grand Canyon. Hereafter explores the issue of whether we survive death through the characters, and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, whose previous credits include The Queen and Frost-Nixon, clearly has done his homework. As Roger Ebert notes, the movie does not say that an afterlife is proven by George McLaren’s genuine abilities; as parapsychologists know, veridical evidence from honest mediums can be due to telepathy from living persons or from clairvoyance. The ambiguity of the NDE is also noted, as well as Marie’s being absolutely convinced that her experience is real (what William James calls “noetic quality). The emotions the movie evokes are genuine, and though the movie veers perilously close to sentimentality, it does not cross that line. It is one of the best movies I have seen.
What accounts for some of the hostility toward Hereafter. I cannot read reviewers’ minds, but I would speculate that some reviewers are so hostile to any notion of survival of death that they are offended by a movie that is open to the possibility. Some of the evidence for survival is indeed suspect, but the movie recognizes this and shows Marcus visiting a number of fake mediums. But there are people in the world who would not be convinced of survival of death even if their mothers returned from the dead and hugged them. Survival of death is not possible in their world view. Thus, even though Hereafter can be interpreted as open to the possibility of life after death without affirming it, that possibility is too much to admit for the radical secularist.
On the other side of the issue would be individuals who want the movie to be less ambiguous on life after death–to affirm an afterlife without reservation. Morgan, who personally opposes an afterlife, and Eastwood wisely avoid reaching such conclusions. In real life they go beyond the evidence, but I think the ambiguity makes a better story–the audience begins the movie with wonder and ends the movie with wonder. This is a movie I definitely plan to purchase when it comes out on DVD.