THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Hereafter begins with one of the most intensely frightening sequences I've ever seen. A French journalist named Marie (Cecile de France), on assignment in another country, has a near-death experience after being swept away in a devastating tsunami. The camera stays with Marie as a massive wave crashes into her, disorients her, and sends her rushing headfirst into all kinds of potentially fatal debris. The scene is brilliantly staged, making you feel like you're uncontrollably careening right along side her. Having miraculously survived this ordeal - and having seen a glimpse of the afterlife in the process - Marie decides to write a book about life after death, only to discover that a lot of her colleagues really don't want her to ruin her professional reputation with what they perceive as kooky talk.
Intersecting with Marie's story are two others. One concerns Marcus, a London schoolboy grappling with the sudden death of his twin brother. The other centers on George (Matt Damon), a man who has spent several years running from his gift, or, as he perceives it, his curse: being able to communicate with the dead. He's come to the conclusion that people only think they want to know what their loved ones are saying from beyond the grave; more often than not, it doesn't lead to closure but to more pain. George tries to live a normal life, getting a boring factory job and beginning to date a woman he meets in cooking school (Bryce Dallas Howard), but through a series of events, he's pulled back into using his abilities.
Hereafter was written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and directed by Clint Eastwood. It is very much in the vein of films like Babel, where separate stories reveal hidden connections, then wind their way toward a common theme. In this case, that theme is the possibility that something awaits us on the other side. While never getting too spiritual/ethereal, the movie is certainly interested in exploring not only the idea that one's soul carries on after death, but also the need many of us have to believe in that idea. Without it, life becomes too confusing, with the thought of finality taking on a dark, depressing, "what's the point, then?" quality.
The strength of Hereafter is also its weakness. Here we have three very compelling characters, each inhabiting their own compelling stories. I was intrigued by Marie's desire to convince others of what she saw in a brief moment of death. I wanted Marcus to somehow find the resolution to go on without his brother there to guide him. I hoped that George would be able to find the normality he craves in life. All the actors, especially Damon, create vivid, sympathetic characters who I enjoyed spending time with.
Any one of them could have sustained an entire movie, and that's what keeps this film from achieving its full potential. By trying to balance three separate plots, it never delves as deeply into any of them as it could have. Certain things feel glossed over or simplified when, given the challenging nature of the subject matter, we want them to be richer and more exploratory. For example, Marie visits a doctor who has specialized in studying life after death, yet their meeting is so brief that we can barely register the way it impacts her. Because of its multiple allegiances, Hereafter never ends up saying anything profound about the possibility of an afterlife. It ends up with a solid "maybe."
I like the movie and feel it's worth seeing. Eastwood sets an appropriately thoughtful tone, the actors do solid work, and there are several emotionally powerful moments. Hereafter is an entertaining film. That said, it would have been even better had it picked any one of the plot strands and focused exclusively on it.
( out of four)
Hereafter will be released on March 15 on DVD, in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, and On Demand via digital cable, satellite TV, and IPTV. It can be purchased for permanent download or rented through iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, and XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles.
The supplementary material on the Blu-Ray is quite strong. There is a series of Focus Points that can be watched with the movie or individually. The nine segments total about 45 minutes, and cover specific elements related to the main feature:
"Tsunami: Creating a Disaster" looks at the special effects used in the opening sequence. Interestingly, it is a combination of actors in the ocean, in a tank, and against a green screen. One of the FX guys comments that they didn't want to make it look disaster-movie "cool" because the scene is supposed to be horrific. It's interesting to see how they worked hard to avoid turning the sequence into something titillating (as happens far too often in movies).
"Is There Life After Death?" has cast and crew members discussing their own beliefs about what lies beyond. Eastwood himself denies certainty of an afterlife, but actor Jay Mohr openly questions the honesty of his assessment.
"Clint on Casting" is, as you may have guessed, the director offering thoughts on how he cast the movie's roles. Eastwood again floats his oft-repeated notion that "if you cast it right, you don't need to do anything else."
In "Delving into the Hereafter," an actual medium and a parapsychologist offer thoughts on life after death. Regardless of what you personally believe, it's interesting to hear the thoughts of people who claim to have personal contact with the other side. In a similar vein, "Why the White Light?" looks at the fact that people who have had near-death experiences almost uniformly describe the same thing: a peaceful feeling of calm and a shining white light.
"Twin Bonding" explores one of the key elements in Hereafter's plot: the death of a twin. A psychologist appears to discuss twin loss, and producer Kathleen Kennedy (herself a twin) shares some thoughts on the bond shared by twins.
Two other Focus Points are geography-related. "French Speaking French" finds Eastwood explaining why he decided to have large chunks of the film in a foreign language, while "Locations: Casting the Silent Characters" explores the movie's international feel.
Finally, there is "The Eastwood Experience," in which the actors discuss what it was like to work with a living legend.
Aside from the Focus Points, there is one other bonus feature, and it's a doozy. On the Blu-Ray, you will find the HD debut of "The Eastwood Factor," a 90-minute documentary in which the star tours Warner Bros. studios and reminisces about the many pictures he's made there. Suffice it to say this is must-see viewing for any Eastwood fan.
A digital copy of Hereafter is also included in the combo pack.
Hereafter is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.