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Tales of the supernatural, be they Greek gods, Welsh sorcerers, or American caped crusaders, comprise humanity's oldest and best-loved stories. Their enduring popularity should hardly come as a surprise to Christians as they reflect, however dimly, the truth written on all our hearts. Wizards have never really worked magic and no child ever wandered through a wardrobe to a fantastical land. But prophets have parted great seas, and we will all one day leave this world for another.
Though put forward as a serious meditation on life after death, Clint Eastwood's latest movie, Hereafter (rated PG-13 for language and a quick shot of a woman in lingerie) is one of those dim reflections. Through the lives of three characters-a French news anchor, a British schoolboy, and an American psychic-it acts as a study on the human need to experience something greater than what we see and to believe that we go on after death. Yet the substance it offers to fill those needs is of the weakest and most ambiguous stuff.
The film begins with Marie (Cécile De France), whose personal life and career are derailed by a near-death experience. When the tropical island she's vacationing on is hit (in a truly spectacular special-effects scene) with a tsunami, Marie comes within a hair's breadth of drowning. What she sees and feels in that instant haunts her so that she can no longer focus on uncovering CEO scandals or dissecting political dramas. Instead, she goes in search of answers to life's biggest question: What happens to us when we die?
Little Marcus (Frankie McLaren) isn't so much looking for answers as for a connection. Already something of a drifting ship due to an absentee father and a drug-addicted mother, he loses the one anchor he has to a tragic accident. Desperate not to be left alone, he seeks out several spiritualists of the scummy variety. In an amusing sequence, Marcus sees in an instant that they're all fools or charlatans, but loneliness drives him to keep looking. The slightly frightening talking heads representing doctrinal belief systems-both Islam and Christianity-are lumped in with the scam artists. Churches, the film suggests, simply have a better spiel to sell. The only person able to offer him any hope or healing is retired psychic George Lonegan (Matt Damon). The problem is that George, who's spent so much time with the dead he's never had a normal life, no longer wants to act as a medium for those who've passed on.
Damon, McLaren, and De France turn in such subtle, intelligent performances, it's impossible not to empathize with their characters even when their ideas diverge so completely from a Christian worldview. The characters all recognize that something supernatural, something that they will fully experience after death, is at work in their lives. Yet the grain of truth their stories turn on leads to a lie. They ultimately come to that most postmodern of no-solution solutions-they find that enlightenment comes merely from the seeking, not the finding.
This isn't to suppose that there would be any reason to expect non-Christian filmmakers to reach a biblically consistent conclusion. But after setting up such great mysteries, to suggest no possibility exists for answers feels like a cop-out. Leave the ending open, imply the characters will keep wrestling with the mystery, fine. Instead the finale confirms that the characters' journeys were essentially purposeless. They now know that there is something greater than what they see, but they are no closer to discovering the nature of it. The conclusion would have been depressing if a romantic finale weren't tacked on to distract from it.
With the brilliant team of Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United) behind it, Hereafter could hardly be anything but a finely crafted, engaging film. But for all the insight it offers, it may as well be a fantasy tale of fairies, wizards, superheroes, or, for that matter, psychics.