Culture

Heaven Is for Real and 8 Movies of the Afterlife

Connor Corum in ‘Heaven Is for Real’/Image ©2013 CTMG/Sony

The film "Heaven Is for Real" opens in theaters in time for Easter Sunday, giving us another interpretation of what might occur in the afterlife. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, "Heaven Is for Real" shows what happens in a small Nebraska town after four-year-old Colton Burpo says he visited Heaven during emergency surgery. In the book, Colton describes choirs of angels and Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse. In the trailer, the child (newcomer Connor Corum) recounts how he met the sister from a miscarriage his parents never discussed and a great-grandfather who died before he was born. Director Randall Wallace ("Secretariat") adapted the screenplay. Greg Kinnear plays Colton's pastor father, and Kelly Reilly ("Flight") and Thomas Haden Church ("We Bought a Zoo") co-star.

The arts have long imagined what awaits for those who have "slipped the surly bonds of earth." Here are some other cinematic ideas as to what goes on in the great beyond. (Note: Some spoilers ahead.)

"Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941)
Boxer and amateur pilot Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) winds up in Heaven early thanks to an over-eager guardian angel. So Mr. Jordan, the dapper man in charge (Claude Rains), orders him to be sent back into the body of a slain banker. Based on the 1938 play Heaven Can Wait, this film won Oscars for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, with a view of Heaven as a misty airport: lots of clouds around a plane waiting for takeoff. The story inspired two remakes, 1978's "Heaven Can Wait" with Warren Beatty, which kept the airplane and the clouds but made Joe a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, and 2001's "Down to Earth" with Chris Rock, which imagined Heaven as a swanky hotel presided over by Chazz Palminteri.

"Defending Your Life" (1991)
Albert Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in this original story about advertising executive Daniel Miller, who arrives at the waystation Judgment City to stand trial for his lifelong fears. If he can't show he's evolved enough to move onward, he'll be sent back to Earth to do better. Filled with all-you-can-eat restaurants, comedy clubs, bowling alleys, trams, and a Past Lives Pavilion hosted by Shirley MacLaine, Judgment City has the disadvantage of all-white smocks for the defendants -- but the sparkle of Meryl Streep. "Doesn't it make sense that heaven, for each society, would be a place much like the Earth that it knows?" critic Roger Ebert wrote. "We're still stuck with images of angels playing harps, which worked fine for Renaissance painters. But isn't our modern world ready for images in which the angels look like Rotarians and CEOs?"

"What Dreams May Come" (1998)
This adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1978 novel crafts mountain vistas and waterfalls - with wet paint -- from the imagination of physician Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams). Once Chris learns his wife (Annabella Sciorra) committed suicide after his death, he journeys to Hell to save her from an eternity of torment. The film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and is full of artistic nods, including the painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch. Its special effects enhance "everything from the subtle greens of the mosses and grass to the crimsons, violets, oranges, and blues of the flower petals," critic James Berardinelli wrote. "Likewise, hell is a grim, dark place, with the color leeched out almost to the point where everything is monochromatic."

"Deconstructing Harry" (1997)
Writer-director Woody Allen's original film about an author whose past - and past works - come to life has a brief interlude in Hell where protagonist Harry Block (Allen) spars with the Devil (Billy Crystal). Block finds the nudity, flames, and chains one might expect, along with jazzy music, hot tubs, his own father, and air conditioning (it messes with the ozone layer). Pause the descent via elevator to catch where subway muggers, book critics, the NRA, and others rank in Allen's riff on Dante's hierarchy.

"The Rapture" (1991)
A telephone operator with a sexy lifestyle (Mimi Rogers) embraces evangelical fervor with what appears to be tragic results in this thought-provoking film that "keeps its feet unnervingly planted in reality even as reality starts to collapse." It offers a vision of purgatory as a blue-tinged desert that turns dark and leaves an overwhelming sadness.

"The Lovely Bones" (2009)
From Alice Sebold's best-selling book, director Peter Jackson took the idea of a simple personal heaven for slain teen Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and morphed it into an "In-Between" of butterflies and a gazebo on water, alongside a Heaven of golden fields, pastel skies and welcoming friends. Time magazine likened the In-Between to "a mostly Edenic halfway house for the recently deceased ... a fantasyland of penguin topiary and gigantic ice-sculpture ships, where fields turn into soggy marshes and autumn becomes winter in a flash of fallen leaves."

"The Tree of Life" (2011)
Writer-director Terrence Malick's experimental drama about the origin and meaning of life as seen through a middle-aged man's childhood conjures heaven as both celestial and idyllic, with the sun expanding and the protagonist (Sean Penn) passing through rustic doors to a sandbar where he meets everyone from his memories. There are seagulls, roiling waves, cupped hands, caresses, hugs, even a field of sunflowers. "His vision of the afterlife is a dreamy beach, enhanced by an excellent playlist of fine classical music, and promising the peace that surpasses all understanding. Plus a beautiful sky," Entertainment Weekly wrote.

"Beetlejuice" (1988)
Director Tim Burton's first feature-length film is an original story about two New England ghosts (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who enlist an underworld "bio-exorcist" (Michael Keaton) to scare away their home's obnoxious new residents. This Oscar-winner for Best Makeup is full of visual quirk in depicting the hereafter as a bureaucracy with a thick "Handbook for the Recently Deceased." Veteran actress Sylvia Sydney received a Best Supporting Actress honor from the Saturn Awards as Juno, the couple's caseworker who exhales cigarette smoke through a slit throat, but as the Washington Post wrote, the "ghastly wonders never cease."