Film Review of Hereafter: Ghosts, Mediums, and Near-Death Experience

October 19, 2010



In the new Clint Eastwood film Hereafter , Matt Damon stars as George, a man who has the ability to communicate with ghosts. George, once a well-known psychic, has retired from the business but is reluctantly drawn back into it by his older brother. In true tortured hero fashion, George repeatedly insists of his peculiar ability that, “It’s not a gift, it’s a curse!” George talks about how horrible it has been for his life, but it doesn’t seem to take much persistence to get him to do readings (in fact all it takes are some cow eyes from a flirty woman, played insufferably by Bryce Dallas Howard). 


Elsewhere, after a French journalist named Marie (Cecile de France) nearly drowns, she becomes obsessed with searching for proof of the afterlife. She ends up researching near-death experiences and becomes convinced that there’s a conspiracy to silence those who offer proof of life after death. 


The third narrative strand in this inert mess involves a hardscrabble London kid named Marcus who is inconsolable after his twin brother is killed. He is taken from his drug-addled mother and put into foster care, and while there he searches for anyone who can help him contact the dead.


The film tries to braid these three different storylines, and the characters meet in the end but the film never gels. Hereafter is unfocused, slow, and seems to be mostly a series of vignettes that don’t really add up to anything. The conclusions to the different storylines are pat and contrived. All the characters are also unduly credulous about George’s ability, and seem to be impressed by rather vague information from the afterlife like, “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or S in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps?” Apparently the dead enjoy guessing games. 


Then there are the plot points that are ridiculous to any knowledgeable skeptic. First in line is hospice worker Dr. Rousseau, who explains to Marie that the evidence for the afterlife is “irrefutable” because the near-death experiences reported by a wide variety of people are “so strikingly similar.” In fact, according to a study published in the April 8, 2010 medical journal Critical Care , (“The effect of carbon dioxide on near-death experiences in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survivors: a prospective observational study”) only about one-quarter to one-tenth of NDE reporters said they had typical experiences such as moving toward a bright light, feelings of peace and joy, and profoundly spiritual moments. Furthermore, the research linked those experiences not to any touch with the afterlife but instead elevated levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. 


British researcher Susan Blackmore, author of Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences, notes that many typical near-death experiences that have been reported (such as euphoria and the feeling of moving toward a white light) are in fact typical symptoms of oxygen deprivation. 


The extra little dollop of absurdity on this stupidity sundae is Marie’s book title: “Hereafter: A Conspiracy of Silence.” What? Now there’s a worldwide conspiracy, a cabal of people who want to keep proof of the afterlife a secret? Why haven’t they managed to silence the authors of hundreds of books on near-death experience and the afterlife—not to mention people like John Edward and convicted felon Sylvia Browne? People who claim to talk to the dead (and claim to offer proof of said ability) are a dime a dozen, and can be found in nearly every bookstore or library, not to mention on hundreds of Web sites. What a colossal conspiracy failure! Apparently the same people engineered the conspiracy cover-up of the 1947 Roswell UFO crash that no one knows about. 


I’ve got a dozen books on my shelf about heaven and the afterlife, written by everyone from psychic mediums to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Most of them are written by presumably sincere people who genuinely believe they have some insight into the spirit world. Unfortunately one person’s account is as valid (or invalid) as the rest, many are contradictory (How does that work? Did they go to different heavens?), and none offer any evidence or proof. 


Eastwood’s direction is calm and sure, but the script (by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen ) does not live up to its premise. The afterlife, according to George’s visions, is populated by clothed, ordinary people standing quietly on a flat, smooth surface, all facing the same direction and away from a blinding light on the horizon. People’s spirits apparently remain there, silent, somber and inactive. 


If this is what heaven is like, I’d like to try hell. The nearly two-and-a-quarter hour meandering journey that Hereafter takes isn’t quite hell, but nor is it a film I’d want to see again. 



#1 korbus on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 4:16am

When you go to watch a film which is centered upon psychic abilities, NDEs, and such…is it ever difficult for you to simply enjoy the movie as a movie?  Or do you find yourself cringing at all the woo regardless of the writing and direction?  Are there any examples of “wooey” films you have enjoyed?  Thanks, Ben.

#2 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 7:32am

Good question—it is true that as an expert on these topics it’s sometimes hard not to get annoyed at TV or film representations- just like real cops and real doctors roll their eyes at TV shows and movies about cops and doctors. The mistakes are glaring if you know your stuff. But it doesn’t necessarily ruin films for me—if it’s a well-made film then it’s worth watching. I like lots of movies with supernatural elements- some of the Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones movies, Jacob’s Ladder, etc. On the other hand, a lot of “woo” movies are not really well done!

#3 sentes (Guest) on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 1:33pm

I have to say I’m really tired of SI doing these movie/tv reviews. They’re obviously coloured by your skepticism which, while I agree with, have nothing to do with the entertainment value of the programs you’re reviewing. 

I was first concerned at these endeavours with SI started railing about the tv show Supernatural before it had even started. Several times since then I’ve seen this so-called reviews appear.  If you want to attack the book or the psychic depicted, fine. Do so. But stop trying to purport to be ‘movie reviewrs’ when you clearly aren’t.  What you’ve posted is a review of the premise of the film, not the film itself.  Leave actual movie reviewing to people who actually know something about - shock - MOVIES!

You’re making the rest of us skeptics look like a bunch of boring, no-fun dicks.

#4 sentes (Guest) on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 1:35pm

It’s actually worse than I thought.  I assumed SI was whinging about this film because it was one of those films purporting to be based on a true story - it’s not!

It’s called “suspension of disbelief” folks.  Look it up.

#5 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday October 20, 2010 at 2:12pm

“Stop trying to purport to be ‘movie reviewrs’ when you clearly aren’t.”

“Leave actual movie reviewing to people who actually know something about - shock - MOVIES!”

Actually, sentes, I have been a film reviewer since 1994, and have written hundreds of movie reviews, published at and in the Corrales Comment newspaper. I’ve covered films from the Toronto International Film Festival and a half-dozen others around the country. In addition to my film reviews, I am also a filmmaker, and wrote and directed two shorts that screened at various festivals.

So I think I do “know something” about movies.

#6 sentes (Guest) on Thursday October 21, 2010 at 8:11am

I will absolutely stand corrected on your qualifications as a film reviewer.  However I stand on my position regarding the quality of this ‘review’.

#7 limesat (Guest) on Tuesday October 26, 2010 at 2:28am

Wow this article is very interesting, thanks for posting.

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