Two very different films about what happens after we die are in the theaters right now: Clint Eastwood’s gentle Hereafter and Gaspar Noe’s raw, hallucinatory Enter the Void. While covering the same cosmological territory, the films couldn’t be more different, stylistically, thematically, and religiously.
Trippy or Cuddly, Something for Everyone
Enter the Void is, without a doubt, the trippiest film I’ve ever seen—and I’ve made a point of seeing many. It’s not like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, films which are “trippy” in style or genre—it actually is a psychedelic trip. Noe uses strobe effects and other visual techniques to place the viewer in an altered state of consciousness—when my friend and I emerged onto the street, blinking, we realized we’d been tripping for two hours. Enter the Void is told from the point of view of a young man, Oscar, who dies five minutes into the film: you see what he sees, as if through his eyes. That perspective, coupled with intense visual effects, lots of fast jump cuts, and good old-fashioned powerful filmmaking, make for a cinematic experience unlike any I’ve known.
Hereafter, in contrast, is soft and cuddly. It’s a surprisingly relaxed film, meandering through the lives of its three protagonists, as if MTV never existed and the jump cut was never invented. Hereafter takes its time, which I admit was a pleasure. There aren’t many filmmakers who can get away with this—it helps to be an Oscar-winner, a legend, and 80 years old.
Hereafter is also cuddly when it comes to its vision of the afterlife. Death is not the end, it insists to the many cosmopolitan atheists in the film, stand-ins, presumably, for people like you and me. Yet Hereafter never becomes maudlin, à la The Sixth Sense or Ghost. Matt Damon’s character, a psychic who can speak to the dead, is deeply troubled by his visions, and doesn’t know any more about heaven and hell than we do. The characters in the film suffer. Yet ultimately, they are redeemed by the warm reassurance that all is well after we die; everything is lovely, and weightless, and good.
Enter the Void’s world is far less easy. It tracks, religiously at times, The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s account of what happens after we die: the main character enters a liminal state, the bardo, as a disembodied soul, wandering both past and present until he incarnates again. We re-live his life’s traumas with him, and watch the people he loved sink into degradation and despair after his untimely death. Of course, Enter the Void is an independent film and Hereafter is produced by Steven Spielberg. So Oscar’s world is a dystopian Tokyo filled with drugs and prostitution, whereas the characters in Hereafter live in upper-class Paris, middle-class San Francisco, and the most caring and engaged child welfare system the world has ever known.
But the differences are more than skin-deep, especially when it comes to religion. Hereafter goes out of its way to demean traditional religion (and esoteric nonsense) en route to its reluctant affirmation of the afterlife—if the film were a person, she’d be “spiritual, not religious.” Yet the cosmology that Hereafter presents is quite familiar: the Near Death Experience (white light, floating), the thin veil between the realm of the living and that of the dead, and, not least, the sweet assurance that comes from knowing that our departed loved ones are right here with us.
It’s also quite contradictory. On the one hand, the dead report that everything is simultaneous, timeless, omnipresent, all-knowing—death is depicted as a trans-temporal union with the All. On the other hand, the dead speak in time, acting in the world and communicating messages to the living. Which is it, then? Timeless, or timely? Hereafter has it both ways.
Enter the Void, on the other hand, presents an almost mechanistic world in which there is no “hereafter”—only the here and now, experienced in different ways by beings at different stages of their existences. I don’t think I ever appreciated how godless the notion of transmigration of souls really is until I saw this movie. Oscar lives, and dies, and transmigrates, right here in the same world we’re inhabiting right now. Of course, Tibetan cosmology also includes many hellish and heavenly realms, but in the traditional depiction of them, they are not vague “spiritual” places like the amorphous afterlife of Hereafter but actual places, albeit very different from any we usually know. Enter the Void is about the supernatural, but in a way it’s entirely naturalistic.
The closest thing Hereafter presents as an authority figure, a Swiss hospice worker, says that she was once a skeptic, but was convinced over twenty years of working with dying patients. It couldn’t just be coincidence, she said, that they all reported similar near-death experiences. Well, fair enough, but all of the people reporting experiences had human brains, right? So if the NDE is a phenomenon of the brain, it would make sense that everyone reports more or less the same phenomenon.
Some scientists believe that the NDE is basically, as 2001 promised, the “ultimate trip.” The pineal gland contains within it a dose of DMT, a powerful psychedelic that is also found in the Amazonian shamanic medicine ayahuasca—and smoked directly by some people today. DMT users report experiences strikingly similar to NDEs: the bright light, the sense of leaving and floating above the body (even the vision of doing so), and so on. Maybe, theorists like Rick Strassman (The Spirit Molecule) have speculated, the “hereafter” is actually a powerful DMT trip, easing us into death.
DMT also makes an appearance in Enter the Void, but the film does curiously little with it. Oscar smokes DMT shortly before he dies, and the mind-blowing special effects (again, viewed through his eyes) are the closest approximation of the DMT experience I’ve ever seen in any medium. But after he actually dies, there’s little reference to it; its presence in the film seems almost accidental. Oscar-in-the-bardo spends much more time reliving past traumas (also terrifyingly depicted) than plying the inner spaceways.
Is There an Afterlife? Hope Not.
Personally, I’ve always recoiled from the notion of an afterlife. It seems too convenient, of too much solace—and radically anti-humanist. To me, it’s a short step from the bromides of Hereafter to the 70 virgins awaiting martyrs in paradise, or any of the other innumerable myths that devalue this world in favor of some Sugarcandy Mountain in the next. I’ve heard some people say they’d despair if they didn’t believe in a World to Come, and I’ve often wondered whether that would be a good thing. Maybe the despair would cause them to change their lives, act more justly, and treat every day as a gift.
Or, who knows, maybe my own skepticism is really some deep-seated guilt left over from my childhood, when I was told I’d be spending eternity in hell for rejecting Jesus, being attracted to men, failing to give enough tzedakah, or whatever else. Maybe I don’t want there to be an afterlife, because I’m afraid the fundamentalists are right and there’s a special place in the Inferno reserved just for me.
To be sure, Hereafter doesn’t engage in any such speculation. Its afterlife is the ultimate judgment-free zone—although some deceased evildoers do express regret and remorse. But I still found it to be too much consolation, with a sprinkling of contradiction on the side. Ultimately, even Enter the Void’s vision of transmigration seems to let us off the hook. As Oscar’s karma draws him into his next life, making good on a vow and providing a deeply satisfying conclusion to the film, I felt as if all the tragedy he had endured finally made some sense. But maybe we ought not to feel that way.