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What These 5 Films About Death Teach Us About Life

Creator:
Published:
December 14, 2023
April 17, 2023
Watch these five movies about death that actually teach us about life.|Watch these five movies about death that actually teach us about life.

Do movie character’s lives continue after the credits roll? We assume so, but we don’t really know. We rely on faith that the story continues, even if we’re not able to see it. In this way, watching movies is a metaphor for life – and death. 

Even at their most fantastic, films strive to capture the human experience, which is impossible without death. Death is “the undiscovered country” William Shakespear tells us, and filmmakers have long sought to chart its unknown landscapes the only way any of us on this side of the celestial divide can; with the human imagination.

Movies about death teach us about life. What follows are some of the most enlightening. This is not a comprehensive or definitive list, but it’s not exclusively a personal one either. These movies have left a lifelong impression on me, and a generation of viewers. Despite their different views on death, each provides a profound lesson about one of the greatest mysteries of human existence.

What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come was a box office bomb in 1998, yet it resonates far beyond its financial failure, especially in light of Robin Williams’ tragic death by suicide in 2014. Williams plays Dr. Chris Nielsen, a pediatrician whose children are killed in a car crash. When Nielsen is also killed in another car accident years later, he first wanders the Earth as a spirit, before entering a Heaven fashioned from his own imagination. There he is joined by his children in a verdant paradise based on one of his wife’s paintings. When he discovers his wife took her life in grief, he journeys to Hell to save her — a Hell that isn’t a place of judgment, but a prison wrought from her own suffering. What Dreams May Come is hardly Biblical. Yet there’s something compelling, even comforting, about its vision of our afterlifes — personal places shared with others, but borne from our individual imaginations; just like a dream. 

All Dogs Go To Heaven

Don Bluth made family films that were unafraid to tackle death. Little Foot’s mom in The Land Before Time is the most famous example. Death was a plot point in The Land Before Time; it was the point in 1989’s All Dogs Go To Heaven. An immoral German Shepherd named Charlie is murdered by his business partner, Carface. Despite Charlie’s heavy drinking and gambling (yes, this is a kids’ film), “all dogs go to Heaven.” But when Charlie escapes Heaven to seek revenge on Earth, he’s warned by a whippet angel he “can never come back.” Undeterred, Charlie returns to his conniving ways, using an orphan girl’s ability to talk to animals to become rich at gambling. But when the child’s life is threatened by Carface, Charlie saves her life, and his soul. Charlie sought revenge, but found redemption. All Dogs Go To Heaven teaches that through grace — and especially our acceptance of grace — we are never truly lost. It’s a principle philosophers and theologians have pondered for millennia. All Dogs Go To Heaven makes it simple enough for a child. 

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams is classified as a baseball movie, but it’s a fable about something more profound than “America’s favorite pastime.” In the 1989 film, Kevin Coster plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his corn field after hearing a mysterious voice say: “Build it and he will come.” Who “he” is, Kinsella doesn’t know, but soon his “field of dreams” hosts pickup baseball games for long-dead players. It’s only at the end that Kinsella discovers who “he” really is; Kinsella’s deceased father, who passed away before they could ever reconcile. Regret over things left unsaid and relationships never repaired is one of the greatest of griefs. But even if we can’t play catch with our deceased loved ones like Kinsella, we can take solace knowing love transcends death and disappointment. The real “field of dreams” isn’t a baseball diamond, but the lasting love we have for each other.   

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense remains M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece. It’s almost impossible to mention the film without discussing its “twist” — Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was killed in the beginning of the movie and is visible only to Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who can “see dead people.” This twist remains Shymalan’s most profound because it’s not just there for shock value. Dr. Crowe remains trapped in this world because he doesn’t acknowledge, or even recognize, his own death. The movie reinforces this message. The Sixth Sense is a horror movie that is still able to keep moviegoers up at night. Yet while we’re scared at first, by the end we’re deeply moved to discover the dead people Sears sees aren’t malevolent, but poor souls being held back. Like this movie, we view death (especially our own) with horror and revulsion, until we learn to recognize it, accept it, and move forward.

My Girl

My Girl is a coming-of-age story about a pre-teen girl named Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) whose young life is stalked by death. Her mother died during Vada’s birth, while her father (Dan Aykroyd) owns a funeral home where they both live. Vada finds solace by befriending a fellow outcast in Thomas J. Sennett (Macaulay Culkin), a boy who’s “allergic to everything.” Vada’s world is upended one summer, first by her father beginning a new relationship with a makeup artist (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Thomas being stung to death by bees. Killing off Culkin one year after Home Alone was a bold move, and I imagine studio executives frantically demand a new ending. Yet it is also essential. Death meets us all, but when and where are unknown. What matters most are the people we encounter along the way. 

Creators:
Hunter Cates
Published:
December 14, 2023
April 17, 2023
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