These clichés are widely perpetuated by Hollywood, but in fairness there plenty of other portrayals of heaven available, you just need to rummage around a bit. Here are a round half-dozen, with (hopefully) enough variety for all of us.
1. What Dreams May Come
What Dreams May Come finds Robin Williams in slightly more saccharine form than his best work, here finding himself in heaven after a car crash, but without his wife, who has descended to Hades instead. He decides to “risk everything” by trying to bring her to heaven to be with him once again.
What’s Heaven Like? Very colourful. The CG team clearly went to town with all sorts of toys, painting landscapes and imagining scenes and vistas to take the breath away. It is very much a victim of the sort of story-telling problems that beset many films around that time – special effects technology made certain film elements possible, so it was splatted up on the screen, even though the narrative wasn’t strong enough to enable the whole to cohere into something satisfying. See also – Twister, Hollow Man.
Patrick Swayze is killed by a man who seems to be a mugger but is actually working at the behest of a corrupt colleague, concerned that Swayze is closing in on the truth of his nefarious activities. Swayze lives on as a ghost, following Demi Moore around because of some “unfinished business”. He finally goes all twinkly and heads off into the misty hereafter.
What’s Heaven Like? Hard to say. “More beautiful than we can possibly imagine” is the summary, although there seem to be lots of people there and it’s fairly cloudy. As far as we can tell it is the somewhat archetypal place of rest, peace and bliss – Swayze is leaving Demi behind but seems okay with that, presumably confident that he will see her again soon(ish).
3. Ice Age 2
Scrat the squirrel continues his constantly vain, endlessly thwarted attempts to secure an acorn. This time the seemingly indestructible rodent actually dies and gains entry to heaven, where endless acorns await. But wait. What’s this? He’s feeling pulled back and finds himself sucked back to Earth, where the hapless Sid the Sloth is administering rudimentary CPR. He’s alive! Heaven will have to wait…….
What’s Heaven Like? Very stereotypical. There are gleaming golden gates which open to greet Scrat, while a choir sings. Clouds abound and he prances through them effortlessly, acorns as far as the eye can see. It is heaven as wish-fulfillment – everything that this particular character wants, rather than something for everyone. He fills his arms with acorns before his eye falls on a giant, gleaming acorn, his eyes full of love. Then Sid starts to give him mouth to mouth.
4. Heaven Is For Real
A young boy named Colton comes back from a near-death experience claiming to have seen heaven and his father must decide whether or not to believe him. If he is telling the truth and it wasn’t all dreamed or imagined, then what does it mean for them and the rest of the world?
What’s Heaven Like? Unlike the generic choir/angels/harps/pearly gates/clouds we are so often presented with, what is described for us here is something much more faithful to the Bible – Jesus, a horse, Jesus’ wounds, no-one wearing glasses (we all get new bodies which won’t be poorly or anything like that). All of this detail is part of what lends a little more credibility to what would otherwise have been dismissed out of hand as an elaborate hallucination. Unique in this list for taking the Bible at its word.
5. A Matter of Life and Death
Powell & Pressburger have given us some of our most treasured films and this is up there with the best of them. David Niven’s pilot bails out of his stricken aircraft, having made a meaningful connection with an American radio operator just beforehand. He should have died in the fall (no parachute) but due to some sort of administrative error on the part of Heaven he survives and is able to meet the radio operator that he fell for (no pun intended).
By the time Heaven “catches up with him” and advises him that his time really had come and he must now go, he feels that his embryonic relationship with June changes things and he ought to be able to live on with her, rather than go to heaven. A trial ensues to decide the matter. It’s all very British.
What’s Heaven Like? Interesting. A Matter of Life & Death inverts the approach of The Wizard of Oz and has Earth in Technicolor, with Heaven in a drearier monochrome, matching Niven’s feeling that Earth is actually where he wants to be, the place that now holds all of the appeal for him. Heaven feels bland and boring to him by comparison. The tribunal that sits in order to consider Niven’s case only adds to the sense of austere stuffiness, with officiousness set against love in the ensuing hearing.
It’s not surprising that Niven wants out – if heaven is populated by bland, jobsworth bureaucrats you can keep it. A beautifully conceived and rendered moving staircase can’t save it.
6. Heaven Can Wait
An overly zealous angel whisks Warren Beatty away to heaven just before a car crash that the angel was sure would have killed him. In fact it wasn’t Beatty’s time and he should/would have survived. By the time the error is detected, Beatty’s body has been cremated, so he cannot be restored to that body. Instead he is transplanted into the body of a recently murdered millionaire. Much japery ensues.
What’s Heaven Like? A 1980’s pop video. Lots of dry ice. Not a lot else. There appears to be some sort of holding area, then boarding an aeroplane, but Beatty gets no further than that, as this time the bureaucrats seem keen to set matters straight. Heaven is presented as bland, but innocuous – harmless but not sufficiently appealing for Beatty to want to accelerate his arrival – he wants to live his life first.