''Meet Joe Black,'' ''What Dreams May Come,'' and ''City of Angels'' teach valuable afterlife lessons

This semester, USC students enrolled in the philosophy department elective Death and Immortality will be analyzing all the deep thinkers: Plato, Descartes…and Robin Williams!? Yep, you read that right. Intrigued by the metaphysical aspects of the actor’s most recent film, What Dreams May Come, philosophy professor Dallas Willard has added the movie to the class syllabus, believing ”it enables [my students] to think about heaven in some way other than a big white blob.”

Inspiring a college-course assignment was probably not what PolyGram had in mind when it greenlit Dreams, but Hollywood’s preoccupation with the afterlife is definitely worth putting to the test. With superstars such as Nicolas Cage (City of Angels), Brad Pitt (Meet Joe Black), and Michael Keaton (in the upcoming Jack Frost) portraying spirits in the material world, secular visions of heaven and hell are becoming as commonplace at the multiplex as three-hour running times.

Yet as the movies move toward the light, they’re creating their own peculiar cinematic catechism. Going back to 1996’s Michael, Hollywood filmmakers have hit strikingly similar chords about angels, God, heaven, hell, and what makes life worth living. As spiritual pundit Rabbi Marc Gellman, one half of Good Morning America‘s God Squad, observes, ”Finally, the movies are asking gigantic questions: How do we live life? Is there a God? What happens after we die?” Maybe so, but let’s face it: Hollywood’s answers add up to a touchy-feely, shrewdly all-inclusive, slightly warped version of spirituality featuring to-die-for angels and special effects that have a Pottery Barn burnish. If you had to rework some of the Ten Commandments based on these films, they would have to go something like this:

Thou shalt covet any woman on earth.
When they aren’t mooning over sunsets, most of the male ethereal beings (who are about as sexually threatening as Leonardo DiCaprio) spend an inordinate amount of time longing for women here on earth (Meet Joe Black, City of Angels, and Michael). Even in Dreams, Williams finds his color-splashed afterlife intolerable without his still-living wife.

Honor thy stomach now.
Apparently, the food up there sucks. Why else does everyone on earth patrol derive near-orgasmic enjoyment from eating? Pitt’s Joe Black is in ecstasy over peanut butter. John Travolta’s Michael likes a few Frosted Flakes with his morning mound of sugar. Nicolas Cage’s Seth, when human, indulges in a passion for pears. And in 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, what does Denzel Washington’s angel make one of his first orders of earthly business? To scarf down a slice of pizza and a hot dog, of course.

Do not take the name of Armani in vain.
Since Eden, God must have gotten a subscription to GQ. Halos, harps, wings, billowy white robes, and cherubic baby fat have been replaced by tailored suits, sumptuous black trench coats, and, occasionally, a cool fedora. Pitt’s grim reaper is so stylishly attired, he would look at home on a Milan runway. Asked why they turned Death into such a fashion plate, Kevin Wade, one of Meet Joe Black‘s screenwriters, responds, ”You have to have a Death that you’re drawn to, because otherwise it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s Death, don’t get near me!”’

City of Angels
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