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15 Famous Movie Heavens

These 15 heavens almost all exist on another plane.

A Little Bit of Heaven
Photo: Millennium Entertainment

No, this list-maker hasn’t had the pleasure of devouring Kate Hudson’s ticking-clock romance, A Little Bit of Heaven, which sees everyone’s favorite Almost Famous alum continue to chase her first hit like an undiscerning free-baser. The movie did, however, inspire thoughts of cinema’s approach to the great hereafter, which has been visualized as everything from an inhabitable oil painting to your good old field of clouds. Diagnosed with terminal cancer by a doctor (Gael García Bernal) who in turn becomes her squeeze, Hudson’s character tries for a little heaven on earth before her time runs out. These 15 heavens, however, almost all exist on another plane.


Angels in America

Angels in America (2003)

Described by fab nurse Belize (Jeffrey Wright) as “a city like San Francisco,” the promised land in Mike Nichols’s epic rendering of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-crowned play indeed shows the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance when Prior (Justin Kirk) ascends fate’s fiery ladder. But heaven’s landscape is in fact a decked-out version of the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, which rests on a vast expanse at an appropriately high altitude in Tivoli. Yearning for more life, the AIDS-afflicted Prior stands up to the senior angels, rejecting prophet responsibilities and taking a parting blessing before returning to earth via the Villa’s famed, majestic pool.


After Life

After Life (1998)

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s characteristically bittersweet drama about the passage into eternity, the recently deceased arrive in a waystation after their time on earth has ended, meeting with makeshift social workers in anonymous rooms to evaluate their memories. Each of the dead must remember his or her happiest memory in life, and upon watching that memory on a videotape, travel to the great beyond reliving that memory forever. As personal as all of Kore-eda’s mortality-themed projects, After Life contains interviews with real people reflecting on their lives, and it casually doubles as a requiem for the VHS era.


Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

A classic second-chance story, Here Comes Mr. Jordan predates two remakes, both of which appear in this list and both of which were also adapted from Harry Segall’s play, Heaven Can Wait. In this faithful Alexander Hall version starring Oscar nominee Robert Montgomery, pilot and roughneck boxer Joe (Montgomery) is a man taken too soon—way too soon, in fact. Told in a rather boilerplate heaven that he still had 50 years to go, Joe must occupy a fresh, foreign corpse, as his has already been cooked to ashes. Serving as Joe’s cloud-swathed senior advisor is none other than Claude Rains, whom many wouldn’t mind having as their greeter at the pearly gates.


Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991)

An Albert Brooks joint, Defending Your Life sets its post-death realm in a place called Judgment City, where the fallen must have their lives on earth judged, even taking on defense attorneys like the outspoken Bob Diamond (Rip Torn). As the lead character, Brooks learns that humans’ minimal use of their brains is what en evaluation committee uses to determine if each of the departed can move to the next phase of existence. Along the way, he also meets Meryl Streep’s angelic do-gooder, with whom he cavorts around in white robes and eats gourmet, guilt-free food. Call it Club Med for the Dead.


Gladiator

Gladiator (2000)

As Maximus (Russell Crowe) is quick to tell his enemies, he’s not just an arena champion or a former Roman general, he’s the “father of a murdered son” and the “husband of a murdered wife,” and those defining characteristics drive him to the bitter end of Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals opus. Having slain the sniveling Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and restored the Roman government, Maximus is at last released from this mortal coil, free to join his wife and child in an ethereal version of his home, complete with wheat fields tailor-made to run one’s fingers through.


Carousel

Carousel (1956)

Mortally wounded while attempting a robbery to help pay for his unborn child, Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) gets shuffled off to the afterlife, where his job as a carousel barker is replaced by a gig decorating the markedly stagey back door of heaven. Craving another chance to redeem himself, Billy is granted, by his otherworldly mentor, the opportunity to revisit sweetheart Julie and daughter Louise, despite the fact that 15 years have passed. The most popular rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, this Henry King film also features Partridge Family matriarch Shirley Jones as the female lead.


The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Made of garish colors and icky sap not easily washed clean, the childlike heaven perused by Saorsie Ronan in The Lovely Bones is a rather unfortunate stain on the career of Peter Jackson, who adhered far too closely to Alice Sebold’s cloying source material. Young Susie (Ronan) suffers a tragic, horrific demise, but one might argue her eternity is yet more pain to endure, with neon accents, massive flowers, and even disco dancing. Did the Bee Gees stamp her hand at the gate?


Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Arguably a more popular rehash of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait strays a bit from its source narrative, casting Beatty as a football player after Muhammad Ali was unable to fill the written role of a boxer. Doing his best Joe Black, Beatty’s deceased jock takes the body of a slain millionaire, and then a new star quarterback, all the while wooing Julie Christie’s environmentalist, who manages to cosmically maintain the romance no matter what form her partner takes.


The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011)

Few would call Terrence Malick’s vision of the afterlife a novel one, as gathering with one’s family on a peaceful beach doesn’t quite break the mold of filmic heavens. But given the poetic auteur’s masterful penchant for caressing every earthly surface and capturing a specific yet universal Americana, it’s only right that Sean Penn’s tortured Jack would find his family again along a shore of gently crashing waves, where nature and grace might finally reach a perfect harmony.


All Dogs Go to Heaven

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

Directed by Don Bluth, the devout Mormon who also helmed An American Tail and The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven spreads the otherworldly wealth to the four-legged, telling the story of Charlie (Burt Reynolds), a New Orleans-based pooch who’s offed by some canine gangsters and carried straight to heaven. Stealing a “life watch” that keeps him immortal but carries the risk of sending him to hell, Charlie ditches heaven to help out a young orphan named Anne-Marie, whose pint-sized wisdom proves as valuable as paradise in the clouds.


Always

Always (1989)

Surely one of Steven Spielberg’s most maligned films, Always is hardly what many folks would call heavenly. But it does boast an afterlife with the one and only Audrey Hepburn, who in her final film role greets Pete’s (Richard Dreyfusss) immortal soul, cutting his hair and advising him to offer counsel to earthlings he left behind. Things get tricky when Pete’s assigned pupil (Brad Johnson) starts courting his grieving girlfriend (Holly Hunter), a woman to whom Pete couldn’t tell his true feelings until after he passed. Using a runway to finally usher Pete to the great beyond, Always also stands with Gladiator as a movie for whom wheat fields are most divine.


What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Alternately fantastical and horrifying, the vision of the afterlife in What Dreams May Come is, at the very least, something to see. Born from the thoughts of lead character Chris (Robin Williams) and influenced by the artwork of his suicidal soul mate (Annabella Sciorra), heaven is a painterly (ans sometimes painted) mystery land, populated by flora, fauna, and body-swapped family members (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character is in fact Chris’s son) venturing to hell to save his honey’s soul, Chris has to pass through a macabre field of damned faces, but it isn’t long before he’s back in paradise, where the heavenly sun has a certain Midas touch.


Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams (1989)

Our one heaven that’s not entirely off the ground, the titular cornfield of Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is an inter-dimensional gateway, through which late baseball greats (including Ray’s own father) pass when they want to take a break from eternity for a friendly pick-up game. Trusting his visions and ghostly voices at all costs, perhaps even risking his own property, Ray goes ahead and builds it (a baseball diamond, that is), and indeed, they come.


Down to Earth

Down to Earth (2001)

The last and likely least successful rendition of Harry Segall’s Heaven Can Wait production, Down to Earth casts Chris Rock in the role formerly occupied by Warren Beatty and Robert Montgomery, this time making the lead character, Lance Barton, a struggling comedian whose struck by a truck and instantly robbed of decades. In heaven, which is groovy enough to have guardian angels named King and Keyes, who are played by Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy, respectively, Lance learns of his raw deal, and heads back to our orb to romance Regina King, among other things. Chris and Paul Weitz directed this comedy, but it’s Rock who makes the familiar tale worthy of resurrection.


A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s inimitable masterwork A Matter of Life and Death centers around British Royal Air Force pilot Peter (David Niven), who miraculously escapes death after leaping from a doomed plane, yet has to appeal his worthiness to live to those in “The Other World.” Co-starring Kim Hunter and Marius Goring, the wartime fantasy is known for its employment of Technicolor for the earth scenes, and black-and-white Technicolor Mono-chrome for the heaven scenes, which wow the eyes with visions of a vast ampitheatre and an escalator that links our world and the hereafter.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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