Here's a handy tip for any aspiring screenwriter out there: Let's say you have three or four moderately interesting but half-baked story ideas and can't figure out how to develop any one of them into a feature-length narrative. Why don't you just combine them into a single script and make everything seem deeper and more profound than it really is?
I'm not saying that's what was on Peter Morgan's mind as he was crafting the screenplay for Hereafter, but the cynic in me can't help but wonder. After all, you couldn't blame an experienced screenwriter like Morgan - already an Oscar nominee for The Queen and Frost/Nixon - if he noticed the predominant critical reaction to movies like Crash and Babel, which threw a bunch of characters together, tacked on some sort of "isn't it fascinating how interconnected we all are" material, then waited for the hosannas to rain down. Hereafter's three mostly paralleled narrative strands are fairly uninvolving, individually; twisted together into something that grasps at profundity. It just starts to feel desperate.
Those three stories begin not just in different cities, but in different countries. In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) tries to find a normal life after abandoning his psychic abilities - he can connect to a person's dead loved ones with just a touch of the hand - that once made him a minor celebrity. Meanwhile, French TV journalist Marie Lelay (Cécile de France) finds her life turned upside down after a near-death experience during a tsunami leaves her with visions of the afterlife. And in London, a young boy named Marcus (Frankie & George McLaren) is left adrift after his twin brother, Jason, dies during a traffic accident.
Hereafter grabs the audience with a natural disaster that changes Marie's life - a CGI-manufactured set piece that provides a surprising visceral punch - and events that leave young Jason dead. But shortly thereafter, the film settles into the melancholy mood that is director Clint Eastwood's default setting of late, whether he's dealing with an inspirational rugby match (Invictus), a cranky old man (Gran Torino), or a missing child (Changeling). The Eastwood-composed piano and/or guitar music plays, cinematographer Tom Stern provides shadowy compositions and people stare forlornly into the distance - predictable for late-model Eastwood, yet perhaps fairly appropriate for a movie about grief and people confronting the question of what happens after death.
But Morgan, it turns out, doesn't have anything interesting to say about either subject. Marie becomes obsessed enough with her visions that she visits a doctor (Marthe Keller) who provides "scientific evidence" of near-death experiences; Marcus tries to investigate religious and new age-y teachings about the afterlife; and George attempts to start a relationship with a woman he meets in a cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard). The plotting moves these people along, but Morgan never takes enough time to really confront the tangled feelings of people struggling to reconcile what they've previously thought to be true with what they want to be true. Like virtually every film that addresses the world beyond, it simply regurgitates a bland pudding of comforting nondenominational platitudes.
That would have been frustrating enough - and then Hereafter decides that it's extremely important to yank these three people's lives into closer proximity. If there were a superlative form of "contrived," that's exactly the word one would want to use for the way Morgan chooses to make that intersection happen, resulting in encounters that seem intended to be cathartic yet instead merely emphasize how little we truly know these characters. The fact that they have a chance to look one another in the eye does nothing to make them - or the previous 100 minutes of filmmaking - more interesting.
You really get a sense of what's missing during the scenes with Howard, whose character is the only one expressing prickly, genuinely human-seeming emotions. For a movie about life and death, Hereafter almost never finds its main characters appearing angry, or scared, or engaged in any meaningful way with what's happening to them. Marie responds to suspicions of her lover's infidelity with the same vague disappointment that Marcus shows when a variety of fraudulent "sensitives" offer no insight into Jason's fate. Hereafter is a movie that tells us nothing, and does so in a generally tedious way - but hey, isn't it fascinating how interconnected we all are?