Heavenly features

Josh Larsen

The latest filmmaker to have a go at depicting heaven is Peter Jackson, with “The Lovely Bones.”

Jackson would seem to be better suited to such a challenge than most. He specialized in fantastic visions with the “Lord of the Rings” series and had his breakthrough with the independent crime fantasy “Heavenly Creatures.” In other words, he has a background in bringing worlds that we have never before seen to the multiplex screen.

“The Lovely Bones,” based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller about a murdered teen who tries to stay connected with her family after her death, isn’t about heaven, exactly. Jackson envisions a sort of gooey afterlife, a pastel purgatory of undulating vistas. Susie Salmon (an ethereal Saoirse Ronan) wanders this “in between,” as it’s called, where she catches occasional glimpses of her family, deep in mourning. She sees them but they can’t see her, making her part ghost, part angel and part martyr awaiting her eternal reward.

Susie is a quasi-religious figure, then, in a movie whose theology is as solid as cotton candy. “The Lovely Bones” made me wonder: What do such depictions do to our understanding of the Heaven in which we believe? Expand it? Confuse it? Water it down?

I’m all for impressionistic takes on life after death, from “A Christmas Carol” to “Beetlejuice.” One of my favorites – even if it is decidedly not Biblical - is the Japanese import “After Life,” in which the recently deceased get to select one memory they will take with them for eternity.

At the same time, impressionism can sometimes become so abstract it’s useless. Consider the pretty vagueness of Robin Williams’ “What Dreams May Come” and, I’d argue, “The Lovely Bones.” Susie floats from one dazzling dreamscape to another, none of which leave much of a lasting impression. If anything, my understanding of heaven is fuzzier after watching her journey toward it.

What movies have affected your vision of heaven, for better or for worse?