Dead Like Me

1. Within the Finite

So the afterlife is just vague, menacing dopes from our own lives? That’s the ultimate answer?
— Crow T. Robot

Being among the most daring conjectures about divinity in movies, the shiny-lights-and-nonsense climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is also among cinema’s most reviled and revised sequences. The movie’s sequel, 2010 (1984), doesn’t so much pick up where 2001 leaves off — no one seems to be quite sure where that is — as it tries to account for the original’s more ambiguous or troubling aspects. Thus the malevolent HAL of the first movie becomes servile and harmless for the second, and the mysterious black monoliths are explained away as cosmic Swiss Army knives, flexible tools that the movies’ presiding extraterrestrial intelligence deploys for a variety of purposes.

In 2010‘s most conspicuous revision, the aliens — unseen in the original — are revealed to be mere landlords. They universalize a Western view of property ownership by giving the solar system to Earthlings, with the sole stipulation that Jupiter’s moon Europa be left alone because the aliens have planted another form of life there. In his book on big-name Hollywood directors of the 1960s and ’70s, A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Phillip Kolker attributes the revisions of 2010 to “the openness of the original [movie],” which “needed other images to respond and close it, give it manageable and unthreatening meaning.”

2001 is threatening not only because of the narrative openness Kolker describes, but also because of the movie’s willingness to depict the afterlife as unfamiliar, bizarre, astral rather than terrestrial. Most characters in popular culture who breach the Final Boundary don’t ascend into some wholly strange place, but instead slide smoothly into a twilight permutation of earthly existence. Stanley Kubrick notwithstanding, recent cinema just doesn’t do heaven.

Take Carnival of Souls (1962), in which Mary (Candace Hilligoss), the victim of a car crash, lingers in a state of undead consciousness following her death. She watches from a railroad bridge as men in rowboats drag the river for her body, but she either doesn’t know what they’re looking for, or can’t accept it. Dazed, she drives back home, where she takes up again as though she were still alive; going ahead with plans to get her first-ever paying job, she moves to the city to become a church organist. At the new position, she wows the pastor with her gorgeous organ work, yet politely rebuffs his offer to introduce her to the church choir. “My dear,” he scolds, “you can’t live in isolation from the human race.”

Mary begins to suffer spells in which she seems to be invisible and no one responds to her. She sees a doctor who opines that it’s all in her head and urges her to confront this curious feeling of alienation she’s felt her entire life. She never figures out her problem, though, and only when she’s inexplicably drawn to a phantasmagoric, haunted pavilion is her body found at the bottom of the river. The moment crystallizes that all of her post-crash experience has been either fantasy or fugue, some impossible twilight between life and death that would confound the audience’s belief were it not so banal.

The premise of Carnival of Souls was later adapted — and made even more mundane — for 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, in which Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) spends his afterlife toddling about the streets of New York City, sorting and delivering mail. As with the brilliant Carnival of Souls and the frequently clever Jacob’s Ladder, so too with the lame-ass, Mystery-Science-Theatered Soultaker (1990), which imagines the afterlife as a workaday venture in which the recently deceased assume responsibility for collecting the souls of the soon-to-die. The afterworld is likewise bureaucratic in 1988’s Beetlejuice, whose undead characters sometimes visit an otherworldly province — but one even more officious and tedious than the here and now, complete with interminable layovers in waiting rooms, the apathetic ministrations of suicides-turned-civil-servants, and ponderous manuals describing the rules and regulations that apply to the dead.

The afterlife-that’s-just-like-life motif also pops up other places, such as in the particularly reflexive time travel movies that have issued steadily from Hollywood since at least the 1970s. Time After Time (1979), Back to the Future (1985), and (the also Mystery-Science-Theatered) Time Chasers (1993) all feature time travelers who zip into the future only to discover that they were murdered in the stretch of time they skipped: Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), H.G. Wells’ (Malcolm McDowell) tour guide to the disco era in Time After Time, dies at the nefarious hands of Jack the Ripper (David Warner); in Back to the Future, Doc (Christopher Lloyd) looks on as “terrorists” machine-gun another version of him.

These time travelers spend most of their time straightening out the mess they’ve made meddling with the essential order of things. But in most of the other movies I’ve mentioned, this order is nowhere near so mutable; in fact, the enduring and established powers-that-be more often offer employment opportunities for the newly defunct, to keep them from hanging around on street corners. Brad (David Shark), the hard-rockin’, muscle-car-drivin’ grim reaper in Soultaker — who has died, like the victims in Carnival of Souls and Beetlejuice, in an auto wreck — occupies himself in the afterlife by waiting in hospital rooms for people to pass on so that he can lay his hands on them, absorbing their souls into small condomlike hoops he has pressed into his palm.

He describes his post-life vocation thusly: “I got a new job I didn’t even know I was applying for; I make pickups and deliveries” of extinguished spirits. When his friend Zach (Gregg Thomsen) — who has also died, but doesn’t know it yet — expresses confusion, he clarifies: “Led Zeppelin was wrong, man. There is no stairway to heaven.”

2. Dead Like George

There is a particularly sad time of the day… namely, twilight. This is the time when day turns into night and snakes die. This is also the time when the wedge between life and death is thinnest and our souls fill with melancholy.
— Andrei Codrescu

It’s easy to think that, obscure though it is, Soultaker has a fan somewhere in the team behind Dead Like Me, Showtime’s series with a virtually identical premise. A temp whose life is going nowhere, Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth), shares much of Mary-from-Carnival of Souls‘s disaffection. In her new position as a reaper, George gets into trouble about as often as the time travelers do, as her nescience and metaphysical curiosity lead her to noodle around with forces about which she knows little. Her biggest goof comes when she tries to spare the life of an exercise machine designer, only to bring about the deaths of scores when her actions cause a dangerous design flaw in the machine to go unnoticed.

George’s curiosity, though, is also the conduit for much of the show’s energy, when it has any. In the best episode of the first season — dubbed, appropriately, “Curious George” — she grills co-reaper Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) on the ins and outs of the afterlife, as the two try to knock a dead-but-not-yet-soulpopped parachutist out of a tree. “Can you take trees’ souls?” George wonders aloud, free-associating. “Do trees have souls?”

Betty doesn’t know, but George is undeterred. “What about animals? Or rocks? What if you try to take a soul’s soul?” Having passed into the beyond, George apparently believes — not unreasonably — that some kind of privileged insight into the workings of the cosmos is in order. No such luck. Betty, who has been in the soulpopping business for nearly a century, knows no more about life, the universe, and everything than neophyte George does. “I asked Rube,” their boss (Mandy Patinkin), Betty explains with a shrug. “He said that you just don’t do it. So I don’t.”

If the afterlife’s powers-that-be discourage such philosophical inquiry as George favors, certain other forms of inquisitiveness are not merely encouraged but essential to discharging a grim reaper’s responsibilities. The most important skill a reaper can have is the ability to read potential menace in what appear to be everyday occurrences — in today’s language, to interpret the “threat matrix.”

This is because, when a reaper is given an assignment, he or she receives only a Post-It note with the soon-to-be victim’s initial, last name, and the location and rough time of death. More than once when George arrives at the scene of the doomed one’s impending misfortune, she finds not the obviously rising menace one might expect but a complicated, crowded milieu — an extended family picnic, packed alehouse, or church wedding — from which the subtle cues of disaster must be discerned. Predicting who is to die and how is the hardest part of grim reaping, given the nearly infinite variables involved in even the simplest social situation and the dire consequences of failure: if an unpopped soul dies in its body, the person suffers all the agony of the experience, and bears the scars, presumably for eternity.

And so George and the other reapers endeavor to develop the particular skills needed to predict impending mishaps, in situations that don’t even involve them. This is doubly tricky because it requires an ability to disrupt one’s own habits of thought and perceive what one might not normally, to liberate one’s mind to pick up a flash of particularly wild intuition or an element of the environment that would otherwise be invisible.

In the interest of cultivating this ability, George interrogates another co-worker, Roxy (Jasmine Guy), as they idle at a gas station trying to figure out who’s about to be killed by a wild bear. The station, which figures throughout the episode, becomes a media circus by this time — complete with animal rights protestors concerned over the fate of the aforementioned bear, and a local television news crew with a news truck, there to cover the protests. George asks how Roxy thinks the death is going to happen, to which Roxy irritably replies, “The parking brake on the truck fails, the truck runs into the gas pump, so that the antenna tower sparks the lights on the [gas station] canopy.”

George’s sarcastic reply — “Is that, like, a reaper thing? To take the long shot?” — demonstrates the pitch of her learning curve when it turns out that Roxy, who was mostly joking, was also mostly right. The TV news anchorman (Michael Robinson) ends up being the unlucky winner of the most-likely-to-die sweepstakes when he runs afoul not of the bear, but of the media apparatus on which Roxy had so fixated: the bear escapes and hangs menacingly over him and he wets himself with panic, which causes him to be electrocuted when his piddle makes contact with a loose connection in one of the news vans’ cables.

In the subsequent episode involving the exercise machine, Roxy again serves as the model for George to follow, succeeding where George has failed. At the conclusion, after George’s conspicuous ruse to spare the life of the exercise designer has failed so disastrously, Roxy takes a subtler approach to a similar end when she is assigned to claim the soul of a man who had done her a good turn the year before. Early on the morning of their appointment, she simply steals into his home and turns off his power; his alarm doesn’t go off and he oversleeps, missing his own death.

This deft move leads one to wonder: what is the nature of Roxy’s unique skill? What precisely does she know that the neophyte George does not? The ability to read impending death out of the fabric of daily life might have something to do with a carefully cultivated detachment, one that allows the more veteran reapers to coexist with the animate. “We’re facilitators,” Rube explains, “not participants.” Aside from getting menial day jobs to pay for their frequent pancake breakfasts at Der Waffle Haus, reapers generally steer clear of the living — friendships, love affairs, even extended conversations with the not-yet-dead are all frowned on, or outright forbidden.

This seems a terrible price to pay and George chafes bitterly at paying it, but it has a certain benefit too. Liberated from the selective perception that comes hand in hand with rational existence, the reapers are better prepared to anticipate the unexpected, to see that imminent moment when the terrestrial and the cosmic are linked and a person passes from one to the other. This, undoubtedly, is why the only living human in Dead Like Me to have an inkling of the reapers’ mission is a schizophrenic, who is uninvested in the ordinary and can therefore see it for what it really is. Most of us wear grooves in our lives by living in only a portion of them. The remainder — the more important part — races by us, unobserved.

3. The Great Whatever

Where Do You Live Now?
— Reggie, Dead Like Me

If “Curious George” is largely devoted to George’s travails as a grim reaper, the episode is not so much about this as it is about George’s struggle to let go of the family she left behind when she died. George’s frequent voiceover explains the troubled dynamics among her unsmiling mother Joy (Cynthia Stevenson); her little sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), a bird carcass-snatching hybrid of Wednesday Adams and Winona Ryder’s Lydia in Beetlejuice; and her distant father (Greg Kean), who pretends to work long hours to mask an affair he is having with one of George’s friends.

Really, though, the problem is that the surviving Lasses don’t know how to grieve for their lost daughter, a failure it’s hard to blame them for, since she’s not actually gone. Reggie is the one to observe most of George’s visitations as, in a different body (Laura Boddington), she lurks stealthily in the yard of her erstwhile home, sneaks into the house to do some of Reggie’s math homework, or leaves a stuffed Frankenberry doll with mutual sentimental value on the front stoop. George wants to communicate with Reggie, but isn’t allowed. She can only introduce anomalies into Reggie’s life, and thereby drop subtle hints.

The little sister, meanwhile, is trying to make contact, too. She sits alone in her room one night with a Ouija board and asks George where she lives now that she’s passed on. The pointer scoots past the board’s letters and numbers and settles on the crescent moon that’s part of the board’s design, not telling but showing — and reflecting Reggie’s preconceptions rather than answering her outright. She expects that her sister has gone up, somewhere. We know this isn’t true.

There’s a match fade to a moon in the night sky and the camera tilts to George, who’s clawing at the side of a tree. For a second it looks like she’s scrambling toward the crescent moon, but in fact she’s just trying to get that parachutist down and can’t figure out how. Eventually she and Betty hit on the idea of pelting him with rocks, and he tumbles to Earth. Later, George and Betty escort him to a clearing. He gapes in dumbstruck wonder at the sky, and at some great cosmic thing with which he’s about to become One. But it takes a moment before we get a look, and George doesn’t seem particularly impressed. She’s seen it.

“Is that…?” the parachutist stammers.

“The great — whatever, yeah,” George answers with a shrug.

The sky has become luminescent with drifting chutes and ladders, and board-game squares that float through the blackness like logs in a stream. A ladder touches down in a clearing and the parachutist climbs up and away. The experience of death for this type-A personality has been a vertiginous thrill, an enlightenment that takes place largely in the spinal cord and inner ear. But for George, who is all cerebrum, even the naked sight of paradise is unedifying; it’s a picture of heaven and hell projected in the sky, a metaphor for revelation rather than a revelation in its own right. If cinema doesn’t do heaven, neither does premium cable.

One recent movie that breaks this rule is Artificial Intelligence (2001), although maybe this stands to reason since AI — a Steven Spielberg adaptation of a project that Stanley Kubrick never got around to making — is a half-sibling of the movie that so flagrantly broke the rule in 1968.

AI‘s carnivalesque vision of the afterlife comes when the artificial boy David, following a driving obsession to become “real” and thereby earn his human mother’s (Frances O’Connor) love, winds his way through an elaborate dystopian future in search of the “blue fairy.” He isn’t quite sure who this is but believes, based on the Pinocchio tale, that she can make him human. At long last, he falls from a high building in Manhattan and sinks to the bottom of the ocean — where he finds what he’s been looking for all this time.

With the help of benefactor Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), David uses a pod-like helicopter to return to the ocean floor, where the movie reveals the source of his wonderment: a life-sized likeness of a winged woman in a blue dress, a Coney Island attraction long ago submerged by the melting of the polar ice caps. Trapped underwater, David fixes in a Narcissus-style trance on this miracle, and falls into a sleep that resembles death. He only reawakes, Rip Van Winkle-style, 2,000 years later when a hyper-evolved, benevolent race of androids reboots him. They let him out of the helicopter and he stumbles awestruck to the blue fairy, where it crumbles under his merest touch.

The sequence has the feel of epilogue, and of death and rebirth: over the two intervening millennia, the human race has died away and the Earth has dipped into another ice age, so that David steps out into a far different world than had surrounded him when he fell asleep. And anyway, the symbolism of the beatific blue fairy is pretty hard to miss.

Unfortunately, AI‘s expansion into visions of the afterlife also signals its most acute contraction into the sentimentality that has dogged most of Spielberg’s career. Arriving at this point has involved enduring a great deal of mawkishness and overlooking a string of implausible plot turns besides (David’s abysmal plunge into the ocean leaves him undamaged, or again, he and Joe both spontaneously learn how to fly the police helicopter they’ve stolen).

The sappiness is thickest when the androids — fascinated with extinct humanity — pillage David’s memory banks to assimilate his knowledge of and experience with the living. In return, they offer him a family reunion like the one George Lass is never able to arrange. Following a day of what is, for him, paradise — that is, cavorting about the house with his provisionally resurrected mom — David slips into a never-ending slumber. Presumably, he doesn’t dream.

The whole affair is structured as a multi-layered homage to Kubrick, and 2001 in particular. The windscreen reaction shots of Joe and David evoke the close-ups of Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) puzzled mug in 2001‘s last reel, and there’s a parallel in the trajectories of the two conclusions: from the strange and otherworldly back, virtually without explanation, to ordinary (if opulent) artificial interiors.

In order to make all this happen, Spielberg must do some very curious things with perceptions of consciousness and humanity. Yes, the movie is preoccupied with the ironic notion that David might experience love or be visited by apparitions like the blue fairy, who signify other planes of existence or “magical” modes of thought. We distinctly associate such things with being human. But in piling on more implausible plot points to arrive at its conclusion, AI also comes to imagine humanity as being strangely robotic.

The automata recreate Monica, David’s mom, out of a DNA sample, but those thus conjured survive only a single day. When she falls asleep after several hours of playing with her artificial son, she never awakens again. Despite this — and even though she has inexplicably found herself, post-death, returned to an intermediate stage of her earthly life — Monica never asks how she has arrived here, never tries to do what I imagine I would in such a situation: to orient herself in time and place. She supervises David at play — she seems to enjoy it but this is nevertheless labor for her, a continuation of the work she did in life — and nods off at twilight without a single expression of curiosity regarding her broader circumstance.

This is reminiscent of the androids sent to certain death earlier on, when they are used as literal cannon fodder for a Grand Guignol sideshow. Like Monica, they meet their fates with an odd complacency; even on the brink of annihilation, they lack interest in their environments or in spiritual or mystical matters. Most are programmed for specific purposes, and instead immerse themselves in this programming as their time to die approaches — a nanny, for instance, coddles David before she goes indifferently to oblivion, and looks on him as her face melts away. Or a spider-like android bargains levelly with the stagehands who are carrying him to his demise, to convince them that he’s still of use. “I still work, don’t I?” he says, in a tone that indicates he’d rather survive than die, but ultimately isn’t that bothered either way. “I can work in the dark, but my lamplight will not work.”

By the end of the movie, the poles of human and artificial have been reversed. The robots cling to dreams and rail against mortality — David yells at the automata who have resurrected him, bashes in the head of a replica of himself. He struggles and fights and perseveres. The world’s sole surviving human, on the other hand, gives up the ghost without insight or complaint. This makes the afterlife that AI imagines into a stark thought experiment, an abstract otherworld that don’t apply to us humans. Underlying Spielberg’s sentimentality, one uncovers a disconcerting nihilism. Despite all the religious symbolism and intimations of immortality, literal death in AI is the permanent, dreamless sleep of the atheist.

This is where AI diverges from 2001 for good, and demonstrates the cost of giving the mysterious manageable and unthreatening meaning. The movie’s conventional wisdom leads to a kind of spiritlessness, much as 2010‘s revisions deplete and diminish the original movie.

Something similar happens with Dead Like Me‘s brief moment of exquisite unmanageability. By Episode 6, Roxy has inexplicably vanished and George, having largely abandoned her frantic struggle for understanding, has become a harvester of self-help platitudes. “It’s better to be the ball than the pin,” Rube informs her after she joins the office bowling league. Bearing this dime-store wisdom in mind, she pulls off a last minute, one-point win for the team on the climactic frame of the big game.

In Roxy’s absence, her nearly mystical, deep-structuralist talents have degenerated into an Obi-Wan Kenobi brand of silly pop wisdom. Its study yields not more insight, but a simple facility for throwing the ball straight and becoming a team player. By now the show has vigorously jumped the shark, becoming an imitator of frivolous big-win narratives from Rocky (1976) to Ghostbusters (1984). Meanwhile the mystery of death that looms over the whole lot of us again recedes into the background, the guilty secret on which we can sometimes bear to reflect — but never for very long.