Among the big questions Man ponders daily, the only one more humbling than "where did we come from?" is "what happens when we die?" Do we pass on, are we judged for our mortal actions, are we nothing more than the complex combination of living tissue and chemicals? The scariest prospect about coming to terms with one's own death may be the complete loss of control, the notion that whatever comes next -- be it spiritual, supernatural, or nothing at all -- is equal parts unstoppable and mysterious.
Treading in this ocean of phobia, we have Agneska Wojtowicz-Vosloo's 'After.Life', the chilling, atmospheric tale of car crash victim Anna (Christina Ricci) who awakes on the cold, metal preparation table of a funeral home. There she meets funeral director Elliot (Liam Neeson) who has the ability to speak with the dead, to help them on their final journey. The question the film then dramatically explores is this: is Anna really dead, a ghost unwilling to face death; or is Eliot a deranged psychopath holding her hostage so can enjoy burying her alive?
Selling this amazing tale with all they've got is a very talented cast, lead by Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci. Taking a break from his recent action hero characters, Neeson is as creepy as they come – either a burdened man with a gift that feels like a curse, or a very sick puppy. Ricci, whose acting resume is filled with weird characters and worlds, is a perfect fit for Anna. Emotionally complex and an a-typical beauty befitting to a potential-corpse who our young male readers probably shouldn't find attractive if she is in fact deceased. Breaking the fourth wall for a moment and remembering this is only a movie, these same readers might enjoy learning in advance that Ms. Ricci spends a significant portion of 'After.Life' in the nude. Justin Long is also good for the most part, though I sometimes have a hard time seeing him in dramas given his comedic charm. Here he plays a grieving boyfriend well, though a tad over-explosive.
I had the distinct pleasure of reading 'After.Life' as a screenplay years ago and meeting its co-writer/director. She was as engaging as her script, a fascinating story where every few pages, I was convinced of one diametrically opposed conclusion and then the other (dead Anna, or prisoner Anna). Oscillating between possibilities is where this story lives or dies; tip too far in one direction and half the movie (the other possibility) becomes a cheat. I won't spoil things here, but I must say 'After.Life' was a stronger written piece than it is a film. More tense, more believable -- and to my fading recollection -- leaner, lacking some of the film's many dreams (or possible hauntings). The repeated twists, however, do become less and less effective as the audience loses trust in what the storyteller is presenting.
Nitpicking aside, 'After.Life' is a pretty successful film, with some tense set pieces and many well-earned twists and turns. I wish I had been able to connect with the Anna character earlier, known more about her emotional state before the car crash, stayed more with Anna's point-of-view throughout, but in the end I was along for the ride, and the film's conclusion is quite unsettling, though I suppose it will be up to each audience member to decide if the film stands up on its own premise, and earns what we see. I personally feel the movie would have been stronger without the dreams; they feel like a cheated complication to the core question of supernatural versus psychopath.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'After.Life' is housed on one single-layer 25GB Blu-ray disc, and is Region A locked. Popping the disc into your player brings up HD trailers for 'The Disappearance of Alice Creed', 'Frozen', ' I Spit On Your Grave', and Starz' 'Spartacus Blood and Sand', all of which can be skipped by hitting the Menu button.
'After.Life' debuts on Blu-ray with a very nice AVC-MPEG4 1080p (aspect ratio 2.40:1) transfer.
Though it never achieves near that reference "3D-like" quality, detail here is plentiful. Please see the goose bumps on Ms. Ricci's chilled skin, wood grain and stone textures in the funeral home, and just about anything else on screen. Skin tones are natural when they're supposed to be. Grain levels are consistent and add to the filmic experience. Contrast isn't the most aggressive; whites have a tendency to blow out, which I attribute mostly to filmmaker intent. Black levels are inky, with many scenes around the funeral home drenched in shadow, with fine detail still visible in the dark. There are some minor issues: focus, green screens outlines, some shots that seem more "video" than others, and very slight banding during the white opening title sequence.
Over all, very solid, but not demo material.
As strong as the video presentation is, 'After.Life' underwhelms via an English Linear-PCM 5.1 surround sound mix, though this isn't surprising given what we've experienced with other Anchor Bay Blu-rays like 'Brooklyn's Finest'. Thankfully there are no glaring positional errors as in that release, but 'After.Life' is so very quiet, and dialogue can be hard to hear without adjusting the volume after louder sequences. As an example of low the base volume is on this Blu-ray, set the volume on your sound system so you can hear the dialogue clearly, then flip on the director's commentary, which is comparatively bombastic.
The truth is we can't simply judge a mix for low levels. On the positive side, sound and music complement the film's creepy tone quite well, and envelope listeners in all five channels, though panning effects aren't very aggressive. LFE levels are adequate, but also slightly underused given some of the intense imagery on screen. Overall, the PCM track on this home video release is serviceable, and fits the subtle, slow pace the filmmakers intended; it's simply not dynamic or outstanding.
For those who wish to (or must) read along with 'After.Life', Anchor Bay has provide English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Given a limited appearance at the box office, it's no wonder 'After.Life' comes to home video with very few special features. The good news for fans is that via the commentary and a very short documentary, you do get a direct, one-on-one conversation with the co-writer/director about the film and what it all means.
Though not perfect, and perhaps a better read than a final film, 'After.Life' provides a chilling mediation on one of our biggest fears: death. It's easy to see how the filmmakers attracted such a talented cast, who each deliver top-notch performances. Yet, I wish they had avoided the overuse of dream sequences. The most interesting dialogue about this film, I think, will come after repeat viewings. Does it hold up against its own rules? Is it as tense? How will the audience-film relationship evolve? I for one can't wait to find out. A solid directorial debut, let's see what's next.
This is a definite Rental for those who have not seen (it's not blind buy demo material, so you might wish to check out before spending your hard earned greenbacks), and a Recommend for fans (decent audio, very good video, and a chance to learn more about the film with the director).