Opinions by Ronald Bruce Meyer
-- Peculiar Views of Movies and the Arts --
Reviewed 2002-08-24: When someone you love dies... are they gone forever? That's not only the theme of Dragonfly, directed by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) and starring Kevin Costner, but a recurring question in life. It's a question worthy of exploration via philosophy and religion, but it is not treated very scientifically in this film.
Dr. Joe Darrow (Costner) is a highly skilled skeptic of an ER doctor at a major Chicago hospital; his wife Emily (Susanna Thompson, seen mostly in flashback), is the pediatric oncologist who follows her heart to work in Venezuela, in spite of her pregnancy and a caseload at the same hospital. After she dies in a bus accident, Joe starts experiencing recurring appearances of Emily's favorite insect -- and, strangely, the patients she made Joe promise to look after keep drawing a squiggly cross. Are these messages from Emily in the afterlife? What is she trying to say?
Whatever the message is, it takes the bulk of the film's 104-minute running time for Dr. Joe to get it. And though the ending is kind of cute, it is in the meantime that we experience superfluous talent: his lawyer neighbor, played by Kathy Bates, and a near-death experience collector, played by Linda Hunt, if better developed, might have made this film more interesting, if not more plausible. There is what in Hollywood passes for skepticism from the Bates character, and from the father of one young patient, but it is merely token. Joe -- who tries to discourage an attempted suicide by saying that there is no "better place": that this life is all you get -- comes around quickly. What can I say? The "transcendental temptation" sells Hollywood films (the term was coined by Paul Kurtz to describe the urge to wishful thinking over evidence-based belief). Empiricism is boring, anyway. And so, I'm afraid, is Kevin Costner's acting, which in this film shows a strictly limited range.
As it happens, science knows a little bit about near-death experiences (NDEs) and so-called evidence of an afterlife. A little boy "flatlines" in the ER but revives to describe things that took place while he was "dead," and from a view he couldn't have had, but these cases are easily explained. While we see the events in the film, scripted and directed for us, in real life the cases are never so clear-cut. Some people have pleasant NDEs; some have horrible ones (we never hear about those); also rarely reported are those who have no sensations of floating, or "out of body experience" (OBE) or bright light at the end of a tunnel. First of all, you have to wonder from whom promoters of classic NDEs collect their data: from people in a semi-conscious or unconscious state, in whom the brain chemistry is already in disarray? Second, that same chemistry can explain the "peaceful feeling" some experience: the release of endorphins. In fact, NDEs can be reproduced with the anesthetic drug ketamine, which is shorter-acting but chemically related to PCP. People under ketamine have reported all of the features of classic NDEs, including communion with God and the dead (as Dr. Joe does). The one true quote from the film, voiced by a supporting character, is "Death is like being pregnant; you either are or you're not." These experiences are "near-death"; they aren't dead.
Science tells us the OBEs are quite a bit more likely to be in-body (or in-brain) experiences. No matter how real it seems, it only seems. The "visions" of Emily's Joe remind us of the limitless human capacity for self-delusion, and for mistaken perception. But that's not what goes on in Dragonfly. What's underestimated by this film is the intelligence of its viewer.
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.