Content Warning: the following article contains discussions of depression, death, chronic illness, and near-death experiences.
The existential Netflix docuseries Surviving Death has remained a morbid curiosity among the most rabid viewers of the streaming service. Directed by Ricki Stern, the six-part series joins a long line of nonfiction films and TV shows exploring death, the afterlife, and what possibly lies ahead in the next life, if anything.
While the themes can be a bit heavy and anxiety-inducing at times, the series also offers unexpected glimpses of hope and optimism. Viewers may later want more thought-provoking documentaries on similar subjects.
Updated on June 13th, 2021 by Kristen Palamara: Surviving Death on Netflix is a mini-series documentary that explores several topics from interviews and research including looking into multiple cases of near-death experience and the possibility of reincarnation. Netflix’s Surviving Death is a popular docuseries and there are countless other documentaries that delve into morbid topics like death either focusing on one case of someone fading away like in So Much So Fast. Some documentaries are existential, deal with morbid topics, and challenge the viewer’s thinking in these shows like Surviving Death.
14 The Simulation Hypothesis (2015)
The Simulation Hypothesis looks into the idea of living in a simulation and brings together some of the top thinkers of today to discuss the theory like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Paul Davies, and James Gates.
The documentary delves into the fundamental idea of reality in itself and challenges the viewer to question their own reality and what is presented to them on a daily basis in this thought-provoking documentary.
13 Death By Design (2016)
Death by Design sees filmmaker Sue Williams delving into the true effects of technology and consumers’ digital addiction and how truly harmful the tech world is to the rest of the world.
Although many people might be aware that technology being produced at such a fast rate and everyone being obsessed with the new smartphone or tablet or laptop isn’t healthy, this documentary shows the darker reality in detail. Death by Design shows how technology affects the environment, work conditions, and the environment in Silicon Valley.
12 So Much So Fast (2006)
This documentary tells the story of Stephen Heywood as he finds out he has ALS, his reaction, and his declining health. The documentary also focuses on people in his life from his brother Jamie who becomes obsessed with finding a cure and a woman who is falling for him and how Stephen decides to approach the potential romantic relationship knowing he doesn’t have long.
Meanwhile, Jamie quits his job and starts a medical research center including raising millions for research through the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
11 Life Itself (2014)
Life Itself follows the life of film critic Roger Ebert with interviews months before his death and interviews with friends, co-workers, and family including his wife and famous names like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog.
The documentary focuses on Ebert’s ill health in his final years, the struggles and successes of his life, his work as a legendary film critic, and his rivalries with other film critics.
10 What The #S*! Do We (K)now? (2004)
Panned as new-age silliness after the fact, the 2004 doc What the Bleep Do We (K)now was a major cultural phenomenon when it came out in 2004. The film tries to reduce quantum physics down to a digestible lesson for the nonscientific.
Using dramatic reenactment, computer animation, and a panel of talking heads, the film attempts to reconcile science and religion as codependent. The polarizing film was named Best Documentary at the 2004 Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival.
9 Afterlife (2011)
Paul Perry’s 2011 doc Afterlife explores just that, as he interviews a series of human beings who encountered a near-death experience (NDE) in their lifetime and live to tell of the experience.
Perry interviews people who claim to have seen the tunnel of white light moments before returning to consciousness, which is said to come from endorphins in the brain. Perry also charts survivors who claim to gain psychic powers and/or special gifts such as playing music after experiencing NDEs.
8 The Illuminated Ones (2017)
Written and directed by Crystal Dawne, The Illuminated Ones: All Things Angels and More is a provocative documentary that explores the ways in which to channel positive energy and improve life by accessing the angelic plane.
The film includes interviews with several spiritual teachers, healers, authors, magicians, musicians, and others who embrace a connection with angels and use the experience to find a life purpose. By tapping into this unseen energy, positive change can come about.
7 The 11th Hour (2007)
Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour is an existential documentary of a different stripe. Rather than focus on the personal and anecdotal evidence about reincarnation and the afterlife, the film takes a macro view of the planetary threat brought about by climate change.
Directed by Lelia and Nadia Conners, the film paints a grim view of the erosion of Earth’s natural resources by the increase of devastating sea-level rise, increase in carbon dioxide and methane, and the irreparable damage it continues to cause. The film also offers hopeful ways in which grassroots activism can help the further cause.
6 Life After Life (1992)
Director Peter Shockey won a New York Film Festival Award for his 1992 documentary Life After Life, in which he interviews the foremost authority on NDEs, Dr. Raymond Moody (pictured).
Moody examines cases of people who were declared clinically dead before being revived shortly afterward. Moody collates recurring imagery and experiences shared by those who venture toward the light at the end of the tunnel and back to waking life. The positive energy and overwhelming feelings of optimism point to definitive proof of the afterlife.
5 Transcendent Man (2009)
In Transcendent Man, famed scientist, inventor, and philosopher Ray Kurzweil put forth his controversial theory on the evolution of humanity. Kurzweil believes in the notion of Singularity, an inevitable moment in which humanity and technology will become one in the 21st century.
The theory offers an existential quandary about the future of humanity. In Kurzweil’s view, Singularity would be a positive way to reverse illness and cure death. Others find the theory problematic via the potential for a machine-led uprising.
4 The Tibetan Book Of The Dead (1994)
Narrated by the late bard Leonard Cohen, the two-part documentary film The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life and The Great Liberation offer ancient Buddhist views on what occurs during the afterlife.
The Dali Lami and Ram Dass are on hand to guide the filmmakers through the ancient text and help them channel the wisdom and visualize the tenets of reincarnation and life after death. The Great Liberation focuses on the death of a 40-year-old man and the return to his family after a long battle with illness.
3 Infinity: The Ultimate Trip (2009)
Jay Weidner’s Infinity: The Ultimate Trip – Journey Beyond Death is a must-see doc for those enraptured by Surviving Death.
The film features renowned experts Gregg Braden, Renate Dollinger, Robert Thurman, Brian Weiss, and many more as they grapple with some of the largest existential questions that are facing humanity. Their compelling testimonials mixed with personal interviews of reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, astral projection, and the like are all explored.
2 Gates Of Heaven (1978)
Five years before Stephen King introduced the world to his Pet Sematary, all-world documentarian Errol Morris made a documentary version via Gates of Heaven.
In an existential doc of a different kind, Morris’ film chronicles the overwhelming sense of grief, loss, and depression pet owners feel after their loved ones pass away. Rather than watch the remains get turned into glue at a local factory, a pet cemetery in Northern California helps bereaving owners cope.
1 Grizzly Man (2005)
Far from the realm of reincarnation but square in the bullseye of existentialism is Grizzly Man, made by the fearless and peerless documentarian Werner Herzog.
The film tells the harrowing true story of environmentalists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, two dedicated Grizzly Bear conservationists who spent much of their time living in the outdoors with a sleuth of Grizzly bears in Alaska. The tragic death of the two leaves Herzog searching for answers as to why they were so unafraid.
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