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There's a powerful scene near the end of The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize—winning novel, where a father and son huddle together under soulless skies on a desolate, nameless beach littered with whale and human skeletons. They have finally reached the coast after traversing by foot a post-apocalyptic landscape fraught with unspeakable dangers, toils, and snares.

The boy, about age 10, has never seen the sea. "What's on the other side?" he asks. "Nothing," replies his father, suffering from malnutrition and weakness after fending off all sorts of evils. All along he has encouraged his son to maintain hope—to "carry the fire"—but has slowly lost his own. The boy, who believes there's still goodness somewhere in their dark and dying world, looks out to the sea and says, "There must be something."

Wanting to keep his son's hope alive, the man relents. "Maybe there's a father and his son, and they're sitting on the beach too."

Like McCarthy's 2006 book, the film is both depressing and redeeming; it depicts one of the most loving father-son relationships to appear on the big screen. And this particular scene speaks volumes for all of us asking a universal question.

What's on the other side?

The question is innate to human experience, and Hollywood knows it—as evidenced by the spate of spiritually themed films to debut after the blockbuster success of The Passion of the Christ(2004). In a fear-filled world where war, terrorism, and economic collapse bring the question of death and the afterlife to the fore, the film industry has delivered more stories to fuel the question—though not always providing answers.

The result in 2009 was a record $10 billion at the box office in the ...

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