What Dreams May Come
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Robin Williams (Chris Nielsen), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Albert), Annabella Sciorra (Annie Nielsen), Max von Sydow (The Tracker), Rosalind Chao (Leona), Josh Paddock (Ian Nielsen), Jessica Brooks (Marie Nielsen)
For we mortals on earth, the afterlife will always be a matter of either faith or speculation--faith for those who believe in something, speculation for those who choose not to. Either way, we don't know for sure what awaits us after our last dying breath, and we can either be comforted by what we believe in or simply ignore the whole notion.
Because the afterlife is such a difficult-to-grasp, abstract concept mired in centuries of theological debate, it has been an almost irresistible topic of expression for artists--painters, poets, novelists, filmmakers--since the beginning of time. What's in the afterlife? What does it look like? Who goes where? From Dante's "The Divine Comedy," to C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" to Albert Brook's "Defending Your Life" (1991), artists of all kinds have worked for centuries to tackle questions about what lies beyond our realm in moving and meaningful ways.
The most recent addition is Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come," the story of a happy, successful man who loses his children, then dies himself and goes to a wonderful paradise, only to find out that his wife, driven to mournful extremes by the loss of her entire family, commits suicide and is relegated to the hellish nether regions of the afterlife. The man's name is Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), and he and his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), are soulmates. They are so close that, when he first arrives in heaven, he imagines it as one of her landscape paintings. When he finds out that she has been sent "below," he determines that he will defy the natural order and travel there to find her.
The theology of "What Dreams May Come" is a sort of grab-bag of all major world religions. Much of the heaven-and-hell scenario is based on traditional Judeo-Christian notions of immortal life after death, but certain aspects are slightly twisted or bolstered with a New Age mentality and aspects of other religions. For instance, despite the existence of heaven and hell, reincarnation is still an option, and although the movie admits the existence of God, He is still left as a uninvolved abstraction, someone who, even to those souls in heaven, is still "up there" and has no interaction with them. Heaven itself is essentially individualistic, where each soul creates his or her own utopian universe in which to spend eternity.
And, in order to avoid offending anyone, the movie never posits the criteria that determine who goes where. Although a large majority of the film takes place in hell (most of the characters go out of their way to avoid referring to it by that word) that is filled with many lost souls, there is never any explanation of what they did differently from Chris to cause them to wind up burning in hellish flames instead of basking in the heavenly sun.
The only explicit reference is to suicides like Annie, and even there the movie explains that it isn't punishment for her what she did, but rather some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about her being confused about death and refusing to accept responsibility. Her decision to take her own life is the ultimate example of how lost she is, and she's in hell primarily because she doesn't know how to find her way out.
"What Dreams May Come" works best if you simply put aside any personal notions or beliefs about life after death, and simply accept what the movie offers you for its duration. A film of this sort require complete absorption into its own singular vision, and waging a theological discussion in your mind will only serve only a distraction. Save those until after the movie is over; in the mean-time, simply enjoy the melodramatic tale of endless love and the on-screen visual splendor that accompanies it.
And, about that visual splendor ... wow. The heaven in "What Dreams May Come" is literally like a painting come to life. The various digital special effects companies that worked on the film did an outstanding job of rendering on-screen images that usually reside only in the imagination. The film gains much of its strength, not from its somewhat confusing narrative and mish-mash theology, but from the complexity and wholeness of its vision.
Heaven is as bright and beautiful as hell is dark and horrible, and the amazing thing is that the digital artists managed to make these celestial realms seem fresh and new while remaining almost entirely within the bounds of how they have been traditionally conceived (heaven is sunny and people fly while hell is dark and filled with fire and brimstone).
Often, all these stunning vistas swallow up the actors, but director Vincent Ward ("Map of the Human Heart") uses more than enough tight close-ups to remind us that this is, in the end, a romance between two characters. In the lead role, Robin Williams sometimes comes across as trying a bit too hard--at times, his smile is a too broad and his sorrow borders on mawkishness. Annabella Sciorra comes across much better as Annie, a woman who spends a great deal of the movie in intense suffering--emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. The cast also includes Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the angel who guides Chris when he first arrives in heaven, and the irreplaceable Max Von Sydow as a heavenly tracker who helps Chris find his way to hell.
The screenplay, by veteran Ron Bass ("Rain Man," "Waiting to Exhale") from the novel by Richard Matheson builds the film's meaning in small increments. He uses a circular structure containing a straightforward narrative that is often fractured with flashbacks that flesh out the characters and their actions. This works especially well because it allows us to see Chris and Annie both in the afterlife and on earth, which reminds us how they are spiritually linked, no matter where they are.
And, when the movie is over, the perfectly tuned final scene reminds us of just that. For all its ethereal sound and fury, "What Dreams May Come" ends, not in heaven or hell, but on a sweet, quiet note right here on earth where all life begins.
©1998 James Kendrick