What Dreams May Come breaks new ground. The special effects that make Heaven look like a romantic-era painting are astounding and outstanding. The story is okay, but it alone shouldn’t get you into the theater. You should be going for the visual treat.
Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), a doctor, is on his way home when he comes upon a car crash. He runs to the injured victim to give aid. Another car fails to slow down and smashes into Chris, killing him. After a short stint as a ghost, Chris heads up to Heaven where his guide Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) shows him the ropes.
Chris and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) shared a love of romantic paintings, so Chris’ version of heaven is made of, and made to look like, paint. Chris’ fanciful heaven fills the big screen and it looks wonderful. The sky is full of blue brushstrokes, the ground is covered with vibrantly colored flowers that turn into goopy paint when touched. A minimalist bird swims through the painted sky. There are only a handful of shots where you get to see his painted heaven, but they alone are worth the price of admission.
After he gets over the beauty of his heaven, (and turns it back into something more closely resembling reality, something less costly to film), Chris recalls his life in a series of flashbacks. Chris loved his wife Annie too much and his kids not enough. Both of his kids died before him (also in a car crash). Annie took their deaths very hard — so hard she had to be committed to an institution. Chris on the other hand let go, perhaps a little too easily. The difference in the way they dealt with the loss of their children nearly forced Chris and Annie to split. Her profound sadness was a place where he could not join her.
Chris is just getting used to Heaven when Albert brings him news of Annie’s death. Annie has committed suicide. Suicides, the movie tells us, automatically go to “the other place.” Chris again lets go of his children in favor of his wife. Instead of looking them up in Heaven, he makes that heroic journey into Hell to save her soul.
Done right, Ward and screenwriter Ronald Bass could have made their hero into the next Dante or Orpheus. But the story is so full of compromises and internal inconsistencies that Chris Nielsen will not be remembered.
For one thing, Chris is no hero. His threadlike attachment to his kids and slavish devotion to his wife cast a selfish shadow from him. But, you say, common, fallible people make the best heroes. Maybe that’s true, but if Chris is Everyman and not a heroic figure, then he shouldn’t be the first to make the journey to and from Hell. It should be happening all the time.
For another, given the film’s non-religious view of Heaven, it was dumb to say that all suicides automatically go to Hell. Depression, a leading cause of suicide, is widely recognized as a disease and not as a character flaw. After the loss of a husband and child, a person with depression could easily be pushed over the edge. If this film’s heaven were based on a strict religious doctrine, at least it might be internally consistent to damn her, but by picking “rules” to fit the story (and at the same time apologizing for those rules), the film relinquishes any solid foundation that might have made it a great film.
Finally, it seems like there should be some cost for stealing a soul from Hell. This story is perfectly set up for a little tragedy. The hints at Chris’ selfishness seem to invite a little Faustian tradeoff. Perhaps he could have been made to sacrifice something of himself in trade for Annie’s soul. But the bright and vivid tone of the movie made that option impossible and doomed this movie to be empty calories from the candy rack.
In spite of these easy shortcuts, the film still has the trappings of a good heroic journey. That is to say that Chris’ journey is not really about the journey, it’s about setting his mind right. The reward comes not because of how far he traveled, but because of how much he has grown. If you try hard, you can make yourself see Chris as that heroic icon, but the effort may or may not be worth it.
What Dreams May Come is hard to evaluate. On the one hand, its failures were disappointing. On the other hand, it made a nice attempt on a story that hasn’t been made in recent memory. I can’t fully praise it, but I can’t just write it off, either.
The deciding factor for me was the film’s incredible visual canvas. Not only were the “painted” effects amazing, but the sets and costumes, both in Heaven and in Hell were imaginative and apt. The overall look was original enough and impressive enough that I can fairly recommend this movie.
If you’re at all interested in seeing it, go now, not later. This movie will never look as good on your TV (or at the Cinema Saver) as it will on a big screen.