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What Dreams May Come

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: What Dreams May Come

Starring: Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director: Vincent Ward
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: October 1998
Genres: Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Annabella Sciorra, Max von Sydow

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

In one of the many awe-inspiring scenes in "What Dreams May Come," Chris Nielsen awakens inside of a beautiful painting. Tentatively, he begins to explore his incredible new surroundings and discovers that the paint in the gorgeous landscape he now occupies is not completely dry. He plucks a lovely blue flower and holds the blossom in his hand, admiring its hyper- rich coloring. Then he squeezes it too hard and the flower loses its integrity, leaving his fingers covered with bright blue paint. Moments later, after surveying the glorious vista in front of him, a giddy Nielsen races down a lush green hill towards the lake at its base, again forgetting the fragility of his environment. Once more, reality begins to unravel and the frantic man finds himself sinking into brightly colored paint, his legs trapped by radiant color turned into an oozing mess.

Much like that scene, "What Dreams May Come" is a visually breathtaking work that is grand to behold, but eventually loses its integrity and becomes an oozing mess. After promising to lead us through a bold adventure in the afterlife, the screenplay takes a tragic wrong turn and lands in a murky swamp of confusion and psychobabble.

It's a real shame, because the filmmakers' intentions are as ambitious as their subject is fascinating. Every man, woman and child ever born has speculated on the mechanics of the afterlife. The possibilities are limitless, but our visions are generally vague at best. Most often, we either imagine people in robes lounging on clouds, whiling away eternity playing the harp, or picture some nebulous Oz-like city with gold-paved streets. Movies have reflected our pedestrian notions, lazily depicting a bland afterlife with fog machines blowing smoke across a blue backdrop. Until now, only "The Green Pastures," a charming 1936 movie set in an idyllic, countrified Heaven, tried to show an afterlife that actually had a sense of place.

After studying great artists' renderings of paradise and hell, "What Dreams May Come" presents an afterlife comprised of many wonderfully imaginative and strikingly tangible worlds. The film is a banquet for the eyes, presenting images that range from enchanting baroque picture books made real to Germanic impressionist nightmares turned horribly vivid. How sad to see so much creativity serving such an undeserving script.

I haven't read the Richard Matheson novel on which the film is based, but it has to be better than Ron Bass' inadequate screenplay. The story introduces star-crossed lovers Chris and Annie Nielsen (Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra), then quickly rips their world apart. Four years after the devastating loss of their two children, Chris is killed while trying to help victims of an automobile accident. He views the aftermath of his death in a ghost state, accompanied by a colorful blurred figure. In time, the corporeal world fades and Chris moves to a ravishing surrealistic realm, where the now-clear figure identifies himself as Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Chris' guide to the afterlife. Albert explains the mechanics of the domain. Thought is reality and each person creates their own eternity, generally starting by reconstituting their body and surrounding themselves with a comforting landscape. You can change forms and worlds at will, reunite with loved ones when you're ready, or choose to be reborn for another run at life on planet Earth.

Just as Chris is beginning to adjust, enjoying a blissful reunion with one of his children and exploring the wonders around him, he learns that Annie has committed suicide, dooming herself to infinity in a hell of her own creation. Told that there is nothing he can do and that his feelings for Annie will fade in time, Chris spits out "No! We're soulmates!" and dives into Hades to save his beloved, joined by a mysterious figure known as the Tracker (Max Von Sydow).

Handled properly, this story could have shined, but Bass turns a lyrical premise into a dismal bog of grandiose posturing, condescending homilies and convoluted dialogue, all dressed up with loads of irritatingly coy pop psychology. "What Dreams May Come" pretends to offer the secrets of the universe, but beneath all the pretentious wailing and gnashing of teeth, its message is trite and obvious. After being subjected to such a cavalcade of histrionics, we deserve revelations, damn it!

The best performances in the film come from the supporting players. Rosalind Chao (Keiko from a couple of "Star Trek" series) is quietly effective as a spirit guide and, playing the Nielsen kids, Jessica Brooks and Josh Paddock are direct, focused and touching. Max Von Sydow, on the other hand, sleepwalks through his trite role. As for Williams, Sciorra, and Gooding; well, they do what they usually do.

"What Dreams May Come" warrants a visit despite its dreadful script, thanks to the aforementioned supporting actors and the film's incredible visuals. To best enjoy the experience, though, I suggest you follow this suggestion: ignore the words and just look at all the pretty pictures.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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