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