If you've always been curious about exactly what heaven and hell look
like, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME offers some intriguing suggestions. In
director Vincent Ward's long cinematic sermon on the advantages of a
moral life, the movie depicts heaven as a happy, colorful landscape
painting and hell as an eerie, gray, Holocaust graveyard overflowing
with talking heads.
The rarely subtle film shows two dead children from inside their coffins
during the opening credits. They have died in a car accident, and their
father will shortly die in another, leaving their mother to grieve for
them all back on earth. Although four years elapse between the two car
accidents, the movie dispenses with them quickly so that it can get to
the heavenly beyond.
The father, Chris Nielsen, is a doctor played by Robin Williams.
Annabella Sciorra plays his wife and "soul mate," an artist named Annie.
Both are deeply scarred characters who share their troubles with us in
almost every scene. If the movie were involving, it could have been the
downer of the year. Instead, it stays at the level of visual technical
achievements with the figures in it about as real as those in art
gallery paintings -- lovely to look at, but nothing to get concerned
Cuba Gooding, Jr., first seen only as a blur, plays Albert, Chris's
guide into heaven. Gooding, like the rest of the fine actors, is largely
wasted in a movie that works only at an ethereal level. The magical film
is artistically surreal but only sporadically realistic.
The script by Ronald Bass, based on Richard Matheson's novel, could have
used a little more levity and should have given the characters some
credible depth. "I screwed up," Chris says when he sees his dog in
heaven. "I'm in dog heaven." This delightfully natural humor is
regretfully absent in most of the movie.
The story's pop messages include such trite ones as, "Good people end up
in hell because they can't forgive themselves." (Okay now, let's all
forgive ourselves so we will get to pass through the pearly gates
successfully. Whew, that's a collective load off our shoulders.)
Once in heaven, Chris is amazed to find that he has walked into one of
his wife's paintings. The film shows us a heaven that is a blend of the
nineteenth-century landscape paintings of Turner and Cole mixed with
impressionistic touches. Not only is it gorgeous, the paint isn't even
dry yet. As though in a heavenly version of WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE
FACTORY, Chris gets to sample the paintings by running through them and
squeezing the flowers in his palms as the paint squirts out. These
dazzling images are among the loveliest and most innovative Hollywood
has created in years. With Michael Kamen's dramatic music and Yvonne
Blake's sumptuous costumes for the afterlife, the film works best when
viewed as grand opera as illustrator Maxfield Parrish might have staged
In the tradition of life-after-death pictures, Chris goes back in an
attempt to console his wife on earth. Rather than giving her peace,
these unseen visits increase her depression. Eventually she will die
too, but, through a kind of legal snafu, she ends up in hell. Moral
rules, it seems, are filled with fine print. The body of the movie has
Max von Sydow, as a mysterious character called The Tracker, leading
Chris on a journey into hell to help Chris find his beloved Annie.
A movie filled with absolutely stunning imagery, it is strangely cold
and unengaging despite all its beauty. Still, the pedantic script's
tedium is more than offset by the handsomeness of the production. WHAT
DREAMS MAY COME is a feast for the eyes even if not a particularly
filling meal for the mind.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME runs 1:48. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements
involving death, some disturbing images, profanity including the F-word
and brief nudity. The film would be fine for teenagers.
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes