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What Dreams May Come Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image Why is it nearly impossible to have sympathy for rich characters in movies? Perhaps there’s something about the realistic physicality of their clothing, their houses, the cars they drive and the middling concerns that they have that are easy to ignore or be unaware of in a book or a play, but become in-your-face obvious and hard to ignore on film. When characters with such privileged upper class lives get to continue their opulent charmed existences for eternity in even more glorious surroundings can an audience honestly be expected to give a damn?

Doctor Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) meets painter Annie (Annabella Sciorra) in Switzerland and they instantly click. Years later, married with two teenage kids, Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant) and Ian (Josh Paddock) the two find their lives shattered when Marie and Ian are both killed in a car accident. Chris recovers from this devastating event, but Annie remains somewhat unstable after a suicide attempt. One night on the way to pick up something for Annie, Chris witnesses a car accident and when he gets out to help, he’s struck and killed by another car. For a short while, Chris walks among the living, trying in vain to make contact with Annie, but eventually goes “into the light” and ends up in a euphoric afterlife where he’s attended to by the dog he had as a childhood.

Chris’ afterlife world is an epic visualization of his version of paradise: a giant epic landscape that resembles a painting brought to life, complete with brush strokes and pools of oily colors. Chris is introduced to his world and guided by Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) the doctor who mentored him when he was a student, but now in the afterlife appears as he did when young. Eventually, Chris is reunited with his children who, for reasons only the author could make sense of, have taken the form of different people. All seems well in Chris’ new world but he is shaken to the core when he finds out that Annie, unable to cope with Chris’ death has committed suicide. Because of her suicide, Annie is unable to join Chris in a pleasant afterlife, but is confined in a hellish world of grief of her own creation. Chris determines to travel to Hell to rescue Annie, and is assisted by the initially reluctant Albert and an authoritative figure known as the tracker (Max Von Sydow) who insists that no souls have ever been rescued from Hell. “What Dreams May Come” is based on the novel by the esteemed Richard Matheson and is an extrapolation on the “to be or not to be” monologue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as the titular character contemplating suicide and a yearning for death says, “To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause…” That sense of the great unanswerable question of what, if anything lies beyond death is the springboard for the film, which posits a world where there is a very real and tangible world beyond death, filled with hope and joy. The questions Shakespeare raises about the possibility of there being a penalty for taking ones own life (later in the monologue) is also addressed by the character of Annie, who does indeed commit suicide and pays a price. The subject matter is certainly worth exploring but it’s dealt with here in a painfully trite way that sabotages the sincere intentions. There is an affecting or shocking moment or two, but the whole enterprise is wrongheaded and in desperate need of an outside voice of sanity to bring things back into shape.

The cloying tone of the film and the smarmy, overbearing joy of the afterlife in “What Dreams May Come” reduces the value of the world of the living, making life seem pointless and unreal. The afterlife is full of unanswered questions, such as where the boundaries are between different people’s worlds, who is responsible for it? If it’s paradise, why are there people with jobs and work? (Work in Heaven? Sounds more like Hell to me.) There are rules, but whose are they and why do they exit? A central intelligence or god is entirely off-screen and quickly dismissed with a line of dialogue. It’s a distracting attempt at making the film universal without contradicting existing established takes of the post-death experience present in religious doctrines. Its vagueness ultimately makes it weightless and irrelevant. In an attempt to speak to everyone, “What Dreams May Come” ends up speaking to no one. Perhaps the idea of a gloriously perfect afterlife is better when left to the imagination and is killed by the tangibility of visualization, effectively ground under the heel of artificial vistas and enormous landscapes. Dwelling in this one for such an extensive period makes one realize just how ridiculous, absurd and sadly desperate afterlife myths and fantasies are. While the filmmakers’ and author Matheson’s stated point was to remove people’s fear of death and replace it with the hope of something better, it doesn’t work here. It doesn’t serve to reinforce afterlife fantasies but replaces them with a world so nauseating that one’s left more unconvinced than ever.

It isn’t the idea of soul-mates or of a bond beyond death that is the issue (I’m a fairly romantic, sentimental guy-- I like “The Fountain” after all) but it’s the way these characters are granted their blessed existences without doing anything to merit it or having shown that they’ve learned anything from the human tragedies that they live through. The film is also unintentionally funny at times, which destroys the mood and turns sincerity into silliness.

The primary casting is all wrong. Robin Williams doesn’t feel right for the role and his overplaying becomes grating. There’s such an intense sense that he’s trying so hard to show that he’s delighted or heartbroken, that he comes off as needy and pulls you out of the film. The kids are all wrong— Josh Paddock looks slack-faced, and Jessica Brook Grant’s near androgynous features are extremely distracting. The confrontation scene between Chris and his son Ian in the rain is inadvertently shot as if it was a love scene. If there was a disparity between the father and the son’s heights it wouldn’t feel like it does, but they both are the same height and the long looks they express in close proximity only amplifies the oddness of the sequence. The idea of the kids taking the form of other people to appear before their father is stupid and pointless, and keeps pushing the film further over the edge into the mad maelstrom of movie cheesedom.

Max Von Sydow is great as always, bringing much needed depth and weight to the film, leading one to wonder how much better the film would have been if done as a quieter film with a more subtle lead and without the extravagance on display.

The film won a well-deserved visual effects Oscar. In terms of special effects, it’s groundbreaking, evoking an ambitious, imaginative and sumptuously realized creative vision. Particularly striking is the hellish ashen landscape of moaning figures buried standing up with only their heads exposed, which features a cameo by Werner Herzog and recalls Nobuo Nakagawa’s “Jigoku” (1960) and its memorably garish Hell sequences

The disc transfer is crisp, colorful and frequently displays rich facial details. In several shots you can see every freckly mark and pore in Robin Williams’s face and it occasionally seems almost three-dimensional. Colors are warm and boldly vibrant, especially in the fantasy sequences. It’s a profoundly filmic image. The extreme clarity of the disc is crucial for an appreciation of the visual effects and design aspects. It’s always stable and any grain appears to be photographic. It’s a handsome film and a beautiful piece of work in HD DVD.

The Dolby Digital Plus sound features impressive, impactful LFE usage. There’s more bass than you would expect, and a storm sequence has vivid, tangible vibrancy and intensity. It may take a few adjustments to find the correct level. I found it had to be raised incrementally for the first forty minutes until it seemed optimum.

The audio commentary featuring director Vincent Ward is cool and aloof. Ward’s comments are sparse and he drops out frequently. He’s clearly pleased with the film and offers no critical comments on the end result and seems blissfully unaware of all the problematic areas. Also included on the disc is an alternate ending which is even more nauseating, believe it or not. The “Making of” featurette is 14 mins and is a typical HBO-style promo typical of the era.

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