Sunday, July 10, 2016

"What Dreams May Come": review

"What Dreams May Come" is a 1998 film starring Robin Williams as pediatrician Chris Nielsen, Annabella Sciorra as artist—and Chris's soul mate—Annie Nielsen, Cuba Gooding Jr. as a quasi-psychopomp, and Max Von Sydow as The Tracker, another psychopomp. The movie sets up the Nielsen family as originally happy but beset by a series of tragedies: Chris and Annie meet in Europe, then fall in love; they have two kids, but both are killed in a car crash; Annie gets suicidally depressed and is institutionalized, but she fights her way free of the dark until her husband, Chris, is killed in another car crash. Now alone, Annie eventually succeeds in killing herself.

The movie's focus shifts to Chris's experience of the afterlife which, for Chris, means existing in one of Annie's paintings. A blurry guide (Gooding) appears, explaining bit by bit both what it means to be dead and how to move and function in this heaven, which is part of a whole cosmos of mind-created heavens. God is mentioned as being somewhere above, at a remove, shouting down that He loves us.

Much of the plot is a meandering exploration of heaven, where Chris meets his long-deceased Dalmatian, who had gotten old and sick and needed to be put to sleep. Chris learns that his guide is a young-looking manifestation of Dr. Albert Lewis, an old mentor of Chris's. Albert goes away at one point and is replaced by a bedimpled Asian woman named Leona (Rosalind Chao); Chris eventually discovers that Leona is actually the soul of his daughter Marie (originally played by Jessica Brooks Grant), who took the form of Leona because Chris had once mentioned how beautiful and graceful he thought Asian women were.

The plot doesn't kick into gear until, back in the world of the living, Annie gives in to depression and kills herself. Albert gives Chris the bad news, noting that suicides do indeed go to hell, but not because they're being punished by God: suicidal souls practice a sort of self-blinding, self-torturing rejection of life that causes them to create their own hells in the afterlife. Now grimly determined to rescue his wife from hell no matter the cost, Chris—with the help of Albert—retains The Tracker (Von Sydow), who will guide the pair into the stormy, smoking, tooth-gnashing regions of the otherworld to find Annie, using Chris's soul-mate connection with her as their guide.

As they approach hell's gates—a flaming, Mad-Max-style shipwreck called Cerberus—Chris suddenly has the realization that his guide, Albert, is actually his son Ian (played by John Paddock during the movie's earthly scenes). Ian had taken the form of Albert because he knew that Chris would listen to Albert's wisdom. The Tracker says that Ian can go no further on this hellward journey with Chris, so Chris and The Tracker proceed without him. They eventually find Annie—first buried in the ground among the other self-damned, with only her face visible, then later trapped in a horror-movie version of her house on Earth, which symbolizes the wreckage of her life and her current desolation. The Tracker tells Chris that he risks plunging into hell himself if he tries to rescue Annie: plunging into hell is what happens when a well-intended soul ends up losing his mind and adopting the worldview of a damned soul. The Tracker then reveals that he is the soul of Dr. Albert Lewis—now manifesting as an old white man instead of as the black man that Chris knew in life. Chris acknowledges but is heedless of the existential danger he faces, and he steps into Annie's horror-house to find her. He does, and unlike how he handled her depression in life, he chooses to stay in hell with her—to join her in her suffering, for all eternity if need be. Annie snaps out of her self-imposed inferno right as Chris begins sinking into his own hell, and in that way, they rescue each other and return to heaven—now with their kids.

What remains is a choice: the couple can abide in heaven forever, or they can return to Earth via reincarnation (mentioned as an option for souls much earlier in the film), re-experiencing the joy and pain of finding each other and living life together—hopefully making different choices this time around. They opt to leave heaven, and the movie's final scene shows a boy and a girl meeting for the first time by the edge of a lake—a scene that parallels Chris and Annie's meeting on a European lake at the beginning of the movie.

I had seen the preview trailer for "What Dreams May Come" (a phrase from Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy, and a reference to the afterlife, to consciousness after death) years ago; Robin Williams was riding high after having won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Dr. Sean Maguire in "Good Will Hunting," a film that marked the beginning of the Robin Plays Only Saintly Characters era. The preview trailer for "Dreams" gave me mixed feelings of mild curiosity and creeping corniness. Although I have no specific beliefs about the afterlife, I'm often a sucker for afterlife-related stories, yet despite my curiosity, I apparently decided to wait nearly twenty years to see this movie.

And it was a disappointment. I heard that "Dreams" won an Oscar for visual effects, and that both Williams and Sciorra were praised for their heartfelt performances, but the film's vision of heaven was, well... prosaic, to say the least. While it wasn't exactly clouds and angels with harps, it also wasn't too far removed from what most people think heaven might be like. The idea that you create your own heaven and hell is a fairly conventional trope in Western art and culture; it's also one of the fundamental metaphysical and ethical pillars of Eastern religion: with a tormented mind, you can be in hell right here and right now.

It also didn't add to the drama to know that no physical harm can come to people who are already dead, so the entire Tracker segment of the film lacked any sense of real adventure. The company sets sail on a boat into a stormy sea; their boat is beset by hordes of the swimming dead, and it capsizes, plunging our heroes into the water... but none of this constitutes real danger, especially since we've already seen that, just by using one's mind, one can navigate the afterlife the way Superman navigates the world. Why even bother with boats? Why not fly above the stormy sea?

The answer to the above questions may be that this heaven isn't supposed to make logical sense: the claim is made that time doesn't exist in heaven, yet we see events happening in cause-effect sequence in rough accordance with earthly physical laws. Chris's heaven is being constantly manufactured by his mind, and given the wandering and inconsistent nature of consciousness, I suppose it stands to reason that heaven is only as logical as one's mind can make it. That said, the movie's heaven leaves me with a plethora of unanswered questions.

I also thought the film suffered from poor screenwriting: the emotional beats of the dialogue often didn't make sense. There were weird pauses followed by violently uttered sentences, but no clue as to where the emotional violence was coming from. The pacing and editing of the story felt off-kilter, and the story itself points out one of its own annoying self-contradictions: it's claimed that there are no rules in heaven, and yet rules do seem to abound, governing everything from physical behavior to metaphysical events.

Chris's rescue of Annie from her personal hell was also disappointing. In the end, the rescue didn't seem as impossible as The Tracker had made it out to be. The moral lesson of that scene also didn't sit well with me. In life, Chris's supposed sin was that he had remained strong after the deaths of his children, whereas Annie, more fragile, had sunk into despair. Chris's response to Annie's depression was "Don't give up." While in Annie's hell, Chris confesses that his "be strong" rhetoric was just a pose, just a way to retreat from reality. That may or may not be the case, but I personally see nothing wrong with remaining strong, composed, and rational in the face of tragedy. Having experienced my own tragedy thanks to Mom's brain cancer, I know what it's like to be the coolest head in the room while everyone else is flipping out, in denial, or inconsolable. No: I don't think Chris was doing anything bad by just being who he was—which, in this case, meant being the stronger half of the couple.

So let's face the issue of corniness head-on. "Dreams" was unbearably corny, and if you're an atheist, I think you'll find this movie to be less of a loving exploration of personal bonds that defy death and more of a slapstick comedy. While it's initially beautiful to see Chris Nielsen dashing excitedly about inside this heavenly version of one of his favorite paintings by his wife, the flying scenes began to remind me a little too uncomfortably of "The Matrix," with Cuba Gooding in the Laurence Fishburne role, mentoring Robin Williams's version of Neo on how to handle this new reality. It was also corny that the whole Nielsen family ends up dying, just so we can have the family reunite in heaven. I remember initially wondering about that in 1998, when I first saw the preview trailer: is it just Robin Williams who dies? No, as it turns out: it's Williams and his entire goddamn family. And by the way, there are better cinematic portrayals of the afterlife out there; I'm partial to the one we see in "Brainstorm" (1983), which is a strange and compelling combination of the abstract and the visceral.

Also corny: except for Annie herself, everyone Chris encounters is wearing a mask. The psychopomp who first appears as Albert turns out to be Chris's son Ian; the Asian Leona turns out to be Chris's daughter Marie; The Tracker turns out to be the real Albert Lewis. Three times with the same head-fake? Really? That was simply too much to take. It's a good thing the dog didn't suddenly declare that it was actually the family cat.

Tonally inconsistent, weirdly paced and edited, generally devoid of drama, and corny as hell, "What Dreams May Come" was, overall, a big disappointment. There was beauty in the visuals, but the effects were in the service of a rather unimaginative depiction of existence beyond bodily death. I fidgeted throughout the movie's run time, and I guffawed whenever some new corniness appeared on screen. Williams is given some funny lines to utter (you can't stop Robin Williams from being Robin Williams, after all), but unfortunately, most of the movie's humor is unintentional. I will say this, though: if there is a heaven, it wouldn't be so bad if the departed Mr. Williams should find himself in this movie's version of it.


John Mac said...

Ha! I saw that film in the theater all those years ago and like you recall it being a disappointment. I remember thinking a porn parody "Wet dreams may cum" would be better...

TheBigHenry said...


This is the best movie review I have ever read. Do you store a compilation of your reviews somewhere? If not, you could create one using a label for all your posted reviews.

Bratfink said...

I don't analyze movies; I just watch them. And I liked this movie, although I had already figured out that he would stay with her in hell if that was his only option.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, that porn title definitely, uh, came to mind.


Why, thank you! I don't tag my blog posts (I sometimes wish I'd gotten into that habit years ago), but you can go to the little search window at the very top of my blog (top left) and type "review," which will bring up tons of my movie reviews. If you're into reading movie reviews in general, I highly recommend my friend Steve Honeywell's review site, 1001 Plus, which is devoted to nothing but movie reviews. Steve's writing is sharp, clear, and witty, and his reviews tend to be about as fair-minded as it's possible to be.


Happily, the universe is large enough to contain both us analyzers and you non-analyzers. What would we do without each other? Each of us adds variety.

Bratfink said...

Kevin, For sure! I DO read your reviews. Even if I don't agree with them. *shrug* To each his own. :)