What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come (1998)
Polygram Home Video
Cast: Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Anabella Sciorra
Extras: Documentaries, Commentary Track, Production Notes, Deleted Scenes and more

While most of us probably try not to think about death, it is often a popular subject in film. More specifically, many films tackle the subject of the afterlife and what it may contain for us. The latest film to tackle this controversial topic is Vincent Ward’s "What Dreams May Come". While the film had quite a successful theatrical run last fall, it was savaged by some critics. As we shall see, while it’s not worth dying for, it isn’t the death of cinema as we know it either.

(SPOILER WARNING!!: I normally try to avoid this, but I can’t describe the plot of the film without giving some things away. So, I’m warning you now, if you want the film to be a total surprise, please skip the next two paragraphs.)

"What Dreams May Come" stars Robin Williams as Chris Nielsen. On vacation in Europe, he meets Annie (Anabella Sciorra) and they fall in love. The film then jumps ahead a few years. Chris and Annie are married and have two children. Chris is a successful pediatrician and Annie is an artist. Everything seems perfect until both of their children are killed in an auto accident. Devastated, Chris and Annie try to go on with their lives. While driving home one night, Chris stops to help motorist at a car wreck. Without warning, Chris is hit by a car that has skidded to avoid the wreck. Now dead, Chris is led by a spirit guide Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to heaven. What makes this story unique is that heaven is whatever you imagine it to be. So Chris imagines that he is inside one of Annie’s paintings, depicting the place where they met. Chris slips and slides through the paint-covered world and Albert helps Chris get his bearings. But Chris is unhappy. He and Annie were soulmates and he is incomplete without her.

Despite warnings from Albert that it won’t work, Chris embarks on journey to ease Annie’s suffering and to be reunited with her. The power of "What Dreams May Come" lies in two factors: the concept and the visuals. The story is based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote "Somewhere In time" and "The Omega Man", and the upcoming Kevin Bacon chiller "Stir Of Echoes". As with "Somewhere In time", the story concerns lovers who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be together. While the idea of heaven and hell are nothing new, "What Dreams May Come" presents them in a very original manner. Heaven is depicted as a magical place, where souls can be and do most anything that they want. While the visual style of hell resembles some other presentations from previous films, the scariest idea may be that those in hell cannot remember their loved ones from when they were alive. The way the story is told also lends to the overall effect of the film. When Chris dies, we still don’t know much about him. Important pieces of his life are told through flashbacks once he is dead. The afterlife is depicted as a place where we are not tormented by our memories, but rather explore our memories to figure out exactly who we were and what our lives meant.

To this unique story, director Vincent Ward brings his unique vision. Ward, best known for "The Navigator" and "Map Of The Human Heart" (but not as well known as the person who conceived the idea for a prison plant in "Alien 3", except in his script, the planet was made of wood!), here lends his taste for the odd and obscure to create a new vision. The scenes where Chris explores heaven as a painting are wonderful and Ward uses a broad spectrum of color. After just one viewing, it is obvious that the film deserves its Oscar for best visual effects. The painted backgrounds morph and gel upon one another to create a believable landscape. Ward also shows his talent by seamlessly melding the afterlife scenes with the flashbacks to Chris’ previous life.

While I generally enjoy Robin Williams comedic roles, his dramatic roles have left me cold ("Good will Hunting" being the exception), however "What Dreams May Come" he plays Chris Nielsen as very serious and low-key and makes the character sympathetic.
Even in the scenes where he is exuberant, Williams pulls back and doesn’t let himself become his manic stage persona. While I’m not a big fan of Cuba Gooding, Jr. he is acceptable in the role of Albert, despite the fact that he does mug for the camera a few times (Is he the next Bill Cosby?). Annabella Sciorra has the toughest role in the film (as she has to do all of the mourning) and displays the widest range of emotions, handling each one superbly. The one-and-only Max Von Sydow makes a cameo appearance and adds a touch of true class to the film.

Polygram Home Video is presenting "What Dreams May Come" in a Special Edition format for DVD. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 and looks great. The <$PS,widescreen> format has been <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. As I mentioned before, this movie works because of the visuals, and they are lovingly presented on this disc. The framing is accurate and no signs of compression are visible. The color palette is one of the best that I’ve seen, with a rainbow of images leaping from the screen. The source material is in excellent condition, with no artifacting or grain. The picture is crystal clear and the viewer is immediately drawn in to this colorful world.

The disc’s soundtrack is presented in a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> track, and the surround sound is active throughout the film. The sound is especially effective in the scenes in hell and the voices of the damned encircle the room. There is one drawback to the sound as the music swells every few minutes in the movie until it becomes excruciating. (He’s dead. It’s sad. We get it. We don’t need a music cue to remind us.)

Being a Special Edition, the film is loaded with bonus features. The first menu has no title or words, just a choice of up or down. If you choose up, you get the heaven version of the main menu, and hell if you choose down. Pretty cool. There is a theatrical trailer that is presented full-frame and bios of the cast and crew, which offer exhaustive filmographies. You can also find a rough cut of an alternate ending on the disc, that left me scratching my head as to why it was even considered. A behind-the-scenes featurette gives you an inside view into the making of the film and the creation of the special effects. The disc also contains numerous DVD-ROM features.

"What Dreams May Come" offers us a new view on an old concept. I can only imagine that those critics who hated the film found it to be preachy or too sappy, but I believe that the film can be appreciated solely on the merits of its visual impact. Underneath that is a love story with twist that shows that even death can’t keep some people apart.