What Dreams May Come (1998)

What Dreams May Come

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What Dreams May Come [DVD] [1998]
Robin Williams (Actor), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Actor), Vincent Ward (Director) | Rated: Suitable for 15 years and over 113 mins

The books I was reading and the books ordered for future reviews tied in perfectly with the film What Dreams May Come – so I was anxious to watch. Despite the warnings (mainly about themes) I decided to view with my 12-year-old son (who when we talked about the film afterwards thought it had been made for children and was surprised about these warnings!). The film won an Academy Award for its visual effects and it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It also won the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design.
Perhaps the first thing to consider is that the book the film is taken from is probably one of ideas – and ideas don’t translate well to the screen – in fact the book’s author, Richard Matheson claims in its introductory note that only the characters are fictional, and that almost everything else is based on research. The screen (and the BIG SCREEN particularly) wants action and – naturally – visual power. The latter is there…hence the awards – but somehow I found the whole experience lacking. The ideas are so profound how can they be espoused in under two hours. Matheson’s research appears to dissolve into cringing sentimentality – is this slushiness from the book or straight from the ‘depths’ of Hollywood?
The character Christy ‘Christian’ (played by actor Robin Williams) falls in love with Annie (they meet while boating on a lake in Switzerland) and subsequently marry and have two children…Annie’s an artist he’s a doctor – life seems pretty damn good for them (a few problems with communication with the children) but they seem to spend their whole lives together giggling – and getting on well. Then the children get killed in a car crash – for which Annie holds herself responsible, as she wasn’t driving… And there is a very moving scene at their children’s funeral (some of this action is viewed through flashback). Then Christy gets killed while helping someone in a car crash – and he goes to Heaven. This is a Heaven his thoughts have created. And his Heaven begins (because it’s ‘safe’) as a reflection of one of his wife’s paintings – visually this is very beautiful if not highly viscous – wading through painted water in one scene.
Heaven seems to be without time (yet there is movement) and explained as a dream (dreams have no or little time yet also appear – when dreaming – to be perfectly normal); indeed it is a Heaven composed of thoughts. Often seemingly anarchic and pointless (but are we seeing ‘true’ Heaven or differing people’s thought-ideas – or only Christy’s?) there are some nice touches; ‘souls’ often seem to take on different guises of age/race/sex so as to make the meetings of people who knew each other – perhaps were related to each other – equal and without the usual baggage and preconceptions.
So Christy begins to get used to Heaven but then finds out that his wife has committed suicide. This means she will go to Hell (though Hell is explained as being not quite as we imagine) and there is nothing Christy can do about this. He refuses to believe he can do nothing and decides to find his wife and bring her back with him to Heaven. (They are explained as soul mates as a tree has appeared in Christy’s Heaven, which has been painted by his wife when on earth, an apparently  ‘remarkable’ occurrence.) His guide – whom he calls ‘Doc’ – is not actually the Black doctor he thought but rather his son – and their relationship (with notions of the father expecting more than the son could or wanted to achieve) partially explained in flashback. The psychiatrist helper/guide ‘Sigmund Freud’! turns out to be the Black doctor…More flashback shows that his wife has had a nervous breakdown and how Christy tries to help her and how there is a significant conversation at the hospital where she vows to carry on (and not give in to either madness or death).
The journey to Hell is impressive visually – though it could have been more so – it made me recall Dante’s Inferno at times but Christy’s reaching of Annie is too quick (unless of course this all takes place in his thoughts and is his illusion). During this journey we find out his guides are his son as well as his former doctor/mentor. If all this is his illusion (his dream) then everything is excusable – but finding Annie amongst a sea of faces (seemingly trapped in thick mud) stretches credibility to the limit. He then attempts to enter ‘her’ illusion (his, hers or both?!) and mustn’t be caught by her (therefore remaining there within ‘her’ illusion) – this mirrors a conversation he has had with Annie in the grounds of the mental hospital. The dialogue is clever but not wholly convincing – he decides to stay there with her and by doing so (sacrifice?) manages to persuade her to leave with him and it’s all – considering – much too easy. As my son pointed
out – if people are in Hell for a punishment or through judgement how can they travel to Heaven so easily? Wouldn’t that interfere with some higher judgment?! Also – it seems the age-old notion of a suicide being condemned for taking away God’s gift is brushed aside and it’s rather a matter of self-worth/self belief. I’m not passing judgement here – but balancing it against religious teaching (Oh and God is referred to as being ‘up there’ somewhere! A Heaven in Heaven?)…
It also seems that despite the whole of humanity (to that point) dying and going to Heaven or Hell – and all the noble figures; all those who have lead strict and difficult lives; all those who have loved through UTMOST difficulty – it seems only ‘now’ that ANYONE has got someone out of Hell  – it’s taken a couple of giggling Americans to do what none other has EVER done.
Everyone gets reunited – father, mother, two children and the dog (of course)…now, dogs in Heaven? Okay as part of an illusion but if dogs really get to Heaven where are all the animals people have eaten? And the amoebas – wouldn’t there be all forms of life there? Where would this line of life be drawn? (And umm…how about the dinosaurs?)…
Again – and it really boils down to this – if we are witnessing everything as Christy’s illusion ONLY – then anything goes…it’s his dream and his rules…the fact that we are TOLD or apparently shown others ‘realities’ or dream-states or Heaven Experiences could simply be Christy’s illusion. So now then…what to do in Heaven for an eternity eh?
Well Christy persuades Annie to get reborn (a ‘Christian’ goes Buddhist?) so they can find each other again and fall in love – for what purpose? – hey, and guess what – the last sickeningly sentimental shots are of a little boy and girl meeting and you know it’s them finding each other (not a lake this time more a large pond with toy boats not real ones!)…A near ‘perfect’ reduction of some of the greatest and most profound questions on (Heaven and) earth to simpering Hollywood schmuck!!!
I’ll leave you with this reported quote from the film’s Wikipedia entry:
When asked his thoughts on the film adaptation of his story, Richard Matheson said, “I will not comment on What Dreams May Come except to say that a major producer in Hollywood said to me, ‘They should have shot your book.’ Amen.”

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

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