WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘What Dreams May Come’.
“Thank you for every kindness. Thank you for our children. For the first time, I saw them. Thank you for being someone I was always proud to be with. For your guts, for your sweetness. For how you always looked, for how I always wanted to touch you. God, you were my life. I apologize for every time I ever failed you. Especially this one…”
Director Vincent Ward’s 1998 movie What Dreams May Come, based on the novel of the same name, is a prime example of a deeply divisive piece of cinema. While the overall critical reception was not overwhelmingly negative, it is important to note that the film stands at 44 out of 100 on critical review aggregator site Metacritic. In comparison, the film stands at an audience score of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.
This noticeable critical and commercial divide may also partly explain how the film has been largely forgotten by the general public in the decades since it was released. Not all critics were so derisive, with legendary film critic Roger Ebert describing the film as “breathtaking” upon its release.
What Dreams May Come has also been ridiculed – with critics also taking aim at the film for failing to maintain a steady throughout the film. In an unflatteringly titled article from 2011 – “What Dreams May Come manages to make Heaven suck”– writer Louis Peitzman states that the film “wavers between absurdly dark and way too light”. Other points of criticism are related to more subjective perceptions about specific plot points, such as the main character deciding to design his own version of heaven as a giant painting.
Two Bad Days
The film begins with Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) meeting his soulmate Annie (Annabella Sciorra) whilst on vacation in Switzerland. There is an immediate connection, and the next thing we see is a flash-forward to the future, where the couple is married with two children, Ian (Josh Paddock) and Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant). However, in a particularly harrowing sequence, both children die in a freak car crash, which sets the main plot in motion. Annie, who blames herself for the accident, suffers a breakdown and has to be treated in a mental institution. Even though the couple at one point find themselves on the verge of divorce, they decide to stay together.
At the anniversary of their near divorce, disaster strikes again, taking Chris’s life in yet another car accident. A hard blow, which eventually drives Annie to make a fateful decision later on, as she is unable to cope with the loss of her most beloved ally.
Robin Williams’s character arrives in heaven, unaware of his newly acquired state as a deceased person, and receives guidance by Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his mentor in his new life, who explains the rules of paradise. On his quest to better comprehend the rules of his new home, Chris gets to know Leona. (Rosalind Chao) Once he learns of Annie’s death, caused by suicide, and the consequences of it, he decides that against all odds there is only one option for him: to save his soulmate from eternal suffering in hell.
Chris starts his journey with Albert, who presents him to a guide – who goes by the name of The Tracker. (Max Von Sydow) The companion, however, is denied entry to hell by the guide who labels him as a distraction because, as yet another unforeseen turn of events, Albert is, in reality, Ian, Chris’s son.
The main character’s journey through hell, as one might expect, is full of trials and tribulations, encountering amongst other things, a man who believes to be his father (played by celebrated German director Werner Herzog), in a sea of decrepit faces who act as the floor Chris and the guide walk on.
With the pathfinder’s help, Chris quickly is able to encounter his wife in the depths of hell. She resides in a nightmarish version of their real-life home, in the cupola of an upside-down cathedral, representing her complete loss of faith. The guide reveals himself as his mentor Albert and informs him that he can only expect to wish Annie farewell, as there has never been anyone to overturn another person’s damnation. After a brief, fruitless dialogue between the lovers, Chris informs his friend that he has decided to pass eternity in hell by the side of his wife.
Eventually, Chris, who is slowly losing his mind as a consequence of his prolonged stay in hell, with his last conscious words is able to make Annie remember her previous life. She subsequently ascends to heaven with her partner and both are reunited with their family. After a short stay in paradise, they decide to be reincarnated, leading to the last scene, where a very young Annie and Chris meet for the first time in their new life.
The Fault in the Stars
Rather than for its plot, which has been often labeled as over-romanticized, conventional and generally cliché-ridden, the film has been praised for its outstanding visual effects, composition and art design.
I believe that Movies and art – in general – are made to appeal to the viewer’s emotions and provoke feelings in the audience, which the script by Ron Bass (Rain Man, Entrapment) achieves masterfully. Often accused as over expositional, I believe that the dialogue is able to transmit the deep connection shared by Robin Williams’s and Annabelle Sciorra’s characters, as well as the slightly troubled relationship he shares with his children.
Another thing which deservedly received praise was the film’s imaginative representation of Heaven and Hell. Heaven is shown as the place of true, unlimited existence. In Heaven, one can choose their appearance and are not tied conventional ways of transportation, and see themselves generally realized as the people they really are.
It is presented as the purest form of peaceful coexistence, in contrast to the relatively short glimpse we catch of the Nielsen family in real life, where their unconditional love is disturbed by factors such as the pressure of good grades, lack of time for one another and so on.
In contrast, the Underworld is filled with people who have somehow lost touch with God’s most crucial virtue: faith. Fittingly, Sciorra’s representation of a lost mind which has lost all faith in a familiar, yet unrecognizable environment is spot on and makes us understand the nightmare of feeling forever lost. The performances by the rest of the cast are also worthy of appraisal. Williams, in particular, delivers a strong performance as a caring husband and father, well shown in the scenes in which he shares with his children. Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers an energetic performance as Albert and later on as Ian, while Max von Sydow’s presence is intimidating enough to overtake the whole screen in the limited time we get to enjoy his performance.
Annabella Sciorra initially refused to play her part in the movie and had to be convinced by Williams, as she believed the script to be too depressing. The soundtrack, composed by Michael Kamen (1948-2003) (in the short period of just three weeks) is also beautiful and complements the overall atmosphere of the movie well. There was however a full soundtrack already composed by the great Ennio Morricone – which was unfortunately rejected due to editing issues in post-production.
The focal point of the movie’s mixed reception is related to its ending. While it is a very typical ‘Hollywood’ ending, I don’t believe it to be unfitting. The main message of the picture is one of love and caring in the face of even the most extreme adversity, expressed above all by the movies main character portrayed by Williams who makes his predisposition clear in one piece of dialogue in particular:
Chris: “I forgive you.”
Annie: “For killing my children and my sweet husband?”
Chris: “For being so wonderful a guy would choose hell over heaven just to be around you.”
While this film may not be for everyone, with a beautiful score that compliments imaginative, breath-taking visuals, it is at least deserving of a second chance – or, if you will, a life after death.