MOVIE REVIEW: “What Dreams May Come” (1998)

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

This isn’t a science fiction film, but as R4 has opened up the mandate somewhat to allow fantasy, that’s not the problem it once was. I’m not sure if this counts as ‘fantasy’ either, though. Perhaps more like new-agey speculation? I dunno. Whatever it is, though, I’m reviewing it.

I remember really wanting to see this movie for about a week or so. The commercials made it look just gorgeous. I likes me a pretty film, even if it’s not a particularly great one. Then the reviews hit, and this became an instant bomb. Hard to believe that was fifteen years ago. Wow. Time flies when you’re having toast. Or watching 3rd-rate movies, I guess.

The Story: Robin Williams “Meets Cute” with Annabella Sciorra while they’re both in Switzerland for some random, never-explained reason. They fall in love and marry more or less instantly because, yeah, chicks who look like her are always head over heels about guys who look like Robin Williams, who nearly kill them in boating accidents. Why not? Whatever.

Flash forward, and they’re married, rich, and have two great kids, who die in a car accident one scene after we meet them. Flash forward a year, and we have a couple scenes of Robin and Annabella bravely trying to get on with their lives. Then we get a really good scene of Robin trying to save someone in a car accident (He’s a doctor) and getting killed.

He wakes up in heaven, which looks exactly like an oil painting his wife once made of a beautiful landscape with their dream home in the distance. (These are the scenes they showed in the commercials, and they’re genuinely trippy and pretty) Eventually Forrest Whitaker Cuba Gooding, Jr. shows up and explains that this isn’t what heaven is, it’s his perception of heaven, which Robin chose because it’s what he needed to see. Over time, he’ll gain more control over it, and be able to change what it looks like and how it works and so on. The implication here seems to be that everyone gets the heaven they expect – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever – which serves as a comforting place to stay during the transitional period during which they learn to put aside earthly understanding and gradually come to grasp the ‘real’ heaven. (Which is never really seen in the movie.)

All is going well, until Forrest Cuba shows up and says that Annabella has killed herself in grief. This is bad because basically this is a vaguely Catholic new-agey picture, and hence suicides go to hell, period, end of sentence. Robin insists on at least trying to rescue her, so Forrest Cuba reluctantly agrees to find a tracker. They eventually settle on Max von Sydow (Good choice!) who’s in a water-filled library where the book racks rise like towers, and people get about on gondolas. (Oooh! Bad on the pages, but still: oooh!)

Max agrees to take on the job, but explains that no one can be rescued from hell. Robin can go and visit her, he can say his goodbyes, but he can’t take her out, and if he stays too long, he, too, will be damned. Mostly because he’ll be overcome by sorrow and forget who he is, and hence be unable to leave.

At this point things become confusing. We get a lot of flashback scenes of Robin’s life on earth with his kids, and a deliberately-obscured series of scenes with Annabella in a mental hospital after the kids died. This is intercut with some modestly cool scenes of the road to hell (Easily my least favorite of the Hope & Crosby movies), involving an aircraft carrier jam-packed with the damned, and a scene of walking over an endless plain of human faces, most of whom are talking. Then people just randomly start revealing that they’re not who we thought they were. Max is Robin’s old med school teacher, Forrest Cuba is Robin’s son. The daughter shows up too in a rather ‘whaaaaat?’ sequence that I honestly can’t remember in any proper order. The reasons for these people obscuring their true identities are thin at best.

Presently we get to Anabella’s own personal hell, which looks like one an unused HR Geiger/Ridley Scott set from Alien, with a ramshackle version of the Williams/ Sciorra house in the middle of it. Max again warns Robin that he’s only got five minutes in there before he forgets who he is, and is damned. Anabella doesn’t recognize him, so he gradually tells the story of his tragedies, as though he’s just a new neighbor from down the street. Presently it’s revealed that their obscure conversations from the loonie bin revolved around them deciding to get divorced, then changing their mind. Robin decides not to leave, and for no adequately explained reason, she suddenly realizes who she is and so forth, and gets out of hell, though no one ever gets out of hell.

After some time in Oil Painting heaven where they see their kids are alright, they decide to be reincarnated. “But how will we find each other?” Annabella asks. “I tracked you down in hell,” Robin says. “You’re saying I couldn’t find you in Jersey?” The final scene is the two of them as kids, ‘meeting cute’ once again for the first time ever.

The End.

Well. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense, did it? Richard Matheson wrote the novel upon which this was based. He did tons of interviews with people who’d had near-death experiences, the tunnel, the light, and stuff. This book was his attempt to make sense of what happens to us when we die, though I don’t know where he got the ‘reincarnation’ stuff from, since (As far as I know) that’s not generally a part of the “I was dead for two minutes” experience.

I’m told the movie took several vast liberties with the book, and that the book is less convoluted and confusing than the film was. I’m also told it’s better. I’m willing to believe that, but whereas some poor film adaptations fill you with enough curiosity to make you track down the book just to figure out what the heck they were getting at, some others just utterly kill any curiosity you might have. This falls into the latter category.

My friend Chip once said that there are two kinds of Robin Williams movies: The funny ones, and the ones where he has a beard. He doesn’t have a beard in this one, but he totally should. It’s that kind of film.

Really the only thing this thing has going for it are the striking visuals. Watch it with the sound turned down, or get ambitious and make an FMV of the best scenes with some song you like over the top and post it on Youtube.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

No. Not really. It’s New Agey twaddle. Christians will be upset by the reincarnation and the salvation without Jesus. Atheists will hate the entire concept. Hindus and Buddhists will find it an annoyingly WASP-ified and watered down version of their own beliefs. Muslims will find it nonsense. I have no idea how Jews would take it, but I assume just as badly as everyone else.

This isn’t really an offensive movie, though, but there is certainly something here to bore everyone.

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here: http://www.kevin-long.com and his smashwords page is here https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/rthree Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!

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