Retro Film Review: What Dreams May Come (1998)

in #film2 months ago


For thousands of years various religions and philosophers are trying to find the answer to the ultimate question - what happens to people after they die. The subject is unpleasant and potentially disturbing, so it isn't hard to imagine why Hollywood ignored it. Most people who want to be entertained try not to be reminded of their mortality, especially teenagers who make the core of Hollywood's audience these days. So, when Hollywood does approach this difficult subject, that usually turns into the most optimistic and cheerful depiction of afterlife. What Dreams May Come, 1998 drama directed by Vincent Ward, is a perfect example of such approach.

The plot of the film is based on the novel by Richard Matheson, one of the best authors of science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Protagonist is Charlie Nielsen (played by Robin Williams), successful neurosurgeon who has it all - beautiful artist wife Annie (played by Anabella Sciorra), two children and a dog. In relatively short time he loses them all - dog dies, children are killed in the accident, Annie succumbs to depression and, finally, Charlie himself gets killed while trying to help injured motorist. Charlie is transported to Heaven and, with the help of a celestial being called Albert (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), discovers that the afterlife is actually more wonderful than he ever dared to imagine. However, his happiness isn't final. He is informed that Annie committed suicide and ended in Hell. Charlie is determined to be reunited with his wife at any cost so he, with the help of Tracker (played by Max von Sydow) decides to travel to darker areas of the Other Side.

Vincent Ward, New Zealand film maker who had authored Navigator, one of the most interesting science fiction films in past few decades, obviously knew how to put Hollywood resources to good use. With the help of special effects and talented creative team he created truly impressive vision of afterlife, based on the famous paintings coming to life. The images are breathtaking and because of them What Dreams May Come is one of the best-looking films to come from Hollywood in past decade.

But Ward's film making skills weren't matched by screenwriter Ronald Bass. His adaptation of Matheson's book suffers from too much cheap sentimentalism and recycles motives that were used hundreds of years ago. Connoisseurs of classic literature would probably find traces of Greek mythology and Dante in the story; instead of giving the extra depth to film, they just underline its Hollywood sappiness. Another problem for the film is in unconvincing theology behind film's fictional world - it represents poor compromise between old Judeo-Christian and modern New Age concepts of afterlife. The story isn't helped with the heavy use of flashbacks that often confuse the audience. The acting in the film also leaves much to be desired. Robin Williams can handle comedy and drama well, but roles that, like this one, combine lame humour with heavy sentimentality aren't his forte. Anabella Sciorra doesn't manage to portray character for whom someone would voluntarily go to Hell. Gooding and von Sydow, on the other hand, are here mostly to conform to the "politically correct" rules of 1990s Hollywood - young black man plays sympathetic, while old white man plays unsympathetic character.

What Dreams May Come can be watched, but it nevertheless represents another proof that pretty images alone aren't enough for satisfying movie experience.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on May 3rd 2004)

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I would suggest to drop Retro word from title of your posts, All film reviews are good no matter what time it is given. Just my personal opinion.