What Dreams May Come (1998)
May 7, 2015 10:41 PM - Subscribe

Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) has died in a car crash only to find himself in a spectacular and ever-changing afterlife. Except it can't really be that great without his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), who has committed suicide and thus gone to some other place, he learns from his afterlife host Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr). Chris decides to embark on a rescue mission with the help of The Tracker (Max von Sydow).

Roger Ebert is perhaps the most enthusiastically positive critic ("so breathtaking, so beautiful, so bold in its imagination") but even he laments: "If Hollywood is determined to short-change us with an obligatory happy ending, then it shouldn't torment us with a movie that deserves better."

Todd McCarthy from Variety mixed a bit of praise into his pan: "a heaping serving of metaphysical gobbledygook wrapped in a physically striking package". In the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes: "Mr. Bass's screenplay is so clotted with slogans, riddles and dime-store psychobabble that Chris and Annie never coalesce into anything more than a pair of idealized greeting-card parents with terrible luck." Meanwhile the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan sums up: "If this is Heaven, give me Hell."

The film is based on the Richard Matheson novel of the same title, of which he has said, "I think What Dreams May Come is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive."

The visual effects definitely seem to have been a strength noted by many reviewers, and the film did win an Oscar for Best Effects, Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Art Direction - Set Design. Kiwi director Vincent Ward, known for his highly visual and creative approach, probably had something to do with that.

Everyone seems to particularly hate the ending (which O'Sullivan says may be Matheson's fault rather than scriptwriter Ron Bass's). Even Robin Williams wasn't fond of it, revealing in a Reddit AMA that he preferred an alternate ending (spoiler alert) to the do-over:
When I watched the final movie, I felt it was extraordinarily beautiful but I felt disappointed by the ending. There was a different ending that they shot that I felt was much more true to the story. It was about reincarnation, basically, that they were going to meet again. The movie ended with two babies being born simultaneously, one in Bombay and one in the United States, and they held them up, and then the screen went to black. I don't know if it's anywhere.
Regardless of the critics' opinions, viewers seem to have a fondness for the film which apparently only increased after Williams's death - Yahoo! Movies reported that as of 13 August (two days after Williams died), What Dreams May Come "was the 45th most-downloaded movie on iTunes, and the 40th top-selling movie on Amazon". Bustle's Alanna Bennett also revisited the film in light of Williams's death, saying: "I don’t know what this movie means in the grand scheme of Robin Williams, but now it feels like I’ll never stop thinking about it."

The title of the film comes from Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, in which he reflects that it's not knowing what comes after death that makes us put up with life, however painful it is.
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
posted by Athanassiel (7 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I unashamedly love this movie in all its sappy cornball glory but I'm not sure I can return to it anymore.
posted by kagredon at 12:44 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hmm. I loved some of the visuals (wasn't it made using some crazy film stock they don't use any longer?) but dramatically -- hmm.

I love Max von Sydow in nearly anything, and when the main character dies and meets his Dalmatian again -- oof! Look for Werner Herzog as a stepped-on face!

I used to live near downtown Oakland, so when I see the part where the kids are on the dock at Lake Merritt (before they rebuilt it) I want to shout out BE CAREFUL!!!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:27 AM on May 8, 2015

This one is a big guilty pleasure. It's such a gorgeous train wreck.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

GORGEOUS waste of a great cast with terrible plotting.
posted by xingcat at 6:53 AM on May 8, 2015

WDMC is one of my favorite movies, and it contains one of my all-time favorite, powerful movie scenes, where Rosalind Chao and Williams are speaking on the gondola, while he is searching heaven for his wife and kids.

Chao has told him he's a guide who can help him navigate heaven. She's dressed as a flight attendant, complete with nametag. While they are traveling together, he asks her if the way she looks now is the way she looked when she passed away. She tells him no and then says, "We were on this plane trip once and the flight attendant looked like this and had this name tag, Leona. My father said that Asian women were so lovely, and graceful, and intelligent."
Williams: "He didn't mean only-"
Chao: "I know. It was just something he said. But what I thought was: 'When I grow up I want to be like her.'"

And then she appears to him then the way he had last seen her when she was alive. As his young (non-Asian) daughter.

It's a beautiful, moving and heartbreaking scene. Chao at her very best. And man, you can see the horrible realization hit him like a ton of bricks, that something he had said without thinking said to his young daughter had been a trigger point for her and left a lasting impact. That it had literally shaped her self-image so when she had the ability to, she'd chosen to look like a woman her father (whom she probably revered) had said was beautiful.

I hardly ever cry at movies. But I remember just weeping over that scene. Now that I'm a father of a daughter, its lesson has stuck with me, too.

The movie's overarching themes: how we live our lives, loss, depression, coping, grief, different kinds of passion, love and devotion, relationships and the subconscious impact we have on each other... it was ambitious and weird and dark and wonderful. Not perfect. There were moments that tried to be powerful but turned out trite. Some plot points were predictable, too. But it swung for the fences.

Typical of Williams, who seemed to love doing films which were complex and multilayered. But also fascinating to watch knowing that Williams dealt with so much inner turmoil and depression throughout his life by embracing and riding the highs of his own colorful creativity. It seems thematically well-suited for him.


One interesting bit of trivia:

When Williams meets Cuba Gooding Jr., in the film, he expresses surprise that Gooding looks so young. Gooding replies: "You last saw me when I was 63, stretched out in a cardiac ward! Who wants to be 63 throughout eternity?"

When Robin Williams passed away last year, he was 63 years old.
posted by zarq at 8:58 AM on May 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

(wasn't it made using some crazy film stock they don't use any longer?)

Yes, Fuji Velvia film, which has high levels of color saturation.
posted by zarq at 9:06 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sadly I discovered that when I upgraded my ancient DVD player to a bluray earlier this year, I lost the ability to play region 1 DVDs. Which, it turns out, my copy of the film is. I was looking forward to it too, after all that research. Bugger.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:54 AM on May 10, 2015

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