The Good: Excellent cinematography, direction, characters, concept, most of the acting
The Bad: Very simple story, "Surprises" repeat
The Basics: Dark and visually extraordinary, What Dreams May Come tells a surprisingly personal and intimate view on love through life and afterdeath.
I think one of the things I like about movies about death is no one can make a compelling argument that the movie is unrealistic. The advantage of not knowing what lies beyond life is that it is fertile ground for the imagination. I just took in What Dreams May Come on DVD (it looked great on my HD-TV!) and it surprised me to learn that the only awards and nominations it received were for effects (save nominations for Cuba Gooding Jr. for supporting acting). In my review of Marie Antoinette (reviewed here!) recently, I tried to make the distinctions between quality cinematography and direction. What Dreams May Come combines exceptional visual imagery with great direction, giving me pause to wonder why the movie was never the recipient of any directing awards.
Chris Nielsen is a successful doctor and lover of art who is married to a beautiful artist and art dealer named Annie. After losing both of their children, Chris and Annie are plodding through their lives when Chris is killed in a car accident. Chris passes into the afterdeath which is an imaginative heaven of his own creation. Guided by a dead friend, Albert, Chris explores what the afterdeath has to offer him, while longing for Annie. Annie, however, soon kills herself out of grief from losing Chris and Chris persuades Albert to help him find his soulmate. Chris, then, must journey into Annie's hell.
Right off the bat, one of the things I loved about the characters in What Dreams May Come is their realistic attachments to one another. Chris is searching for Annie. Annie is distraught beyond living for Chris. In the afterdeath, it is their love that motivates them. Both Chris and Annie love their children, but they love one another more. I'm tired of movies where husband-wife relations are put on the same level as love of a child and it's refreshing to see that tradition defied here. The sacrifices Chris is willing to make for love are exceptional and impressive. He is an instantly memorable film character.
Annie, like Chris, is determined and how distraught she is creates a character that is essentially human. Annie's beauty and love evolves throughout the movie and the flashbacks that are revealed to the viewer and one of the nice aspects of What Dreams May Come is that the viewer is treated to the complexity of Annie's relationship with Chris. They fight. They are soulmates, but they disagree, they mourn in different ways and they express themselves differently. That's refreshing and very real.
Part of what makes What Dreams May Come so poignant is the acting. Cuba Gooding Jr. is decent as Albert, though the role does not give him a lot to work with. Max von Sydow is imposing and carries a secret formidable strength of knowledge as the Tracker. And it's always wonderful to see Rosalind Chao; her subtlety as an actress leads to one of the coolest character revelations of the film.
Annabeth Sciorra is tremendous as Annie, evolving both physically and emotionally throughout the movie. Sciorra presents a character who has the ability to be strong or broken and her performance reflects such. She plays strong and healthy with the dignity of the straightened spine, lost and crushed with body language that is difficult to watch in a movie. She is able to connote loss, emptiness and loneliness with her eyes in a way that makes the viewer wonder how she was not nominated for awards.
Robin Williams rules the movie as Chris and his performance here is one of his best of his career. There are moments where he does a vocal impression and breaks character some, but he keeps his performance intense and subtle as opposed to over-the-top, which sells the movie as a serious work effectively.
And a rarity for me, I'll acknowledge the real acting gem here is a young person. Josh Paddock plays Ian, Chris and Annie's son. Paddock performs most of his scenes opposite Williams and he gives a powerful performance. Ian is young, angry and living in his father's shadow. Paddock uses his facial expressions and eye movements to create a character living in silent desperation for his father's approval that is incredible. He's the one to watch in What Dreams May Come.
The movie looks good and it's easy to see why it won visual effects awards. The cinematography, direction and Michael Kamen's soundtrack all work together to create a beautiful viewing experience that serves the story exceptionally well. In short, these are not effects for the sake of effects, they are integral to the story and the concept.
Like the psychological horror Jacob's Ladder (reviewed here!), this is a movie that utilizes surprise to tell the story and unfortunately, What Dreams May Come shoots its surprise once and shoots itself in the foot by doing such (not as bad as Jacob's Ladder!). In the afterdeath, things are not what they seem necessarily and as a result, characters morph. Rosalind Chao's performance as Leona is incredible and allows for the movie's big surprise and it works very well. The problem is, once that surprise is sprung, the "surprises" that follow disappoint. Why? They're all the same surprise. Once the viewer knows the tools and premises of the afterdeath, they can figure it out very easily.
It's not enough to disappoint the viewer, but it does drag the movie down some, because it seems to want the viewer to be surprised (musical cues and all). The DVD includes an alternate ending that is intriguing and I find myself unable to articulate which ending I liked better, though I think some combination of the two would have worked best.
All in all, What Dreams May Come remains a neglected film classic. It's dark and romantic, visually exceptional yet understated in so many ways. It is easily worth your attention and I cannot wait to rewatch it.
For other works with Max von Sydow, be sure to check out my reviews of:
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© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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