Annie, believe me... I still exist. You're thinking of me right now... just keep thinking of me.
With its stunning visuals that capture the splendor of Heaven and the cold solitude of Hell, "What Dreams May Come" is a feast for the eyes. This metaphysical romance gains top marks for its combination of lavish production design and the latest special effects techniques that treat the audience to the scenic vistas and breathtaking spectacles of the afterlife. And while it attempts to also feed the soul with its exploration of spirituality and emotional redemption, it ends up coming off as a muddled and messy melodrama that fails to create a satisfying emotional high.
Before the opening credits have even finished, we have learned everything that there is to know about the Nielsen family. Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams, last seen in "Good Will Hunting") literally runs into his soul-mate Annie (Annabella Sciorra) whilst boating in Europe. Not long after, they are married and raise a son and a daughter (Josh Paddock and Jessica Brooks Grant). However, the familial bliss is short-lived as the children are killed in a car crash, a catastrophe that Chris and Annie struggle long and hard to overcome. Skipping ahead four years, tragedy falls once again on the Nielsen family in the form of another car crash, this time taking the life of Chris.
Boy, I screwed up... I'm in dog heaven.
At first Chris is disoriented, unsure of where to go or what to do. However, with the help of his tour guide Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr. of "As Good As It Gets"), the spirit of a long-deceased mentor, Chris discovers the wonders of his own personal paradise. The impressionist landscape is literally painted, derived from Chris' own memories of Annie's paintings, and soon Chris learns how to manipulate his surroundings with just a mere thought.
Time doesn't exist here, and wherever it went, it's not going to make me miss Annie any less.
However, back on Earth, things are not so well. While undergoing therapy to help her deal with her tragic loss, Annie commits suicide in the vain hope of escaping her pain. Unfortunately, instead of going to Heaven, like her dearly departed husband and children, Annie is sent to Hell, where she is to spend the rest of eternity in torment. Upon hearing of Annie's fate, Chris demands that Albert go with him to whatever depths necessary to save her. Along with the help of an enigmatic man known only as a 'tracker' (Max von Sydow), they venture through the gates of Hell, a forbidding place of fire and desolation. But Chris finds that bringing Annie out of her self-inflicted torment is much more difficult than he believed-- and he must decide whether to spend eternity alone in Heaven, or to spend it at Annie's side in Hell.
It's not about understanding... it's about not giving up.
Despite having a premise with promise, and some lush cinematography to convey the grandeur of Chris' paradise, it is in Ron Bass' screenplay (he also wrote "My Best Friend's Wedding"), adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson, that "What Dreams May Come" fails to deliver. At the core of the story is the love between Chris and Annie that knows no bounds, and of a man's desire to correct the painful mistakes of his previous life. Unfortunately, this gets lost as the script literally throws all sorts of pathos against the wall, hoping that something will stick. We get lengthy explanations on the 'rules' of Heaven and Hell, two poorly fleshed-out subplots between Chris and his two children, and a whole lot of metaphysical-babble that would be more at home on any "Star Trek" episode-- all of which take away the momentum of Chris' emotional journey towards understanding and atonement. Hence, the result is a murky and messy story that does not hit the emotional highs you would expect it to.
I didn't get to say good-bye, but whatever distance there is between us, I send you my love.
Williams does well with the material he is given, and at times, his performance is inspiring-- until it is interrupted by an intrusive piece of exposition. The anguish of Sciorra's character is truly heartfelt, and her transformation from a vivacious young woman to a disheartened widow is startling. The rest of the cast acquits itself nicely, but the star of this show would have to be the colorfully-imaginative visuals created by production designer Eugenio Zanetti (who won an Academy Award for "Restoration"). The sun-swept landscapes of Heaven and the savage desolation of Hell are exquisitely rendered with an artist's eye, and the most memorable aspect of an otherwise maudlin film.
Lovely pictures aside, "What Dreams May Come" does have some powerful ideas. Unfortunately, they are buried so deep beneath the film's other baggage that they end up being missed opportunities. Which is a tragedy.