What Dreams May Come (review)

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Perchance to Dream

I suspect that, in one respect, the audience reactions to What Dreams May Come will be similar to the audience reactions to The Truman Show: Religious people are going to see an affirmation of their religious beliefs in What Dreams May Come, and nonreligious types (like me) are going to see a humanistic message. And that’s fine. We make our own worlds — that’s the point What Dreams May Come is trying to make.

Chris Nielsen (a wonderful Robin Williams) is one of those lucky few: he found his soul mate, Annie (Annabella Sciorra). It was love at first sight for them both, but their bond goes deeper than mere love. When Chris dies, leaving Annie behind, and finds himself in an afterlife the likes of which I promise you’ve never seen before on film, they retain a connection that threatens to drive them both insane, and Chris decides he cannot continue through eternity without her.
It’s difficult to describe too much of the plot without ruining a first-time viewer’s experience of What Dreams May Come — while there’s little that’s surprising, the way the film unfolds is part of its beauty. The story timeshifts back and forth between Chris’s life, death, and afterlife, mentioning events in passing early and then filling in the details later, much in the same way that we get to know a new friend. It’s a very literary method of telling a story — one not used in film often, one that rewards patience and attention — and I don’t think it would be fair to discuss the plot too much, even with a spoilers warning.

But it spoils nothing to tell you that while What Dreams May Come offers a view of heaven and hell that doesn’t fit the traditional Christian ideal, neither, I suspect, would a hard-core rationalist find it too comfortable. Christians might be upset to find that God is absent and angels are merely those who have died before us. There is no Satan lording over hell. Yet the rationalist will probably find the concept of personality enduring beyond the body and heaven as our personal playground to be nothing more than wishful thinking and fantasy.

Heaven and hell in What Dreams May Come are what their occupants make of them. Those in heaven create their own worlds in their own view of beauty, can even create the appearance of themselves they show to others. Those in hell have damned themselves to eternal torture — good people, as Chris says, who have condemned themselves to hell because they can’t forgive themselves for whatever they perceive their sins to be. And of course, that idea is meant to be extrapolated to the life we live here in the corporeal world. We create our world, decide for ourselves whether we’ll romp in a personal heaven or suffer in our own special hell.

What Dreams May Come may not be the movie for you if you’ve lost someone you loved recently — or it may be the perfect movie. It is sentimental — some reviewers have branded it emotionally manipulative — but it offers genuine sentiment, not the schmaltzy Hallmark-card kind. And for a film with breathtaking visual effects, it’s Annie and Chris you’ll cling to and carry back with you into your own world.

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