Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Death, The Hero's Quest, Liquid Art & True Love

What Dreams May Come is a story of a love so strong a man would give up everything to save his beloved. The hero's quest is one of our most powerful shared myths and pervasive archetypal stories. The hero must go through life-threatening trials in order to save the object of his quest and in the process discovers some invaluable truths about him/herself and the world. This film is based on the novel of the same name by acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Though it diverges in many ways from the book, this film is true to the spirit of the book, which professes there is no more powerful bond than that of soulmates. The movie raised the book from out of print status (for nearly 20 years) to the best-seller list. I recommend it too. But where the movie excels is in its visual effects and cinematography. Each frame of What Dreams May Come is a work of art. This is one of the most beautiful films to look at that I've ever seen. Many of the scenes would hold up as beautiully composed stills. Other scenes are based on paintings and in some the paint is still liquid. Exquisite.

From this point on, I reveal plot points, so if you prefer to see the film first, please do and come back here to see the rest of what I have to say.

Chris, played by Robin Williams, and Annie, played by Annabella Sciorra are a married couple with two children. Chris is a doctor and Annie a painter who works at a gallery. They are beset with the terrible tragedy of both their children being killed in an automobile accident. Then four years later, Chris is killed trying to help at an accident scene. In flashbacks, we learn Annie blamed herself for sending them off with the nanny, thinking if she were driving somehow she could have spared them. The guilt drove her to the point of madness and the marriage nearly ended in divorce. But their bond prevailed.

After dying Chris meets "Albert" played by the marvelous Cuba Gooding Jr. Albert is his first guide who seems to be a doctor who trained Chris long ago. There will be other guides (played by Max Von Sydow and Rosalind Chao) as well and all are not who they seem. And of course, his dog is there to greet him as well. Neither Judea-Christian nor Buddhist, Matheson developed his own ideas about spirituality and the lifeforce. Chris' afterlife is based on his wife's paintings, is at first just that wet art, which later becomes real, and all, even the darker scenes are breathtaking.

Annie, is so despondent over he death of her husband, she commits suicide. Chis learns that suicides cannot go to the same realm and exist in a self-created purgatory for all eternity. He cannot abide this and embarks on a quest to save her. He finds her and tries to show her who he is. He says his being strong and not showing pain over the death of his kids "was just another place to hide" and that he "disconnected" himself "from the person he loved the most." He says good people end up in hell because they cannot forgive themselves. Isn't this one of the great tuths, how we create our own hell on earth berating ourseves.

When it seems Chris cannot bring his wife out of her state of suffering, he decides to reamin there with her. He tells her a number of things he's sorry for and he forgives her "for being so wonderful a guy would choose hell over heaven just to hang around you." When she comes out of the self-confinement to realize who Chris is, Chris has gone int his own self-imposed hell and she must get him out of it. They return to the lovely afterlife together, where the whole family is reunited for a time.

Whether or not you believe in the premise that none of us disappear after death, it is a well-acted film worth watching for its beautiful appearance alone. And don't miss a cameo by acclaimed director Wernor Herzog.


  1. Great review Lana. THis is such a different movie. I overlooked it when it came out, but once I saw it I felt bad about that. It's like a modern couple thrown into mythology and the hero's journey is exactly right. I agree about the visuals, so breathtaking they seem unreal (but believable in context.) Good pick! Now I'll need to watch it again.

  2. Lana, if you like WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, I might recommend Peter Jackson's THE LOVELY BONES, which is in many ways the "daughter" of this film, and THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE, which had me in tears several times, something that no romance had done in ages...

  3. I thought no one else had ever seen this movie! I love it! It's not only (as Lana mentioned) a visual feast for the eye, but can be emotionally wrenching without one word of dialogue. The scene where Chris, invisible and immaterial, lays a hand on Annie's shoulder as she kneels over his grave and she lets out a primal wail of despair is wrenching every time I watch it.

  4. Brent, it really is worth another viewing, even if only to catch Werner Herzog--priceless!

    Thanks, Bill. I go all weepy over that part too, and many others.

    Jeff, I have read The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife and really enjoyed both books. I've yet to see either movie. I'm a little scared about Time Traveler’s Wife as the plot was so genius you need to do matrix algorithms to keep track of it. I read it twice and will read it again. I do remember thinking The Lovely Bones would make a good film if they could figure out how to do it with subtlety and grace.