Review: What Dreams May Come (Don HARLOW)

Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

What Dreams May Come

Movie by Richard MATHESON and Ronald BASS

reviewed by Don HARLOW

                                             To die, to sleep;
To sleep perchance to dream, ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause...

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III

   It seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) were nothing if not soulmates. Their meeting on a Swiss lake, the result of a chance gust of wind or a vagrant current, seemed predestined; their second meeting up on an Alpine hillside was inevitable. They married, they loved, they raised two fine children. Who could want more?

   Into each life some rain must fall. One senseless traffic accident took the lives of both children. Four years later, yet another senseless traffic accident took Chris, and left Annie alone to ponder the meaning of it all -- and to find none.

   Meanwhile, Chris, having died, has, after haunting Annie for a few days or weeks, gone off to Heaven and started learning the ropes. Heaven, it seems, is what you make of it. Chris makes it, at the root, into what he would have made of life, had he had the chance -- with the help of the shade of his life-side mentor Dr. Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).

   But Annie, deciding that life is not worth it, takes her own life -- and Chris discovers that there is a much darker side of an afterlife whose attributes are a function of the human mind.

   I thought the movie was enjoyable, and perhaps a bit more philosophical (despite the emphasis on SFX) than most of the movies we see these days. Others in the theater apparently enjoyed it, too; almost everybody stayed to watch the credits at the end, rather than stampeding for the doors and freedom.

   But it did have its faults. In some ways, it did not play fair with the viewer. It is logical to assume that in an afterlife whose form is decided by the participant, the participant's own form doesn't need to be locked in place; but we are never given enough clues, until the film is ready to disclose, who are hiding behind the shells of Dr. Albert, Leona the Stewardess (Rosalind Chao -- better known to some of us as Keiko O'Brien from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and the Sigmund-Freud-like "Tracker" (Max von Sydow). Similarly, Annie's fundamental instability is kept a deep, dark secret from the viewer -- until the script-writers decide it's necessary to advance the plot.

   The "Hell" scenes seem a bit overdone pictures straight out of Gustav Doré. I suspect that in the afterlife described in this movie, Hell would be far more everyday and humdrum -- a reflection of a life in which little things keep on going wrong, day after day, forever, a universe drawn entirely in shades of grey.

   The script also cops out a bit on the ending. Those who have peeked into the last pages of the original novel (as I did) at their local bookstore will know that Annie and Chris reincarnate; but the movie variant is a sop to middle-class sensibilities, and does not address the real religious intent of this particular concept, which Richard Matheson, the author, touches on. (1)

   Matheson, I should add, has been best known (to me) as a fifties-sixties author of lightweight short stories -- generally in the mood of Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont, but somewhat darker, though he could do humor, too, as see "A Touch of Grapefruit", in which Los Angeles turns out to be a living entity... But two of his books have been turned into relatively successful movies (Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, from I Am Legend, and Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time), and now we have a third.

   All in all, a movie worth seeing. In my humble opinion, of course.

(1) Matheson, like many of those who believe in reincarnation, treats existence -- which includes both life and death -- as an ongoing learning process, in which each life allows you to advance a step in your understanding of yourself and the universe -- though these may conceivably be the same thing. Matheson also points out that the relationship between Chris and Annie did _not_ begin on a lake in Switzerland, but a long, long time before that -- at least as early as the 14th century, and probably earlier -- a point which the movie, in order not to confuse viewers, does not address.