Opening of film review No. 2: So love is the reason to live. Okay. I got it. Sure.
Opening of film review No. 3: You know, if you’re going to make a film about someone who wants to come back to life, you should show lot of good reasons for that person to want to come back. If you don’t you’re not being honest…
Part of me wants to gush about this movie. Part of me wants to be flippant about it. Part of me wants to attack its occasional, but crucial, moments of dishonesty. I guess this means that, by Hollywood standards, What Dreams May Come is a complicated film, full of visions of Heaven and Hell and full of ideas about death and life and love.
My thoughts have swirled around this work, and it may me want to say several things which will make this an especially in-depth review. Spoilers ahead:
Chris and Anna Nielson (Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra) meet, fall in love, get married and have two kids…and lose them in an accident. The couple has trouble getting past this (Anna winds up in a sanitarium), but they are able to re-set their lives…until Chris, too, dies in a sadly similar way, and later Anna is driven to suicide from her loss. Chris winds up in Heaven, but because she took her death into her own hands, he’s told, she’s upset things and has to go to Hell.
Chris and Anna are the very image of the ones we think of when we ask ourselves, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
But What Dreams May Come – adapted by New Zealand director Vincent Ward and screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) from a novel by Richard Matheson (Somewhere in Time and I Am Legend) – finds its way to the silver lining of death, using many cultures’ beliefs of what death really is. Here, we see death from Chris’s perspective as he adapts with the help of angel Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). “You thought you disappeared,” Albert says to Chris. “You didn’t. You only died.”
Chris orients himself to this change, and can finally head into Heaven. And the visions of Heaven are vivid vivid vivid, realized on a huge scale by Digital Domain (True Lies, Titanic and The Fifth Element). The underlying idea: in Heaven, you do what you are meant to do. “Sounds like work,” Chris says when Leona (Rosalind Chao) tells him what goes on in the great beyond. “I like that.”
But for Chris, the most important Heaven confirms for him is that Anna is his soulmate, but this fact destroyed Anna when she outlived hers. Chris resolves to try and reach her, with the help of Albert and The Tracker (Max Von Sydow), and bring her to Heaven. As reviewers have pointed out, it’s the legend of Orpheus with a happy ending. To some, that’s a criticism. To me, I think it works.
The movie has very writer-ly dialogue that feels like words from a novel. Robin Williams does the film’s best and boldest acting, with subdued humor and frequent delicacy. Gooding is best in his early scenes as this blur of motion which Chris can’t yet quite see, though Gooding has trouble with some major changes in character later on Annabella Sciorra feels real as she carries the film’s weariness.
But there’s one thing here I’m not completely comfortable with: Heaven isn’t modern. Hell is.
You see, Chris’s corner of Heaven is based on the glowingly baroque 19th century paintings he loves, and Heaven itself is full of nothing but nods to the past. When Chris reaches the entrance to Hell, Cerberus – imagined in scripture as a three-headed dog – is represented here by a huge, crumbling steel ship. Yes, there are hints of the past in Hell as well – many people stuck in that part of the ever-after are in suits of armor, carrying archaic weapons – and the deepest depths of Hell we see have nothing to do with the 20th century. But it’s a very selective view of the world we live in, where we see very little good about the world we have now.
Does this film have an anti-progress stance? Three people in this film die from car accidents – a truly 20th century form of death. The movie makes you want to scream about these deaths by car – it makes you want to rail against them and want to stop them – but though it saddens me to say it, every era has something that kills too many people. The film seems to be trying to say we must accept the modern ways of death as part of the cycle of life…but when the film doesn’t show us very much that’s positive about the modern world, when the best of the world is represented mainly by overdramatic paintings from almost 200 years ago, how much can we believe it when at the end Chris and Anna decide to go back to it? (I should add, without revealing too much, their reason for going back to Earth is personal.) Even in a film as packed with ideas as this, something seems to be missing…and the result doesn’t feel completely honest.
But there’s a lot of good here in Dreams. For instance, I admire the film’s very assertive use of color. (Chris’s corner of Heaven, at first, is made entirely of paint!) Importantly, Hell to Chris is monochrome: grays broken only by the red from fires.
And color has a purpose in this film. Consider the color blue: here, blue seems to represent the willingness of soulmates Chris and Anna to live. We first see blue in the blossoms of the tress around their home; the first color Chris sees in Heaven is the blue of a flower that swirls like a pool of paint.
Soon after, Albert is surprised to see a tree that was painted down on Earth by Anna; while still on Earth, she is influencing her soulmate in Heaven. And the tree’s leaves – both in the painting and in Heaven – are blue. But Anna, still feeling lost after losing Chris, ruins her painting of the blue tree – and it is as if the blue leaves of the Heaven tree shatter as they scatter. The message: Anna is not willing to live. Guess what happens the next time we hear about her.
Well, near the very end of the film, after everything Chris has done to reach her again, Chris and Anna decide to let themselves be reborn, to find each other for the first time again and fall in love for the first time again and all that. When they decide this, Chris is wearing an imagined suit that’s the most vivid blue in the film.
So the film was thoughtfully designed, which adds much to it. And composer Michael Kamen forgoes his usual musical wit for a very sincere approach that’s equal parts muscular and emotional; it’s big, epic, and heaving.
Well done, everyone.
But I’m still conflicted about this film.