Heaven in "What Dreams May Come" looks like the ultimate metaphysical fantasy of Hollywood moguls: Godless, awash in the good vibes of the New Age, and completely subject to the individual wills of its inhabitants.
When souls first arrive, they can envision what they want their own particular heaven to be; they may also be reborn, but only if they choose to be. Away with such concepts as discipline, sacrifice and the transcendence of worldly illusions of power -- no one here sins, they just violate the "natural order," a spiritual transgression roughly on a par with failing to recycle.
In fact, spiritual values are the last thing on filmmaker Vincent Ward's mind in "What Dreams May Come," which uses themes of death and resurrection as a foil for an essentially superficial love story. Robin Williams plays Chris Nielsen, who meets Annie (Annabella Sciorra) when they're both touring Europe. Destiny has brought the lovers together by putting them in colliding sailboats on an Italian lake, and in a montage sequence featuring much cooing and strenuous-sounding laughter, we are given to understand that they go on to have a perfect life.
Until. Nothing gold can stay, as Chris learns when a series of tragedies separates him from his wife and two kids (not to mention the family dog). "What Dreams May Come," which was adapted from the novel by Ron Bass, traces Chris' arduous journey to find the family he's lost -- to heaven, and finally to hell. (Come to think of it, there's even some high water in there somewhere.)
Truth be told, Chris isn't really looking for his family. He's looking for Annie, the only person on earth he has eyes for; if love were a station wagon, his son and daughter (Josh Paddock and Jessica Brooks Grant) would be relegated to the way-back. For a few minutes, it looks like "What Dreams May Come" will actually address the arrogance and solipsism of Chris and Annie's bTC mutual enthrallment and the human costs of such chauvinism of the heart.
But once Chris and his guide through the afterlife (Cuba %J Gooding Jr.) enlist the services of a "tracker," the motives of the film become hopelessly muddled. Is it a science fiction-fantasy adventure? A romance on the order of "Ghost" and "City of Angels"? A postmortem on the moral value of a man's life, a la "Heaven Can Wait" and "It's a Wonderful Life"?
All of the above. None of the above. "What Dreams May Come" seems primarily to be about Ward's dexterity with the Paintbox program on his computer. The visual effects are admittedly stunning, and Ward and his visual designers have a way with the cool end of the color spectrum: blues, greens and violets are splashed across the screen in luscious shades and saturations (both heaven and earth are graced by a riot of wisteria and jacaranda trees). Monet, Goya, van Gogh and Hieronymous Bosch are invoked but soon seem ill-served by their quotations, which begin to look gaudy and tasteless after a while. Chris' heaven resembles an electric Kool-Aid version of the Hudson River School.
Williams, fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in "Good Will Hunting," is his usual affable, if indistinct self, and Sciorra, sadly coiffed in a severe pageboy, gives her all in a role that demands laughing and crying and little else.
The real tragedy here isn't Chris and Annie's loss or their love, which looks doomed for a good part of the story. It's the sight of Max Von Sydow in such an overwrought spectacle. The terror and depth of a trip from heaven to hell are nothing compared with the fall from Bergman to Candyland.
'What Dreams May Come'
Starring Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Directed by Vincent Ward
Released by Polygram Films
Rated PG-13 (thematic elements involving death, some disturbing images and language)
Running time: 113 minutes
Sun score: **
Movies this week
"What Dreams May Come" **
"The Impostors" ****
"Antz" **1/2 Page 2e
"Clay Pigeons" ** Page 3e
"A Night at the Roxbury" **1/2 Page 2e
"Touch of Evil" ***1/2 Page 6e
"Strangeland" was not previewed for critics.
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 10/02/98