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(1998) (Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr.) (PG-13)

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Drama: Upon his death, a man must deal with leaving his human existence as well as trying to find his wife, his soul mate with whom he still has a connection that's transcended death.
Chris Nielsen (ROBIN WILLIAMS), a pediatrician, and his wife, Annie (ANNABELLA SCIORRA), who restores old paintings when not painting her own works, have been soul mates ever since they first met. Happily married for years, their lives are shattered when their children, Ian (JOSH PADDOCK) and Marie (JESSICA BROOKS GRANT), are killed in a car accident.

Four years later, both Chris and Annie are still trying to cope with their grief when Chris is suddenly killed in a car accident. Suddenly arriving in his own personal hereafter, Chris' attention is split between temporally hurried visions of his surviving wife, and that of a wondrous, color- filled and picturesque world stemming from his thoughts, memories and imagination.

Accompanied by his spiritual guide, Albert (CUBA GOODING, JR.), a missionary who saves lost souls along with his associate, Leona (ROSALIND CHAO), Chris initially doesn't believe he's dead, and once he eventually accepts that, can't let go of Annie. Albert, who's surprised by the couple's deep and mutual love that's apparently survived their separation, nonetheless tells Chris he must let go of her to allow her to get on with her life.

Chris eventually does, but the fact that he's realized her paintings into "real life" in his new world only deepens his bond to her. When not exploring his new world with Albert's help, Chris has many flashbacks to both good and bad times with his wife. Thus, when he hears that she's taken her own life, he's saddened, but also rejoices that they can now be together for eternity.

Albert, however, informs Chris that those who commit suicide never make it to "Heaven," and spend eternity in their own version of "Hell." Chris can't stand the thought of that, and despite Albert's initial reluctance, hires The Tracker (MAX VON SYDOW), an old and wise spirit, to find Annie.

Traveling with Albert and the Tracker through the depths of Hell and lost souls, and learning that such a trip is dangerous at best, Chris must decide whether to return to live in his new idyllic world, or risk everything and travel to a hazardous place from where he might never return, all in an effort to find his wife.

Although Williams ("Good Will Hunting") and Gooding ("Jerry Maguire") may draw many teens, the somber tone of this film will probably prevent many from wanting to see it.
For thematic elements involving death, some disturbing images and language.
  • ROBIN WILLIAMS plays a recently deceased man who must not only deal with his new afterlife, but also his desire to find his wife and kids who are also dead.
  • CUBA GOODING, JR. plays Chris' spiritual guide in the afterlife.
  • ANNABELLA SCIORRA plays the poor wife/mother who loses both her kids and her husband in fatal, car-related accidents and ends up taking her own life.
  • MAX VON SYDOW plays the tracker who helps Chris and Albert find Annie.


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    Of all the animal species on Earth, only humans have the knowledge of their eventual and guaranteed demise. Accordingly, nearly every religion has addressed that issue, and most certainly every individual has pondered what happens upon one's death. Not surprisingly, such thoughts and worries have transcended their way into popular literature over the ages.

    Movies, of course, are no exception, and any number of films have dealt with death, the afterlife, and the impact of that upon both the living and the dead. While most of those pictures have represented Heaven, life after death, Nirvana, or whatever you may want to call it, as a sterile, cloud-filled room, an intensely illuminated area, or even the peaceful meadow, few have gone as far as "What Dreams May Come."

    Although clearly an eye-popping, visually exhilarating experience, the film greatly suffers from a lack of any substantial plot (and what's there is mostly bleak and depressing) and, not surprisingly, too much emphasis on the special effects. Clearly a big budget film (reportedly in the $70 million plus range), the picture is initially hampered by immediately thrusting us into the grief surrounding the dual deaths of the family's kids before letting us emotionally bond with the family.

    Although the film is quick to point out how happy Chris and Annie are during the opening credits, we aren't give time really to know them and thus share with the quickly imposed grief. While we certainly feel for them, the deaths of their kids occur way too soon and prevent us from making the emotional investment in the characters needed to fully buy into the story.

    It doesn't take long, however, before even more depressive events follow, and with Chris' subsequent death we're thrown deeper into ever growing amounts of gloom and doom. While it would seem that Chris' time in what turns out to be his own personal Heaven would allow us to reconnect with him, director Vincent Ward ("Map of the Human Heart") -- working from the screenplay by Ron Bass ("Rainman," "My Best Friend's Wedding") that's based on the novel by Richard Matheson ("Somewhere In Time," "The Legend of Hell House") -- instead focuses on the visual wonders of Chris' new world.

    Although the special effects representing the protagonist's Monet-inspired Heaven are visually interesting and occasionally stunning, a little of them goes a long way and the film grinds to a near complete standstill at this point in its story. While a few flashbacks and present-time views of Annie are interspersed with the visuals, they do practically nothing to move the story forward.

    To kick start the film back into action, the filmmakers kill off yet another character -- causing the audience to want to start passing around the lithium to counter such depressing events -- and thus give Chris an active goal that finally gives the story some forward momentum.

    By this time, however, the fact that we've never been allowed to connect with the characters, along with the film's overuse of its visuals -- that often have a less than the state of the art look (presumably purposefully done) and often resemble those matte paintings used in films of yesteryear -- pretty much emotionally detach the audience from the proceedings.

    While those who may tear up upon viewing "a very special episode" of any TV drama or sitcom may be reaching for the tissues during this one, most will probably find the film emotionally bereft when it should have been otherwise.

    For those thinking I'm just a hardened cynic, I've enjoyed and been touched by many other films -- such as Steven Spielberg's "Always," the movie "Ghost" and the great "Heaven Can Wait" that all dealt with the afterlife in their own special ways. All similarly played off the notion that love transcends death as does this film, but where this one falls flat, they succeeded for various reasons.

    First, their dealings with the afterlife -- while central to the plot -- weren't the entire focus of the story and other events and proceedings complemented, and were complemented by, the whole life after death notion.

    They also allowed the audience to connect with the characters before the gloom and doom set in -- "Heaven Can Wait" being the exception that allowed the characters and romance to develop through the story and then have to deal with losing a loved one again. Here, we're thrown into the depressive state of affairs before getting to know the characters, and by the time the filmmakers try to correct that by showing us flashbacks and moments with the two lovers together, it's too late.

    By then, we've been bombarded with too many instances of imaginatively colored, near mythological visuals, and the sight of various characters floating or flying around the set. No matter how technically advanced today's special effects might be, the sight of such human aeronautics always looks hokey at best and completely fake during its worst moments.

    The film does offer a talented cast and they try to do the best with what they've been given. Recent Oscar winner Robin Williams (for "Good Will Hunting") is in deeply serious thespian mode here, and those looking for laughs and/or inspirational material (ala "GWH" or "Dead Poets Society") had best look elsewhere. I've always enjoyed Williams in nearly everything in which he's appeared, and while he does a decent job here, the depressive material dampens his normally buoyant personality.

    Cuba Gooding Jr. (an Oscar winner for "Jerry Maguire") is decent in his role and does a good job playing the enigmatic "guidance" spirit, while Annabella Sciorra ("Jungle Fever") is believable in her role as the emotionally devastated wife and mother, although it's certainly no fun watching her suffer. On the other hand, Max Von Sydow ("The Exorcist," "Three Days of the Condor") is always interesting to watch, and delivers a good, but rather limited performance as the tracker of lost souls.

    The real stars of the film, however, are the special effects and production design and that's what most critics and moviegoers will positively comment on. As respectively helmed by effects supervisor Ellen M. Ward and Eugenio Zanetti ("Restoration"), and filmed by cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("Wings of the Dove"), the film is often a visual treat. From the vast heavenly landscapes to the depths of hell, the film's look is impressive.

    Most notable are the scenes where Williams must gingerly traverse a "minefield" of souls "planted" up to their necks in the barren ground -- resulting in a view of hundreds if not thousands of heads sticking up -- as well as a depiction of shipwreck tragedies that's just as visually spectacular, but also humbling to the say the least.

    Even so, such effects alone can't carry the film. While it's visually interesting and offers some emotional moments, the fact that the film immediately thrusts us into the deaths before we know the characters, and the fact that so much of the film revolves around the visual and transcendental moments of what happens after one dies, prevents the movie from ever managing to take off or grip us with as much emotional intensity as it should have.

    Similarly, while the subject matter is certainly intriguing and presented in a visual splendor unmatched in previous, similarly based films, many other pictures have covered this genre in far more "entertaining" and thought-provoking ways that only make this film and its lackluster plot seem that much flatter in comparison.

    Despite the "heavenly" special effects, "What Dreams May Come" is a mostly somber and depressing film, and while it ends on an up note of sorts, that doesn't make what comes before it any easier to swallow. We give the film a 3 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Thematic issues -- death, grieving, suicide, what happens when one dies -- are rather heavy in this somber and mostly depressing film. That, and various visualizations of Hell may be unsettling or downright scary to some viewers, especially younger kids.

    Profanity is limited, but does include several uses of the "f" and "s" words (as well as "G-damn" for those concerned with that). Beyond that, however, most of the other categories have little or no major objectionable content. Even so -- and despite the film clearly not being aimed at kids -- you may want to take a closer look at the content should someone in your home wish to see this film.

    Of special note for those concerned with bright flashes of light occurring during the story, several instances of that appear here.

  • Annie has a glass of wine by her while eating dinner.
  • We see a brief view of Chris at the accident scene and his face is somewhat bloody.
  • In his Monet-inspired personal view of Heaven, copious amounts of liquid bird poop lands on Chris.
  • Some glimpses of lost souls in Hell (people without mouths, etc...) may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • Some viewers (depending on their religious beliefs and how strong they are) may find the film's portrayal of Heaven and/or Hell as incorrect or offensive (although the film takes neither lightly).
  • We see that a little girl has drawn a urine stream from a naked man in a classical painting on the wall.
  • Depending on one's age, maturity level (and possibly religious beliefs) the following may or may not be unsettling or frightening.
  • All of the deaths and funeral scenes -- as well as the reactions of the grieving survivors -- may be unsettling to some kids (as might a brief glimpse inside the closed casket of one of the kids).
  • Chris comes upon a multi-car accident scene in a tunnel. Going to help a woman trapped hanging upside down in her car, Chris turns and sees another car flying through the air toward him (and the picture then goes black). That, and the overhead views of him lying bloody on the road and later in a hospital bed may also be unsettling to some kids.
  • Likewise, the early blurry and whirling apparitions of Albert may have the same effect, but probably only for the youngest of kids (such scenes aren't done to be scary).
  • There's some brief talk about euthanizing the family's sick dog that may be upsetting to some kids.
  • After a brief encounter with a storm at sea, a scene where hordes of suffering souls writhe in the water near the Tracker's boat (that carries Chris and Albert) and eventually capsize it may be scary to younger kids. Likewise, scenes of many such souls lying near deathlike on the "beach" may have the same effect.
  • Various shots inside or near Hell (including images of burning ships, etc...) may be scary to younger kids.
  • Another scene where Chris must walk amidst a vast, Hell-based "farm" where souls are buried up to their necks may also be unsettling to some viewers.
  • Chris enters Annie's personal Hell -- their now dilapidated home -- after being told he might not ever be able to leave once entering it.
  • Swords: Briefly used in a fight in Hell, and carried by various people guarding the entrance to Hell.
  • Phrases: "Bitch," "Old farts," "Screwed up, "Screw him" and "Screw" (nonsexual).
  • We see that a little girl has drawn a urine stream from a naked man in a classical painting on the wall.
  • Chris jumps from a high cliff thinking he can fly (and he falls hundreds or thousands of feet before hitting the ground with no adverse effects).
  • A person commits suicide after being completely overcome with grief and facing full committal to a mental asylum.
  • None.
  • Several scenes have a mild amount of suspenseful music in them.
  • None.
  • At least 2 "f" words, 3 "s" words, 1 ass, 1 hell, 1 damn, and 2 uses each of "G-damn" and "God," and 1 use each of "Oh Jesus," "Christ," "My God" and "Oh God" as exclamations.
  • A classical painting on a wall shows a naked man (from which a young girl draws a urine stream).
  • Chris sees a fantasy image of a woman (most likely Annie) diving naked into a lake and we see just a brief glimpse of part of her bare butt.
  • At one point seen in flashback, Annie lights up a cigarette after stating that she's teaching herself to smoke.
  • Chris and Annie must deal with the sudden, accidental deaths of their two children. We not only see the funeral, but various scenes afterwards -- including Annie ending up in a mental asylum where a possible divorce is mentioned -- that show their reactions to this event.
  • Chris then dies in another accident and we see his funeral as well as Annie's further depressed state that eventually leads to her suicide, a fact that Chris must then content with upon hearing about it.
  • What happens when one dies and whether there's an afterlife and what it's like if there is (as well as being reborn -- ie. Reincarnation, a topic the film strongly suggests).
  • Dealing with deaths in one's immediate family (Annie ends up in a mental asylum).
  • Suicide (and how that affects one's "status" in the afterlife as presented in the movie).
  • Euthanizing one's sick pet (some talk -- and only talk -- of that occurs in the film, although we later see the dog in Chris' Heaven).
  • This one's hard to rate since all of the death's occur off screen (even a suicide), but we give it a "moderate" due to the thematic side of such deaths (particularly the unseen suicide).
  • Although accidental in nature, both Chris and his kids are killed in separate automobile related accidents (not seen).
  • Annie commits suicide (not seen).
  • Chris and Albert briefly get into a minor pushing match.
  • We briefly see part of a sword fight in Hell.

  • Reviewed September 23, 1998

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