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Who wants to be 63 throughout eternity?


What Dreams May Come


What Dreams May Come probably deserves the credit of commendable intentions. It is, after all, that rarity in terms of big-budget movies – or indeed, any movies – that explores the existential and metaphysical, an area generally frowned upon by Hollywood, which favours one-and-done materialism and/or glib emotional fulfilment. When it does broach the subject of death and the great beyond, it tends to be of the superficial sop variety – for years, Bruce Joel Rubin was the go-to-guy for this – just enough to provide a sugary affirmation of heavenly realms. You know, for when you really hanker after that sort of sweetener, but not enough to get you questioning your place on Earth, or in the Universe, in any depth. Ultimately, while What Dreams May Come fails to offer a significant detour from that trend, what really does for it is that it’s dramatically dead in the water.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so, had it followed Richard Matheson’s script, based on his 1978 novel (Ron Bass, Oscar winner for Rain Man, furnished the screenplay). I remain dubious over quite how to fashion a dramatically effective movie from an exploration of the afterlife, Orpheus template and all; what works in a novel won’t necessarily for the screen (I suspect it’s just as well Alex Proyas never got to make Paradise Lost and ended up – somehow, but I’m baffled how – reconceiving it for Gods of Egypt). 

Matheson wouldn’t go into detail, but considered it one of his great disappointmentsthat they did not use my script”; “It broke my heart when the man who used to run Universal told me one day, ‘I should have shot your book’, and I thought, ‘Nice to hear that now’”. It was evidently one of his proudest achievements, since the material clearly touched people: “I received a number of letters from people who read What Dreams May Come that said, ‘My mother was dying and terrified, but she read your book and now feels very much at peace’. And I think ‘ah that’s wonderful!’ No writer can get more than that”.

Matheson, raised a Christian Scientist but charting his own course, had distilled various shoots of research into the novel, including theosophy (Harold W Percival’s Thinking and Destiny), the Summerland/heaven metaphor and NDE research. Much of this is pared down here, doubtless so as to appeal as broadly as possible to audiences. I’m slightly surprised reincarnation makes it into the mix; while it occasionally shows up in Hollywood movies – the picture was made by Interscope, a division of Polygram, so corporate, but less inveterately Hollywood – it tends to be less systematised and more off-the-cuff in presentation.

Chris: Where are they going? 
Albert: To help others be return on Earth.
Chris: Really, reincarnation?

So it is here. Reincarnation is presented as a thing, but not quite a de-facto thing. The movie feels like a halfway house in concepts: a little bit of the Christian heaven/hell, but impermanent and/or not, with a possible continuance/rebirth depending. What Dreams May Come tends to veer more maudlin than saccharine, but the final scene of reincarnated Chris and Annie meeting as kids is all kinds of sickly-sweet vomitous. The emphasis is on the affirmative, which is well and good, but the presentation suggests a bright idea on Chris’s part, having rescued Annie from the oblivion of hell: “But what about going back? Being reborn? That’s the one thing we can’t have here. finding each other all over again. Falling in love. Make different choices. Try again”. This is not, it seems, a fait accompli, as he further advises Annie “Don’t worry about the kids. They’ll be here. They want us to go”.

The alternative ending was closer to Matheson’s conception, it seems, whereby reincarnation is indeed par for the course; Chris and Annie will meet again, but she will die young as recompense for her suicide, while Chris will remain a widower. They will then reunite in heaven. The heaven state, per Matheson, is one fostered by the expectation of the individual, something addressed to a degree in the movie (“You’re making all this”). Indeed, the gradual awareness of one’s deceased status and/or expectations of the post-physical state are common to both reported experiences and systems, as is the perception that those who commit suicide have cut short or interfered with the “plan” for their life, and as such, adjustments will need to be made. 

Matheson’s research regarding the negative reports of revived suicides may be less reflective of a “law” (of languishing in hell) than the perceptions they take with them of the gravity of their act, however. In the novel, Annie is consigned to hell for 24 years and is reincarnated at the end as she is not ready for heaven. Chris wants to be reborn too (despite protests); the extent of multiple lives and progress “heavenwards” is perhaps less joined up than it might be, but the concept of continuation and the comfort that provides could be argued as the most important thing. Chris and Anne had several past lives together, and Matheson indicates everyone has multiple such, while the more advanced move to a higher level and ultimately become one with God. Which, very loosely, seems about right. 

Albert: No one has ever seen a suicide brought back!
Chris: Stick around, Chief. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

As for the status of Annie the preceptive hell of the movie is a particular cheap dramatic device if it genuinely seeks to be an expansive text. Albert tells Chris “Hell is for those who don’t know they’re dead. They can’t realise what they’ve done or what’s happened to them… because they were too self-absorbed in life”. Annie has “violated” the “natural order. To our journey”. Like Heaven, “Everybody’s hell is different”, but the key element is “She will spend eternity playing that out” because “She won’t face it. she won’t realise, accept what she’s done”. 

So the eternal judgement, as presented by What Dreams May Come, is loosely in line with biblical tenets. There is, give or take, punishment for the act, whatever Chris is told otherwise, and this punishment is eternal. Obviously, this digresses from Matheson, but even there, he furnishes a prolonged hell state. A contrasting take would be the Law of One Material (Book 3), where Ra refers to “the death by suicide causing the necessity for much healing work and, shall we say, the making of a dedication to the third-density for the renewed opportunity of learning the lessons set by the higher self”.

Chris: Where’s God in all this? 
Albert: He’s up there, somewhere.

What Dreams May Come manages to port over other ideas too, such as lingering spirits (“It’s over when you stop wanting to hurt her” advises Albert early on to the spectral Chris, haunting Annie). Although, this is arguably a two-way street (the bereaved calling to the departed). God remains, wisely, nebulous. Soulmates are crucial to the picture, the connection between Chris and Annie, and there’s obvious movie-romance appeal in nursing that theme. 

The Seth Material (The Unknown Reality Volume 2) cautions against embracing this idea, as “the search involves them in a pilgrimage for a kind of impossible communication with another, in which all division is lost, with the two then trying to join in a cementing oneness, suffocating all sense of play or creativity. You are not one part, or one half, of another soul, searching through the annals of time for your partner, undone until you are completed by your soul mate”. Which isn’t to suggest Seth doesn’t present other, rather involved, some might suggest over-involved, close connections between souls.

Ward’s visuals, as the guy who made a splash with the idiosyncratic, low-budget time-travel tale Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey are unsurprisingly first rate, the occasional instance of close-up back projection or affected slow motion aside. What Dreams May Come won the Best Visual Effects Oscar (beating Armageddon and Mighty Joe Young) but lost Art Direction to Shakespeare in Love. Chris alights in painterly landscapes that squelch and blotch underfoot. He’s pulled into a River Styx of grabbing hands and comes upon a beach of shipwrecks, one an aircraft carrier (Cerberus): “It’s the gateway to hell”. In hell, he must traverse a landscape of (bodies buried up to their) heads, one belonging to Werner Herzog (penance for willingly working with Klaus Kinski all those times?)

If movies were tableaux, What Dreams May Come would be up there in the pantheon. Unfortunately, they’re supposed to tell a story, and Ward is unable to ignite his engine, whether he’s overexplaining the concepts of domains or visitations, or failing to inject urgency into the quest itself. The movie sits, or wallows there, resisting all attempts to instil it with life. 

The cast don’t help matters. Max von Sydow’s a reliable must-have for mortal thoughts and provides necessary gravitas. Annabella Sciorra’s… fine (as Annie)? Cuba Gooding Jr (as Albert) was coming off the back of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and got himself schooled for his choice by Spike Lee. The enfant-terrible (or just terrible) director damned the picture as one of a selection of recent culprits for fostering “Magical Negro” tropes. On the face of it – the wise, black guide helping the white man out at a moment of crisis – that’s a valid point, but the blackness of the character as magical is arguably baked in and part of the point; Albert is actually Chris’ son Ian (“Who’s the teacher, who’s the father… gets in the way of who we really are… to each other”). Which is why Rosalind “Keiko O’Brien” Chao’s Magical Asian turns out to be Chris’ deceased daughter. They’re both okay, performance-wise, but the very nature of the wise-escort aspect lends a disconcerting Rough Guide to the Afterlife feeling, particularly when Ward’s staging a backdrop of entertainments (various wire-work acrobatics from angels and mermaids and the like). 

The big problem, though, is the star. Williams, who died at 63 – officially – like Albert here, was in his first starring role after winning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, showing an increasing weakness for largely ill-advised serious thesping (on the other hand, there are the worst of both worlds around this time: comedy-dramas like Jack and Patch Adams). By a number of accounts, Williams had problems, and there are various conspiracy theories surrounding his 2014 death (including that he’s still alive. Which, it seems, is the accurate one). Donald Marshall, of the cloning centres, was, to some degree, limited by whether he had information first or second hand. He suggested “they did him like they did Bernie” (Mac): “He did hang himself. But they coerced him to”. Marshall referred to Williams as “One of the few good people at cloning”, noting “He has had clones there since before I was born”. Asked for clarification that there were good people there, he added “Few. And they’re all cowards”. Marshall suggested “He said he was anxious to go to the next body. He had many problems. Health and financial” and added “He very gay”.

Certainly, Williams often tended to exude a sense of discomfort in his own skin when he wasn’t “on”. This could be especially apparent when essaying dramatic roles, along with a brand of nursed neediness that’s very resistible. Qualities that could work when put to sinister use (Insomnia), but the between ground of normalcy always struck me as a hard sell. So here, the caring dad and soulmate simply doesn’t land (Chris is a paediatrician, in contrast to the novel’s screenwriter, which is kind of neat existentially: a Rockefeller-medicine exponent confronted by the limitations of such thinking. Except the movie makes nothing of it, beyond a rather crude reference to “Your brain is meat. It rots and disappears”). Unfortunately, Williams accentuates all the parts that needed to be soft pedalled. On the few occasions he delivers a gag, they’re out of place, and when called to be grim-faced, he struggles with “I’m grim-faced now” acting. I don’t think another actor would have saved the movie, but one who connected more with the Ward’s overall aesthetic might have massaged things more persuasively.

What Dreams May Come was a flop, but I’m frankly surprised it made as much as it did ($75.4m on a $85-90m budget). This kind of material is a hard sell unless its ameliorated with romance, uplift, humour and catharsis (Ghost, basically). Apparently, Wolfgang Peterson was angling to adapt the novel around 1984, and Steven Spielberg (eesh) was also attached at one point. Doubtless adding to the final movie’s price tag was an Ennio Morricone score, completed but rejected after editorial changes; the Michael Kamen piece is decent (he was very proud of it), but hopefully someone will unearth the original in the Morricone vaults at some stage. As for Ward, they should have dismissed out of hand all the talk of a retconned Aliens 3 from Neill Blomkamp. What we really needed was the Vincent Ward Alien 3 realised at long last. What Dreams May Come’s intent may be commendable, but it simply isn’t a good movie.

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