Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13
When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)
Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.
Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.
However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.
Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.