What Dreams May Come (1998) – Vincent Ward (Dir.), Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra, Max Von Sydow
Well, after my last post, which has probably already been labeled “The Rape Post” (EMMY PLEASE), let’s talk about something fun, shall we? That’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to discuss VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER!
Welcome to the world of the Nielsons. They are pretty much the unluckiest group of people in the world when it comes to cars (Unless I’m talking about Pontiac. Amirite?). Yes, whether it’s saying goodbye to their kids headed to school or just traveling home through a tunnel, flying cars seem to follow these people wherever they go. At first I thought this was a murder mystery, but it was ridiculously easy to tell who the killer was (IT’S A 1992 CHEVY!). After the two kids get bumped off (you can tell they died because the screen went to a dissolve) Papa Nielson, Chris, (a post-Patch Adams, pre-Why Can’t I Just Die Already? aka Old Dogs Robin Williams) gets to feel what its like to be an IHOP special after the 1992 Chevy leaps, and I mean it fucking SOARS through the Lincoln Tunnel and kersplats him into oblivion. All that’s left is the love of his life and mother to two passed children, Anne. As life goes on, you can tell her emotional mood by whatever horrendous 90s wig the director managed to screw into her skull. Long luscious fake locks? Happy! Anna Wintour blunt bob that makes her silhouette seem like a mushroom? Suicidal! Lori Petty ‘Look Mommy I Did it Myself!’ pixie cut? Committed! Poor, poor Annabella Sciorra. I half assumed that the second half of the movie would be the flying 1992 Chevy coming back to finish the job, flinging itself through their mansion, the lone survivor of its brutality doing anything to escape its careening wrath.
But then…she commits suicide. Because, with that hair, wouldn’t you? Well…and two dead kids. And you’re only stability gone. And your dead husband constantly whispering unintentionally creepy things into your ear…
Okay, okay. This movie isn’t about a killer car coming after a family of beaming, bouncing bourgeoisie. We’re offered the sweet beginnings to a love story between two completely unconnected people, Chris and Anne, and the beauty of a budding partnership. Of course, as with real life, tragedy cannot help but crash the party like some drunk uncle asking to sleep on the couch because he just needs time to get back on his feet and, seriously this time, he’s absolutely not going to waste his money on the Midget Tossing Championships and, yes, he knows that’s an offensive term and he knows he shouldn’t use it but it sounds so much better than ‘Small Person Tossing Championships’, the point is…wait…hello? Hello?
Where was I? Oh yes. In the initial act, we see Chris and Anne, so inexorably in love, dragged through the muck as obstacle after obstacle is tossed in their path. Every day is a struggle. She’s an artist. He’s a doctor. She’s a pessimist. He is an unabashed and undeterred optimist. She expresses her feelings. He hides them. They are a yin and yang of emotional torment simply waiting for the levees to break. However, Chris dies and is thrust into the land of the dead, leaving Anne cold, afraid and alone before their tale can conclude. On the other side, Chris is met by an old mentor (Cuba Gooding Junior in his post-Jerry Maguire high, and pre-Snow Dogs ‘What Am I Doing with My Life?’ depression) who shows him the ropes of his own personal heaven. This afterlife, for Chris, is a vibrant impressionist painting, its very molecules globules of acrylic paint. The script does a perfect job of making sure how obvious and deep Chris’s obsession is with Anne. She’s his everything. Even his afterlife is inspired by her artistry.
What Dreams May Come was adapted from a novel by one of my favorite authors, Richard Matheson. He’s the gentleman responsible for the genius novella I Am Legend, which, after passing through the putrid digestive tract of Hollywood idiocy, has been defecated into theaters under numerous failed attempts to realize what makes it great (Will Smith’s growl-a-thon I Am Legend and the laughably dumb Omega Man with Charlton “Cold Dead Hands” Heston). His works, though classed as either horror or fantasy, have always operated on a purely human basis. Anyone who might take the time to read Legend’s svelte 200 pages will discover the twist missing from both filmic adaptations. Matheson, who died only about two months ago, was raised a Christian Scientist, so his view of humanity is gently askew from the mainstream. In this tale, he offers a different conception of both Heaven and Hell. It not-too-subtly borrows from Dante’s Divine Comedy as it explores the personal rapture that is a self-crafted infinite playground as well as the horror of being stuck in between worlds. In his world view, the afterlife is whatever you wish it to be. Its an eternal toy box. It doesn’t judge good from bad; there is no corporeal deity overseeing the operation. In fact, it is so blissful to suggest that perhaps humanity needs no babysitter. We simply are. Forever.
However, because Matheson is a fantasy writer, there are rules. For the first fifteen minutes, we enjoy Chris leaping off of Angel Falls and hitting the ground with nothing more than a light thud, flying about a floating city stolen from the Romance artists of old, fully equipped with Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, even wandering through the grandest library of all time. But all this pales to what Chris actively yearns for. Of course, he wants to find his two used-to-be children in this Baron Von Munchausen fantasy-land, but he’s actually waiting for his wife to find him after taking her sweet time sucking up all the life in her Land of the Not-Dead. What a selfish B. Well, Miss Nielson finally cashes her Suicide Check (with a delicious looking bowl of pills in yogurt. New breakfast idea! We’ll call it Etern-o’s: Meet Your Maker with this Important Part of a Completely Lethal Breakfast!) and crosses over. Unfortunately, seeing as no one told her the freaking rules, she apparently is stuck in Hell, more an incarceration of uncertainty than a dungeon of infernal torture. With Mr. Gooding Jr. telling him to give up, Christy (his very gubernatorial pet name) charges head first into the dark side of eternity.
After hooking up with a ‘Tracker’ (I know, I know, fucking fantasy authors) named Mox Von ‘The Exorcist’ Sydow, who, apparently, is still alive after suffering not only a chess game with death, but also the Sylvester “AAAAADRIENNNNNE” Stallone testosterific shit show that was Judge Dredd, the trio dive (literally) into a sea of pallid bodies and are wrenched through the rings of damnation. Funnily enough, it’s all naval-themed. Does Matheson just hate boats? What is this? Finally Chris finds Anne, lost and afraid, unaware of her own demise, plodding through a life that has already run its course. A board game missing all the pieces and players. There are twists along the way, especially a few that make my racially sensitive eyebrow arch into an ‘Um…Really?’ fashion. While the visual majesty of this beast is almost overwhelming, running the lengthy span of western art history, from modernity to impressionistic to Romance to Medieval, the director attempted a near-impossible task. Beauty attempts to seep through every seam. And there are some truly chilly images on hand, none more visceral than a sea of faces peering out of the wintered ground, all of them talking with no one to talk to. Also, Werner “The Weiner” Herzog is there. That alone is enough to make you shit your pants. The broad strokes work. They make the heart palpate.
Even with the awkward mixtures of models and matte paintings, not quite perfected to the level of LOTR-ian brilliance, Mr. Ward crafts a fully realized and vibrant Elysium. Unfortunately, it’s most the other stuff that fails. His direction of actors, particularly of Mr. Williams, lacks specificity and too often is he allowed to shift into Patch Adams BS. Luckily, the piece holds together, even with the mangled and disjointed preamble to the car crashes. The script holds and, for once, we are offered a truly palpable conception of Soul Mates, two people so existentially conjoined that even until death they will not part. There is no way not to beg to the lords of all that is holy that Chris is successful in his search; and it’s all the more heartbreaking when he seems to have failed. What purports to be a musing on death, truly is a celebration of life and love. Matheson’s unabashed optimism surrounds, consumes and buoys this entire universe he offers. Upon being reunited (I mean, come on, you saw it coming), the pair of soul mates don’t decide to spend the rest of infinity hanging out like the good old days. They decide to return, to be reborn and find each other all over again.
Why? Why would they do that? Why would they give up this gift that forced them to brave Hell and high water (literally) to preserve? Why toss it to the wind and try again, allowing the fear of uncertainty to possibly rend them in two? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s the point. If, in death, all things are equal, all things are at peace, if there is no war, no fear, no unhappiness, then perhaps life is the experiment with which to ensure that eternal bliss. What’s happiness without trials and tribulation? What is paradise if paradise is all we know? It’s a terrifying concept, death. It’s something I have probably dwelled upon far too long for someone of my barely-legal status (okay, solidly legal). Matheson offers a dream rather than a reality. It’s an eternal present where time neither begins, nor ends, its passage merely an illusion. Mr. Ward attempted and mostly succeeded at thrusting this tale into the world of dreams, though such a task, as the surrealists would tell you if they weren’t passed out from ODing on heroin, is impossible. All I know is that this movie is basically Inception…but it’s everything Inception attempted to be and failed. Why? Because this story isn’t about dreams. It isn’t about death. It isn’t even about fantasy. It is only about love. Love is that fickle and brutal beast that forces us back into life to try it all again.
Rest in peace, Mr. Matheson. You were a brilliant author. I hope you are offered the eternity you deserve. And, who knows, maybe we’ll get to see you again one day. Until then…