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IN SHORT: Spectacular effects overwhelm a ponderous love story.
If you ask anyone who has had the near death experience, there are two things we, to a person, can tell you. First, we are all consumed by a brilliant white light when we die, brighter than a billion suns and remarkably pain free (especially to a blue eyed Cranky who never felt so loved in his life). Second, the common knowledge shared by those of us who are Returned is that, as desperate the longing to go back in to the Light is, committing suicide is the one sure fire way to make sure we never again taste the Glory. Call it Purgatory or Hell, whatever; off yourself and you don't get in.
The hardest thing for Cranky to do when sitting in any kind of movie that deals, almost seriously, with the Other Side is to put everything he knows on the back burner. Which, unlike novels upon which movies like this are based that I can ignore, is a lot harder to do than it sounds.
In the opening scenes of What Dreams May Come (most of which is revealed in the advertising trailers and commercials) we meet Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) who beams blissfully at the sight of Annie (Annabella Sciorra) who giggles a lot. In short order they are married, have two kids, a doubly fatal van accident, a mental breakdown and another car accident which leaves which introduces Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Chris' guide through an interminable death experience to what we shall call Heaven. In this case, Heaven is a creation mirroring the paintings done by Annie. While Chris learns to live in an environment composed of thick globs of oil based paint he is reacquainted with long dead pets and realizes he is in the wrong Heaven.
Well, no, he's not. The reasons Near Death Experiences vary in detail, once you get past the Light, is that we create the Heaven we need to see to make the passing more comfortable and calming. For Chris, his death experience, indeed the entire first half of the flick moves at a near terminal pace as he and Albert engage in philosophical discussion about the nature and experience of death and various psychological aspects of the afterlife.
Cranky sat in the audience fighting the urge to scream "Who the hell is Albert? You only meet a stranger if you are to be Returned. Otherwise you see the people you love, in this case Chris' kids -- not his dog!" That's past experience talking, folks. This didn't upset me enough to do like I did at Flatliners (stomping out of the theater, yelling obscenities at the screen), until the context of the story supplied a logical explanation that cooled my jets. That's about what it took to get past my history. On to other problems...
The mix of live action, effects and computer generated environments in What Dreams May Come is spectacular. A cacophony of color. The paintings are lovely. Images of personal heavens created by otherworldly inhabitants, whether Chris (based on paintings by Annie) or Albert or a mysterious stewardess named Leona (Rosalind Chao) all seem to have roots in the impressionistic and surrealistic paintings of the 19th century. The artistic design is something, it really is. It is almost enough to keep you distracted by the killing pace of the first half.
Back on earth, sole survivor Annie loses it, totally. Remember what I said about Hell? I wasn't lying, even if you don't have an NDE first. When word comes to Chris that his wife resides in some version of Hell, What Dreams May Come becomes a story akin to Orpheus, the Greek youth who braved the gates of Hell to rescue his beloved. A new Tracker (Max Von Sydow) replaces Albert for this part of the journey. Chris moves from lands of color and light into violent weather storms, oceans filled with bodies, grey and black landscapes dotted with burning shipwrecks and tormented bodies buried up to their necks in volcanic ash. Again, the visuals dominate the odyssey and Mark Kamen's score lifts a small chord progression Cranky immediately recognized as John William's March for Darth Vader. I'm not kidding. It was almost appropriate.
When Chris finds Annie, she cannot recognize him, that's part of her Torment. Chris cannot stay with her, for if you stay too long in Hell you lose your soul and can never leave. What he does next, and its residual effects, I'll leave you to discover, should you choose to buy the ticket.
Sydow remarkably, and importantly, looks like Sigmund Freud, but he's not. In fact everyone in this representation of Heaven doesn't look like he or she is "supposed" to, which is fully in keeping with the afterlife concept of making your own Heaven, discussed ad nauseum in the first half hour of the flick. The mysteries keep you off balance and forces you to focus on the story, rather than the overwhelming power of the Computer Generated effects on screen 90 percent of the time.
There is a lot of flashback psychological material to wade through as Chris travels through Heaven and Hell. Despite the plodding and ponderous pace, a glimmer of a very touching love story manages to eke itself out by the end of the flick. If I hadn't had my own baggage to deal with, I may have been pulled in deeper, but the effects were distracting and I managed only a little redness around the eyes.
I hate when that happens.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to What Dreams May Come, he would have paid . . .
For the effects.
Some of the women in the audience were laughing on the way out. Some were
moved. The men sitting around me were shifting in their seats. What
Dreams May Come may pass, unenthusiastically, as a date flick based
on the strong star power of Robin Williams. It sure leans more towards
chick flick, though.
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