Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Vincent Ward. Written by Ron Bass, from the novel by Richard Matheson.Photography, Eduardo Serra. Editing, David Brenner and Maysie Hoy. Production design, Eugenio Zanetti. Music, Michael Kamen.Visual effect producer/supervisor, Ellen M. Somers. Painted world visual effects, Mass Illusions. Visual effects, POP Film & POP Animation. Visual effects supervisor, Stuart Robertson.Special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain. Digital visual effects, CIS Hollywood. Produced by Stephen Simon and Barnet Bain. Cast: Robin Williams (Chris Nielsen), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Albert), Annabella Sciorra (Annie Nielsen), Max von Sydow (the Tracker), Jessica Brooks Grant (Marie Nielsen),  Josh Paddock (Ian Nielsen), et al. A Polygram  release.106 minutes. PG-13. 

The title comes from Hamlet 's "To be, or not to be": "To die- to sleep --To sleep! perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub--For in that sleep of death what dreams may come--When we have shuffled off this mortal coil--Must give us pause..."

But do not look for Shakesperean parallels in this sentimental, kitschy, would-be tear-jerker fantasy whose sole reason for being is its display of computerized special effects.

The film's preliminaries, made to coincide with the opening credits, have Chris (Williams) and Annie (Sciorra) meet cute on a lake bordering Switzerland, re-meet cute on land, do kiss-kiss (but no bang-bang), marry cute. Later their two cute teen-age kids die in a car crash. Cut to four years as we see Chris practicing pediatrics while being oh-so-warm and cute with a young patient and looking at the little girl's X-rays AND at slides of Annie's paintings. The sugar content keeps rising. Then Chris dies in a freak crash inside a tunnel.

He reappears in the hereafter which is a color riot of living (sic) elements (such as water he can Biblically walk on), of  profuse vegetation, flowers, etc. --all seemingly inspired by Annie's artwork. The sights, made with advanced digital computer techniques, are impressive as gimmicks but don't get you anywhere. They look like combinations of paintings by French Impressionists gone berserk with acrylics and loading their canvases to the max, some unmistakable bits of Van Gogh swirling brushwork, and often heavily romantic 19th century German oils by Caspar David Friedrich and fanciful, massive scenes of the American West by Albert Bierstadt. The orgy of colors and special effects becomes oppressive and may give you visual overload with its lushness.

With hops, skips and jumps, more views appear, from flying, Peter Pan-ish people to graphics that mix the Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry with Byzantine icons.

Chris is, of course, in Paradise--though not in Heaven, since he learns that Annie, in her despair at her husband's demise, has committed suicide. An angel (though not identified as such) is Chris counselor-guide. His name is Albert (as in Bierstadt).  He spouts cliches of sagacity, like "Thought is real. Physical [sic] is the illusion."

Chris, an Orpheus for our times, searches for Annie-Eurydice, even though there's no place in Heaven for the dead by suicide. Are you listening Dr. Kevorkian?  "They go somewhere else" dixit Albert, who explains that Annie "has violated the moral order." The somewhere else is in the nether regions which Chris reaches via the Tracker -- the Virgil to Chris's Dante. The Tracker is Max von Sydow, wasted here, especially if your remember him from Ingmar Bergman movies.

The tour of the Underworld takes us to sundry dark locations. In one, flames are combined with Sisyphus-like beings who go up and down excavations akin to those of the much more powerful  Hell on Earth images of  Brazilian gold-mines workers in the documentary Powaqqatsi (1988). Yet another of Albert's profundities goes:  "Hell is not fire and pain. The real hell is your life gone wrong." In this murkiness of sights and concepts, Chris also has to step by an immensity of human heads projecting from the ground -- a not-so-oblique derivation of Cambodia's Killing Fields.

Throughout, Robin Williams maintains forced expressions of smiles, beatitude or sorrow-- all forced, unconvincingly stiff and theatrical, all making you miss Williams the kinetic, wild clown. Annabella Sciorra delivers her lines flatly.

"What Dreams..." is the first American feature by director Vincent Ward, a talented New Zealander who had previously made Vigil,  Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey, and Map of the Human Heart. He also wrote the story for Alien 3.  Ward is very oriented toward imaginative visuals and ambitiously original stories, but I find his work frustrating, with a reach exceeding his grasp. Here, his movie is not so much frustrating as it is plain dull, what with too many poses and visual overkill,. The determination to be super-poetic makes it repetitive and pedestrian.

The film is, in fact, a very expensive production in two LSD genres. LSD One is the look of the picture, like visions and hallucinations under the influence. LSD Two is the very general subject Love is Stronger than Death , which has been around for decades in sundry movies about reincarnation, ghosts, etc.

I might suggest renting far more satisfactory titles. A sampling: Death Takes a Holiday, A Guy Named Joe (remade by Spielberg as Always); Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death); Heaven Can Wait (by Ernst Lubitsch); Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade as Heaven Can Wait though not a remake of the Lubitsch picture); and above all the delicious The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel