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What Dreams May Come

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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What Dreams May Come is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. With digital graphics seamlessly interwoven with the live action, the movie revels in a painterly vision of heaven. Impressionistic fields of flowers spring to life in a swirl of colors. Mountains, lakes, and waterfalls form the backgrounds, while sunsets and autumn leaves add liberal doses of reds and oranges.

Often, digital effects look like well, digital effects. A general lack of depth and weight has plagued virtually all digital effects used in Hollywood cinema. However, in What Dreams May Come, the effects do not necessarily have to be completely believable. Set in heaven after the lead character, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), has died in a traffic accident, What Dreams May Come suggests a transitory, eternally changing heavenly world that demands ethereal, ephemeral visual imagery. The digital effects perfectly meet this need and provide a stunning, majestic landscape of overpowering beauty (while Cuba Gooding, Jr. serves as Williams' tour guide in the great beyond).

Unfortunately, however, the digital effects can't overcome the weak story. Much of the problem can be traced to the saccharine sweet relationship that develops between Chris (Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra). The movie traces their lives together, from their first jittery "hellos" to the troubled years they share after they marry and their two children die in an auto accident. Their blissful first encounter is rendered in such idyllic, warm hues that it resembles a fairy tale. And the despair they encounter several years later is depicted in such controlled, cold tones that it becomes pure artifice. As a result, the characters never really come to life. They live in a pristine world where their every thought and action is idealized.

Much of this fairy tale atmosphere was no doubt created on purpose by screenwriter Ron Bass and director Vincent Ward. They didn't want the jump from "life" to "post-life" to be jarring in tone. (For example, you'd probably struggle with the tone shift if Ordinary People suddenly turned into It's a Wonderful Life.) But the filmmakers have dumbed-down the "life" scenes to the point that no life exists in the movie. Once Chris is in heaven, he embarks on an epic journey to find Annie--a journey that takes him into the bowels of hell--but because his life lacks a human dimension, his journey lacks value.

What Dreams May Come ultimately becomes all about art design. However, no matter how impressive the production design (by Eugenio Zanetti) and the cinematography (by Eduardo Serra), the movie's stunning visuals can't overcome the blandness of the storytelling.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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