For all of their ability to effectively convey wonder and fantasy, motion pictures have a surprisingly spotty record when it comes to portraying the afterlife. Sure, light depictions of Heaven and Hell have long been a staple of filmed comedies, but surprisingly few have attempted a less humorous examination of what lies beyond. Loosely based on the 1978 movel by author Richard Matheson, 'What Dreams My Come' is one such film.
The movie tells the story of Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), a man whose wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) attempts suicide after their two children are killed in a car accident. She survives -- and ultimately recovers -- only to come home one day to the news that Chris has been killed in a car accident.
Chris awakens in the afterlife, where he meets a spiritual tour guide of sorts named Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr), who helps him acclimate to life after death. Meanwhile, Annie kills herself and disappears into Hell, trapped by her own depression. Upon learning this news, Chris becomes determined to rescue his wife, and embarks on a journey across the realms of death to find her and bring her back from the torment of her mind.
Upon its theatrical release in 1998, 'What Dreams May Come' was met with mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike, ultimately earning $55 million at the US box office (a disappointment considering its reported $85 million budget).
I hadn't seen the film before now, but as the sort of person who's fascinated with any good exploration into the reaches of philosophy and its applications, I was optimistic. Alas, 'What Dreams May Come' just isn't the sort of film I hoped it would be, and I had a difficult time sinking my teeth into its paper thin afterlife.
Among the film's primary issues is the hodge-podge of philosophies and beliefs on display in its depiction of the afterlife. In an apparent attempt to be all things to all people, director Vincent Ward and screenwriter Ronald Bass mix Christian, Buddhist, and occultist beliefs into a single catch-all Heaven that fails to tackle any concept or aspect of the afterlife thoroughly and ends up feeling mediocre and simplistic.
Even more disappointing, the script is full of plot holes and contrivances that limit the film's effectiveness. In particular, a second act twist involving Albert feels both forced and unsure of itself. By the time the story rockets into the film's third act, it almost seems as if the screenwriter is making up the rules of his universe as he goes along. Finally, the end of the film is so overburdened with sentimentality that it's nearly impossible to sink into the depth of the characters or their struggles.
At least 'What Dreams May Come' is exciting to watch. The actors are clearly invested in their parts (Williams in particular), the cinematography is stunning, and the film even won an Academy Award for its visual effects. The painterly landscapes of Heaven are gorgeous and the gloomy hellscapes are suitably ominous. The real world scenes are no slouch either -- I often found myself soaking in the entire image as if I were in an art gallery.
In the end, despite an ambitious concept, strong performances and some truly enthralling visuals, a weak script prevents 'What Dreams May Come' from reaching its full potential. If the filmmakers had focused more on tonal consistency, I think this would be a far better film. As as, I had a hard time buying into this one.
'What Dreams May Come' on HD DVD is the rare high-def presentation that wows with its richness rather than its technical bells and whistles. This 1080p/VC-1 transfer has a lovely filmic quality that keeps the image from feeling over-produced or reliant on its CG effects.
The color palette of the film's Heaven is such a revelation that were times where I actually caught myself slightly squinting. Similarly, the scenes set in Hell are convincingly drab and surreal. Throughout, the transfer's contrast is stable and crisp and the black levels retain their depth. The image constantly pops off the screen and appears three dimensional. Detail is also impressive, although it should be noted that portions of the film were apparently shot in soft-focus, and some of the CG shots include a haziness that Ward references as an intentional effect in his commentary.
I did catch a handful of instances of edge enhancement, some minor edge wavering, and three smatterings of blink-and-you'll-miss-it artifacting, but source noise was otherwise non-existent. All in all, this is a great HD DVD catalog transfer that nearly lives up to other fantastical high-def entries like 'Big Fish' and 'The Brothers Grimm.'
'What Dreams May Come' features a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) that handles the film's soundscape with ease, but it isn't likely to impress.
Dialogue is well prioritized, channel pans are natural, and the effects make good use of the subwoofer and the rear channels. Likewise, ambiance is subtle, but makes its presence known in many of the key afterlife scenes.
The track's biggest downside has nothing to do with its technical proficiency -- it's that the film's sound design is so sparse. For a movie that takes place in the ultimate extremes of paradise and limbo, you really wouldn't expect such a lackluster track. In fact, after reviewing my notes following my first viewing of the film, I realized I'd stopped paying attention to the audio entirely at some point -- an oversight that required me to go back through the film again. Here's guessing that the finer points of this mix will be quickly be forgotten by most other viewers as well.
While hardly over-stuffed, this HD DVD edition of 'What Dreams May Come' does include all of the primary supplements from the Special Edition DVD released in 2005 (the only bullet points dropped from this one are the text-based bios and production notes).
First up is an unusually quiet feature commentary with director Vincent Ward. For the most part, the soft-spoken Ward tends to stick to technical aspects of the production, although late in the track he does talk at length about the emotional complexities of the script and the deeper meaning of the imagery.
The first of two featurettes, "The Making of What Dreams May Come" (16 minutes) is a decent overview of the film's production, effects integration, and cast interactions. "About the Visual Effects" (5 minutes) details the special effects used in the film and includes an all-too-brief collection of interviews with the CG artists.
Next up, an "Alternate Ending" (6 minutes) is pretty mindless and was wisely left on the cutting room floor.
Two trailers and a "Photo Gallery" round out the proceedings.
(Note that all of the video-based features listed above are presented in 480i/p only.)
'What Dreams May Come' boasts some stunning imagery, strong performances and award-winning special effects -- if only it had a strong script to match. Likewise, this HD DVD impresses with a beautiful video transfer, but disappoints with an average audio track and an anemic set of supplements that fail to add anything of weight to the film. Unless you're a huge fan of the film, you're probably best off giving this one a rent and deciding for yourself whether its worth adding to your high-def library.