What Dreams May Come aims high but suffers from pretension, poor execution

To die, to sleep-

To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…

Here, in Hamlet’s celebrated meditation on death, lies the huge ambition of Vincent Ward’s new film What Dreams May Come. But Ward and screenwriter Ron Bass (adapting a novel by Richard Matheson) add another rub: what happens in that “sleep of death” when soul mates are separated? And what happens if those soul mates have already experienced the loss of both of their children? The possibilities here are, by definition, endless – the eternal answers captured on film.

The look of the film follows suit. The scope and high-budget components of What Dreams May Come are such things that action movies (or maybe novels) are made of – impressively splashy, computer-manipulated sets, big-name stars, questions of life and death. When Chris Nielsen, played by Robin Williams, dies in a car accident, he is left with the heaven of his mind. It is an awe-inspiring vision: his wife’s passionate paintings (sort of romantic expressionist pieces – think Munch and Friedrich) become the mind’s reality. We later find out from Chris’s heavenly guide Albert (a spritely Cuba Gooding, Jr.) that the mind is reality, and the physical is illusion.

It all makes sense, in a way, which is why What Dreams May Come never truly succeeds in chewing all it has bitten off. It starts out hard to grasp, becomes easier to grasp, and then begins to revel in its own cleverness. The film’s form is light and airy – flashbacks fade in and out in such a bleached, ethereal way that there is the constant feeling of coming to after a spell. Ward is, for the most part, successful in blurring death with life and reality with dreams. The audience is invited to drift, and they do so.

In fact, he is so successful at blurring reality and dream that soul mates Chris and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) never seem to have lived at all. Their love starts in a dream and never leaves. Their scenes together seem to illustrate what love should be: giggling, looking at clouds, operatic struggles with pain. But there’s so little sense of reality that any pain the audience experiences with Chris’s death is almost obligatory.

The scenes with the Nielsen children are even less based in reality. The flashbacks to family life are broad sweeps of issues that would typically stay pent up. Ian, their son, played solidly by Josh Paddock, tells his father in a thunderstorm that he can never live up to him. Marie, their daughter, played with some refreshing subtlety by Jessica Brooks is a super-precocious 10 or 11 year-old who never gets to beat her father at chess. Is this reality, or an airbrushed reality?

Though it might be argued that the point of What Dreams May Come is that there is no reality, Vincent Ward does not translate this smoothly enough to the screen. The film is uneven, strangely so, as it goes from a painted reality to a dream reality to hell. The heaven of Annie’s paintings seems to specific to be a mind’s reality. And one wonders what would happen if one’s soul mate had bad taste. Would he therefore live in a harsh heaven of clashing colors and mismatched clothing?

What Dreams May Come has one of those plots that is virtually impossible to fight. You cannot say it has plot holes, and then rightly justify it, because, well, who can say? But the holes still remain. Hell, as hosted by Max von Sydow’s Tracker, who seems to be an older, English-speaking Antonius Block from The Seventh Seal, a little deflated after losing that chess game with Death, is not much more than an elaborate take on the set for Waterworld. Fire shoots out of pipes, and pale spirits in thick stage makeup writhe on the ashen ground. It is not a scary hell, but very pretty in a Dante sort of way. Its purpose in the universe is never really explained past the fact that suicide victims are put there. So, the universe of the film just becomes an aesthetically pleasing synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism, excluding the poor and uncultured.

I do admire the scope of What Dreams May Come. It is nice to see such effort and financial backing put into a movie that sets out to be truly cerebral. But Vincent Ward should have delved deeper into his subject. Robin Williams’s performance is a bit shallow, as well, and very typical of Robin Williams these days – heartfelt, but very affected. He glides nicely throughout the planes of the film, but never seems to connect with the subject. He has one well played scene with Annabella Sciorra in the garden of a mental ward which is truly heart-wrenching, but other than that he and the movie are just a bit flat. What Dreams May Come gives you a lot to think about, without doing much of the thinking itself.