Throwback Thursday: The Therapeutic Power of What Dreams May Come

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Beginnings are hard—harder than endings, in my opinion. There’s not a lot that’s infinite, so endings are much easier to figure out. Beginnings don’t always happen. Of course you can’t have an ending without a beginning, so this horrible introduction is my way of beginning this column.

But really it’s about endings. The “endings” in this instance focused on the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, a movie all about endings and possible beginnings.

Top text reads in Red: Robin Williams Cuba Gooding, JR. Underneath, also in red, reads What Dreams May Come. The picture is of Robin WIlliams and a dalmatian wandering the afterlife, a beautiful painting. At the bottom center reads: After life there is more.

Theatrical poster for What Dreams May Come.

Robin Williams, in straight Patch Adams mode (both films came out in 1998), is an engaging pediatrician named Chris Nielsen who, with his artist wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), lives a practically perfect life with their two children. Tragedy befalls the family when—and I’m not giving anything away, as this happens in the first 15 minutes—the children are killed in a car accident and we flash forward to the same day four years later. Chris and Annie are still trying to get by with this devastating loss, and because fate is a cruel, cruel mistress, Chris is involved in a car accident as well. We then see him try to reach out to his wife, but he realizes he is dead and has to let go.

He eventually wakes up in an idyllic land where the scenery is made out of paints, and he finds out he has control over this paradise. He is taught about this heaven and how to navigate it by several guides (Cuba Gooding Jr., Rosalind Chao, and the irreplaceable Max von Sydow), but when he finds out Annie has committed suicide and sent to her own version of hell, he takes on a quest to rescue her. There’s a lot here to digest. The plot is so important to the journey and what it means that you can’t go too far into discussion without having a loose idea of what’s happening.

Robin in his version of heaven, waist-deep in paint, which is all over his hands, suit, and overcoat. It's a flowery field painting.

Robin Williams with a heck of a palette.

The visuals are extraordinary. What Dreams May Come was shot on a special film that really allows the colors to pop, and when Chris wakes up in heaven, everything is so vivid you almost feel like you’re touching the paint. It amazes me what visual artists can convey in their paintings when I can barely make recognizable stick figures. The visual-effects team on this film did a fantastic job of trying to give visual representation of the afterlife. It’s an afterlife we hadn’t seen in films before: there are no fluffy clouds and no angels with harps, but it is absolutely sumptuous.

heaven - both Chris and Annie together in heaven

Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra.

When Chris embarks on his quest, the journey through purgatory and into hell gives a big Terry Gilliam vibe (and that is a full compliment) to the lost, downtrodden, and damned. There’s a visual representation of a beached sea vessel; the people from the vessel will never complete their journey, and you realize that without the film ever having to say it. The upside-down church where Annie’s purgatory lies, showing her caught up in a spiral of sadness and denial, is literally breathtaking.

THe upside down church lacking in any vibrancy or color, totally black and great with little light streaming through, is totally desolate.

Your own private hell.

A good chunk of that loss of breath is due to the performances by Williams and Sciorra. Their chemistry and energy ground this unbelievable film in the believable. Cuba Gooding Jr. might get higher billing on the poster, but the film is really the story between Chris and Annie. I always wondered why Sciorra hasn’t done more work—in everything I’ve seen her in, she gives her all and seems so natural. In the purgatory scene especially, we get to see so many emotions and thoughts run across her face, and we know exactly what she’s thinking because at times we’ve all felt what she’s conveying. I admit the pediatric scene definitely gives off a Patch Adams vibe, but once Williams breaks out of that, this is probably one of his most earnest performances—one of the few “true” performances where he didn’t need to grow a beard to play realistic. When we think about the performer and artist we lost, it makes this film hit home even more. Chris goes into hell to do the impossible and rescue his soulmate from her hell due to her suicide. That’s something I hope that someone does for him, to rescue him from the one moment that can never be taken back, from which one can never atone for due to the finality of the act.

Reminiscent of the River Styx, it's a dark scene with a crowd standing on a platform of a boat with a fire in the distance.

There’s a lot going on in this scene.

Which brings us to endings. It’s a bittersweet film, especially when taking real-life history into the equation, but on its own it stands for so much more than that. There’s a lot of thought that went into what happens to us after we die. The film is based on the 1978 novel by Richard Matheson, and though the book delves a lot more into different beliefs on the afterlife, the film touches on Hinduism, parapsychology, metaphysics, mythology, mysticism, Catholicism, and more, none of which feel preachy or like a lesson. There’s a lot in the film, but it’s exactly the amount we can handle as viewers.

There are not a lot of infinite things in the world, but the film tells us one of them is the soul. So even though beginnings can be hard, they’re important. And even if endings are hard, they’re equally important, because they allow us to start another beginning. And truthfully, the middle is where all the fun is.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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