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Movie Review: What Dreams May Come

Reviewed by Protopresbyter David Cownie

Directed by Vincent Ward. Starring Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciora, Max Von Sydow (1998).

This movie, which stars Robin Williams as the main protaganist, is unique in that it attempts to portray the experience of a person’s soul after death. In fact, a large proportion of the movie actually is staged in the next world. So a lot of the power of this movie stems from very excellent computer-generated special effects. It also deals very directly and poignantly with a variety of family relationships, most especially husband to wife and parent to child. This is a movie about grief at its most fundamental, and the raw pain caused by the separation at death. In fact, I would not recommend this movie to anyone who recently lost a child or a spouse unless they are firmly grounded spiritually. That warning is even more dire in the case of a recent suicide in the family, because this movie is based on the despair and suicide of the wife after she first loses her children and later her husband to car accidents.

What is truly sad about this film is that an attempt is made to portray heaven and hell without any significant reference to God. At one point Robins Williams asks his guide, a friend and mentor he had known on earth, where God is. The guide makes only a very vague reference to Him, "He’s up there somewhere, loving us, and probably wondering why we don’t hear Him, don’t you think?" That is the extent that God figures in the story. In addition, we manage to find a Heaven and Hell without angels or demons. Only human souls, dogs, and birds seem to be there. All of this leads to a cosmology which is eclectic in the extreme and very misleading. On the one hand, everybody is given the option to reincarnate and return to earth in another life. But this is portrayed in a rather silly and gratuitous manner. There is no oppressive wheel of Karma here, nor the dreary cycle of death, rest, and return as described by Virgil. What makes the film rather ridiculous is that after all of the pain and terror and struggle in which the husband (literally) goes through Hell to be reunited with his "soulmate," they blithely decide to return to earth and try to meet again, with a very corny scene at the end to rescue the audience from the emotional roller-coaster they just rode.

I also take severe exception to the extreme relativism found in this film. When the protagonist dies, his "guide" appears very fuzzy and indistinct. The character is told that he will see the guide clearly when he "accepts" the fact that he is dead. This is taking the "create your own reality" gospel to its ultimate absurdity. The experience of Orthodox Christians who have had near-death experiences (if fact, nearly all NDE’s) reveal a world in which reality is all too plainly and harshly forced upon the person involved. All of the myths, all of the smokescreens people use in their lives, are stripped away and suddenly the person is confronted with life as it is. Demons come for the openly wicked and harass most of the rest of us. If we have made some feeble effort at being virtuous, our guardian angel and perhaps even our patron saint come to escort us through a demonic gauntlet. Of course, since no spirit being of any kind is found in this film, all of this is lost.

On the positive side, this movie gives us a sobering image of the consequences of despair and suicide. Dr. Kevorkian is not welcome in this film. Somehow, in this universe it is taboo to commit suicide and those who do so end up in Hell for a very Patristic reason: they refuse to see anything beyond themselves. This is the classic definition of what damns a soul, or rather, how souls damn themselves. God is no punisher in this film, even as He does not punish in the real Hell. People make their own choices and choose to live for themselves and apart from God’s grace. This separation ultimately leads to the darkness of the pit solely because they are unable and unwilling to perceive the Light. The Hell in this movie is a vague mixture of Dante and Hieronymous Bosch.

One of the more accurate features of the film was the portrayal of the soul coming out of the body. The deceased is surprised and then later frustrated to be in the same room with his body—say, during the funeral, or later with the family as they are grieving. The frustration at not being seen by loved ones and the despair of the bereaved are blended well together. This same frustration grew in a spiritist direction when the husband directed the wife to write a message from himself. The kind of automatic writing demonstrated is an old demonic trick that mediums and channelers have used for centuries.

But one of the great failures in this movie is that of ignoring God. The screenwriter chose to use the Church as a prop—only used when there was a marriage or a funeral to be staged. The family involved had a "church" to go to, but ultimately rejected God. This was demonstrated rather well in the scene in Hell which portrays the person who committed suicide living in a burned out shell of her home which rests in the ceiling of their church, now upside-down and desolate. It is a very poignant image of how utterly useless their shallow relationship with the Church had been to them. There were no visits to the bereaved wife, no meals provided, just simple platitudes at the funeral. Even had there been a visit or two, what we do know is that a woman was left alone who had lost her whole family and no one appears to have been aware or concerned. The "social conventions" for dealing with grief may have been met, but there was a complete absence of Christian love shown for this woman. For a person who is attending a church and to be left with no comforting assurance that her husband and children were not obliterated is a measure of how meaningless a church can become.

One other very good scene was an inadvertent image of how the thoughts and prayers of someone on earth can be relayed to the next world. Of course, prayer was never used in this film; but in the film, the wife is an artist and the husband ends up in one of her paintings in Paradise (another example of "create your own reality"). In this painting she adds a beautiful tree which ends up appearing in Paradise. She then despairs and washes the paint from the canvas and the tree loses all of its beautiful flowers. The special effects presented that scene wonderfully. This is a good image of how prayers for the dead find their way to help them and do something beautiful for them, even in the pit. It is just a shame that the film did this by accident.

Overall, I have to agree with the local film critic here in Houston. He said that the film’s visual effects are so beautiful that he wished the sound could be turned off so that the pretty pictures wouldn’t be spoiled by the stupid dialogue. That would also spare us having to try to resolve the myriad inconsistencies in cosmology which render the film just plain silly.