The Afterlife in ‘What Dreams May Come’

What Dreams May Come2

I had planned to write something else entirely today. I wished I didn’t have to write this, or I wrote something like it under better circumstances.

CNN and news sources around the world have confirmed that actor and comedian Robin Williams has died in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

I don’t want to write a long, exhaustive obituary/eulogy/in memoriam piece because such pieces often feel disingenuous and self-indulgent. This tragedy does however shed light onto the impact Williams’ works have had on culture and society as a whole.

Williams is (UGH) was a prolific actor with memorable roles in Mork and Mindy, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Jumanji, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, etc. One of Robin Williams’ most underrated films, and one of the most visually stunning movies of all time, is What Dreams May Come.

What Dreams May Come1

Based on Richard Matheson’s novel, What Dreams May Come is the story of Christopher (Williams) who even in heaven doesn’t want to part from his emotionally fragile wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra). What makes the film so poignant is its impressionistic, dream-like (Get it?) portrayal of the afterlife.

Mild spoilers ahead (But not really. C’mon it’s been out since 1996). Christopher dies in a car accident and winds up in heaven. His heaven is created from his own mind and looks and acts like one of his wife’s paintings. His childhood dog returns, he’s landed right into his dream location, and he has a friendly guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), to help him transition to life in paradise.

With blow after emotional blow thrown at her, Annie doesn’t cope well. Let’s just say she doesn’t end up in the same place as Christopher.

Through stunning visuals rivaling and at times exceeding the richness of films like The Fall, The Wizard of Oz, and Life of Pi, the Vincent Ward-directed movie explores not just objective versions of the afterlife but subjective. Heaven and hell are what we imagine it to be. You’re not just living in your own private Idaho but also you’re own private heaven and/or hell.

What the film illustrates as afterlife is but an expression of how we perceive this life. Humans can get so stuck in their own minds, in their own perceptions of the world and their lives that they can be consumed by it. It is the connections we make with others through relationships (and hey, even pop culture!) that hopefully pulls us out of self-created miasma and back into the light.

The ending is schmaltzy, yes, but hey, I can be a little schmaltzy too. (See: the drivel above.) The entire film is a heartrending drama and yet it’s the twist in the resolution that hits me in the gut every time.

Now, I’m definitely not the most religious person in the world, far from it. The film still works, and maybe even more so, for those who view it as less of a religious/spiritual film and more as an art piece about human emotion and connection. The movie strikes a resonant chord on an emotional level — it’s a depiction of the power of love and lengths we will go to hold onto it.

Go watch it. Celebrate great cinema. Celebrate life.


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