When asked about religion in interviews, Hollywood glitterati offer the near-uniform answer that they're spiritual but not religious. The distinction is important, especially when considering a film such as What Dreams May Come, a hybrid of traditional Hollywood romanticism and nondenominational New Age spirituality.
A love story set primarily in the afterlife, What Dreams May Come follows the complex fate of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra), who from the moment they encounter each other seem destined for the fabled "happily ever after." They marry, settle into professions -- he's a doctor, she's a painter -- and a large, comfortable home, and raise two children they adore. Then, in quick succession, death claims this close-knit family through sudden accidents and, eventually, suicide.
What Dreams May Come, adapted by Ron Bass from a novel by Richard Matheson (Somewhere in Time), follows Chris as he adjusts to his heavenly existence with the aid of two mysterious guides (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Rosalind Chao). But when he discovers that Annie's in hell, Chris gets a tracker (Max Von Sydow) and begins a perilous journey to retrieve her.
What distinguishes What Dreams May Come is not the true-love-conquers-all story -- although this serves as an effective anchor -- but the absolutely remarkable visuals composed by director Vincent Ward, himself a painter. In this film, the afterlife is conceived as the individual vision of each person, so Chris ends up in an idealized landscape of his wife's painting, while Annie resides in a nightmare version of their dream house. This concept gives Ward free reign to combine classical images of heaven and hell with his own inspired interpretations. Pushing the envelope of digital imaging, Ward turns the screen into a broad canvas, at one point even providing the tactile sensation of Chris literally immersed in the paint of Annie's work.
Lush, lovely and often provocative, What Dreams May Come also manages to capture the zeitgeist in several ways. First, it's an example of how truly amazing computer technology can be in the hands of a real artist. The special effects aren't merely used for their own sake, but showcase the rich possibilities inherent in the medium when it's guided by an original imagination.
Secondly, it touches on that question of spirituality, particularly considering the grab-bag religious dilettantism of the late 20th century. It comes as no surprise, then, that the afterlife in What Dreams May Come has no particular religious affiliation and a standoffish God. Because in the land where ego reigns, there are no steadfast rules, and everything is up to personal interpretation.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.