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Review: Heavenly effects in 'What Dreams May Come'

Web posted on: Thursday, October 01, 1998 12:26:24 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- There's more than enough to hate about them, but my biggest pet peeve concerning most modern blockbusters is that they're usually little more than excuses to march out all the latest developments in special effects. One of my all-time favorite moviegoing memories is of seeing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on the night it opened in 1977, and being absolutely floored the first time those space ships went gliding down that Indiana highway. So I can fully understand why some people might like to get an occasional jolt of the new technology.

"Occasional" is the pivotal word, though.

Theatrical preview for "What Dreams May Come"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Adios, Muchacho"

Video clip: 2.6Mb QuickTime

How many churning fireballs are required for you to meet your lifetime allowance of churning fireballs? How many buildings have to crumble to the ground before you're fully versed in the concept of crumbling buildings? How many faces do you have to see morphing into other faces, wildcats, vampires, or rabid wolverines before the thrill of the morph has subsided?

I know this stuff looks cool; I'm not blind. But I'm amazed how people will keep lining up to see a re-hash of something that only really sprang from someone's imagination the first time around. I'm convinced that if Jerry Bruckheimer released an effects movie called "Been There, Done That," it would make millions. And so would the sequel.

Chatty, New Age-y, but beautifully done

Thankfully, Bruckheimer's black hand is nowhere in evidence in "What Dreams May Come," even though a lot of the movie is set in hell. Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are there, though, and so are some of the most awe-inspiring, brilliantly designed visual effects that I've ever seen. Though the movie's chatty focus on all that's good and lovely and wonderful in our lives starts to wear out its welcome by 40th New Age sermon, I was pretty moved by parts of it. And, for the first time in many a moon, the visual wizardry I was looking at wasn't an amped-up version of the same-old "new thing."

Williams plays a doctor named Chris who's madly, deeply in love with his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra.) Man, that Chris and Annie dig each other; they smooch endlessly and expound on their dreamy coupling like a couple of ecstasy-addled poet laureates. No doubt about it, life is one big Goo-Goo Cluster for these two ... that is, until their two kids are killed in a car accident. Then Annie tries to commit suicide and absolutely everything about their lives together falls apart. Things fall apart even further than that, though, when Chris is crushed by a runaway car one night while attending to an accident victim in a freeway tunnel.

From there, we pass into the afterlife with Chris, and that's when the fun starts. He's immediately met by a heavenly guide when he gets there, a gently understanding young man named Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who was an old man that Chris cared for in the hospital years earlier, back in the real world.

That's generally how the movie operates, so you'd better get used to it. People move around in bodies that they previously didn't inhabit, love shades into anguish, hell is an inescapable state of mind, etc. In other words, you're dead now, so the writer (Ron Bass, adapting Richard Matheson's novel) gets to make it all up and there's nothing you can do about it.

Vivid vision of heaven and hell

That free-for-all spirit eventually takes its toll on the viewer, but the effects team and production designers have devised a vivid vision of heaven and hell that you won't soon forget. You've never seen anything like this before, no matter how times you watched "The Fifth Element" or "Dark City." Soulmate Annie is a talented painter, so Chris' initial impression of heaven -- Albert explains that our minds conjure their own versions of the perfect world when we die -- is that of a vast, painted landscape. And I mean literally painted.

Globs of reds, greens, blues, purples, and yellows spread out before him and wash into a Van Gogh-inspired swirling sky. When Chris reaches down to touch some violets, they squish through his fingers and drip into the other colors.

There's no way to convey the fun of the visuals through words. Unlike any movie since "2001: A Space Odyssey," this is cinema as the ultimate hallucinogenic trip. It's as if the effects team (lead by Ellen M. Somers, who fully deserves an Oscar) mated John Lennon's acid visions with the ethereal landscapes of the CD-ROM, "Myst." To top it off, there's the joyfulness of Williams experiencing this fantasy environment. The effects' only purpose is to be supremely gorgeous, instead of atom bomb destructive, and that's exactly what they are.

Oh so sticky-sweet

But that's just the first part of the journey. Chris then goes looking for his children, and more or less finds them, in a city that looks like a Magritte painting, with beautifully dressed men and women floating above golden beach fronts. His favorite dog is there, too, bounding through the lushness. If all of this sounds like it might give you cavities, you're right to some degree. The visuals are sometimes too life-embracing by a couple of steps.

This gets leavened considerably, though, when Chris meets up with a mystical guide (Max Von Sydow, creepy as always) who leads him on a boat journey across a churning ocean full of pale, screaming bodies. The lost spirit of the now-deceased Annie is trapped in hell, and Chris is off to find her, much against Albert's advice.

Hell, as you might expect, is no cakewalk, sort of a cross between "Dante's Inferno" and Detroit in the mid-'70s. One of the more startling images in the film is a huge field down in Beelzebub-ville that's covered with the anguished faces of people who are buried up to their necks in the earth. (There are also, incredibly enough, a couple of decent laughs in this sequence.)

This is all (if you'll pardon the expression) cool as hell, but the movie is by no means perfect ... and a great deal of the blame falls on Williams' shoulders. As solid an actor as he usually is, Williams has always shown a pronounced tendency to barrel towards overtly goopy sentiment given the chance. And a movie that's about the power of love to redeem our very souls is bound to be a breeding ground for goop.

There's also the problem of his inexplicably tightened jaw in the big dramatic scenes, a physical quirk that's bugged me about him ever since he blew a couple of emotional moments in the otherwise great "The World According to Garp."

When Williams gets all weepy, he goes mealy-mouthed, gurgling and burbling words that would have a whole lot more impact if you weren't giggling at how they sound when he says them. It seems to me that God, if he's going to spend all that time constructing such a marvelous afterlife, would see to it that its occupants would be imbued with the miracle of comprehensible diction.

"What Dreams May Come" is a visual blast. The heaven sequences are truly dreamlike, a rare treat for filmgoers of any age. Younger children, however, may be majorly wigged-out by the bad scene down in hell. There's minimal bad language and no nudity. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes, with a fairly unsatisfying, truncated ending.

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