Film: What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come (1998) is a dreamlike, slightly trippy journey through the afterlife, as experienced by Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), and his soul mate Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra). It is based on the 1978 novel of the same title by Richard Matheson and directed by Vincent Ward.

Chris and Annie's idyllic marriage is shattered when their two children are killed in a car wreck. Annie becomes emotionally unstable and must be institutionalized, but four years later the two reconcile. On the anniversary of the tragedy, however, Chris is killed in yet another car accident, and finds himself in heaven. Despite his new home in paradise, Chris is unhappy without Annie, and when she commits suicide out of guilt over Chris's death, he travels through hell to find her, determined to bring her back to Paradise.

The film was shot largely on Fuji Velvia film and is one of the few films to be done so. The Fuji Velvia film is known among landscape photographers for its vivid color reproduction and it shows. The film was not particularly successful at the box office. It earned $55,382,927 at the United States market, only the 40th most successful film of its year. It was released to mixed reviews, on one hand praised for the visuals of the overall film and strong performances from the two leading actors. On the other hand, it was criticized for significant deviations from its source novel, a sense of "morose sentimentality" and lack of genuine drama and/or conflict. It won an Academy Award for its Visual Effects and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (lost to Shakespeare in Love).

This film provides examples of:

  • Acid Trip Dimension: The visions of heaven and hell are based on paintings from across the centuries; even the flowers are made of paint.
  • Arc Words: "Sometimes when you win, you lose."
  • Art Initiates Life: Chris's view of heaven is heavily inspired by his wife's paintings.
    • His daughter's realm is inspired by her paper diorama.
  • Black Bug Room: Annie's hell.
  • Book Ends: At the beginning and end, Annie and Chris meet at a lake when their boats crash into each other. At the beginning as adults with actual boats, and at the end as children with remote-controlled toy boats. Chris even says the same line from the beginning of the movie.
    Chris Nielsen: "When I was young, I met this beautiful girl at a lake."
  • The Cameo: Werner Herzog appears as a man in a sea of faces who mistakes Chris for his son.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Annie and Chris decide to be reincarnated. They are and meet again as small children. It's pretty much a given that the soul mates will be each others' Victorious Childhood Friend.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title comes from Hamlet's famous "to be, or not to be" soliloquy. The full line reads: "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"
  • Dead to Begin With: Chris travels through hell to rescue his wife's soul.
  • Death by Adaptation: Chris and Annie's children don't die in the book.
  • Driven to Suicide: Annie, twice. Well, aside from the fact she already had a suicide attempt, losing her kids and her husband in successive order would break a lot of people.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You earn said happy ending by literally going to hell and back.
  • Epiphanic Prison: This is the setup for Hell.
  • Eureka Moment: How Chris figures out who his kids really are. In his daughter's case, he recognizes the area as her paper diorama. In his son's, he recognizes that Albert is a little too attached to rescuing "mom".
  • The Film of the Book
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: Averted and outright stated to not be what Hell is. Hell is what you make of it.
  • Fisher King: In the novel, everyone in the afterlife is the ruler of their own personal paradise. Noted in the film, as Chris's paradise is an oil painting because that's what he wants it to be, though Albert is able to have "dual controls" with Chris at one point. Chris gains control by having a proper cup of coffee instead of a wobbly cup full of paint. The movie also contains a few realms where people have joined together to build cities.
  • Framing Device: The novel is presented as a manuscript dictated to a psychic by Chris and delivered to Chris's (still living) brother by said psychic.
  • Have You Seen My God?: The following exchange between Chris and Albert:
    Chris Nielsen: "Where is God in all of this?"
    Albert: "Oh, He's up there. Somewhere... shouting down that He loves us. Wondering why we can't hear Him. You think?"
  • Heaven: Made of paint!
  • Hell: Of the self-inflicted variety.
  • To Hell and Back: Chris's journey, making up the core of the movie.
  • Hell Is War: Parts of it, anyway. Given the nature of the afterlife in this film, it likely doubles as a Warrior Heaven.
  • Hell of a Heaven: The driving force of the plot is how, to Chris, heaven isn't heaven without his wife.
  • Ironic Echo: "Sometimes when you win, you lose." Which eventually morphs to "Sometimes when you lose, you win."
  • Ironic Hell
  • Justified Extra Lives: Reincarnation FTW.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet.
  • Near Death Clairvoyance
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: The catalyst for Anne's suicide.
  • Nostalgia Heaven
  • Orphean Rescue: Chris's quest to retrieve Annie from hell.
  • Race Fetish: Discussed. Chris offhandedly remarks that he thinks Asian girls are lovely, graceful, and intelligent. These words had inspired his daughter in life, and in the afterlife she literally takes the form of an Asian woman symbolizing living up to her father's ideals.
  • Refusing Paradise - After escaping Hell, Chris and Annie have an opportunity to spend eternity in a literal house of their dreams in Heaven, but choose to be reincarnated in order to get a second chance at a successful Childhood Friend Romance.
    • Likewise, the central premise of the movie: Chris has the option of living in Heaven for all eternity, but ventures into Hell instead — against the advice of everyone around him — on the off chance he'll be able to rescue his soul mate. And chooses Hell just to be with her.
  • Reincarnation Romance: In the end, Chris and Annie are reincarnated and meet as little kids in a scene that the makers of those Precious Moments figurines would kill for.
    • In the original ending, Chris and Annie are reincarnated as a white man and an Indian woman and get married, but Annie dies young - as dictated by the laws of karma because of her suicide in her previous life. Chris spends decades, the rest of his life, mourning her. Chris sees their future selves enjoying Heaven off in the distance, and they decide it's Worth It.
  • Rescued From Hell: Chris attempts to do this for his wife. He succeeds against all odds, though in a weird inversion - his wife rescues him from Hell.
  • Scenery Porn: Heaven is literally an impressionist painting for Chris.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: "What dreams may come" from Hamlet 's "To Be or Not To Be Speech". Naturally, in the play, it refers to the afterlife.
  • Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Shiny. Very very shiny. Heaven is made of shiny.
  • Too Happy to Live
  • You Are Worth Hell: Chris outright says that if he cannot rescue Annie from Hell, he's staying. This self-sacrifice is what saves her.
  • You Look Familiar: In-universe - Chris's son assumes the form of Chris's mentor. Later, they meet up with Chris's mentor, who has assumed the form of Max von Sydow.
  • You Were Trying Too Hard
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Said almost word-for-word (re: Hell) in the original novel. In the film, both Heaven and Hell work this way in opposite directions.