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Film / What Dreams May Come

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"After life, there is more. The end is just the beginning."''

...To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1

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 the two manage to reconcile. However, four years later, on what the couple call their “double-d anniversary”, Chris is killed in yet another car accident, and finds himself in heaven where he is greeted by a spirit guide named Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Despite his new home in paradise, Chris is unhappy without Annie. When she commits suicide out of guilt over Chris' 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.
  • And I Must Scream: Seen literally as Chris journeys into Hell. Several lost souls are seen with mouths sealed shut and attempting to cry out to those passing by.
  • And Your Reward Is Infancy: Invoked. Chris and Annie choose reincarnation over heaven and hell.
  • Anywhere but Their Lips: When Chris and his daughter in the shape of a grown up Asian woman embrace, he only kisses her on the forehead to avoid any awkwardness audience reaction.
  • Arc Words: "Sometimes when you win, you lose."
  • Art Initiates Life:
    • Chris' view of heaven is heavily inspired by his wife's paintings. Albert even Lampshades this, saying he's never before seen anyone use actual paint to create their paradise.
    • His daughter's realm is inspired by her paper diorama.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: One of the things Chris apologizes for to Annie while she's in her Self-Inflicted Hell: "I'll never buy you another meatball sub with extra sauce — that was a big one!"
  • Artists Are Attractive: Gender-flipped with Chris and Annie. She's an artist and he adores her paintings so much his personal Heaven is based on her art style.
  • Art Reflects Personality: Annie's artwork is initially bright and scenic, but after losing her children the paintings become darker and more abstract, reflecting how deep her grief is. She tries to paint with color after Chris' death, but destroys the painting when she realises he will never get to see it.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: When Chris returns from talking to his wife in hell, he tells Al that he is giving up. Al thinks he gives up on his wife, but then it turn out Chris meant he willing to give up on heaven and his kids and stay with his wife in hell.
  • Black Bug Room: Annie's hell.
  • Blessed with Suck: The film implies that this is what soulmates have, paired with Cursed with Awesome. They meet and fall in love quickly and are very happy with each other. But without each other, the other can't function and lives miserably.
  • Bookends: Doubles as a Meaningful Echo. 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. Both times sandwiches are being shared. 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 other's Victorious Childhood Friend.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: The title comes from Hamlet's famous "to be, or not to be" soliloquy (Act 3, Scene 1). The full line reads: "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come".
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Double D-anniversary. Chris and Annie are repeatedly referring to this event without giving an explanation until towards the end when we flash back to the scene where this term was coined:
    Chris: Today is kind of a D-Day. "D" for decision, I guess. About divorce.
    Annie: That'd be two D's, wouldn't it?
    Chris: I stand corrected.
  • 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.
  • Determinator: Christ is determined to find his wife in hell, no matter what.
  • Driven to Suicide: A case of From Bad to Worse for Annie. 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.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Annie freaks out when she sees a tarantula in her Black Bug Room.
  • Empathic Environment: The afterlife seems to reacts to the character's emotions. When Chris gets angry about his wife ending up in hell, a storm rages in the background.
  • Epiphanic Prison: This is the setup for Hell. Discussed by Albert:
    Albert: What you call hell is for those who don't know they're dead. They can't realize what they've done or what's happened.
  • "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".
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Annie's hairstyle changes throughout the flashbacks which helps the viewer to keep track of the timeline. Annie has long hair when she meets Chris and all through the happy family times, gets a Traumatic Haircut after the kids die, and has a stylish bob cut four years later when she has recovered.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: How Chris saves Annie from hell. He offers to give up his heaven to stay with her. She has a My God, What Have I Done? moment as he becomes "frozen" and they're both set free.
  • 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' 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.
  • Flashback: Many parts of the story are told through flashbacks Chris is having along his journey.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Chris's narration lets us know that his kids would die soon after: "It was the last time Annie and I saw them alive."
  • Framing Device: The novel is presented as a manuscript dictated to a psychic by Chris and delivered to Chris' (still living) brother by said psychic.
  • Gaslighting: Albert warns Chris about trying to communicate with his still-living wife because this will be the result. Every time he manages to impart some information to her, she thinks she's going crazy or is just filled with howling grief.
    Albert: The reality is it's over when you stop wanting to hurt her.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Chris is nicknamed Christy.
  • Go into the Light: Chris goes through a tunnel with a light at the end, symbolizing his passing over into the afterlife.
  • 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' 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.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: The film blends Eastern mystical concepts of reincarnation with Judeo-Christian concepts of monotheism, heaven and hell,note  as well as an Epiphanic Prison for those that commit suicide. Dogs go to heaven, too.
  • Ironic Echo: "Sometimes when you win, you lose." Which eventually morphs to "Sometimes when you lose, you win."
  • It's All My Fault: Annie blames herself for the her childrens' deaths, believing that if she'd been driving the car instead of the nanny then her maternal instincts would have led her to miss the vehicle that hit them.
  • Jacob Marley Apparel: For all scenes in the afterlife Chris wears the same trench coat he died in.
  • Killed Offscreen: The children's accident is not depicted.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The VHS release spoiled Annie's suicide on the back of the box. And then the DVD release did it again.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet.
  • Magical Library: In the novel anyway, where it's explained that every kind of knowledge is available in this Library, including when someone will die. Also, it contains every book ever written, including the ones that haven't been written yet. People who are still alive can visit the Library in their dreams, but very few remember upon waking.
  • Magical Negro: Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character, who acts as a mentor towards Chris in his afterlife.
  • Mercy Kill: One flashback sees Annie attempting to explain to Marie that having Katie the dog euthanised is the kindest thing to do given how old and ill she is. Marie still just sees it as her dog being killed. In a happy note, when Chris arrives in Heaven he's greeted by Katie who appears young and full of energy.
  • Mindlink Mates: Along with One True Love. Chris and Annie are made out to be this, e.g. by showing how they are able to communicate with another even after Chris is dead. Lampshaded by Chris:
    From the first moment, it was like ... soul mates.
  • Mr. Exposition: Albert in the afterlife, explaining to Chris how everything works.
  • Near-Death Clairvoyance: Chris is shown what happens in the real world after his death.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: The catalyst for Anne's suicide.
  • One True Love: Albert notes that Chris and Annie must be soul mates, since their link is so strong, they can influence each others worlds without even being on the same plane of existence. This may be why Chris can actually communicate with her from beyond the grave ("ISTILEXST").
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Although the movie is primarily about the afterlife, its protagonist does hang around in the living world as an invisible, intangible ghost for a bit, unwilling to bear leaving his home or wife. When he tries to touch her, she's immediately overwhelmed by her grief and wails miserably, which convinces him he should move on and spare her from the pain of his unseen, unreachable presence.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Chris and Annie after their children are killed in a car accident. The grief causes Annie's first mental breakdown.
  • Personalized Afterlife: When someone first arrives in the afterlife they see themselves in an area tailored to their tastes and passions. In Chris' case this means his space is based on Annie's paintings, quite literally as everything except him, Albert and Katie the dog is made of paint. Annie's personal Hell is their home, now a crumbling ruin, where she's completely alone and can't remember her family even when Chris is standing right in front of her.
  • 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.
  • Race Lift: The film is diversifying the cast. Albert is played by black actor Cuba Gooding, Jr.,and Leona is played by Chinese-American actress Rosalind Chao. While the book never explicitly identifies either character's race, the most logical assumption is that both are white, since Chris himself is white, Albert is his cousin in the book, and there's one scene where he remarks that he hardly ever saw people of "other races as well as my own" when he was alive.
  • Referenced by...: William Shakespeare: "What dreams may come" from Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be Speech". Naturally, in the play, it refers to the afterlife.
  • 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 the Underworld: Chris' quest is to retrieve Annie from hell. He succeeds against all odds, though in a weird inversion - his wife rescues him from Hell.
  • Rewatch Bonus: The part where Chris yells at Albert that he wants to see his son. Knowing that Albert actually is Chris' son wearing Albert's appearance, it makes a lot more sense why he looks so hurt when he tells Chris that he'll see him when he really wants to.
  • Scenery Porn: Justified. The title alone suggests how much of the movie is spent just showing off CGI vistas of the afterlife. From a mountain range made out of paint, to angels flying around classical cities perched on cliffs flowing with waterfalls, to a bleak hell filled with giant shipwrecks and littered with crawling bodies.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: People who commit suicide go to one, since they can't accept they died and they are still wracked by the depression and guilt they suffered while they lived — and since Your Mind Makes It Real, they suffer their worst fears.
    Albert: The real Hell is your life gone wrong.
  • Shown Their Work: Matheson's original novel has many concepts based on his study of afterlife researcher Raymond Moody, who was greatly influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg's writings. Swedenborg, one of the forerunners of Modern Spiritualism, had many visions and dreams about the afterlife. He taught that our personal "heaven" and "hell" are based on our personal thoughts, emotions and ideals and that we continue learning and exploring. Here's an analysis of the film in Swedenborgian terms.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The film sets its soul on the idealistic end of the scale. It shows that against all odds, true love will always last, as a sincere lover is willing to sacrifice his or her everything to drag their loved ones out of even the darkest misery - and they get their deserved reward at the end.
  • Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Shiny. Very very shiny. Heaven is made of shiny.
  • Suicide is Shameful: Suicides end up in hell and none of them can ascend to their version of heaven, unlike people who died of natural causes or because of accidents. The only way out that we see is when someone else offers to join them there. It's apparently a Self-Inflicted Hell that they need to be snapped out of by someone outside. Then the person can reincarnate to have another chance. According to the book, it takes a natural lifetime to escape from on their own.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Chris and Annie are sharing sandwiches the day they meet in the beginning and also when they're reincarnated at the end.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: Disclaimer after the end credits: "The persons and events in this production are fictitious. No similarity to actual persons, living, dead or reincarnated is intended or should be inferred."
  • Time Skip: After the kids' funeral we jump 4 years ahead.
  • Too Happy to Live: The first ten minutes have Chris meeting his future wife, having kids, and laughing. And laughing. And laughing. And then his kids are killed offscreen, then he dies, then his wife commits suicide...
  • Trauma Conga Line: Poor Annie is really put through the wringer, losing bother of her children and her husband in the space of a few years.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Annie's short hair in the asylum after her kids died. The look of it implies she cut it herself.
  • 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 Were Trying Too Hard: Chris finally saves his wife from Hell by giving up on trying to save her and instead joining her. Sometimes, when you lose, you win.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Said almost word-for-word in the original novel. In the film, both Heaven and Hell work this way in opposite directions.
    Albert: Thought is real. Physical is the illusion.