SCP Newsletter, AUTUMN 1998, Volume 23:1

Within the first few moments of What Dreams May Come we witness two attractive and sensitive people, "soulmates," Annie (Annabella Sciorra) and Christy Nielsen (Robin Williams), meet in the serene Summer backdrop of lush Swiss mountains overlooking a lake. Their two small boats collide and it is love at first sight. The laws of fate (read karma) are in motion, and they soon marry to become gushingly happy.

In moments we next see Robin Williams as a pediatrician and his wife as an artist. Her paintings fill the screen at times and he ogles. The two continue in an idyllic marriage in their beautiful house outside San Francisco. They have two sweet children in a best-of-this-world bargain with destiny, a kind of fulfillment most people would envy.

Then death comes crashing in. All of a sudden both children are killed in a car accident. The next scene is their funeral. Now things get tough. With love and patience, Christy brings his wife Annie back from the brink of suicidal despair (some of these darker episodes we get later in the film as Christy reminisces from the other side).

The next thing we see is Christy being killed (we learn later, four years after the kids). The car accident is in a tunnel which soon becomes "a tunnel of light," the Ray Moody paradigm of the initial death experience. Christy hovers above his body on a stretcher as it fights for life. He drifts further from the body in the intensive care unit. He notices a flickering presence near him. It is a spirit guide and helper who we will meet throughout the film.

Out of the body in his "astral" form Christy sees the world just as though he were alive. It all looks the same. But now he is dead and this fact takes a long time for him to accept. We see him wandering around his old haunts, looking in at his funeral, checking on his grief-stricken wife, and generally seeing how the world is progressing. He follows his wife everywhere. At the dinning table, at his grave side. And he constantly tries to reach out. Each time she shrieks. There is a scene were he gets his bereaved wife to channel his message---it seems so natural. You can feel the audience willing him on. It is merely a love letter from the death plane. She shrieks again. It is, automatic writing from the dead, so tame, so sincere, so sweet and understandable. A mystery is cleared up for millions of viewers. Biblical prohibitions against mediumship seem too harsh for the tolerant viewer who now sees it in the context of a love letter.

Eventually, Christy realizes that his continued ghostly presence is causing Annie pain., He quits this realm, "the earthplane" as psychics such as Edgar Cayce call it, and heads into heaven. Up to this point, he has flirted with becoming what psychics and mediums call an "earthbound soul"--such souls that can't let go and choose to haunt their old locales. During this period Christy has been shadowed by his guide named Albert, played by Cuba Gooding. Albert convinces him to let go of this realm. It is time to face heaven. Albert, we will learn is also another identity, the fruit of a more recent incarnation.

Now we see more special effects when Christy gets to Heaven. Christy's paradise is a living canvass projected from his mind and made of artist's oils (inspired by his and mostly Annie's paintings). Gooey jacaranda blue flowers ooze in his hand and squish under his feet. As living vistas stretch on and on in this ethereal canvas. Heaven is indeed a canvas that the mind projects upon to co-create its own reality. Williams heaven is made from the bright luminous wet paint of the paintings of his wife brought over by memory. Its atoms are paint daubs which squish and squeeze as he runs through lush foliage.

In the words of Stephen Holden in the New York Times (Oct 2, 98):

"Working from a screenplay by Ron Bass, Ward has created a film that at its most visually evocative portrays its characters' lives and afterlives as a kind of hall of mirrors, in which the lines between dream and reality, memory and eternity are continually blurring as one gives way to another. At its most seductive, the film portrays heaven as a magical, hallucinatory extension of the physical world that has been left behind. It is a place flooded with dim golden light and thick with flowers, of misty peaks and crags, where people and objects float through the sky and great distances can be breached with a single leap (of faith, of course).

Indeed, the special effects are engaging, bombarding us with novelty, a kind of feast of the eyes only possible during the era of digital and virtual reality. Scenes can now be summoned that are not dependent on nature. Films like this have been waiting to be made, cuing up for the digital era.

Albert tells Christy that whatever he wishes for, he can have -- anything, that is, except for Annie. You see we suddenly hear the terrible news. Albert sits him down with a sullen look. Annie died having finally succeeded in killing herself. "Suicides don't go to heaven......ever." They go . . . somewhere else, somewhere where Chris is not permitted. It is called Hell.

Even the positive thinking new ager must have a lump in the throat. Things were going too swimmingly for this to happen. It is too reminiscent in today's liberated age of the Church's warnings of hell. Though keep in mind, there is always a morbid undertow in the film, a desolation beneath the bright colors. The truth is, Christy's heaven without a personal God, with its digital color, is just another form of hell.

When Christy makes his trek to hell with Albert and the Tracker (Max Von Sydow), we see desolation and hopelessness. It is uncomfortable to look at. Even the most superficial member in the audience must think: "If there is any chance of my winding up in a place like this, I must find a way out." We have one of the few moments of pre-evangelism in the film. The reality is that only the grace of Christ can keep one from this kind of dark fate. Hell in the film is as flawed as heaven but it is still an uncomfortable suggestion. The new age spin is bound to come. You see Christy's love is great enough to span the great chasm. ("No suicide has ever crossed over"). Yet his love of a soul mate brings her to heaven after a dark dark scene in hell. In the book, Christy actually never is allowed to take Anna back to heaven. The cosmic laws only allow the two to be reincarnated on the earth again. In the film, they visit heaven then chose to be reborn on the earth, as the film finds them as young children playing on a lake in Philadelphia, or some such place.

Blended in the film, from channeling to reincarnation, are New Age beliefs that are the deeper reality to this Rorschach that outwardly seems to accommodate most religious views in a kind of syncretism. Of course the book by Richard Matheson is flat out in its intention. In the twenty year old introduction, written in 1977, the author dates the book as being at the time of the first wave of Near Death experiences to hit America:

"Because its subject is survival after death, it is essential that you realize, before reading the story, that only one aspect of it is fictional: the characters and their relationships.

With few exceptions, every other detail is derived exclusively from research." For that reason, I have added, at the conclusion of the novel, a list of books used for this research."

Matheson lists about ninety books, from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to the writings of Edgar Cayce and Raymond Moody's classic, Life After Life.

When I discussed this film on the syndicated Dick Staub show coming out of Chicago--a radio show that reaches about 130 major metropolitan areas--Dick announced that this film was the number one film in America. He and I had spent forty minutes analyzing it. At the end he posed the simple question about the dominant belief system of the film. My response to Dick was, "It's new age all the way." Before that I mentioned, "And did you notice, there was not even a whisper about the existence of Christ."

As the film's producer Stephen Simon admits in the afterword of the book, it has taken this much time for America's consensus to be shifted enough to process this view of reality. Simon is a self-described pupil of the author, horror novelist and new ager, Richard Matheson.

In the end, What Dreams May Come is without substantive hope. It is a Hollywood smile pasted over a void. As Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the great wheel of rebirths moves along mercilessly. Only the few find liberation, taking as long as it takes for a bird to level a Himalayan mountain at the rate of one peck a year.

Or as the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches, only a fraction of those who reach the death plane are ever advanced enough to apprehend "The Clear Light."---Tal Brooke

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