When I first saw Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come (1998), I was living in California and my mother and I went to a matinee showing. Robin Williams was still alive and although he won the Academy Award for Good Will Hunting the year before, in my humble estimation, this was his performance of a lifetime.
As Chris Nielsen, Williams displayed a range of emotions that transported cinemagoers into his character’s two worlds, that of life and death. Nielsen had the perfect existence. He married his twin flame Annie (Annabella Sciorra), and together the pair had two amazing children, Ian and Marie. Everything was going well for the couple. They were thriving in jobs that they loved and it seemed as if they had created an idyllic life for themselves until tragedy struck. One day, when Annie couldn’t drive the kids to school because of a work commitment, their nanny volunteers to give them a ride. However, through a cruel twist of fate, Ian and Marie die in a terrible car crash leaving their parents behind to grieve.
While the couple struggles with their loss, they take solace in one another. Chris remains strong and stoic for himself and for Annie. She is the emotionally vulnerable one who can’t seem to cope with her pain, so she ends up in an institution for a while with her husband visiting her every day. Eventually, it gets to be too much for even Chris to deal with so he proposes that the two divorce. As painful as it is for him to even suggest this action, he is willing to let go of what he loves the most so that Annie can get better and not be reminded of their tragedy each and every day when she looks at him. He feels like he is hindering her progress. Of course, Annie refuses the offer and chooses to work through the hurt with him.
Just when they are starting to regain their footing again and a sense of normalcy and routine returns, Chris is suddenly killed while transporting his wife’s paintings to the gallery where she works. Now, Annie is truly alone and she has to maintain her threadbare hold on sanity without her touchstone. Instead of moving on, Chris lingers on earth to be near his beloved because he can’t leave her side. Interacting with Annie, even though she cannot see him, is painful for both him and her. She feels his presence and this is tearing her heart and soul in two because to be without the one that you love and to remember what that was like can be a hell on earth and a prison.
Eventually, he sees the harm that he is doing to her and he lets go and is taken to Eden. At least that is what his version of heaven is like. Chris has chosen his reality in the hereafter and it happens to be based on Annie’s paintings. The very first “person” to greet him in his paradise is his cherished pet, Katie. In life, she was infirm and had to be put to sleep but now, she is rejuvenated and young again. On his travels in this new world, he has a guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). As Chris’ teacher, he is exuberant and enthusiastic and is wanting to show his new charge “the ropes.” The pair wander around and Chris starts to figure out how he can control his new truth. Literally, anything he can conceive will be created including his dream home that he was going to share with Annie.
Eventually, Chris yearns to see his children again which causes a fight with Albert who feels that he needs to work more on himself before he reconnects with them. The next day, Albert is called away for his “job.” In his place, he sends Leona (Rosalind Chao) to squire Chris around. Leona takes him to her special world where she tries to get him to remember his children. One of the memories that he holds near and dear to his heart is playing chess with his daughter. Marie was determined to win but never did. Then a revelation is made. Leona divulges that she is Marie. Overjoyed, Chris gets to have a reunion with his little girl and say all the things he didn’t get to say in life which is cathartic for the pair of them. When Albert joins them, it is clear something is wrong. Taking Chris aside he gives him the worst news possible. Annie was so bereft without him that she took her own life. As a consequence, she will never be able to experience what Chris has and the two will never be together for she has been condemned to a form of hell. Enraged, Chris doesn’t take this outcome very well and vows that he will fight for her. He makes plans to traverse the gates of the underworld to reunite with his twin soul.
This is risky and goes against the rules of this particular universe but Albert gives in and procures a “tracker” to find Annie. The two go in search of this somewhat legendary man (Max von Sydow) and meet up with him in a library. He agrees to join their quest but warns that the most Chris can do is say his goodbyes and leave or risk losing his sanity. Of course, this does not scare Nielsen in the least. He is bound and determined to do whatever it takes to reunite with the love of his life. The trio set off and cross the River Styx. Chris is the one leading the journey because he can telepathically communicate with Annie. After a few mishaps, the threesome arrives at the gateway to hell. Albert is determined to fight a teaming horde to find Chris’ wife for him. At that moment, it hits Chris that Albert is not who he says he is. He is his son, Ian. Armed with that knowledge, Chris leaves Ian behind to protect him as The Tracker and he set off to find Annie.
His faith in his love being his beacon, Chris locates his wife who is trapped in a rundown version of their house. She is literally mad and doesn’t recognize him, at first. Then, in order for her to realize his identity, Nielsen decides that he has to let her go. He recounts their journey together, the good times and the bad. While he is doing this, Annie starts remembering her overwhelming love for Chris and asks to see him. Which he grants her. However, she can’t cope with his disclosure and goes crazy leaving Chris to return to The Tracker. The outcome is not going to be Nielsen returning to his universe. Instead, he opts to stay and take care of Annie which surprises The Tracker, leaving him with a message to tell his children he loves them. Before the two depart, The Tracker admits that he is Chris’ mentor and old friend, Al. As grateful as Chris is for his assistance and as much as his comrade warns him of the potential dangers, he chooses to be with his wife.
With Al gone, Chris returns to Annie who is in the throws of escalating manic behavior. As hard as Chris tries to reason with her and prove to her that he is her other half, she keeps pushing him away. This starts his downward spiral into despair. When he begins to lose hope, Annie figures out who he is and urges him to keep the faith. Just when all seems lost, Chris is transported back to his world. The difference is now, he and Annie are together and they are reunited with Ian and Marie. One would think that they would just pick up and resume their familial life in heaven but at their children’s urging, the pair decide to be reincarnated and return to Earth to find one another again.
Richard Matheson, who wrote the novel from which the movie was adapted, is no stranger to the concept of life after death. The idea is broached in Somewhere in Time and The Legend of Hell House, in a macabre way, also deals with the possibility of existence on another plain. Every religion has their version of what happens when people transcend this mortal coil. Call it Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever moniker you like, the fact remains that we want to take everything with us when we leave. Unfortunately, we must travel light.
Grieving for what we no longer have is hard to deal with and for some insurmountable. We have all faced the death of someone close to us. It is inescapable, leaving us with a void and lingering pain when you can no longer talk to or hold that special person in your arms. For some, there is no closure because they never get to say goodbye to their beloveds. I was fortunate enough that when my mother was dying, I was able to tell her how much I loved her and I thanked her for everything she did for me. Part of that was letting go of her, willing her to move on and letting her know that I would be alright. She wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore. For me, What Dreams May Come was deeply personal. We try so hard in this realm to hold on to everything, status, wealth and people that we don’t know how to say so long when the time comes. But here is the beauty of it. All is not lost. We may lose that soul in this life but they are forever intertwined with ours through memories. Whenever we need them, we need only to look within to our hearts and they will always be by our side…