THREE STARS – Engaging

 It would be expected that a film overtly dealing with the spiritual question of life after death would catch our attention.  As spiritual and social commentators on film, we join the vast majority of humans who have ever lived in believing in some form of after-life existence. 

       But the questions every thoughtful person asks are many:  If I continue beyond death, what will determine the joy or the sorrow of such an existence?  Is it based on the decisions I made in this life, or may I continue to make choices in the life to come?  Is there a heaven and a hell, or is there a repetitive cycle of reincarnated lives?  Will we know our loved ones or will they have new and unrecognizable forms?  And most importantly, is God guiding this process or are humans still struggling to find their own salvation?

       “What Dreams May Come” tries to answers YES to all of the above.

       Rather than choosing to present the specific beliefs of Christianity, Hinduism, New Age, Humanism or any other specific religious view, the film has a little bit for everyone, even for those who hope that their pets will join them in the afterlife.

       Though this religious smorgasbord has some mesmerizing special effects with equally beautiful and haunting images, it lacks any cohesive belief system which will satisfy either the mind or the spirit of its viewers.

       The story centers around Chris and Annie Nielsen (Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra).   Having met and immediately fallen in love, it becomes clear that for these “soul mates,” their union continues beyond the grave.  Their romantic and spiritual bond is presented as the “savior” that makes their eventual reunion possible.

       Having suffered the tremendous loss of their children in an automobile accident, it is Chris’ love for Annie which brings her out of a debilitating depression caused by her belief that she is responsible for their death.

       In a similar way, when Chris is also killed by an automobile accident while on an errand for her, Annie once more blames herself and takes her own life in her despair.

       This suicide imprisons Annie in a torment of her own creation in the afterlife.  Appropriately named as the Christ figure, it is Chris (who she calls Christy) who comes and saves her.  They then return to heaven only to decide to reincarnate once more on earth in order to find each other and fall in love all over again.

       This is only one of many uncomfortable aspects of the film.

       The love of a man and a woman is a beautiful reflection of God’s love for us and is a mutually reinforcing catalyst to spiritual growth.  But to imagine that romantic love binds two souls together in such a way that one can go into hell and become the other’s savior is a fallacy approaching idolatry.

       Heaven, whatever else it means, is a place of God’s care.  The heaven portrayed in this film seems to religate God to some distant place, neither offering healing comfort or any sense of joy.  Left to themselves, heaven becomes nothing more than a dream to represent our own desires. 

       The fact that Chris and Annie neither know God nor find the heaven of their creation satisfying and, therefore, decide to be reincarnated, is endemic of the weakness of the film’s view of spiritual completion in the afterlife.

       Although the film is opulent in colors, symbolism and archetypal images of heaven and hell, the individualistic nature of heaven is also disconcerting.

       To imagine a heaven in which Chris lives within the paintings of his wife and the classics is a wonderful visual feast.  But to really dream of one day creating a heaven of our own individualistic dreams is to clearly misunderstand the community of love for which we are all created.

       Christian imagery does not imagine individualistic heavens of private bliss, but an eternal community of all those who love God and love others.  The thought of spending eternity alone, regardless of the beauty of the natural surroundings, would be a hell far more empty than that portrayed as the “shipwrecked” communities and sea of hopeless faces in this film’s hell.

       “What Dreams May Come” is an eclectic attempt to picture the life beyond life for which we are all preparing.  That it is only an extension of the same struggles, fears and dreams of this life robs all of us of a greater vision of where we are going and who awaits us.

Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 3 STARS, ENGAGING.