"A whole family lost to car crashes. Enough to make a person buy a bike."
Few filmmakers can honestly be called visionaries. While there are plenty of talented directors who can shoot beautiful photography, rare are those who actually see the very nature of the medium differently than it has ever been used before, who create indelible images that burn into a viewer's subconscious. With only a small handful of movies to his credit, none of them big box office draws, New Zealander Vincent Ward nonetheless falls into that category. The director initially made a small splash on the art house scene with his 1988 film The Navigator, about a group of medieval English villagers fleeing from the Black Plague who dig a tunnel so deep that it leads all the way to the 20th Century. He followed that in 1993 with Map of the Human Heart, an epic romance spanning from the Artic Circle to the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Both pictures are haunting and poetic, and tell their stories through unforgettable imagery.
Ward's most ambitious project to date was his 1998 afterlife drama What Dreams May Come, an adaptation of the novel by Richard Matheson. Backed by a sizable budget and an A-list star, the film takes the religious and philosophical themes that had been simmering beneath the surface of his earlier works and makes them overt, utilizing some amazing visual effects talent to envision the wonders of Heaven and Hell (in a rather non-denominational way). The result is frequently breathtaking to look at, but unfortunately also demonstrates the limitations of visual genius when conflicted with the demands of conventional Hollywood storytelling. To put it bluntly, the movie is kind of dopey.
In the lead role, Robin Williams delivers one of those hangdog performances that come out when he's trying very hard to show off how restrained he can be. He stars as Chris Nielsen, a kindly doctor and family man whose life is left a shambles after his two perfect children are killed in a car accident and his artist wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) sinks into suicidal depression. When things just don't look like they could possibly get any worse, Chris is himself killed in a spectacular car wreck. Don't worry, that's not a plot spoiler; this all happens in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Obviously, that's not the last we'll see of him. After getting used to the idea that he's dead, Chris lingers around long enough to watch his funeral and then heads off through that tunnel of light, leading to a vision of Heaven unlike anything previously put to film. As it's explained to him, each person's Heaven is what they want it to be, and Chris' imagination transports him into a tremendous three-dimensional rendering of one of his wife's Impressionist paintings, complete with moving, swirling brushstrokes and all sorts of gorgeous eye-popping colors. It's truly a wondrous visual, especially in the ways that the characters interact physically with their surreal surroundings.
Eventually Chris will expand outwards to visit other personal Heavens, all grounded in the celestial iconography of classical artwork (it stands to reason that if Heaven is whatever you think it should be, a lot of people would naturally expect it to fit into their preconceived notions). When word comes that his wife has killed herself, he feels a moment of hope that they will soon be reunited, quickly dashed when told that suicides go straight to Hell. Determined to be with his "soul mate", much like the Greek myth of Orpheus' quest to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, Chris will journey to the bowels of Hell (the imagery for which is lifted directly from Dante's Inferno and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch) to rescue Annie from eternal torment.
Building off so much foundation in classical literature and art, what exactly is wrong with the movie? Unfortunately, the screenplay by Ron Bass (Rain Man, Stepmom) mixes too much silly New Age treacle with overdone Christian symbolism and never quite comes up with a convincing theology of its own. Where exactly is God in all of this? Chris asks this precisely once, but the question is simply brushed off. Despite the familiarity of many of its depictions of Heaven and Hell (illuminated cities in the clouds above, fire and brimstone below), the script refuses to pin itself to any one religion, for fear of offending all the others. Even more annoying is the use of Cuba Gooding Jr. as a character type I call the "Mr. Spiritual Helper Guy", a friendly guide who introduces Chris to the afterlife and explains to him (and more importantly to the audience) the rules of this universe. And explains. And explains. And explains. It's a terribly hackneyed device, insulting to the audience's intelligence, worsened by the fact that it's used not once but twice in the movie; Gooding's character eventually passes Chris off to Max von Sydow to do more of the same. Also problematic are the sappiness of the central love story, the lack of chemistry between Williams and Sciorra, and the fact that the story drags on about half an hour longer than it needs to.
Still, as deeply flawed as it may be, What Dreams May Come offers more visual wonderment than any ten other films combined. Sadly, the studio (Polygram at the time) didn't promote it very effectively, and the movie was a box office dud that's been largely forgotten. Ward's only subsequent film, 2005's River Queen, couldn't even get a theatrical release in North America, a terrible shame for such a talented artist.
The HD DVD:
What Dreams May Come has been released on the HD DVD format by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). If you should pause or fast-forward/rewind the movie during playback, a timeline meter will appear on screen to tell you how far along you are.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The What Dreams May Come HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
I'll be honest that I was worried about how this disc would look. Though the movie is beautifully photographed, Universal hasn't had a very good track record with many of their catalog titles, recycling older video masters originally prepared for DVD, which in this case would date back all the way to 1999. Plus, the DVD master was THX certified, a warning sign for almost certain edge enhancement problems. With much relief, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. If not quite perfect, this is a respectable High-Def transfer and a better-than-average looking catalog release.
The picture is a little soft, but that's probably just the nature of the photography. Detail is pretty good throughout, enough so that you can see Annabella Sciorra's fillings (what, people still have dental problems even in heaven?). The contrast range is perhaps a bit too light, but not enough to be distracting. Mild film grain is present, mostly well rendered though occasionally a touch noisy. There is a small amount of edge ringing, fortunately quite minor for the most part, except for a couple of particularly bad patches. That said, the problem is certainly a lot less severe than I was expecting.
All things considered, this is a nice, film-like and very stable image. The explosion of digitally-manipulated colors in the Heaven scenes is truly gorgeous in High Definition. The disc does justice to the movie's wonderful imagery, and I am very grateful for that.
The What Dreams May Come HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. It's not the most action-packed sound mix, but Michael Kamen's score has some nice envelopment and warmth. Dialogue is clear and sound effects are cleanly rendered. Surround usage is modest, mostly ambience until things perk up during the (very aggressive) trip to Hell. Other than a little bit of thunder, bass doesn't extend too deeply. Like the video, I wouldn't call the soundtrack reference quality, but it's nicely presented and I have no serious complaints.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English captions for the hearing impaired, or French.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition. All of the video supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Missing from the DVD are some cast & crew bios, text production notes, and DVD-Rom features (a copy of the screenplay and some screensavers).
- Director's Commentary - Unlike most commentaries which are chatty in tone, director Vincent Ward sounds very much like he's reading a prepared essay while the movie plays. Nevertheless, aside from a few gaps it's an interesting and informative discussion of the technical elements, history of the production, and "spiritual journey" of making the film.
- Featurette: What Dreams May Come (15 min., SD) -Standard EPK fluff focusing on the story, cast, visual effects, and some behind-the-scenes footage. For some reason, the audio for this piece is severely muffled.
- Alternate Ending (7 min., SD) - Honestly, I'm not in love with the way the movie ends now, being a little too cutesy for my taste. But this different twist is way too long and talky, and just doesn't work at all.
- Visual Effects Notes (5 min., SD) - Interviews with visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek and art director Josh Rosen, both explaining how famous 19th Century paintings were recreated as 3D CGI.
- Photo Gallery - A pretty decently-sized gallery of photos and artwork divided into categories for: Production Art, Earth, Paradise, Hell, and Heaven. This being such a visually intensive movie, the stills are surprisingly interesting to look at.
- Trailers (6 min., SD) - Two trailers, both in awful quality non-anamorphic letterbox format and featuring cheesy narration by the "In a world..." guy. The trailers are also both extremely similar to one another.
What Dreams May Come is a flawed but fascinating work by a talented artist. Its imagery shines in High Definition. Even if not my favorite of Vincent Ward's films, I consider the fact that any of his movies would make their way to High-Def media at this still-early stage pretty remarkable, and I'll happily take what I can get. Recommended.
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