In the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus , a man descends to the underworld to retrieve his beloved.
Obviously this idea satisfies some very deep, basic need of the human psyche.
Based on the novel by acclaimed sci-fi author Richard Matheson , What Dreams... centers on the afterlife experience of Christy Nielsen (Robin Williams ), a pediatrician who with his painter wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra ) already has endured the deaths of a son and daughter in a car accident.
Now it's Christy's turn. Rendering assistance to the victims of a traffic pileup, he's struck by a car and wakes up at his own funeral, accompanied by a fuzzy figure named Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr. ), who tells him it’s time to move on.
Initially Christy prefers to hang around Earth comforting the mourning Annie; discovering that his hovering presence only makes her more miserable, he finally takes Albert's advice.
His heaven consists of an incredibly vivid Technicolor landscape, a sort of impressionist painting beneath a Van Gogh sky . In fact, says his angelic companion, everyone creates their own heaven; Christy's clearly is based on Annie's artwork.
Also on hand is the long-gone family dog, now returned to its youthful vitality. And eventually Christy will encounter his children, although they will have adopted new personas.
Back on Earth, Annie sinks into a deep depression and takes her own life. Christy looks forward to a reunion. But he's informed that suicides create their own afterlives: cold, gray environments of aching loneliness from which no one returns.
This is not what Christy wants to hear. Accompanied by a "tracker" (Max Von Sydow ) familiar with the nether regions of the afterworld, he ventures forth to rescue Annie.
Director Ward (The Navigator , Map of the Human Heart ) avoids overt silliness – Williams and Sciorra are so good at expressing, respectively, yearning and anguish that one cannot simply dismiss the film.
What most people recall about the movie is the massive physical production by designer Eugenio Zanetti , who samples Gustave Dore , Maxfield Parrish , illustrations from the Dinotopia books , rococo murals  and Venetian architecture .
These worlds are populated with spirits who float through the air or skip across water, dressed in faux Greek outfits a la Isadora Duncan  or in Victorian evening wear or, in the case of the Tracker, like some sort of medieval scholar or Trappist monk .
Sometimes these designs are hugely effective – hell is envisioned as a huge gray Gothic cathedral, upside down. Sometimes they're a bit silly, as with the gray-daubed souls who occupy Hades' suburbs and look like refugees from a Mad Max  flick.
From an esthetic point of view, What Dreams May Come boils down to this: Is the production itself so overwhelming that it buries the tale’s human elements?
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series .
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven  (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds  (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter  (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait  (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life  (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe  (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come  (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones  (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life  (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.