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by Jim Wunderle

"What Dreams May Come"

Directed by: Vincent Ward

Starring: Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra

Rated: PG-13

New Zealand director Vincent Ward is best known for the lush and dreamy settings of his films "Map of the Human Heart" and "Vigil" (which was the first film from New Zealand to be shown in competition at Cannes).

"What Dreams May Come" continues in the Ward tradition of hallucinatory landscapes, and the art direction/set design of this film is breathtaking. Backgrounds run the gamut from impressionism to the disturbing scenery of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and all are seamlessly integrated into the overall look of the film.

Besides the visual aspects, the story is rather "dreamy" as well, which will come as no surprise to fans of writer Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote some of the more memorable episodes of the Rod Serling TV masterpiece "The Twilight Zone" two of these were later remade in the four-segment movie.

Matheson is also responsible for one of the best made-for-TV horror films, "Trilogy of Terror." People may not remember the title, but no one ever forgets the scene where Karen Black is terrorized by an evil doll that has somehow come to life.

This was years before the "Chucky" movies, mind you. Matheson also wrote the eerie love story "Somewhere in Time," and it's this piece of work that is closest to his story in "What Dreams May Come."

The more cynical viewer is likely to compare this film to "Love Story" or "Ghost" (two movies I really didn't care for), but thanks to Matheson's top-notch craft as a fantasy writer and Ward's visual sensibilities, I think it's a pretty worthwhile effort in the metaphysical love-story genre.

The talents of folks like Robin Williams, the beautiful Annabella Sciorra and Max von Sydow also add to the film's overall quality.

I guess I should point out, after giving so much credit to Matheson, that the movie is based on one of his novels. Doing the screenplay honors is hot Hollywood script-man Ron Bass, who has written everything from "Rainman" to "My Best Friend's Wedding" to "The Joy Luck Club."

He is one of the bankable screenwriters currently on the Hollywood scene. In his work here, he seems to have stayed fairly true to Matheson's overall style.

Williams and Sciorra are Chris and Annie Neilsen, a couple with a seemingly perfect marriage. They honestly consider each other soul mates, have a couple of great kids, as well as satisfying employment. He's a doctor, she's a painter.

Anyone familiar with the movies knows that this kind of idyllic setting can only be a set-up for tragedy, and this film is no exception.

The kids get killed in a car wreck, and Annie sinks into a deep depression, but Chris manages to pull her out. That's fine. But then, Chris is also killed, and Annie is faced with living her life entirely alone.

We see her in a series of flashbacks, but most of the film takes place in Chris Neilsen's self-created afterlife. He's in his own heaven and is guided through his new surroundings by a helpful angel (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and some other folks who appear when the need arises.

When Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, his grief is overcome by the thought of spending eternity with his soul mate, but he soon learns that the afterlife has a different place for suicides than the place where Chris has come. Chris decides that eternal happiness just can't be achieved without his true love, and he takes off to hell to find, and redeem, Annie.

When in paradise, the surroundings are reminiscent of paintings by the likes of Renoir and Botticelli. It's beautiful stuff. Things get really interesting, and decidedly darker, when Chris makes his trip to hell.

Bosch's masterpiece "The Garden of Earthly Delights," will come immediately to mind, but there are some other frightening images as well. For me, the most disturbing one is the sea of faces, stuck in some kind of hellish mud, which Chris must cross in his quest for his wife.

There's really not a lot of brimstone (as if I'd know what brimstone actually looked like) or gnashing of teeth in this vision of hell, but one does get an uneasy sense of melancholy and chaos.

It may be too manipulative for some tastes, but the visual imagery captivated me, and I think the human need to believe that we'll somehow see our loved ones "on the other side" gives the storyline of "What Dreams May Come" an innate appeal.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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