“I think it was the most important book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive.” – author Richard Matheson
This film has been adored more by educated non-movie people than it has been with critics. What Dreams May Come (1998) is a visually astonishing creation of Earth, Heaven and Hell by overlooked filmmaker Vincent Ward (“Map of the Human Heart”). By creating a paint-bucket heaven that smudges, smears, and puddles, the film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Equally amazing are its trenches of hell, like two of Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 films “Shame” or “Hour of the Wolf” but with… expensive special effects.
Why did I look back at “Dreams” this week? I did because it is based on the novel by Richard Matheson who passed away this week at the age of 87 years old. He founded a number of sci-fi/fantasy projects that were new, original creations and trendsetters. His most popular work “I Am Legend” was made into three different adaptations, one starring Will Smith. At its time of publication, it was among the first of the zombie stories, popularizing the genre.
“Dreams” is on a deeper level. It covers a lot of ground in just 12-minutes, hitting high and low notes. First-meet, love, marriage, children – then untimely death (later flashbacks retrace their lives). It’s also a film that believes in reincarnation and past lives. After having already lost their two children, Robin Williams, the father Chris Nielsen, dies while being a good Samaritan. The wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) is so stricken with depression that she cannot bear to go on. Suicides, however, go straight to Hell. Chris, in Heaven, must make his passage to Hell to bring his wife out of eternal damnation. Losing his mind, and succumbing to the pangs of Hell is a risk he will have to take, the angels tell him.
Ward and Matheson are sharing a cinematic vision. I believe they have the idea, or fancy, that in Heaven, people can be whomever they want to be – that it grows out of an individual’s imagination. “Hell is for who don’t know they’re dead,” observes Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.). The Tracker (Max von Sydow), the scribe who can direct Chris in his journey, tells Chris that he will likely not make it.
Of course, it is an inspirational fable about bravery and true love. A man loves a wife, and refuses to give up on her — risking his soul to eternal damnation to save hers before she is lost in an eternal void. There’s something a little dopey about his refusal to give up, but “Dreams” has been made with great passion and sincerity. The novel is known for its scientific approach while the movie is cinematically vivid and emotional. The dialogue is occasionally sappy, albeit life-embracing. To counteract that, there is homage to Faust, and most particularly to Dante’s Inferno: “For in that sleep what dreams may come… When we have shuffled off this mortal coil… Must give us pause.”
Why didn’t critics at large embrace this film? Perhaps because most critics feel sappiness doesn’t belong in the movies, nor anywhere in real life. To me, that’s anti-spiritual and close-mindedness.
113 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SPIRITUAL DRAMA / INSPIRATIONAL / WEEKEND TRANCE-OUT
Film Cousins: “Somewhere in Time” (1980); “Made in Heaven” (1987); “Map of the Human Heart” (1993, New Zealand); “After Life” (1998, Japan).