Dream Day - What Dreams May Come

What dreams may come

There's a quote at the bottom of our website at The DreamCage which comes from a film. Nate McKenzie looks back at that film, What Dreams May Come...

I remember being quite taken by What Dreams May Come when I saw it as a sophomore in high school. Before this past week, I don't think I had watched it since then. Sometimes films leave a better impression as a memory than they do upon re-watching.

What Dreams May Come is the story of Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams, a paediatrician who suffers the unbearable tragedy of his two young children being killed in an automobile accident. The pain of that tragedy effects his wife heavily, causing a mental breakdown. Chris buries himself in work to keep from following the same path. That is, until he is killed in a car accident as well. Arriving in his own personal version of Heaven, Chris is forced to confront his mortality, and furthermore, the mortality of those around him. This conflict results in a journey into the bowels of the underworld and Hell itself.

"What Dreams May Come" is a reference to a famous scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Most will recognize the more famous lines from Act 3, Scene 1, known conventionally as the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy:

"To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause..."

The film is adapted from Richard Matheson's 1978 novel of the same name. I will admit, I was not aware of that fact. Matheson also wrote the short story I Am Legend (a personal favorite) and Stir of Echoes, as well as the short story that served as the source of the most famous Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. No wonder What Dreams May Come is so brilliantly written, even if it was changed some from source to screen.

As a film, What Dreams had mixed reviews and I completely understand why. As I said, a memory of a film is sometimes better than the film itself.

This is not one of those instances.


Full of imagery and a stunning palette of colors, What Dreams is as beautiful to watch as the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When Chris first finds himself in Heaven, it's reminiscent of the moment Dorothy wakes up in the technicolor world of Oz. Colors blaze, senses tingle. The nods to Dante (the ship named Cerberus) and background references to Peter Pan and Mary Poppins (flying in the Heaven-like city) give the mind a subtle nudge towards something familiar while creating a completely new vision for the afterlife. The idea is that what we imagine is often instrumental in manifesting what comes to be.

There are definitely flaws though. Some cliche moments caused me to cringe: the corny beginning, the "light at the end of the tunnel" when Chris dies, and the fact that Robin Williams looks distinctly like John Gruden in the movie. Also, there was the fact that the character of Chris Nielsen is a toned-down, alternate-dimension version of Williams' Patch Adams (which was released just two months later). But the thing that bothered me the most in the film was the random bits of humor thrown in.

You can use humor in a dramatic film (like in Patch Adams for example) but you have to use it sparingly, and in the right moments. At one point, Chris is traversing a "sea of faces" in hell while the faces make jokes that feel and sound like they are spare voice-over bits from a Jim Henson production. You can practically hear Stadtler and Waldorf saying "Being a disembodied head isn't half bad!" "No, it's all bad!" Those types of little quips steal something from otherwise good scenes, and an overall wonderful film.

Throughout What Dreams May Come, the feeling dread plays a major role. But fear isn't what the film is about. It's about selflessness; giving up yourself to save someone you love. It is about overcoming fear. Courage isn't the absence of fear, it is the ability to control fear and use it for your benefit.Chris uses his fear of spending an eternity without his soulmate to finally let go of the life he no longer has. The romantic battle for love is a powerful theme in What Dreams May Come, but it has multiple layers that didn't resonate with me until I re-watched it.

I remember trying to stay "cool" and not cry when I saw this movie in the theater with my high school girlfriend. She was the very definition of aloof and cool. I had teeth marks in my tongue and lip from biting back tears for two days afterward.

Re-watching the film as a 35 year old guy with my current girlfriend, I didn't hide the fact that it made me cry. Hell, she was crying an entire River Styx on the couch beside me. Before, as a teenager with a romanticized view of love, and an optimistic outlook on the future of my love life, tears flowed for the connection that Chris and Annie Nielsen. This time, what really stung was the scene in which Chris speaks at his son's funeral:

There's a man Ian never got to know, the man he was growing up to be. He's a good-looking clear-eyed fella... about 25. I can see him. He's the type of guy men want to be around, because he has integrity, you know ? He has character. You can't fake that. And he's a guy women want to be around, too. Because there's tenderness in him... respect... and loyalty, and courage. And women respond to that. Makes him a terrific husband, this guy. I see him as a father. That's where he really shines. See, when he looks in his kid's eyes and that kid knows that his dad really, really sees him... he sees who he is. Then that child knows that he is an amazing person. He's quite a guy... that I'll never get to meet. I wish I had.

As a father myself (of a little boy, no less), that is a gut-wrenching scene. The death of a child is not new territory for a drama, but few times have I seen a film that explains the pain as well that scene does. Physical pain is easy to master, adrenaline gives us that ability. Pain in the mind is virtually irreparable. The pain of losing a child? I can't imagine how I would come back from that. Like Albert says to Chris, "Thought is real; Physical is the illusion."

Follow Nate on Twitter @WriteMyWrong

Image - IMDb