Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Dreams May Come

Published in EPPC Online on October 1, 1998



What Dreams May Come, directed by Vincent Ward from a screenplay by Ron Bass and based on the novel by Richard Matheson, is the Orpheus myth translated into Californian — with visuals by Caspar David Friedrich. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty close to being my idea of hell.

Not that hell as it appears here holds any permanent or even very scary terrors for us. The adorable Annie (Annabella Sciorra) is consigned to the nether, black-and-white regions because she committed suicide and must endure, briefly, the damp and cold of living in a ruin. But when the uxorious Christie (Robin Williams) determines to pursue her there, and bring her back to his technicolor Elysium, we can have no doubts as to the outcome — the more so as various officers of the heavenly bureaucracy, who have the confusing property of being several people at once, tell him that it is impossible for her to be retrieved.

Thus the would-be pathos of his saying that he will never again be able to bring her a meatball sub with extra sauce cannot outlive the moment it takes to say it. We know that this is not really going to be a weepie, and that this is a couple destined for eternal meatball subs with extra sauce in a Californian heaven where, their forgotten children entrusted to some celestial nanny, they can do — didn’t you just know it? — “anything you want.”

As Doc/Albert/Ian (Cuba Gooding Jr.) says: “If you’re aware you exist, then you do; that’s why you’re still here.” Or, as Annie puts it in a different context, “What’s true in our minds is true, whether some people know it or not.” Reality, in short, is entirely subjective. At one point Mr. Gooding Jr. hands Mr. Williams a suspiciously earthen mug, telling him: “Just think it’s coffee and it will be.” Now how do you suppose that works — even apart from the question of why he might need coffee in heaven? Who grows the beans? Who grinds and prepares them? Are there little pixie servants to boil the water and measure out the coffee? No, everything just happens with thinking about it. “Your brain is meat; it rots and disappears,” the all-knowing Doc/Albert/Ian tells Christie. “Thought is real; the physical is the illusion. Ironic isn’t it?”

No, what would be ironic, not to say paradoxical, is the phrase Hollywood thought. Or Hollywood seriousness. Or Hollywood realism. All we are left with are Hollywood fantasies of a heaven which is “big enough for everybody to have their own private universe” and where God, if He exists at all, is not to be found anywhere.

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