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Nashville Scene Heaven Can't Wait

A fantastic leap into the void

By Jim Ridley

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Vincent Ward's reach exceeds his grasp, and as it turns out, that's what heaven's for. The New Zealand director made a splash here in 1988 with The Navigator, a striking, ambitious time-travel fantasy that accomplished miracles on a minuscule budget. If Ward, using modest resources, could create a convincing medieval world and send its inhabitants across centuries, producers wondered what he could do with more cash.

In his hallucinatory 1993 epic Map of the Human Heart, he showed them. He set lovers adrift on the billowing folds of hot-air balloons; he compared a boy in trampolined flight to a map-maker's plane. The story--a sprawl that invoked Dickens, Rousseau, Jack London, and Kurt Vonnegut--was an unholy muddle. But Ward's images of flight and fury couldn't be chained by a clunky narrative. In his case, the overused term "visionary" was appropriate--his imagination seemed to seize him in fits and spells.

After such a jumbled fireworks display, there was nowhere for Ward to go but up--literally. In What Dreams May Come, an astonishing romantic fantasy set in the afterlife, Ward finally has the resources to give full vent to his outlandish, impractical gifts. He gets to go through hell and back, and there isn't a single phantasmagorical image left in his head when he returns. What Dreams May Come will strike a lot of people as the silliest thing they've ever seen, and not without reason--there's not a trace of restraint to be found in its foolhardy extravagance. But who wants restraint in heaven? Even at its most excessive, which is plenty, this is kitsch infused with real passion and emotion, as well as a moviemaker's delight at having such a huge playground.

Ward's previous films all involve a hero who ventures outside his insular world into a hostile, separate land that has the power to destroy him. Here, that hero is Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), who meets Annie (Annabella Sciorra), the love of his life, while boating on an Alpine lake. Their idyllic courtship and marriage is shattered by a series of tragedies--one of which removes Chris from his mortal coil. Even after death, however, Chris remains cruelly, tantalizingly tangible to Annie, so much so that to let her get on with living, he wills himself away from her into the blissful recesses of heaven. Only the idea works too well, and soon Chris must venture across the celestial void with a guide (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to save his disconsolate wife's soul.

What Dreams May Come was adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, whose fascination with higher planes of existence dates back at least as far as his script for 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man. In that underrated classic, the most cosmic and expansive of all 1950s sci-fi flicks, the hero shrinks to subatomic size and loses his home, his happy marriage, even his very form. Yet he takes consolation in the thought that he'll discover a new world--he'll merge with the infinite by becoming infinitesimal.

What Dreams May Come has the same sense of existential adventure, but it adds the lush romanticism of Matheson's novel Bid Time Return, which became the irresistibly gooey cult movie Somewhere in Time. It helps that Matheson, who wrote some of the best Twilight Zone episodes, is a born storyteller, which Ward isn't. The neat twists and turns of the tale, assembled skillfully by screenwriter Ron Bass, give the director a solid footing.

That leaves Ward free to indulge his every visual whim, and he does so with the help of cinematographer Eduardo Serra, production designer Eugenio Zanetti, and a phalanx of computer artists, painters, and special-effects men. In the movie's scheme, everyone devises his own heaven; since Chris is an art collector, he conjures a landscape that smudges French impressionism into Hudson River Valley theatrics, brush strokes and all. (He skids on the fresh paint.) Not since Powell and Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman has a movie employed a palette this unhinged: Thanks to CGI work, the reds and blues are so deeply saturated that you expect them to stain the screen.

Most every frame has been doctored or retouched somehow, and the effects are at once spectacular and charmingly goofy, as when the inhabitants of a celestial city skip through the air trailing scarves. Though initially odd, the look of each new passage makes sense once you learn whose heaven you're in, a gimmick that turns out to be surprisingly moving. The underworld is even crazier. With its sulfurous ruins and its hundreds of sword-waving extras lit by hellfire, it's like a cross between Bosch and a Smashing Pumpkins video, with the visual grandiloquence of Intolerance thrown in to boot.

The spiritual aspect is the movie's least satisfying part, especially when characters start trying to explain the nature of the great beyond. Ward's afterlife is a jumble of Christian and New Age notions, laid out along a geographical scheme cribbed from Greek mythology. However, when the characters lapse into Bass' sugary psycho/theobabble, you're strictly in the NutraSweet Hereafter. The movie raises lots of niggling little questions about the nuts and bolts of everlasting life, along with the curious suggestion that deism extends to heaven.

The love story, strangely enough, turns out to be the movie's strength. Robin Williams shows unexpected gravity as a romantic hero, and he has real chemistry with Annabella Sciorra, who's radiant in the early scenes and convincingly tormented as the story unfolds. For all the movie's stylistic flash, Ward never allows their soul mates' bond to be drowned out by digital mayhem; if anything, the fanciful imagery only adds to the movie's romantic spell.

And the director's obsessive temperament gives the movie genuine force. If his hero is willing to risk losing his soul to bring back the woman he loves, Ward is willing to match his emotional involvement, even if it means falling on his face. There's nothing timid about the insanely extravagant effects Vincent Ward pulls off in this strange but deeply affecting movie, and there shouldn't be: There's nothing timid about dreams or true love.

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