With their beckoning tunnels of light and stairways to heaven, soothing mantras of it’s-not-so-bad and it’s-never-too-late, New Age afterlife movies are primarily feel-good experiences, born of an understandable, even poignant need to not just demystify but rose-tint the unknown. Still, Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, a bottomless trough of mystic swill, is too confused to even fulfill the paradigm’s most basic requirements. At once light-headed and lugubrious, the film’s vision of the afterlife makes death even more of a frightful proposition.
What Dreams May Come opens, nauseatingly, with Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) meeting on a lake in the Alps, and quickly flashes forward to tragedy, killing off the couple’s two young children in a car crash. Cut to a few years hence, and Chris perishes in similar fashion. In the first sign that the film might have been conceived in the proximity of some king-size spliffs, Cuba Gooding Jr. then appears to the newly deceased Chris as a naked, out-of-focus smudge, turning pirouettes and spelling out the metaphysics of the great beyond in stubbornly unhelpful syllogisms. “If you’re aware you exist, then you still do. That’s why you’re here.”
If nothing else, afterlife movies can usually be counted on for a certain reductive clarity, reconfiguring matters of divine judgment and karmic payback in the reassuringly earthly vernacular of point systems and plea bargains. But in What Dreams May Come, a curiously laissez-faire philosophy applies: your heaven is what you make it (e.g., heaven is an oil painting, heaven is a purple tree, heaven is your daughter transmogrified into a Singaporean flight attendant—don’t ask). This is offset by ripples of old-school damnation (suicides go to hell), though, as it turns out, Annie’s version of hell (yes, she kills herself) is a dilapidated mansion containing nothing more traumatizing than cobwebs.
In the complete absence of romantic sparks, the film’s love-is-stronger-than-death theme never really stands a chance. Sciorra is bland and particularly susceptible to the fits of hysterical cackling that, under Ward’s direction, signify Happy Times (maybe those spliffs were on hand again) and Williams, never more dreadful than when serious, resorts to the crinkly-faced simpering that passes for restraint in his book. Ward and screenwriter Ron Bass’s attempts to bridge the plot chasms mainly consist of blinding bursts of white light and flashbacks that involve the once-happy family cavorting in a garden. The over-the-top production design—phantasmagorical without ever conveying a hint of wonder or enchantment—is as flamboyantly moronic as the film deserves.
Alongside the gaudy, incoherent mise-en-scène of What Dreams May Come, the microscopic microcosm of Antz seems even more immaculate and imaginative. DreamWorks’s first animated feature (like Toy Story, entirely computer-generated) is a film of small, transient pleasures, diminished slightly by the clunkiness with which it wields it pat, Disney-esque self-determination moral.
Z, the innocently rebellious worker ant who sparks a colony-wide revolt, is distinctively voiced by Woody Allen, and the filmmakers signal their intent to run the casting coup/ gimmick into the ground by opening with Z on a couch talking to his shrink about abandonment issues. Sharon Stone provides the voice of the love interest, a haughty princess, and Gene Hackman is the villain, a soldier ant with genocidal tendencies. Matching their superbly expressive computer-generated counterparts, the actors are all enjoyably hammy, but the real star of Antz is the art direction, a marvel of teeming detail wittier and more sophisticated than the script.