HD DVD Title: What Dreams May Come
Screen format: 1080P 2.35:1VC-1 Encoded High Definition
First theatrical release: October 2, 1998
Previously released on DVD/BluRay: Multiple including a THX rated anamorphic Widescreen DVD on March 4, 2003
Director: Vincent Ward
Starring: Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra, Max Von Sydow
Sound Formats: English & French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Length: 1 Hour 54 Minutes
Subtitles: English & French
Chris Nielsen (Williams) leaves behind widow Annie (Sciorra) after he is tragically killed just a few short years after death of both of their children. Annie, who had only just begun to cope with that loss, takes her own life in her grief. Chris is welcomed to his afterlife by a former colleague (Gooding), and initiates a journey to save Annie from her own personal hell so that they can spend eternity together through the help of a mysterious seeker (Von Sydow). Chris will need to face elements of his own life in order to save Annie, and will need to confront the choices he made and the failures he felt responsible for.
While it remains perhaps the most depressing movie I have ever watched, What Dreams May Come did surprise me with some of its qualities during this second viewing. First, viewed on a big screen, the artistry of the afterlife comes through with significantly more emotional impact than I picked up from my original exposure and the very active surround mix also add to the overwhelming punch. Second, because I wasn't struggling to understand the 'rules' of this version of the afterlife the way I was during my first run, I could focus on the story and artistry much more than trying to keep up with Chris's quest.
In the end however, this remains a very simple and somewhat linear story, and one I was never 'hooked' by. I salute the cast and crew for dealing with the dark subject matter by utilizing such innovative and impressive technology and for somehow giving this very depressing film an ending that manages to be upbeat, but it simply never captured me, and, if it were not for the opportunity to do this review, it would not have been a film I would have gone back to a second time. I wasn't really interested in the history of Chris and Annie, and that really didn't change over course of the movie as their little secrets and quirks were revealed. While the artistry of the set pieces and the superb sonic surroundings are most impressive, they weren't enough to salvage a story I just never found reason to deeply care about.
Sound Quality: 4.5/5
As noted above, the surround mix of Dreams is spectacularly engaging, especially during the 'rescue' parts of Chris's afterlife journey. As gravity does not work the same way in the hereafter, visual elements and characters are constantly swooping all around the 360 degree sound field, and pan with a palpable presence. The low end is especially noteworthy during these sweeps, as the lost souls and guardians of Hell have very aggressive and evil sounding, guttural roars and thunderous wails and moans while surrounded by lakes of fire.
Musically, the vast majority of the film is held down by the dreamy and melancholy orchestral works of Michael Kamen. While there are some stirring tracks during the heights of Chris's rescue efforts, for the most part the score matches the very airy and depressing themes of the film. All are very well positioned throughout the full range of speakers and bass presence is very prevalent.
Visual Quality: 4/5
I expected that Dreams would be a natural fit to High definition and for the most part I was correct. Detail levels are off the charts, especially in the wide shots of the surreal landscapes that Chris and Annie jointly create in their mind's eyes. However, just as I noted that facial details do not match the otherwise stellar image quality of Universal's recent release of "The Bourne Identity", Dreams has an even bigger gap. Perhaps it's simply the layers of the principle actor's makeup or soft focus lenses for those shots, but it's hard not to be jarred by the difference in look.
As expected, color rendition and palette are very pleasing, although I sense there is still room for improvement, as I wasn't as blown away as I had hoped. Similarly, the film stock itself has not been perfectly preserved; I noted a lot of damage that appeared as occasional pops and scratches that were most obvious when they occurred in darker elements. Sharpness was dead on and I never saw any evidence of edge enhancement, excessive noise, or other artifacts that would have been introduced in the transfer process. I believe this to be a very faithful transfer that, unfortunately captured a few of the analogue warts along the way.
Extra Features: 2.5/5
There is a feature length commentary which I did not listen in on, but other than that there's not a whole lot to get excited about. The heart of the extras (all of which were shoveled off of the THX DVD version) is "The Making of What Dreams May Come". While very interesting, especially regarding the book's 20 year hiatus while waiting for technology to be capable of matching Author Richard Matheson's vision, is very badly presented. The video quality is sub par and sound levels are all over the place.
Also included is an alternate ending which I won't discuss to avoid spoilers, a short segment on the video effects, and a collection of production stills. Again, filler and not great filler at that.
Overall: 3/5 (not an average)
I beleive Most HTF members are likely to be impressed with the technical merits of this film but the question remains whether that will be enough to satisfy most viewers. While this disk features top rate video and audio content, the movie itself was nothing I cared for and the mediocre set of extras drags the whole down into the middle of the pack.