Dreams May Come, a film directed by Vincent Ward, with a screenplay by Ron Bass, shows visually the mental images of characters in the film through the afterlife universes that they create for themselves. The aim of the film is signaled by its title, a quote from Hamlet's famous Act III 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" (Ham. 3.1.10-12). Thus, the film provides a vision of what the life after death may hold. While following the struggles of Chris Nielsen to adapt to his private afterlife universe, the film heavily relies on the technique of presenting mental images visually, often in very creative and striking ways. The character Doc, who functions as Chris' guardian angel, expresses the basic philosophical stance of the film. In response to Chris' confusion about the contradictory nature of his afterlife universe, Doc explains, "Isn't it ironic? Thought is real and the physical is the illusion." Through its use of mental visualizations, "What Dreams May Come" is a concrete representation of the idealist philosophy, namely, nothing is real but our minds and our ideas (Russell, 22).
The first representation of this philosophy is the way that Chris must come to face his death and, most importantly, the fact that he still exists without the use of his physical body. This is done visually using the very traditional technique of the character being visually present in the physical world to the movie viewer but not to those still in the physical world, that is, a "ghost." This movie goes one step further in that Chris himself cannot see the inhabitants of the afterlife, showing them as blurred figures until he comes to terms with his new state. Although Annie, Chris' wife, cannot see him after his death, there are tantalizing clues that she is somehow in tune with both her husband and the afterlife itself.
Such clues of Annie's possible connection include her seeming reactions to the presence of Chris' "ghost" and her paintings of figures using the same blurry visualization as the representation of Doc during Chris' transition. Perhaps Annie has some sort of innate ability to see the dead in this blurry, transitory form, although she may not realize what she is seeing. One of the most striking examples of the after death connection between husband and wife is when Annie "spirit writes" the message that Chris is trying to get to her, "I still exist." Spirit writing, also known as automatic writing or pneumatology, is allegedly visible writing from spirits (Brewer, 1245). Some say that such writing is when "an entity from another realm brings messages" (Crystal, par. 1). In "What Dreams May Come," the spirit writing is the visual representation of what Chris must realize about himself and the expression of that idea through his spiritual connection to his wife.
Once Chris realizes that he cannot continue torturing his wife, he leaves the physical world behind. To visually express this, the director uses the very traditional view of an uphill walk through a tunnel ending in a bright light. This tunnel is an extremely common representation of what those who have had near death experiences say they see, and may be connected to how the brain perceives oxygen deprivation. In any case, the heaven that Chris arrives at is one of the most inventive visual aspects of the film. Chris' heaven is inside a painting that his wife had done of the lake where the two had met in the opening scenes. When Chris first arrives, the world is more painting than substance, its colors literally bleeding off onto his hands and feet. But as Chris become more and more aware of his place in this new world, and his ability to mentally control it, it becomes gradually more solid and less painting-like.
The issue of mental control of the painting world is both the strongest and the weakest expression of the philosophy of idealism in the film. It is the strongest expression when Chris is exploring the possibilities of his new world, changing the color and actions of a peacock-like inhabitant through his mind alone. Later, the bird does launch a vibrant green dropping on Chris' shoulder, visually foreshadowing that the control may be illusionary. Fulfilling this warning, Chris has a complete lack of mental control when he tries to bring a young Annie into his world.
This is a problem, given the premise that only thought and not physical state is real in this world. Interestingly, Doc scolds Chris for his attempts, stating "fantasies aren't what you need." However, given that fantasies are merely mental ideas, which should by definition be real in this world, the filmmakers are going against their own rules of the universe. This was likely justified by the need to create and maintain conflict, but it remains a weak link in the film's expression of idealism.
Beyond being the universe of Chris' heaven, the painting also serves as a visual representation of the connection between Chris and Annie. It is the visual expression of "two souls tuned into each other, reaching through the painting."
Annie's unusual connection to Chris and the afterlife emphasized in the appearance in Chris' world of a purple tree that Annie has added to the painting in her physical world studio. When Annie ruins the tree with paint thinner, the tree in Chris' heaven loses its purple leaves. The appearance and behavior of the tree surprises Doc, as it breaks the "rules" for heaven. The ability of Chris and Annie's love to alter these fundamental rules is further indication of its strength and uniqueness.
When Chris first meets Doc, as his guide to help introduce him to his heaven, the character is literally walking on water. This is the first indication that Doc is someone for whom Chris has great respect, that is, this man "walks on water." This ability takes on further meaning when Chris attempts to follow Doc. He is immediately plunged into the murky depths, a visual representation of mental confusion, lack of focus, and uncertainty that is a repeated visual theme throughout the film.
As Chris slogs on the lake's bottom, through Doc's urging, Chris comes to the realization that in order for him to exist in this world he must be aware of his existence. In other words, only through the thought of awareness does it become real, another clear expression of the idealism philosophy. Once Chris understands this, he rises up to the surface and can walk on water with his guide.
An additional use of visualization in this film is the ability of people to appear as they want to appear after their deaths. This leads to several interesting twists in the movie. First, Chris has his first travel outside his own universe into a world that is the copy of a dream-like paper sculpture that was Marie's, his daughter. His guide to this world is a beautiful Asian woman, Leona. After touring the wonder of this other universe, with it flying mermaids and its dreamy inhabitants in Victorian dress, Chris learns that the only way he could've come here is to have "shared a common vision" with the person who created this heaven. Eventually it is revealed that Leona is truly his dead daughter, who had taken on that form because of a chance comment of his to about the grace, beauty, and intelligence of Asian women. He tries to explain to her that it isn't only Asian women that hold that fascination for him, but it is too late, she has taken this form to please him. This visualization is a representation of Chris' ambivalence about being a father. Later in the film, when revealed to her mother and father together, Marie adopts the form she had in the physical world, perhaps indicating that both Chris and Annie had come to terms with the responsibilities and potential risks of parenthood.
This visualization technique is also used to disguise Ian, Chris' son. Doc leads Chris throughout the movie, teaching him of the ways of heaven and eventually leading him into hell in order to try to rescue his mother after her suicide and damnation, echoing the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Immediately before Chris, Doc, and "a tracker," a character whose physical appearance is that of Annie's psychiatrist, descend into hell, Doc reveals that he is actually Ian. He had chosen this form to talk to his father because his former mentor, Dr. Albert Lewis, "was the only man that he [Chris] would listen to." The fact that Chris and Ian are going into hell together echoes a statement made by Chris in a flashback that his son would be the one who would chose to go with "to *****ing hell and back." Contrary to appearances, that is precisely what happens. When Ian does leaves "the tracker" and Chris at…