I watched What Dreams May Come in the cinema when it was first released in 1998. At the time I thought it was revolutionary. I had been studying life beyond the physical dimension for the previous two years or so, and the movie conveyed many powerful insights about death and consciousness beyond the physical that corresponded with my newly found understanding. In my youthful naivety I felt sure the movie was the beginning of a mainstream embrace of life after death, and I recall leaving the cinema feeling very exited about this inevitable enlightened future.
Almost 20 years later, the revolution has not come; understanding or even acceptance of life after death is still not commonplace. But there have been definite shifts in the mainstream approach to spiritual matters, with people moving away from conventional religious dogmas and instead exploring experience-based understandings of multidimensional life. And I can only imagine popular movies like What Dreams May Come and others since (e.g. Sixth Sense, Ghost Town, Passengers, The Others) have played some role in getting us thinking and talking about what might lie beyond our current life.
Recently I shared this movie with my children. I still enjoyed it, but I now notice some aspects that leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable and that is what prompted this review. Before I get to that here is a quick synopsis.
Robin Williams plays Chris, a medical doctor who falls in love with Annie (Annabella Sciorra) against the romantic backdrop of the Alps. A jump in time takes us to the US with Chris and Annie now married with a teenage son and daughter. Tragically their children are killed in a car crash. Some years later Chris too dies in an accident. And this is where the story introduces us to the non-physical dimensions of experience.
Chris’s difficulties in adjusting to life after death are powerfully and tangibly conveyed. He struggles to accept that he has died and does not want to let go of Annie who is in deep mourning. So he remains close to home trying to make her notice him. Even though she cannot see him, she senses his energies. But not having an understanding of the survival of consciousness this does not comfort her, as Chris would wish, but only increases her grief and makes her feel like she is going crazy. Supported by his helper Albert (Cuba Gooding Jnr), Chris eventually leaves her and finally finds himself in the actual extraphysical dimension. At first he is in his own personal dimension, created by his thoughts. This, Albert explains, is to allow him to adjust. Slowly he learns that physical laws don't apply to him anymore, that he can fly and travel at the speed of his thoughts. Eventually, Albert helps Chris to go beyond and meet some other old friends who had died before him. None of these people appear as they did on earth, a fact that accurately reflects the ability of our extraphysical body (psychosoma) to assume forms based on our intentions, and is cleverly used to dramatic effect in the movie.
Meanwhile the trauma of losing both children and husband has become too great for Annie and she kills herself. When Albert informs Chris of this he is excited, believing that he will now get to see her. He is outraged to learn that suicides do not come to the same dimensions as everybody else. Instead, Albert informs him, they end up in their own private hells, created by their self-centred obsessive thoughts that cut them off from contact with others for an eternity.
Inspired by his love for Annie, Chris is determined to track her done in this hell of hers and bring her back to the shared extraphysical reality.
It is this key part of the story line, the rescue of Annie, that misrepresents extraphysical reality enough to have inspired this review. In the movie, Albert explains emphatically that suicides are different, they cannot be saved. No one has ever brought one back. Chris stubbornly responds that no one has ever shared the bond that he and Annie share. Ultimately the rescue only takes place because of Chris’s insistence, against the advice of not only Albert but another helper he meets, and because Chris is prepared to sacrifice himself to meet Annie, that is he is ready to fully enter into her hellish mental states, to lose himself so he can stay with her for ever. This act of deep compassion is a powerful part of the story and a moving example of self-less service by meeting another in their deepest suffering. But the focus on this deeply personal and individualised love does a disservice to the profound system of love and support that exists in the extraphysical dimensions. This system is completely independent of personal romantic attachments. There are many extraphysical dimensions set up entirely to provide support to extraphysical consciousnesses in deep suffering and myriads of non-physical consciousnesses who dedicate their energies to retrieving “suicides” and others caught in their own mental hells. What drives them is not personalised romantic love, but the more impersonal love that is inspired by an awareness of the unity of consciousness and a deep yearning to contribute to the evolutionary processes that guide all actions in the more evolved dimensions of existence.
Perhaps by focusing on the romantic connection between Chris and Annie, What Dreams May Come is using a relationship dynamic that many can relate to and therefore makes the story more accessible. But in doing so the movie short-changes the audience by depriving them of connecting with the extensive network of love and support that exists in the extraphysical dimensions. This network acts ceaselessly to try and support every single consciousness however lost they might seem at a given moment and what ever dimension they may find themselves in. The intricacies and compassion of this network, to me, are far more inspiring than reliance on individualised and “special” romantic love. It is something that encourages my active participation and at the same time leaves me feeling supported and motivates to become a better person so I can make my own contribution to this multidimensional system of service.
On the other hand, The movie’s presentation of suicides as largely “lost causes” unfairly stigmatises a section of the multidimensional population that is already caught in deep suffering.
The depiction of the personalised hells experienced by suicides, but also by many others caught in torturous processes created by their own minds, corresponds closely with eye witness accounts of those who have visited non-physical dimensions through projections of consciousness. But the suggestion that those people are doomed forever, or only retrievable if they are the beneficiaries of exceptionally powerful romantic love is misleading.
Far from being “lost causes”, suicides and others who have experienced exceptional suffering are likely candidates for future roles as unusually insightful healers and helpers, because they have delved deeply into the suffering we can experience and for that reason are capable of great compassion and understanding of the suffering of others. As such they can be assured of the tireless commitment by helpers to “retrieve them from hell”.
I still consider What Dreams May come a good movie, with many moving and enlightening depictions of human interconnections and their persistence beyond this single life-time. But it could have been a great movie had it broadened its approach to the dynamics of multidimensional assistance, avoided further stigmatising suicide and not bought into the cliché of soul mates at the expense of universal love.
Kim McCaul is an anthropologist with a long term interest in understanding consciousness and personal transformation.
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