(director: Vincent Ward; screenwriters: Ron Bass/based on the novel by Richard Matheson; cinematographer: Eduardo Serra; editors: David Brenner/Maysie Hoy; cast: Robin Williams (Chris Nielsen), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Albert), Annabella Sciorra (Annie Nielsen), Max von Sydow (the Tracker), Jessica Brooks Grant (Marie Nielsen), Josh Paddock (Ian Nielsen), Werner Herzog (Face in hell); Runtime: 113; Polygram; 1998)

“The most important question this film asks, is how could one take Robin Williams seriously?”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A metaphysical fantasy film by the New Zealand director Vincent Ward (The Navigator/ Map of the Human Heart). The most important question this film asks, is how could one take Robin Williams seriously? Answer: You can’t.

It starts out with breathtaking visuals and with the possibility that we are moving into the special territory of the imagination, but it soon turns into a conventional Hollywood tearjerker. It does this without the benefit of good acting, a meaningful story, or pertinent dialogue. Most of the film’s time is spent on some hokum about the meaning of heaven and hell. Interspersed in the opening scenes are some beautiful scenic photography shots of Montana’s Glacial Forest and of paintings ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to Renoir to Salvador Dali.

It was shot from a religious non-denominational basis, doing a disservice to all religions by being inaccurate about what it sells for religious belief. It explores no deep metaphysical themes, develops no characters, asks no real hard questions, it only seems to be made for those of the ‘New Age’, holding out hope for them that they can live forever and reunite with their loved ones in heaven. Uncritical listeners of Art Bell’s Coast to Coast talk radio show (as an insomniac I’m a certified listener), that specializes in psychic experiences, might gravitate more easily to this film than others.

God’s name comes up once. Robin Williams asks his guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding), in the afterworld: “Where is God?” Cuba answers: “He’s up there somewhere.” You can see for yourself how heavy the dialogue is. But, at least, it did clear up where God was.

The mushy plot is about a perfect couple, Dr. Chris Nielsen (Robin) and Ann (Annabella), who meet when their boats collide on a Swiss lake, and it was love at first sight. She’s an artist and an art restorer, who works for a museum. The happy couple have a boy and a girl, but tragedy hits when their kids die in an auto crash. Ann feels guilty that she wasn’t driving and has a breakdown, even seeing a “shrink.” But, through Chris’ total devotion, she has fully recovered and returns to being her lovely self again.

Four years later Chris is on a rainy highway when a car crashes into him while he is trying to help some others in a car crash. His wife is despondent that she lost all her loved ones in auto accidents, so she commits suicide.

When Chris first arrives in heaven, he finds himself inside one of Annie’s romantic paintings. After making his way in a gorgeous flower bed he finds himself covered with paint, as though he had landed on a piece of art that still hadn’t dried. Cuba Gooding is his angel guide. He gives us the real deal as to what is going on in heaven by telling us “Thought is Real.” … “The Physical is the Illusion.” He also lets us know, “Heaven means becoming who you want to be.” I could have done without his expertise. He was about as miscast in this film as was Robin Williams.

Since Chris’ wife is a suicide, she is assigned to hell. The Tracker (Max von Sydow) tells us, “Hell is for those who don’t know they’re dead.” To get there and take Annie back with him to heaven, Chris enlists the Tracker’s help. Hell is further seen as an eternal sea of doomed human heads, twisted metal objects, and gloomy brownish colors.

It’s all nonsensical, a film about psychological babble. The story is played with such misplaced conviction, that it is emotionless and devoid of intellectual acuity. For a film that was so stylishly lush, it had little else to offer. I sort of liked Ann’s line which was said in hell: “Sometimes you lose when you win.”

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