While vacationing in Switzerland, pediatrician Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) meets artist Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra). They are attracted to each other, and bond as if they had known each other for a long time. They marry and have two children, Ian (Josh Paddock) and Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant). Their idyllic life ends when the children die in a car crash. Life becomes difficult: Annie suffers a mental breakdown and the couple contemplates divorce, but they manage through their losses.
On the anniversary of the day they decided not to divorce, Chris is also killed in a car crash. Unaware that he is dead, and confused that no one will interact with him, Chris lingers on Earth. He sees Annie's attempts to cope with his loss and attempts to communicate with her, despite advice from a presence that this will only cause her more pain. When his attempts cause more sorrow, he decides to move on.
Chris awakens in Heaven, and learns that his immediate surroundings can be controlled by his imagination. He meets a man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) he recognizes as Albert Lewis, his friend and mentor from his medical residency, and the presence from his time as a "ghost" on Earth. Albert will guide and help in this new afterlife. Albert teaches Chris about his existence in Heaven, and how to shape his little corner, and to travel to others' "dreams". They are surprised when a Blue Jacaranda tree appears unbidden in Chris' surroundings, matching a tree in a new painting by Annie, inspired by Annie's belief that she can communicate with Chris in the afterlife. Albert explains that this is a sign that the couple are truly soul mates. Annie decides that Chris cannot "see" the painting, however, and destroys it. At the same time, Chris sees his version of the tree disintegrate before his eyes.
Chris laments that he can no longer see his wife and soon encounters a woman who he comes to recognize as his daughter Marie, living in an area resembling a diorama that she loved in her lifetime. The two share a tearful reunion.
Meanwhile, Annie is unable to cope with the loss of her husband and decides to commit suicide. Chris, who is initially relieved that her suffering is done, grows angry when he learns that those who commit suicide go to Hell; this is not the result of a judgment made against them, but rather their own tendency to create "nightmare" afterlife worlds based on their pain. Chris is adamant that he will rescue Annie from Hell, despite Albert's insistence that no one has ever succeeded in doing so with a suicide. Albert agrees to find Chris a "tracker" to help search for Annie's soul.
On the journey to Hell, Chris recalls his son, Ian. Remembering how he'd called him the one man he'd want at his side to brave Hell, Chris realizes that Albert is truly Ian. Ian explains that he chose Albert's appearance because he knew that Chris would listen to Albert without reservation. Before they part, Ian begs Chris to remember how he saved his marriage following Ian and Marie's deaths. Chris then journeys onward with the tracker.
Chris must walk across the field of Faces of the Damned, stepping on their faces as he navigates across it. The damned can be heard talking, including a businesswoman who says she never over-billed her clients. Chris and the tracker arrive at a dark and twisted version of Chris and Annie's house. The tracker then reveals himself as the real Albert and warns Chris that if he stays with Annie for more than a few minutes he may be permanently trapped in Hell, advising that all Chris can reasonably expect is an opportunity for a final farewell to Annie.
Chris enters their now-horrific looking home to find Annie suffering from amnesia, unable to remember her suicide, and visibly tortured by her decrepit surroundings. Unable to stir her memories, the tracker sees Chris give up his quest to save Annie from Hell. But instead of returning to Heaven, Chris chooses to join Annie forever in Hell. As he declares to Annie his intent to stay, his words parallel something he'd said to her as he left her in an institution following the children's deaths, and she regains her memories while Chris is making her nightmare his. Annie, wanting nothing more than to save Chris, ascends to Heaven, bringing Chris with her.
Chris and Annie are reunited with their children in Heaven, and all appearances are restored. Chris proposes reincarnation, so he and Annie can experience life together again. The film ends with Chris and Annie meeting again as young children in a situation that parallels their first meeting.Robin Williams as Dr. Christopher James "Chris" Nielsen
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Albert Lewis / Ian Nielsen
Annabella Sciorra as Annie Collins-Nielsen
Max von Sydow as The Tracker / Albert Lewis
Jessica Brooks Grant as Marie Nielsen
Josh Paddock as Ian Nielsen
Rosalind Chao as Leona / Marie Nielsen
Lucinda Jenney as Mrs. Jacobs
Maggie McCarthy as Stacey Jacobs
Additionally, director Werner Herzog has a cameo as one of the Faces of the Damned.
What Dreams May Come begin filming in late June 1997. It was shot largely on Fuji Velvia film and is one of few films to have been filmed in this manner. The Fuji Velvia film is known among landscape photographers for its vivid color reproduction. Filming locations include places in Marin County, Alameda County, Glacier National Park and Angel Falls. Part of the "Hell" sequence was filmed on the decrepit hull of the Essex class aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34) while berthed at Mare Island in Vallejo, California. The ship was later sunk to make an artificial reef on May 17, 2006.
The original prints of the film were lost in a fire at Universal Studios' backlot on June 1, 2008. A worldwide search was launched for a copy, which was found in Europe.
The special edition DVD and the 2011 Blu-ray show an alternate ending — the ending from the novel — in which reincarnation is not a choice, but part of the natural order. Chris and Annie will meet again in their new lives, but Annie must atone for killing herself — her new incarnation will die young, and Chris will spend the remainder of this life as a widower before the two are again reunited in Heaven. The film then goes to Sri Lanka where a woman is giving birth to a girl, presumed to be Annie. In Philadelphia, a boy is born, presumably Chris.
The novel has significant differences from the film, in its plot and its vision of the afterlife.
In the novel, there are far more references to Theosophical, New Age and paranormal beliefs. The author Richard Matheson claims in an introductory note that only the characters are fictional, and that most everything else is based on research (the book includes an extensive bibliography). Story elements that do not show up in the film include astral projection, telepathy, a séance, and the term "Summerland" (a name for a simplified Heaven in Theosophy, and for Heaven in general in religions such as Wicca).
The details of Chris's life on Earth differ strongly in the novel. Only Chris and his wife (called Ann) die. Their children, who are grownups rather than youngsters, remain alive, as minor characters. Albert and Leona are the people they appear to be, and the character played by Max Von Sydow does not appear in the book. Albert is Chris's cousin rather than simply a friend. Chris and Ann are rural types rather than the urbanites portrayed in the film, and he is not a pediatrician, nor is she a painter. He is a Hollywood screenwriter, and she has a variety of jobs.
In the book the afterlife imagery is based on natural scenery rather than paintings. The novel's depiction of Hell is considerably more violent than in the film. Chris finds it difficult to move, breathe, or see, and he suffers physical torture at the hands of some inhabitants. He does not encounter ships, thunderstorms, fire, or the sea of human faces that his film counterpart walks upon. Instead, he and Albert climb craggy cliffs and encounter such sights as a swarm of insects that attack people.
Ann is consigned to Hell for just 24 years, not eternity. At the end, which resembles an alternate version of the film but not the standard version, she escapes from Hell by being reincarnated, because she is not ready for Heaven.
The soundtrack for What Dreams May Come was composed and conducted by Michael Kamen and produced by James Seymour Brett. Ennio Morricone had completed and recorded a full score for the film, but after editorial changes were made, his score was rejected, and Kamen was hired for the film score.
The film was number 2 in the US in its opening week and went on to gross $55 million in the US theatrical box office. It grossed a further $16 million worldwide. The film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 71st Academy Awards in 1999, awarded to Nicholas Brooks, Joel Hynek, Kevin Mack, and Stuart Robertson. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It won the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design.
Critical reception is mixed. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 54% rating with critics.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, remarking:
James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave What Dreams May Come three stars out of four, saying:
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a C+, writing, "There's a central contradiction in a fairy tale like this one: the film may preach to the audience about matters of the spirit, but its bejeweled special-effects vision of the afterlife can't help but come off as aggressively literal-minded."
Leonard Maltin, in his annual publication TV Movies, gave the film a "BOMB" rating, describing it as being "off-putting gobbledygook."