As the world mourns the death of Robin Williams, the body of work left behind by the talented and much loved comic-actor is being celebrated and shared. Fans are revisiting films like Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society and Hook. One movie, though, has emerged as a surprising talking point: the 1998 drama What Dreams May Come.
The spiritually themed (and visually stunning) drama began trending on Twitter within hours of Monday’s news that the 63-year-old Williams had died of an apparent suicide in Marin County, California.
The movie was among a group of titles from Williams’s roughly 50-film career that quickly rose to the top of the charts on both Amazon and iTunes, nestled among bigger hits like Good Will Hunting, The Birdcage and Patch Adams. As of this morning, What Dreams May Come was the 45th most-downloaded movie on iTunes, and the 40th top-selling movie on Amazon — ahead of Hook and Aladdin.
By no measure could Dreams be considered among Williams’ biggest hits – the film made a modest $55 million at the box office, just a shade less than Jack and Bicentennial Man, both films regarded as box-office busts. And though the drama received two Oscar nominations in the technical categories (and won for Best Visual Effects), it was met with mostly middling reviews.
But 16 years after its release, What Dreams May Come has slowly, quietly acquired a loyal following; it boasts a strong 85 percent audience-approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And given the film’s themes of love and sacrifice, it’s easy to see why the actor’s fans would gravitate toward Dreams in the wake of Williams’ passing. The movie, based on a 1978 novel by noted sci-fi author Richard Matheson, tells the story of Dr. Chris Nielsen (Williams), a loving father and husband who experiences the pain and horror of having his two children perish in a car accident. Chris and his artist wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) are heartbroken and struggle to make their marriage survive.
Having just restored some stability to their relationship, Chris dies (in yet another car crash). After a short spell lingering on Earth to keep an eye on an emotionally devastated Annie, Chris eventually reawakens in heaven, where he finds a companion in a gentle and kindred spirit (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Annie, unable to cope with the loss of her family, takes her own life. When Chris learns that Annie’s fate, as a victim of suicide, is one of eternal damnation, he ventures into Hell to rescue her.
It’s a natural reaction any time we deal with such a grievous loss to contemplate what’s fate has in store for us. Seeing Williams’s Chris undertake such a mission clearly provides both the bereaved (and his fans) some much-needed comfort.
“I like to imagine Robin Williams is in the heaven he goes to in What Dreams May Come, just painting a perfect landscape with his true love,” wrote a fan named Ryland on Twitter. “He was great in What Dreams May Come and now he gets to find out if his Heaven is exactly as he made it,” tweeted The Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce. “I just watched WHAT DREAMS MAY COME & cried my eyes out. I highly recommend you doing the same,” offered Tom Rhodes, another admirer.
The film could also prove too difficult for others to handle, especially given some of the stark parallels between life and art. What Dreams May Come deals heavily with both depression, which Williams battled for decades, and suicide. “It’s the way this film balances its heartbreaking subject matter that stands out,” opined Bustle writer Alanna Bennett about the film’s portrayal of depression. “It’s what leads me to endless re-watches, and though I don’t have access to Williams’ thoughts, it’s what I suspect led him to sign on to play the lead role.” And while the Hollywood version finds Williams reuniting with his kids and on a quest to find his soul mate, in real life the actor has left behind three children and a grieving wife.
In a 2013 Reddit AMA, one fan of Dreams – who confessed that she “wept like an emotionally disturbed infant” watching it — asked Williams the most valuable thing he learned from the role. “That every moment in life is precious? That the gifts of your relationships with others, don’t miss it,” he answered, adding: “That was one of the hardest movies I think I ever did in my whole career. Every day was literally hell, because of the nature of the subject matter, dealing with death and being in hell literally.” (Williams also talked about the film’s climax, which he was disappointed by; he preferred an alternate ending they shot that closed on a stronger reincarnation theme.)
Williams’ wide-ranging comedy routines often dealt with dark subjects, and he frequently discussed death. As he once famously said, “Death is nature’s way of saying, ‘Your table is ready.’” His profound characters have been as equally oft-quoted by fans. “Real loss is only possible when you love something more than you love yourself,” he said as Sean Maguire in his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting.
James Lipton, host of the popular interview series Inside the Actor’s Studio, called into MSNBC Monday to recall how Williams responded to his recurring question, “If heaven exists, how would you like God to greet you at the pearly gates?” during a 2001 episode. “There’s seating near the front,” Williams responded with a slight laugh. “The concert begins at 5. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and anyone of your choosing…. It would just be nice, if heaven existed, to know that there’s laughter. That would be a great thing. Just to hear God go, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar.’”
“Maybe he’s hearing God say that right now,” Lipton added.