Tuning in signals from Hollywood Heaven

It's another day at the mall multiplex, where hip witches are looking for love, Oprah's fighting her demons, free will and sin are invading a suburban utopia and vampires are being born again, more or less.

Moviegoers also have the option right now of going to heaven and hell with superstar Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come." The big news in this latest "Hollywood Heaven" opus is that some gatekeepers in America's dream factory are trying to take eternity seriously -- perhaps more seriously than most conventional religious leaders.

"This movie wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In even contains some hopeful signs for those who believe heaven and hell are real," said Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft, author of 30-plus books including "Heaven, the Heart's Deepest Longing." In terms of America's growing fascination with spirituality, he added, it's clear that "people are asking some of the right questions, right now. They are spiritually hungry, even if they are choosing to eat poisonous food."

As was the case with "Ghost" and numerous other modern movies in this genre, Kreeft said that "What Dreams May Come" appears to be "essentially a Buddhist or Hindu movie" created for audiences that remain comfortable with Judeo-Christian images. After death, the characters learn that there are no rules that govern eternity, reincarnation is a viable option and that reality is a simple matter of perception. "What's true in our minds is true, whether people know it or not," explains one heavenly teacher.

Early on, Williams' Everyman character asks an angelic figure what role God plays in this dreamlike heaven. "He's up there somewhere, shouting down that He loves us," says the spirit.

An ad for a Los Angeles seminar on "Metaphysical Filmmaking," led by producer Stephen Simon, sums of his goals: "As we approach the new millennium, film is the natural medium for the expression of transformational consciousness. Metaphysical films can illuminate new landscapes, chart new maps and model new paradigms for relating to life." The result is part Dante's "Inferno," part Star Trek, served up with waves of special effects and pop psychology.

But it would be wrong to dismiss this as mere New Age propaganda, stressed Kreeft, who is a very traditional Roman Catholic. The movie focuses on a crucial subject - eternal life - which churches have all but ignored for at least a generation. And while the doctrine is unorthodox, it contains images of heaven and hell that are almost shockingly traditional.

"This movie was gorgeous and fascinating to look at, but there was more to it than that," he said. "This wasn't a kind of minimalist kind of beauty. It was opulent. It was an old- fashioned, natural kind of beauty. That's important. We need to be able to say that heaven is beautiful."

In addition to affirming the existence of heaven and hell, the movie shows that decisions in this life impact the life to come. It teaches that people must not lose faith and to let fear dominate their lives. It stresses the need for courage, forgiveness and gratitude.

Above all, "What Dreams May Come" takes love seriously. This is, conceded Kreeft, human love, instead of divine love. But at least the human love depicted in this movie is noble and beautiful. Many critics have savaged the movie because its depiction of marital love is based more on idealism than sexual passion.

"This movie did get human love right," said Kreeft. "It showed love as charity and self-sacrifice. It praises faithfulness ... and this love even includes children. There's an intact family, for once, and we see many beautiful scenes showing the love in this family. That's positive."

There are even scenes of repentance. But everyone repents to each other -- not to God.

"They do repent to somebody, which is a start," said Kreeft. "That's better than, 'Love means never having to say you're sorry.' ... What the movie didn't say, of course, was that God counts and that God judges. It didn't say that one finds true joy by conforming to God's reality. ... In a way, the movie was simply too spiritual. It didn't take reality seriously enough."