Like a pesky ghost that won’t go away, reincarnation haunts Hollywood. The movies are full of benevolent spirits from the hereafter who return to touch the lives of mortals. For his entry into this intriguing fantasy world, Steven Spielberg chose to revamp a 1944 film, exchanging the World War II fighter pilots of ”A Guy Named Joe” for airborne firemen battling blazing forests in Always.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Pete Sandich, an arrogant but courageous hotshot who dies saving his best friend (John Goodman) and is sent back to Earth — by Audrey Hepburn, no less — to provide invisible inspiration for a young flier. After some initial mischief, Pete enthusiastically helps Ted Baker (Brad Johnson). Much to his chagrin, he also inadvertently leads Ted into a romance with Dorinda (Holly Hunter), the woman Pete left behind.
Loaded to the wingtips with spectacular aerial acrobatics and soggy emotionalism (the climax squeezes both into a single cockpit), ”Always” gets off to a brisk start, then turns slow and sappy. Fortunately, Goodman and Hunter — likable actors in likable roles — have enough charisma to keep the movie aloft. Their appeal survives both clumsy plot mechanics and patches of insipid dialogue.
As he did with ”The Color Purple,” Spielberg insisted that ”Always” be released on video in the letterboxed format, which preserves the full width of the theater image by sandwiching the picture between horizontal black bands. (His brief written comment on the subject appears at the beginning of the tape.) Although certain to generate complaints among video consumers, it was a wise decision. The movie’s flying sequences and magnificent Pacific Northwest panoramas fill the frame from edge to edge. Trimming such scenes down to fit the squarer dimensions of the TV screen would have undercut one of the movie’s strongest elements.