Dreamscape (1984)

Long before people were interacting in a virtual reality slumber in films like The Cell and The Matrix, there was this modestly overlooked sci-fi teaser which delved into the possibilities of one person interacting with another in their dreams.  It was a fascinating idea, a bit before its time during its time of release in 1984, so new that the makers of this film seemed to think we wanted action and romance rather than be bored by exploring the details of the process itself.  Perhaps that was true back then, in the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. era, but you can’t blame Dreamscape for at least trying to inject some intelligence, simplistic though it may be, into otherwise typical fare.

Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3Caveman) stars, playing a psychically gifted man named Alex Gardner.  He squanders most of his gifts playing the horses and taking advantage of the ladies through his charm, good looks, and ability to read minds, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by a Federal program which is looking for someone just like him.  It seems that the government has developed a system where a person can project himself into the dreams of another, guiding it, shaping it, until whatever anxiety or nightmares the person is resolved.  There is a bit of trouble, as a few of the subjects have died, calling forth the notion that if you die in your dreams, you die in life.  Things get a bit dicier when the President of the United States (Albert, Escape to Witch Mountain) is brought in for his nightmares about nuclear war, so terrifying that he wants to go to Geneva to begin the process of disarmament, an idea that doesn’t sit well with everyone in the government, or in the Dreamscape program itself.

Although the main premise of dream-sharing is still quite fascinating to make it entertaining today, one does have to overlook some rather dated special effects and music in order to enjoy Dreamscape properly.  This was, even in its day, a small budget sci-fi fantasy with aspirations that probably exceeded the funds to make it truly come alive on the big screen.  One can see the cost-cutting in the dark look of the film, which would suggest cuts in lighting, and in the simplistic, synthesized score from the normally reliable Maurice Jarre, who would normally have worked with an orchestra if the budget were there for it.  However, even within the cost-cutting aspects, there are some nifty results, including a stop-motion Snake Man that meshes well with the live-action aspects, even if it does retain an artificiality to it, and the dreamscape nightmares are wonderfully designed in the surreal sets and vivid color schemes.

The creative brains behind Dreamscape may have had more notions to craft a more horrific tale, but the Spielberg-ian influences obviously ran too strong at the time, and the end result is more scenes of humor than horror, and of getting it on with Spielberg’s babe, Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomBlack Rain).  It also meshes with the genre of political paranoia thrills, as well as the rampant fears of nuclear war that were so prevalent in the early 1980s.  Still, there is enough disturbing imagery to frighten the squeamish, and this is one of the first films to have the PG-13 rating on it for good reason (it had initially been rated R before appeal).  However, like much of Spielberg’s work, there is a tendency to cross many genres, and play for as wide an audience as possible, so the edginess is smoothed over, while injecting as much romance and humor as one can during the proceedings.

Dreamscape is a product of its era in many ways, with Eddie Albert cast as a very Ronald Reagan-esque President of the United States, though without the dyed hair that would have made it too obvious of what they were going for.  It taps into the rampant fears in the 1980s of nuclear annihilation resulting from another World War, especially as a kindly but not always in-command President is being influenced behind the scenes by those who want to ramp up tensions and force the world into peril.

In addition to Albert, Dreamscape greatly benefits from a supporting cast to lend the ambitious genre mix some credibility, with Max von Sydow as the head of the experiment and Christopher Plummer as the scheming CIA agent, offering familiarity and gravitas in roles that don’t particularly require performers of their caliber.  Dennis Quaid is charismatic and spirited enough to engage as the hero, rascally enough to keep the film light and fun, even when the story-line goes into some very dark and horrific places.  David Patrick Kelly is the curious choice as the foil, mostly because he isn’t as known a quantity as the rest of the cast, but he performs well in that he is unnerving when necessary, continuing his “psycho” quality in yet another film.  Kate Capshaw is perhaps the weakest link, offering some eye candy qualities and adequate acting abilities, but her performance is far less interesting as the others in the cast, and her role is the most superfluous.  Capshaw’s appearance had 20th Century Fox push the release date from April to August of 1984 in order to capitalize on her possible popularity after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in May (subsequently, the poster for the film was changed to give more of the Temple of Doom vibe). In a much smaller role, George Wendt (Norm from “Cheers”) plays a horror novelist named Charlie Prince (perhaps a riff on Stephen King), credibly giving the information to the hero of the conspiracy beneath some of the goings-on at the lab and the danger in letting the bad guys succeed in those plans.

The influence of Dreamscape is often overstated by cult fans, while understated by the world at large.  There’s little doubt that Wes Craven must have seen this film during the filming phase of his most popular film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, that same year, which features similar themes and premises, and even some resemblance in certain aspects of the villain (psychotic personality, a troubled past, killing a victim in the dream realm kills them in reality, shapeshifting dream control, blades that emanate from one of his hands).  The Cell also builds its world of horror around an idea that is almost identical to the Dreamscape project, and it too goes for much more horror and gore in the dream sequences.  And The Matrix recycles a few ideas, perhaps more subconsciously, from the shared alternate realities, the “dying in the alternate makes you die in reality,” to the structure of the Dreamscape machine (especially the seating,) the ever-present  “agents,” and the notion of using martial arts to make it more cool. 

Dreamscape definitely merits a look for strong fans of any of the previously mentioned films, or for lovers of good, old-fashioned pulp sci-fi fantasy.  It isn’t a great film by any stretch, but it does have great concepts, and while its on, it definitely has enough to keep you in rapt attention for the duration.  It is, after all, playing everything for entertainment value.   The screenplay is ambitious, originally starting at 20th Century Fox when the novel by Roger Zelazny known as “The Dream Master” (aka, “He Who Shapes”) had been purchased, but it went through a variety of changes to make it more contemporary and broadly appealing.  The final script is credited to director Ruben (his last as a screenwriter), David Loughery (who would write the weakest Star Trek, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), and Chuck Russell (who would go one to co-write and direct another dreamscape-like film A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors).

Even if the film may not hold up as well in the subsequent decades after its release, it does have an incredibly cool concept of fights among powerful psychics in the dream realm that could have resulted in more imaginative sequels with better effects had it been a bigger box office hit It only took in only $12 million, never rising above ninth place in any of its weeks of release, but, if it’s reported $6 million dollar budget is to be believed, it wasn’t a failure.  While it will likely be forever overshadowed by the films which took the main premise to a much more serious level, for the ones in the know, Dreamscape will forever be the one that entered their fantasies and changed their perceptions of what people can do in them.

Qwipster’s rating: B

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sexual situations and disturbing images       
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, David Patrick Kelly, Eddie Albert, George Wendt
Director:  Joseph Ruben
Screenplay: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben