Dreamscape (1984) / Sci Fi-Thriller
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
Director: Joseph Ruben
Screenplay: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Review published December 26, 2003
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 3, Caveman) 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 come true 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 synthesized, simplistic score. And of course, being the Eighties, there was the cheesy, bright-colored fashion sense, which makes even the hunky Dennis Quaid look a little more feminine than he should.
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 Doom, Black Rain). 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. 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.
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 before creating 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. The Cell also builds its world of horror around an idea that is almost identical the the Dreamscape project, and it too goes for much more horror and gore in the dream sequences. And The Matrix recycled a few ideas, probably 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.
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.
©2003 Vince Leo