I wasn’t hugely au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ’80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A. etc) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.
I suppose you wouldn’t say Dreamscape outright bombed (it came in at a cheap $6m, grossing twice that), but it was in no danger of setting any records, entering the charts in mid-August 1984 and never reaching higher than ninth. Fox evidently wasn’t sure how to sell it, which is why they commissioned Drew Struzan to paint an outrageously misleading poster trumpeting it as the latest Indiana Jones rip-off (he’d applied his powers to both the most recent entry). No one believed the spin (Temple of Doom was in its thirteenth week of release), and even dreck like Sheena managed to place higher; to be fair, Dreamscape had a longer theatre life, suggesting word of mouth was decent… once viewers got over the fact that Quaid never once carried a flaming torch, Kate Capshaw wasn’t playing Willie Scott again, and the kid was no Short Round.
What it did have in common with Temple of Doom was testing the then-fledgling PG-13 rating (it was a 15 in the UK), in this case complete with breasts and F-bombs. Although Dreamscape had the drop on A Nightmare on Elm Street (also arriving in the lower end of the charts, before achieving, ahem, sleeper success) by three months, it failed to etch itself a niche in the cultural landscape. Obviously, it lacked an iconic villain in that sense, but it’s also likely that the picture was simply hard to pigeonhole (co-writer Chuck Russell made the most of the link between the two, however, going on to write and direct what is generally regarded as the best of the sequels, Dream Warriors).
With its overtones of prophetic nuclear apocalypse and political thriller/conspiracy, Dreamscape echoes both the previous year’s The Dead Zone and WarGames, but isn’t quite as self-assured as either (there are also elements of the same year’s flop Brainstorm, in respect of science projects appropriate by government organisations and put to weaponised ends, albeit the visions in that picture are straight from the visual cortex, rather than REM states).
What may be most surprising now is that the architect of all this was Joseph Ruben, working from a story from David Loughery (whose most “celebrated” work is the “Enterprise doesn’t meet God” Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – Russell, Ruben and Loughery all share the final screenplay credit). Ruben had delivered a series of teen-antics movies during the previous decade, several of which featured Quaid, but Dreamscape set the stall for his subsequent work. Only, it would prove to be something of his peak form, alas. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in being an unashamed B-director, and follow-up The Stepfather received rightful acclaim for finessing those genre skills, but the ’90s found him attaching himself to star vehicles that may have been hits but were otherwise entirely rum (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Good Son), and he’s never really recovered.
Dr Novotny: Let’s pretend that a man, with a little help from science, could psychically project himself inside a dream. Then, once inside the dream, he could become an active participant in it.
There’s a “comes naturally” confidence about Dreamscape that promised much more than Ruben would subsequently deliver. The premise concerns an over-confident, “authentic genius” with telekinetic and psychic abilities who has gone AWOL (Alex Gardner – Quaid – a Uri Geller with a negligible spoon obsession but permanently priapic and wasting his days at the racetrack), That he returns to the research fold just as his country’s leader begins getting seriously head-messing dreams of a radioactive future (complete with mutant children), suggests we’re about to be introduced to a plot where Alex must enter Mr President’s dreams to help him, just as he is seen to help out a frightened boy – the one on the poster; the snake writhing around the edges is also from that nightmare –and a man with performance anxiety. But that’s without reckoning on one of the movie’s best elements, Christopher Plummer’s ice-cold rationalist Bob Blair.
A contemporary review (Film Year Book Vol.4) was cautiously positive, calling the movie tacky but enjoyable, and suggesting it was “inevitably episodic and variable, veering queasily between lame comedy… and all-out horror”. Which overstates the shifts in tone as much as “a talented cast manages to deflate the rather overblown and muddled political ideas, introduced, almost like an afterthought, towards the end” entirely misrepresents the political theme, actually identified in the first scene.
The writers are careful to furnish the concept with just enough of an underpinning that one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief for their central conceit. Alex’s former mentor, Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) cites the Senoi people in Malaysia (“They believe their dream lives are just as real as their waking lives. Their children are taught never to lose control in a nightmare”). This is based on the factual research of Kilton Stewart, and so presented as a reason to take dreams seriously.
It would be entirely consistent that, were it possible to enter dreams as shown here, the government would want a piece of the pie; their remote-viewing experiments are a matter of record, obviously (see The Men Who Stare at Goats for a typically Jon Ronson, jokey exploration of the general surrounding material), and one can easily find accounts of synthetic dream programs if one does a brief search, with reports of the ability to implant and affect subconscious.
Dreamscape posits the possibilities of dream espionage, a baton seized with admittedly far greater acumen by Inception, although the latter’s attention is on corporate rather than political ends. The extra leap we’re required to make here, however, is the same one that would build the Elm Street franchise. Alex puts two and two together regarding the coronary of a dream subject, learning from Bob that she was stabbed with a dream knife by current star dream weaver Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly).
Blair: And so, the old wives’ tale comes true after all. When you dream that you die, you die in life. The very same instant. Now we go into an enemy’s dream, kill him. Make it look as if he died in his sleep. Do you realise what that means?
Alex: It means no one’s safe from you.
One might reasonably assume, however, that if such a course, were actually practical, it would be the go-to for any dictator you wanted to take out anywhere, and since enough of them don’t mysteriously and suddenly die (at least, not by that method), it’s probably not wholly viable. You might be able to make them very depressed, though (indeed, suggestibility appears to be the key focus, according to those who say the technique is real, instilling aversion towards an area or thing you wish to preclude them from, or persuasion towards something or someone you wish them to gravitate towards).
Alex: You murdered him.
Blair: Yes, I did.
Blair: In order to see if it could be done.
Alex: You’re a real humanitarian, Blair.
Blair: I’m a realist. We live in a dangerous, hostile world. I will do whatever I have to do, to keep this country safe.
Bob Blair is characterised as very much the classic government movie villain – out of control, remote, on his own (“Officially, his organisation doesn’t even exist. I mean, these are the guys even the CIA are afraid of”) – such that, when he is excised from the equation, order is restored and maintained. But aside from that flight of fantasy, his motivation is very believable, and at least partially convincing in terms of rationalisation.
Much of this is down to Plummer’s entirely reasonable performance; faced with a President (Eddie Albert) set on destabilising the country, what choice does he have (“He’s going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams”)? It’s only with Kelly’s too-loony psycho – and he makes a good loony psycho, no doubt, but one set up as exactly that from the moment he’s introduced – that Ruben overplays his hand; but then, that’s why he’s a B-movie director.
The President: I think there’s a reason for these dreams.
Blair: What do you mean?
The President: I think it’s my responsibility to bring the world back from the brink. This nuclear madness has to end. I’m going to make a disarmament deal.
Like both The Dead Zone and WarGames, and fuelled by a then real-life President and former actor willing to talk up butting heads with the Soviet Union rather than offering olive branches, Ruben taps into the very present fear of mass annihilation. His flipside is a revealing contrast to Dead Zone’s button-pushing premier, though. Here’s a man tormented by the responsibility and possibility of causing such slaughter, the military-industrial complex be damned (in that respect, Dreamscape is fortunate to end before the inevitable sabotaging of the President’s disarmament talks).
Blair: After all the stress he’s been under lately, no one will suspect a thing.
Tommy: Regular heroes, aren’t we, Bob?
The most winning aspect of this scenario is that Bob is an entirely invulnerable position. The picture allows him to get away with it because the scheme he suggests is absolutely barking:
The President: You put that maniac into my dream to kill me.
Blair: I wonder if you realise just how crazy that sounds. Mr President? You can’t touch me, John, and you know that.
So it’s up to Alex to ensure Bob doesn’t live to fight another day. Going one step further, an added twist reveal could have shown that the President’s nightmares were actually initiated by another superpower with a vested interested in disarming its enemy and leaving them vulnerable to attack. But at heart this is an upbeat, positive movie; David Cronenberg’s Dreamscape might have looked more like that.
The picture, perhaps because it can only fit so much into its running time, dispenses with any dream-or-reality confusion à la Total Recall, barring the appearance of the ticket collector from Jane’s (Capshaw) dream in the final scene; that’s more of a joke than a twist, however, since it isn’t seriously calling into question whether they are experiencing reality (unlike Total Recall and Inception). And like Inception, Dreamscape doesn’t really get to grips with dream logic; the narrative is necessarily coherent and continuous; there are only spatial or imaginative leaps rather than those of concept or form.
Pauline Kael, perhaps surprisingly, was an enormous fan of the picture, noting its “real development and structure”, and how its sharp-wittedness allowed Ruben to “use dream sequences as separate extravaganzas, suspense stories, and jokes”. Fan as I am of Dreamscape, I do think she overhyped it a little, claiming it has “the funniest, most audacious dream sequences I’ve seen on the screen since the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate – which was also a fantasy thriller about a political assassination (and was also, as I recall, dismissed by most of the press)”.
I mean, what pictures can you think of in the intervening years that even have multiple dream sequences, let alone would be contenders in the way she suggests? And the early couple of dreams (the building site – “I’ll probably end up in some bad beer commercial” scoffs Alex – and the “deep-seated inferiority complex”) are fairly rudimentary in conception. That said, I do like the manner in which Ruben uses green screen to draw attention to the heightened dreamscapes, particularly effective in the apocalyptic scenario, and the way Alex joins the nervous husband in transit to his house as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for this outsider to be sharing his dream.
It’s Buddy’s (Cory Yother) dream that sees Ruben pulling out the stops though, achieving inventive results on a shoestring. There are nice touches (“That’s my dad, but he won’t help us” says Buddy, pointing to his dream father at the dining room table, who concurs, calling junior a “little bastard”). And the expressionist sets, everything skewed and off-kilter, including a marvellous twisty staircase, are great. The snake man is more variably achieved (sometimes stop motion), and Alex taking fright at it is hard to swallow (they need a means for Tommy to have the upper hand psychologically, but it’s an inelegant device).
The only really disappointing aspect here is that it’s left hanging just what it is that is causing Buddy’s unease; we expect some form of abuse, but instead, the snake man – an essentially sexual metaphor, one that is hacked up with an axe – is just a snake man (“He’s gone. We Killed him”). Kael compares the sequence to Dante’s in Twilight Zone: The Movie, but that one is much broader and quirkier, if also deeply sinister at heart.
Tommy: It’s a dream, Alex. You can do anything you want in here. Haven’t you figured that out yet?
The writers give Alex some solid smarts with which to outwit his opponents, but also some rather unlikely illusions (there’s no coherent reason he needs to enter the dream state in physical proximity to the President, other than it provides a dramatic motivation for returning to the institute). He’s luckily helped along by the braggart Tommy (“In this world, you’re nothing, Alex. And me, I’m a god” – again, a little overcooked), but wins points for overcoming him, not through action tomfoolery, but rather by using psychology (that on some level, there must be, if not remorse, conflict within Tommy over murdering his father – “Why did you do it to me?” appeals Alex as his dad). At which point, the President reveals he’s only a pussy when it comes to killing lots of people, and runs Tommy through.
Many of the decisions here are clever ones, such as Alex being unable to wake the President because the latter’s been given a sedative, and Tommy, for all that he’s quite happy to slaughter them both as a giant snake man, also using the same kind of psychology to taunt POTUS as Alex will use (appearing as mutant, he leads the dream ravaged with an accusatory “There he is. There’s the one who pushed the button, He did this to you. HE did this to you”).
In amongst all this is Alex’s presumptive behaviour when intruding on Jane’s dream. He is, after all, going beyond being a “sort of a cerebral peeping tom”, and committing an act of violation while she is sleeping on the couch. The manner in which the writers address this is initially very moral, making it clear “You had no right to do that… Alex, what you did was wrong” and pitching it clearly that this is what it was, for all the Mills & Boon steaminess of the scene; Jane’s recognition is that rationalising it doesn’t take away from what Alex has done (“If it didn’t really happen I shouldn’t be upset, right? But I am upset”).
Jane: I haven’t been on a train in years.
Alex: Not exactly true, Jane.
The problem is where the picture doesn’t take this next. All is forgiven under the influence of Alex’s irresistible charm. He isn’t chagrined or apologetic; rather. he’s boastful of his intrusive achievement (“I did it all on my own”) and even goes so far as to rub it in, in the final scene; their first sexual encounter is one where he acted inappropriately, but he sees it as sufficiently inconsequential that he can make a joke about it. There’s also that, having given Bob Blair a horror movie scare to death in a concise and satisfying piece of payback, Alex is happy as Larry, informing Jane “I had one hell of a dream” and noting how much fun he had – again there’s no remorse or misgivings, and this time about taking a life. Should we be worried about Alex?
Dr Novotny: Why are you getting involved in this?
Blair: Because we’re the only ones who can help him now. The man is falling to pieces, Paul. He’s just sitting there in the Oval Office making decisions based on his nightmares.
As good as Quaid and Ruben are, it’s the presence of old pros von Sydow and Plummer who give the picture a splash of depth and class. The former’s someone who can carry off a line like “You left me sitting in Chicago, with an overheated biofeedback field” and make it sound like Shakespeare (okay, not quite), and add substance to the old regretful guy who realises too late that he’s sold out (“You let me”: “Yes, to my eternal shame”).
Charlie Prince: He’s more than just with the government. He’s one of the most powerful men in it. Head of Covert Intelligence.
Plummer has to embody a character who’s incredibly sinister and professional, and pulls it off in the least showy way. This is most evident in his scenes with Quaid and Kelly. In the first encounter with Alex, the latter is oblivious to his significance, believing a smart mouth is the answer for everything. With the loose cannon Tommy, meanwhile, Blair projects paternal informality in order to get what he needs (“All I did was channel your talents, son”), but is clearly fully aware that he has a blunt instrument at his disposal and needs to be careful with it.
Tommy: It really affected me.
Alex: Didn’t affect your appetite.
Tommy: I eat to forget.
Alex: A woman died, Tommy.
Tommy: Everybody dies.
I do think it’s a shame Kevin Costner turned down Tommy, though (he didn’t want a supporting role; maybe he was right, but it would be another three years before he proved it). Kelly’s effective but entirely unfiltered, whereas there would have been more parity between Quaid and Costner (who would eventually star together in Wyatt Earp).
Capshaw is much more agreeable here than as the cartoonish Willie Scott, but there’s no mistaking her role for a substantial one (at least they don’t make her the woman in peril). George Wendt has a nice little part as Charlie Prince, the conspiracy-minded author of STAB, the international bestseller (“It occurs to me that a technique for plumbing those secrets could be of enormous interest to intelligence groups”), but isn’t the brightest of sparks, wearing a high visibility red baseball cap to a clandestine night meeting with Alex.
Ruben throws in a nifty little, high-octane chase sequence halfway through, just to keep us on our toes that this isn’t resting on any genre laurels and doesn’t want to be defined in any one way. And to make it abundantly clear it’s an ’80s movie, Alex plays the saxophone at one point (a decade when saxophones were just lying around apartments everywhere).
Given the picture’s potential and its limited success, it’s perhaps surprising Dreamscape hasn’t been plucked for a big budget remake (or that Roger Zelazny’s source material, the futuristic Dream Master, hasn’t) Although, it was mooted about a decade ago. Possibly anyone considering it realised Inception had beaten them to the punch, but I’d argue the conspiracy thriller side is distinctive enough a delineation to make it worthwhile. Even more, perhaps, there’s the potential for an entire TV series here.
Nick Roddick’s Time Out review called it “as good a piece of solid, down the line schlock as anything to come along since Halloween III” which is rather damning with faint praise. But, if schlock it must be, Dreamscape is quality shlock, underrated, underseen and quietly assured.
Addendum 26/02/23: Pertinently, Dreamscape revolves around fears – nightmares – of nuclear holocaust, rather than the actual thing (which isn’t an actual thing). And any attempt to defuse those fears, the bread and butter of the control structure, represents an imminent threat.*
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response). The concomitant threat of mutually assured destruction is another matter, however, since one does not necessarily follow on from the other.