Home > Reviews > Random older movie review: DREAMSCAPE (1984) (spoilers)

Random older movie review: DREAMSCAPE (1984) (spoilers)

I happened to notice recently that ShoutFactory TV‘s free streaming site offers the 1984 Dennis Quaid thriller Dreamscape, a movie I was aware of through commercials and magazine articles back in the day but that I don’t recall ever seeing, except maybe on TV so long ago that I’ve forgotten. I was in the mood for an older movie, and according to Wikipedia it’s relatively well-regarded, so I decided to check it out. In the pantheon of ’80s SF/fantasy films, I wouldn’t call it one of the greats, but it’s good enough to be worth attention.

Dreamscape is directed by Joseph Ruben (whose only other film credit I recognize is Sleeping With the Enemy) and written by David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), and Ruben. It stars Quaid as Alex Gardner, a psychic who was studied in his teens by Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) but who rebelled against being a lab rat and has gone on to a dissolute life where he uses his gifts to cheat at gambling on horses. He’s roped back in by Novotny over his resistance, convinced to join a project for using psychic abilities to enter people’s dreams for therapeutic purposes. He flirts with Novotny’s assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) and clashes with slimy rival psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), but finally gets into the work when he realizes he can help a young boy conquer his nightmares, showing he has a decent side after all. But the project’s backer, government spook Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), has more sinister designs for the project, as Alex learns when he stumbles upon a plot of Blair’s to use Glatman to undetectably assassinate the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) in a dream before he can make what, in Blair’s view, is the fatal mistake of signing a nuclear disarmament treaty. Alex teams up with the POTUS in the latter’s post-apocalyptic nightmare in order to defeat Glatman.

A sci-fi movie treating psychic research as a legitimate scientific study is the sort of thing you saw a lot in the ’70s and ’80s, but the idea of entering and manipulating people’s dreams foreshadows Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Dreamscape is nowhere near as twisty a thriller as Inception, though, keeping things rather straightforward and sometimes a bit broad in its action or comedy. It also reminds me of the new Sarah Shahi series Reverie on NBC, involving an experimental VR/mind interface tech that lets the lead character help people cope with their problems (and has the backing of a government agent who may have a hidden agenda). A portion of the film is similarly episodic in the way Alex moves from one patient’s dream to the next, an impression intensified by the casting of frequent sitcom guest actor Larry Gelman as a comic-relief client dealing with marital anxieties. But there’s an effort to tie the dream episodes into the larger plot, since a scary monster from the boy’s dream is carried forward into the climax through the slightly clumsy contrivance of having Alex draw a picture of it afterward and discuss it with Glatman, who uses it against him in the climax.

A couple of the thriller elements are even clumsier. George Wendt has a minor role as Charlie, a novelist whose research has somehow led him to discover Blair’s evil agenda and clue Alex into it, even somehow revealing details that seem impossible for anyone other than Blair and Glatman to know. It’s a very awkward way of revealing the truth to Alex, almost feeling like the screenwriters stepping into the story for a moment to tell their character about the villain’s plan and point him in the right direction. Charlie then gets killed after he’s played his part, and it happens because he’s wearing a very conspicuous red baseball hat while trying to hide from Blair’s assassins in a crowd. (I kept expecting Alex to tell Charlie to put the hat on someone else as a decoy, but he never did. Why put him in such a bright red hat in the first place if they weren’t going to do anything with it?) Once Alex ends up on the run from Blair’s men, the film digresses into an action-packed vehicle chase for much longer than it needs to, with Alex suddenly becoming an expert stunt motorcyclist even though nothing in the film has previously justified him having that talent.

I also wasn’t happy with the way Blair was dealt with at the end, with Alex basically sinking to his level and using his own dream-murder tactics against him. Much of the film was devoted to showing us that Glatman was a bad guy because he was willing to use his psychic powers to assassinate people, and that Alex was better and more compassionate than that. So suddenly having Alex be just as casual about assassination at the end seems incongruous. If he’s supposed to be different from Glatman, then he should’ve tried to find another way. The setup was that nobody would believe the President or Alex if they claimed that Blair tried to kill them in a dream, so the only way to stop him from trying again was to take him out first. But that doesn’t really work, because Novotny’s dream-interaction experiment was not a secret, and there was extensive documentation of the researchers’ experimental results, so there would’ve been corroboration for their claims.

Still, aside from those shortcomings, the basic storyline is reasonably satisfying, and the cast is pretty good. Christopher Plummer in particular is superb as Blair, playing him as a calm, controlled, self-assuredly ruthless pragmatist whose very casual, matter-of-fact attitude toward his murderous plans is what makes him so menacing. As amiable as Blair seemed at first, it wasn’t hard to figure out he’d be the villain, especially once I realized that Plummer was basically playing the same role he would 7 years later as General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a conspirator seeking to assassinate a peacemaking leader because he saw it as surrendering the cold war.

The part that’s most dated and problematical to modern eyes is a scene where Alex finds Jane asleep and nonconsensually projects himself into her sex dream about him. To the film’s credit, Jane is quite angry about the violation when she wakes up and tells him in no uncertain terms that what he did was wrong, but she is a bit too quick to forgive him afterward, and the fact that Alex would attempt it at all is troubling, especially in light of Novotny’s earlier remark that Alex used his psychic abilities to hustle women. Still, as ’80s movie portrayals of sexual consent go, this is better than many. At least it acknowledged that it was a violation, even if it downplayed the severity of it.

Another dated element, but a less disquieting one, is the visual effects work by Peter Kuran (Buckaroo Banzai, RoboCop, Beetlejuice). I’ve always been a fan of old-school, pre-CGI visual effects, but I’m afraid to say that I’ve apparently grown so spoiled by modern VFX that I had trouble judging whether Dreamscape‘s effects in the dream sequences would’ve been good or bad by the standards of the time. Thinking it over, my best assessment is that they were average, not quite living up to their ambitions. Bluescreen mattes were never a very convincing process (because the photographic process that created the mattes had trouble perfectly aligning the edges on different negatives, often creating visible matte lines around the images), but the mattes here tend to have even sloppier edges than usual. The miniature landscapes are okay, but the stop-motion animation on the featured Snakeman monster is fairly average. For what it’s worth, the film doesn’t seem to have gotten any award nominations for its effects work. (The Oscar nominations in the category for 1984 went to 2010, Ghostbusters, and the victorious Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so this film had pretty steep competition.) Even more dated is the electronic score by Maurice Jarre, which the composer reportedly chose because he thought it fit the film’s subject and tone better than an orchestral score. I just find it reedy and annoying, not good even by the usual standards of ’80s synth music. Given how much a good or bad musical score can affect my enjoyment of a film, I’m surprised how satisfying I found this film even with a score I deeply disliked. I guess that speaks well of it overall — even if the plot doesn’t really hold up to analysis.

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