Dreamscape (1984) – A Review
Dennis Quaid is a psychic who gets recruited by scientist Max Von Sydow for a radical new experiment – to insert himself into another persons dreams! Far out!
While he spends his time flirting with scientist Kate Capshaw, entering a few dreams and having some cold exchanges with fellow arrogant psychic David Patrick Kelly, there’s a sinister plan about to be sprung by the main man behind all this dream research, a chilling Christopher Plummer.
There’s one important person whose being haunted by nightmares and desperately needs help – the President of the United States, Eddie Albert. He’s haunted by horrible post-apocalyptic images and wastelands that are keeping him up nights. Plummer says he wants to help his Presidential buddy get over his nightmares with this new radical dream project. What a pal!
Or is he? He’s learned that killing a person in their dream will result in their death in the real world. Knowing that bit of info it’s not difficult to see where this is headed!
It’s clear that Plummer has some ulterior motives for wanting to get the President to his research facility and allowing the nasty Kelly into his head. I’ll give you a hint – he doesn’t really want to help him. Now Quaid will be the only one able to stop this devious plot from succeeding that will all take place in the President’s horrific nightmare.
Dreamscape is a very cool idea. Decades before everyone was going ape over Inception and just before Wes Craven would show us Freddy Kruger infiltrating dreams of terrorized teens, director Joseph Reuben tackled a similar dreamlike premise in a bit more of a surreal political thriller kind of way.
Quaid plays a young psychic who bailed on the science community. He spends his days using his gift winning at the racetrack. I always thought that was a good idea. I’m embarrassed to admit, that’s probably what I would do!
It’s not until Von Sydow convinces him (along with a little blackmailing) to get Quaid hooked back up to wires and help with this dream experimentation.
It’s soon clear this entering folks’ dreams isn’t just a theory, but actually works! Quaid enters a few bizarre dreams and helps out some patients with their issues they’re being haunted by.
One dream Quaid enters is very weird, with Quaid helping an insecure husband to realize he’s paranoid about his wife having an affair. That sequence plays as more lighthearted and comical than the rest of the movie. It’s like the cool factor of the premise gets dropped momentarily. It really doesn’t seem like it fits in with the tone of the film. Compared to a simple dream of of Quaid hanging for dear life off a girder at the top of a building, this first dream seems like something from a different movie that somehow made it’s way in here.
One of the most memorable and best dream adventures is the nightmare of a little boy Quaid enters.
There are some cool dreamy visuals. The kids nightmare looks like an shaked up version of a Warner Brothers cartoon and German expressionism. Looney architecture, bizarre speed changes, strange angles, an endless staircase and that unsettling snake man. It’s one of the best sequences in the movie. I’m always reminded of Joe Dante’s segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie when I watch this scene now.
Then President Albert comes in and Quaid gets wind of what Plummer and Kelly are up to. After Plummer’s goons silence everyone who can cause a problem for them and Quaid manages to escape, he prepares himself for a fight against Kelly in the President’s head and tries to prevent this dream assassination. A battle between hero and villain takes place in the President’s nightmare where anything can happen!
Kelly was one of the most effective creepy bad guys around at this time. The guy was great at being a menacing little adversary. The Warriors, 48 Hrs., Commando, He was so effective in these roles and his small stature didn’t matter. It just proves an actor doesn’t need to be physically imposing to be a threat. Just with a stare he gives off chills.
Some of the dream stuff during the climax does get a bit comical. When Kelly pulls out some glowing nunchucks I can’t help but grimace a bit. But what the heck, this is his world where he feels he’s the most powerful guy around, so it kind of makes sense he would indulge in his favorite vice, no matter how silly it might look. They had set up him idolizing Bruce Lee earlier, so it makes sense.
One interesting thing he does is turn his fingertips into knives! That’s another bit of Freddy Krueger foreshadowing the movie gives us.
Does the dream scenes all look convincing? Not really, but that’s the beauty of it – they don’t have to! This isn’t meant to be reality, It’s a dream afterall. Or at least that’s how I always looked at it.
There’s an electronic score that one could only find coming from the 1980’s. Quaid is likable and looked to be on the road to becoming a big star – at least that’s what I thought at the time. I imagined him playing the lead in a lot of big movies in the future. He never really found his groove and other than a few sporadic hits would settle into a more of a B-List status. I see him more often doing ads for Esurance than appearing in any films nowadays.
There’s some notable supporting actors. Along with Kelly and Capshaw, Albert as the president. He doesn’t seem like the most predictable choice to be in a sci-fi movie. I sometimes wondered what he really thought of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought it was silly tripe and just grabbed a paycheck.
Von Sydow brings his commanding presence and voice to a much more likable and compassionate character than he usually played. This is one of those roles I only knew Von Sydow from at the time – Dreamscape, Flash Gordon and Strange Brew, being the others.
The big standout to me is Plummer though. Another actor with a great voice and he just oozes sinister untrustfulness as soon as he shows up. Even when I was little and didn’t really know him from barely anything else and first saw him in this I knew, ‘Oh this guy is a bad guy! He barely even blinks!”
Dreamscape plays much sillier than when I first watched it all those years ago, but I still find it entertaining. It’s not exactly a very deep movie and the story could have had more complex parts going on, but that’s just not what they were going for at the time.
The idea of a complicated political conspiracy taking place gets breezed over pretty quickly. George Wendt pops up as a some kind of conspiracy author who suspects what’s happening and tries to clue Quaid in on it. I never understood the point of his character. He arrives and disappears so quickly I always forget he’s in this.
I recall the movie poster for this tried to make it look more like an Indiana Jones-type of adventure. It had Quaid holding a torch, Capshaw and the kid behind him all surrounded by all these dreamy threats. I guess the addition of Capshaw was meant to help with the ‘Temple of Doom’ vibe they where hoping to achieve. It didn’t work.
It also might be worth mentioning that Dreamscape was the second movie to carry the then new PG-13 rating. Some of the dream stuff gets a bit intense and the snake monster probably scarred young movie-goers at the time.
Quaid’s dreamy seduction of Capshaw on a train also probably helped kick it out of PG territory. She looks great in this and the idea of Quaid getting into the dream of a sleeping Capshaw in order to get it on with her…..well, how do you think doing something like that would go over today?!?!
It might not be great, but Dreamscape did manage to become something of a ‘cult film’. I think that was mainly helped by it consistently showing up in cable back then.
That’s how I first saw it and all those repeated viewings helped cement it for me as a pretty cool sci-fi/fantasy movie with a slight touch of horror. It also continues to be one of my favorite Dennis Quaid movies.