Synopsis: The President of the United States is about to be assassinated in a dream where there is no morning after. Only one man can save him…a man who must plunge himself into the President’s horrendous nightmare.
Dennis Quaid stars as Alex Gardner, a psychically gifted young man recruited to help Dr. Paul Novotny (Max Von Sydow) and the beautiful Dr. Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) in an experiment to help patients disturbed by menacing nocturnal illusions. But corrupt high-ranking government official Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) has darker plans for Alex’s unusual powers. Soon Alex is propelled inside the President’s nightmare, a frightening wasteland of nuclear holocaust, and locked in a fantastic battle that could only happen in a dream.
This powerful science fiction thriller in the tradition of Scanners and Carrie will excite and intrigue you with its unusual journey through the mind’s most terrifying recesses.
eyelights: Max Von Sydow. Christopher Plummer.
eyesores: the low-budget vibe. the political subplot.
“When you dream that you die, you die in life at the very same instant. Now we can go into an enemy’s dream, kill him, make it look as if he died in his sleep. Do you realize what that means?”
‘Dreamscape’ is a 1984 science-fiction thriller starring Dennis Quaid, and co-starring Max von Sydow, Kate Capshaw and Christopher Plummer. It follows the exploits of Alex, a delinquent psychic who is recruited by his former mentor for experiments that allow him to enter subjects’ dreams, watch and interact with them.
The impetus for this research is therapy, the intention being to help subjects with their real-world problems by decrypting their dreams, and nightmares. But what Alex doesn’t know is that the project is funded by a shadowy government organization that is close to the President of the United States – and that therapy is not their aim.
I remember when the picture was released because, not only was it a minor hit at the box office, but the VHS tape was in all the video stores of the day. With its ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’-esque artwork, it stirred the imagination and gave the impression that the picture would be an exciting adventure movie. I day-dreamed of seeing it.
However, since I didn’t have a VCR, I don’t believe that I saw it until much later, perhaps at a friend’s place at some point. I was disappointed: the only adventure took place in the dream sequences. Still, when it was finally released on DVD, I decided to pick it up; although marketed incorrectly, ‘Dreamscape’ has its fair share of moments.
Right at the onset, we are thrown into danger, with Alex going on the run to avoid local gangsters at the racetrack, where he is making a small fortune guessing the outcome of the races. I enjoyed this bit because it established Alex as a risk-taker and showed him as a regular guy, not an action hero; try as he might he just couldn’t escape.
He may be lucky at the races, but his luck just doesn’t hold.
I was quite pleased with Quaid’s performance right from the onset, and the way that director Joseph Ruben (who also directed the cult classic, ‘The Stepfather’) shot the action, which had a realistic flair to it; it wasn’t souped up like a James Bond or Spielberg film. Alex bounced off many locked doors before resorting to hiding in a woman’s bathroom stall.
This didn’t always work out, unfortunately: some of the dream sequences were marred by extremely poor staging, such as the first one that Alex goes into, where he tries to rescue the subject from a beam hanging over a skyscraper. This one was so poorly set up that it lacked any credibility, which in turn stripped it of all its intended tension.
Mind you, perhaps these dream sequences were intended to be artificial, to not function like reality: many of them had an otherwordly look to them, with prominent blue screening and fantastical backdrops that didn’t merge with the characters. And when they didn’t look real, events unfolded in strange ways, in the nonsensical ways dreams do.
To me, that’s the most interesting aspect of ‘Dreamscape’; I like the surrealistic side of it. The plot is typical of the thriller genre, with the protagonist’s life on the line and having to surmount his personal limitations to save the day. But, in the context of dreams, the world is much larger than the ones found in regular action thrillers.
In some ways, ‘Dreamscape’ is the less cerebral cousin of ‘Inception‘. Whereas the latter wasn’t afraid to challenge its audience, in fact reveled in it, this one was conceived as a mass market thrill ride. The key difference here, ironically enough, is that ‘Dreamscape’ at least attempts to explore dreamworlds on a broader level than ‘Inception’ did.
Even as it fails to meet expectations much of the time.
The main subplot consists of the President of the United States suffering from nightmares of nuclear holocausts; he hasn’t slept well for weeks, and wants to sign a disarmament treaty with the then-U.S.S.R. to relieve his conscience. He is also brought to the research facility, so that his dreams may be explored. This does not go as expected.
Although this was a contrivance that I could have lived without, it did at least add an extra layer of danger to the picture, with Alex being watched and followed by government agents much of the time. And, given that they prove themselves lethal, killing an ally of his (or two), we know that his well-being isn’t exactly what’s on their mind.
The cast is uniformly solid, even while most of them don’t turn in scintillating performances. The notable exception is Max Von Sydow, as Alex’s mentor, stealing every moment he’s on screen with his raw magnetism. Also of note is Christoper Plummer, who turns in a typically solid performance, playing the villain with a cool, pragmatic, cruel demeanour.
Dennis Quaid, meanwhile, was difficult to like. He had the required physicality and charm, but he felt fake most of the time, what with his Nicholson-esque grin. He wasn’t bad, but he didn’t shine. Kate Capshaw was fine as the research assistant with a thing for Alex, but she’s nothing special. At least she wasn’t grating like in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’.
The cast is rounded out with supporting turns by George Wendt, of ‘Cheers’ fame, who has never been more mysterious, and David Patrick Kelly as Tommy Ray, a counter-point to Alex. Kelly has always been excellent playing villains, delivering unforgettable characters in ‘The Warriors‘, ‘The Crow‘ and ‘Twin Peaks’. He doesn’t disappoint here either.
Unfortunately, ‘Dreamscape’ feels and looks dated, like an ’80s fantasy-action picture. The effects may have looked good at the time (although I suspect that they weren’t top-of-the-line even then), but they hurt the eyes now. And the action sequences, while realistic, have a TV movie quality about them that make it hard to watch at times.
It also sounds like an ’80s film. Although Maurice Jarre has created some of the most beloved and recognized motion picture music in history, notably for ‘Doctor Zhivago’, he decided to use synthesizers for this picture, arguing that it better suited the genre. He may have been right, but it firmly entrenches the picture in the eighties.
I couldn’t help but try to imagine what ‘Dreamscape’ would look like if remade now and who would be cast in the lead. I couldn’t imagine exactly whom, but I am convinced that it could do with a remake, if only to modernize it; it’s a picture full of great ideas that was done on the cheap and with dated technology but that deserves better.
Of course, there’s always ‘Inception’.
Date of viewing: May 4, 2015