Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is a gifted psychic. When he is contacted by his old friend Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) for a secret government program which taps into people’s dreams, Alex teams with a researcher named Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw) to explore the unknown by dipping into people’s subconscious. When Alex meets a rival in the program named Tommy Ray Galtman (David Patrick Kelly), Alex discovers that a government agent named Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) is plotting something with Tommy…and the target could be the President of the United States (Eddie Albert).
Directed by Joseph Ruben, 1984’s Dreamscape was the second film to be tagged with the PG-13 rating (after Red Dawn). Indeed, some of the imagery, make up FX and scares push that rating to it’s limit. Ruben supplies us with a visceral story that is effective and has a cold war theme that runs through it’s meta-physical framework. It explores subterfuge, conspiracies and deadly clandestine elements that transforms the film, despite a little bit of camp and cheese, into something quite interesting.
The nice thing about Dreamscape is that it doesn’t necessarily age. The movie is set in the ’80s with ’80s themes (like nuclear war and such), but since it dives into dreams, the movie has room for goofiness. The basic storyline which involves a plot to assassinate the President in his dreams is rather clever and the development of the story to reach the conclusion has enough twists and turns to still be fun but not tedious.
Visually, Dreamscape also works with the dream idea. A dream can look dated or fake since it is only tied to the imagination of a dreamer. If the scary snake-monster looks fake at points, it is because the boy dreaming of it sees it as fake… it all makes a logical sense (or you can call that a cop out, whatever).
It should be noted that Dreamscape came out the same year as Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street. And even though they are more different than alike, there are similarities that can’t be denied. We got characters going in and out of dreams; we have an evil dream demon type of guy who even has claws, just like Freddy Krueger does. Plus, there’s the idea that if you die in your dreams, you can die in real life. Even more interesting is that both A Nightmare On Elm Street and Dreamscape were being made at the same time, and released mere months apart. There’s a possibility that one studio was trying to copy the other studio’s dream film and so, we get two extremely similar films being released. But Dreamscape was released first in August 1984, while A Nightmare On Elm Street was released in November of the same year, so Dreamscape did it all first.
Another connection that Dreamscape has with A Nightmare On Elm Street is that the former was partially written by Chuck Russell, the very same writer/director who ended up writing and directing A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that shares many similarities with Dreamscape. On that particular Elm Street film we meet Kirsten, a character with the ability to enter other people’s dreams, and can even bring people into her own dreams. So it seems that Chuck Russell’s experience with writing about dreams in Dreamscape landed him the gig to write and direct the third entry in the original Nightmare On Elm Street franchise.
All in all, Dreamscape is a fun piece of sci-fi fantasy. The story does have some weak moments, but they are far outweighed by the rather thought provoking aspects of the story. It’s A perfect B movie for it’s time: light and trashy, with political overtones and a blend of science fiction and paranoia, all calculated to provide fun for an audience disinclined to take matters seriously.