1984 stands as a seminal year for genre film. Featuring classics as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, Dune, The NeverEnding Story, and The Terminator. Nestled in the middle of that year was a low-budget sci-fi/horror starring a burgeoning Dennis Quaid. Dreamscape, directed by Joseph Ruben, was released in August of that year. With a $6 million budget, the film grossed $12 million. While it was largely swallowed up by the season’s juggernauts, the film has retained something a cult status.
Dreamscape opens in the middle of the President of The United State’s (Eddie Albert) nightmare of a nuclear holocaust. The President’s — yes, that’s his name — dreams are bathed in sinister red light as he’s haunted by irradiated zombies. The President awakens in sheer terror, comforted by his daughter and a group of aides, including Bob Blair, played by the always sinister Christopher Plummer.
The film cuts to Alex Gardner (Quaid), a low-level psychic using his powers to collect winnings at the horse track. When Gardner escapes from a group of thugs who either work or hang out at the track (the film isn’t clear), he’s picked up by a nameless group of men who work for Dr. Paul Novotny (Max Von Sydow). Novotny runs a sleep-study program where he’s using psychics to metaphysically slide into other people’s dreams. Gardner has very little interest initially, but with a bit of prodding from Novotny and his beautiful assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), Gardner decides to stay.
Gardner makes himself at home, befriending the suspicious Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) — a serial killer name if there ever was one –. He then successfully enters the nightmare of a young boy also enrolled in the program, helping him defeat the evil Snakeman haunting his dreams. When Gardner meets an intrepid reporter (George Wendt), he learns that the study is actually part of a government agency trying to turn these psychics into sleep assassins. Blair is heading up the project in hopes of eliminating the President, whose dreams are pushing him toward nuclear disarmament.
Gardner and DeVries use the technology to prevent Tommy Glatman, who killed his own father before being drafted into the program, from assassinating the President in his sleep. Gardner then uses his newfound skill to eliminate Blair before escaping with DeVries.
Dreamscape is a film with big ideas but struggles at implementing them. Quaid shows early leading-man traits in his portrayal of Gardner, imbuing him with a devil-may-care attitude. However, he has nothing to do for most of the movie. The Gardner character has no real point or goals in the film until the movie picks up after the first hour. He’s basically just in the program to spend time with DeVries, who, at one point, is taken advantage of by our film’s hero in her dreams. DeVries is furious for about five minutes but forgives Gardner for forcing himself on her because he’s the good guy. Sadly, the film really doesn’t want to deal with the actual ethics of dream invasion.
Plummer is perfect in his role as the smarmy Bob Blair, but we don’t learn of his plans to kill the President until near the end of the movie. The film has no stakes for any of the characters until the threat of global thermal nuclear war suddenly kicks the film into high gear.
The cinematography is ambitious. The dream world is painted in a nightmarish red hue, and cinematographer Brian Tufano uses some neat film tricks to push the Dreamscape’s supernatural elements. If this film was made in 1974, it would be impressive. The problem is it came out in 1984. Compared to other practical special effects efforts of the era (Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Terminator) comes off low-rent. Even the Harryhausenesque Snakeman looks silly in comparison. While the movie’s budget was undoubtedly a constraint, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street came out the same year with less than one-third of the budget.
Dreamscape and Elm Street share very similar themes. Both films employ a horrific dreamworld where metaphysical death equals a real-world demise. Even the endings where the audience wonders if they’re watching reality or a dream are similar. Elm Street just employs a greater deal of imagination and believability in comparison to Dreamscape. That’s why Freddy Krueger became a film icon, while the Snakeman is mostly forgotten.
Dreamscape is a film that has a lot of potential. In some ways, it is a predecessor to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Dreamscape doesn’t have the ambition of the Nolan film. It wants to be a popcorn movie, but unfortunately, it came out in a year with much better popcorn movies.