The early 1980s was a great time for science fiction and fantasy films with 1982, in particular, being the highpoint. Coming out two years later, Dreamscape (1984) capitalized on this boom of genre movies as it was part of a mini-wave of motion pictures that dealt with the possibilities of the human mind that included Scanners (1981), The Dead Zone (1983) and Brainstorm (1983). Dreamscape was definitely on the pulpier end of the scale as it dabbled in conspiracies and the power of dreams. It was a film that fascinated a generation of impressionable kids dazzled by its then-cool special effects and memorable dream sequences, in particular, a scene where a character turns into formidable snakeman (an image that continues to haunt me). Dreamscape was one of those fascinating early ‘80s films that still had some residue of 1970s cinema (a distrust of the government) while looking ahead to the SFX blockbusters of the ‘80s.
Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is a young man with extraordinary mental powers that include telekinesis. He escaped from a life of being a lab rat and now uses his abilities to win money betting on horses and having sex with women. This puts him at odds with local crooks who would like a cut of his winnings as an exciting early action sequence demonstrates. These guys are small-time compared to the two government types (Twin Peaks’ Chris Mulkey and John Carpenter regular Peter Jason) who pick up Alex off the street and take him to Thornhill College where he’s reunited with his former mentor Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and his attractive assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw).
They want Alex to participate in a top secret project that would enable him to psychically project himself into someone else’s dreams and then become an active participant, shaping and altering the outcome. Alex is skeptical, but intrigued by this idea and Novotny’s passion for the project. He soon meets Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), the first person to successfully enter someone’s dreams. He’s a cocky guy that sees Alex as a threat to his status as top dog in the project and is not afraid to let him know it. Alex becomes a believer when he enters a man’s dream of working construction on a skyscraper and tries in vain to save him from falling off a steel girder.
While Dr. Novotny believes in the project’s positive aspects, like helping people conquer their nightmares, there is Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) who works for the government and wants to use it for more insidious purposes. Along the way, Alex flirts with Jane, even entering her dreams in a sequence that treads dangerously close to a kind of mental rape, and uncovers a government conspiracy involving this project and the President of the United States (Eddie Albert).
Dennis Quaid plays his typical smartass self, complete with trademark shit eating grin. He’s well-cast as the cocky protagonist who refuses to play by the rules, but is ultimately a decent guy as evident in a scene where Alex goes into a young boy’s dreams and helping him vanquish his nightmare boogeyman. Quaid would favor variations of this kind of role in films like The Right Stuff (1983), Innerspace (1987), and The Big Easy (1987). The actor’s innate likability makes Alex easy to root for, even when he does some questionable things, like the aforementioned scene where Alex enters Jane’s dreams.
Character actor extraordinaire David Patrick Kelly’s first appearance is a memorable one as his character gets Alex out of the shower by making horrible noises with his saxophone. Kelly does a nice job of commanding the scene by pacing around the room, trying on Alex’s jacket, then admiring himself in the mirror, and generally making a pest of himself, which gives us all kinds of insight into Tommy. In this scene, Kelly sets up his character as Alex’s primary antagonist and a formidable one at that.
Max von Sydow provides the requisite gravitas as Alex’s mentor. He has a great voice, which he uses to maximum effect in conveying important exposition dialogue about the dream project. Kate Capshaw is under-utilized as Alex’s potential love interest with little else to do. Finally, Christopher Plummer exudes icy menace as a shady yet very powerful government agent with his own nefarious agenda.
In addition to tapping into unknown areas of the mind that were popular at the time, Dreamscape also touches upon fears of nuclear war that were prevalent in our culture as the President is plagued by increasingly apocalyptic nightmares. Director Joseph Ruben does a nice job juggling the science fiction aspects (the manipulation of dreams) with the conspiracy thriller elements (car chases) as they feed off each other. The screenplay gradually reveals Blair’s plans so that we find out things along with Alex, complete with a Deep Throat-esque figure played by George Wendt. His character encourages Alex to do his own digging and opens his eyes to Blair’s schemes.
Ruben maintains a brisk, engaging pace with rarely a dull moment as Alex heads towards an inevitable confrontation with Tommy in a show-stopping sequence that takes place in the President’s dreams. Dreamscape’s special effects were pretty cool at the time, mixing miniatures, prosthetic makeup, and stop-motion animation, but are quite dated now as evident in several sequences where it is glaringly obvious that actors are in front of a blue screen, which can be a bit distracting at times.
David Loughery sold his screenplay for Dreamscape to 20th Century Fox in 1980 where it sat on the shelf for a year until director Joseph Ruben discovered it and brought it to producer Bruce Cohn-Curtis who loved the concept of being able to enter someone’s dreams. When the project went into turnaround, Curtis bought it for an independent production. He and Ruben, along with screenwriters Loughery and Chuck Russell, reworked the script by developing the characters and adding more dreams so that the audience had, according to Loughery, “more reasons to care for the people and what happened to them.”
The budget was originally set at $1.5 million, but more money was added, increasing the budget to $5.5 million, as name actors like Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer were added to the cast. To prepare for the film, Ruben and Dennis Quaid visited a dream research center at UCLA and the production hired a psychic as a technical advisor.
There was a snag in the post-production phase when the filmmakers ran into problems with the special effects, which caused delays. Curtis admitted, “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been.” They only allowed two months for special effects preparation, which wasn’t enough time. For the various visual effects, the production hired Craig Reardon (Altered States) and Peter Kuran (The Empire Strikes Back) with the former doing the prosthetic makeup effects and stop-motion animation while the latter supervised the blue screen work on the dream sequences. They worked on Dreamscape for nine months with a third of the time devoted to the snakeman transformation that took place during the exciting climax. Reardon was not happy with all of the SFX created for the film: “I felt that some of the potential which was inherent in the script for Dreamscape was not realized.”
Dreamscape explores some fascinating notions involving the nature of dreams and our desire to be able to control them. It then goes one step further and hypothesizes the idea of being able to enter someone else’s dreams and either saving them or killing them – something that would be explored in two subsequent films, the artsy serial killer thriller The Cell (2000) and on a much bigger scale with Christopher Nolan’s industrial espionage cum heist film Inception (2010). Dreamscape also touches upon the ramifications of abusing this ability, showing its positive and negative aspects in an entertaining and engaging way.
Cleaver, Thomas McKelvey. “David Loughery: The Dreamer of Dreamscape.” Starlog. November 1984.
Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. “Adventures in the Nightmare of Dreamscape.” Starlog. April 1984.