Despite my voracious appetite for movies back in my 80’s based childhood, there’s always was going to be the odd title that slipped through the cracks that evaded my Galactus-sized hunger for weird and wonderful cinema. A good example of such a mysteriously elusive movie was Dreamscape, the fantasy thriller that reads like a deranged merging of Inception and A Nightmare On Elm Street and whose Drew Struzan, Indiana Jones style cover always caught my eye – if not my hard-earned rental money.
Well, in a case of better late than never, I finally managed to catch up with this high-concept oddity that interestingly made its debut the same year Wes Craven’s razor-fingered dream demon exploded onto the scene and that was co-written by Chuck Russell, the man who went on to direct Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3; and I have to admit, what I got was an 80’s blockbuster so odd, I couldn’t fathom it in my wildest dreams.
After fleeing a a scientific research project that was investigating his psychic abilities when he was nineteen years old, Alex Gardener has been making a shifty living by utilising his extra-sensory talents for gambling and attracting the ladies. As creepy as that sounds, Alex is still a charismatic kinda guy (I guess you could get away with that sort of shit in the 80’s), but that doesn’t stop him falling foul of some local gangsters and the only way he can evade them is to begrudgingly return to the project that was studying him years earlier.
Reconnecting with his former mentor, Dr. Paul Novotny and giving the eye to scientist Jane DeVries, Alex finds that the project as been somewhat hijacked by powerful government suit, Bob Blair, who sees great potential in the work that Novotny is involved in.
And what exactly is the focus of this project, I hear you ask? Only to perfect the ability for a psychic to travel into the subconscious mind of a disturbed subject in order to sort out their issues by literary walking around inside someone’s dream and troubleshooting their anxieties from within. However, while Novotny trains Alex to mentally cure a boogeyman plagued kid and a husband terrified of his wife’s infidelity, Blair has something far more sinister in mind. Using his resident pet psychic psychopath, Tommy Ray Glatman, Blair finds he may have the perfect assassin within his grasp, a man who has the ability to kill someone in their dreams and after he finds out that the U.S. President is planning mass nuclear disarmament after a series of holocaust themed nightmares, he aims to protect America’s interests at all cost.
Stumbling across this conspiracy with help from pulp novelist Charlie Prince, Alex has to hone his skills and enter the Dreamscape in order to save POTUS from irradiated zombies, marauding snake men and subconscious serial killers.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting to get from Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape, but it certainly wasn’t this – because of all the sci-fi/fantasy/thrillers I’ve seen, this movie ends up being as wildly inconsistent as a experiencing a fever dream itself. The cadre of writers certainly know high-concept when they see it, yet seemingly have no idea how to craft it into a screenplay that doesn’t feel like it was scribbled in a writing pad by a thirteen year old blitzed out of his gourd on energy drinks. It’s certainly ironic that a movie about weaponized dreaming feels like it was penned by someone who hasn’t slept in weeks, but as scattershot as Dreamscape is, you can’t deny that it contains some super-potent imagery that fittingly bores itself into the psyche.
From the opening sequence where a woman runs in slow motion from the concussive blast of a nuclear explosion to the attempt to mine dreams of falling as Alex slips off a girder on an imaginary building site, the movie goes all out to try and bring dream-like imagery to the screen and I’m assuming that the genuinely impressive looking snake man was responsible for more than a few nightmares of it’s own back in the day.
However, the film is such a hodge podge of conflicting styles, it’s almost impossible for of the dueling ideas to not cancel each other out. Ricocheting from horror movie, to sci-fi, to conspiracy thriller, to action an back again, Dreamscape never really settles on what it wants to be as it hurtles from one deranged plot point to the next. To give it it’s due, you have to give it credit for the sheer amount it attempts to cram in between credit sequences and it’s not everyday you have a film that goes from Dennis Quaid beheading a lizard creature to then trying to outrace government spooks with a dirt bike on a horse track, but it also means that the flick ends up being as inconsistent as the weirdly muzak-y score that accompanies it.
Matters are infinitely helped by a starry cast that manages to ground the concept just long enough for any of this hyperactive guff to make sense and credit has to be given to Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, George Wendt, David Patrick Kelly and future Mrs Spielberg, Kate Capshaw by making any of this even remotely feasable. In fact, veteran do-badder Patrick Kelly makes quite a memorable loony, aggressively using dream logic to punch out hearts, attack our hero with glowing ninja weapons casually transform into a slathering reptile-person long before Elm Street’s iconic villain started getting carried away with the theatrics. However, I have to say, with his big hair and college student cardigans, Quaid’s weirdly preppy hero is far too clean cut to properly convince as a telekinetic who has been grifting off the grid for years and the subplot where Alex literally sneaks into Jane’s dreams to have sex with her has aged about as badly as you’d expect despite fuelling an awkward debate about subconscious consent.
However, for all of its misplaced energy and memorable imagery, Dreamscape suffers in comparison to movies with similar themes. While the climax feels awesomely similar to Quaid’s Lee Cobb vs. Patrick Kelly’s Freddy Krueger, Dreamscape is noticably inferior to both Wes Craven’s Elm Street and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, two films I might add, that treat their metaphysical contents with far more focus than Ruben does by simply staying in their chosen lane.
While I’d argue that I came to the party nearly forty years too late, there’s still a lot to admire in Dreamscape’s overzealous nature and you can hardly accuse it of being dull or lacking in the idea department – but despite throwing everything at the plot except a nightmarish kitchen sink, the movie’s biggest issue is it ultimately drifts by like a hallucination caused by a sizable dose of melatonin.