A young man who uses his psychic powers to bet on horses is brought into a program to infiltrate people’s dreams and help them recover from sleep disorders, but finds something more sinister is afoot.
Joseph Ruben, 1984
We first meet Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) on the racetrack, where he’s being threatened by thugs, not for the first time in this movie. He’s irresponsible, rash, in a lot of trouble, and also psychic, so his old, uh, friend Dr. Novotny (Max von Sydow) blackmails him into coming to work on a new project. Novotny is researching ways for psychics to enter other people’s dreams, a dangerous process, but one that really talented psychics like Alex can master. Alex decides to help a kid with severely disturbing dreams, eventually helping the boy defeat a monster called the Snakeman who haunts his dreams. The Snakeman wiped out another psychic, so Alex is officially in the big leagues – and his leagues get bigger once he makes his way into sexy assistant Jane Devries’ (Kate Capshaw) dreams in order to have sex with her because she keeps saying no in the real world. Yes, really. Also at the facility is psychopathic psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelley), who is being trained by the project’s government liaison, the powerful Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer, phoning it in from England I’m pretty sure), to murder people in their sleep. When the President is brought to the research centre for help with his disturbing dreams of nuclear annihilation, Tommy Ray and Alex end up fighting for his mind.
I got suckered into watching this by the awesomely 80s poster and the cast, but it was pretty disappointing. I could see what they were trying to do, and some scenes were a lot of fun, but overall the movie was average at best and off-putting at worst. Dennis Quaid had a lot to do with that – his character is a pretty nasty piece of work, all surface charm and no substance. The only heart he has comes in helping the little boy because he wants to – even with the others he’s more motivated by the thrill of using his abilities than actual kindness. Christopher Plummer brings pretty much nothing to his nasty bureaucrat, but Max von Sydow is great as the doctor in charge of the experiment. Probably the most interesting character is Tommy Ray, the disturbed psychic who murdered his father and is recruited by Blair to kill people in their sleep. He’s creepy and detached, but his detachment also allows him to be creative inside people’s dreams. It seems as though in order to make Alex likeable they had to put in a villain who’s so reprehensible that even Alex seems nice in comparison because he, you know, doesn’t want to kill people.
The dream sequences are interesting. There are echoes of German expressionism (weird angles, dark shadows, exaggerated arichtecture) in the little boy’s dream, and the President’s nuclear nightmare is a Romero take on a white house action movie. Everything in the real world is dim and boring, though – there were whole sections of this movie I could have easily and happily skipped. Even the ending is cynical, aiming for whimsy and charm and falling flat on its ass. There were a lot of interesting ideas on display here, but even the dreams play it relatively safe and straight-forward – there’s not a whole lot of typical dream weirdness, except for one man’s dream of walking in on his wife having sex with his brother and seemingly every man he’s ever met watching (including a bizarrely stereotyped Asian American guy). The sexual undertones of the whole movie are pretty gross. Bringing in the President in order to give the film some kind of direction and excitement is a strange note as well – it doesn’t ring true, and it feels like they’re just buying time to investigate the notion of being inside other people’s dreams. The whole thing is a slightly pathetic “YOU TRIED!” sticker without much substance or character to recommend it.
Dreamscape on IMDb