A Nightmare On Elm Street won fandom, critical praise and plenty of sequels for successfully exploiting the genre film potential of dreams… but it wasn’t the first mid-‘80s film to try this material. It was preceded by Dreamscape, a fanciful and adventure-oriented affair aimed at a more mainstream audience. While not as innovative as Wes Craven’s film, it still offers a colorful and imaginative bundle of popcorn movie thrills.
Dreamscape starts with an archetypal 1980’s hero in Alex (Dennis Quaid), a gifted psychic who chooses to be a layabout that lives off of earnings from predicting wins at the racetrack. That ends when former mentor Dr. Novotny (Max Von Sydow) pulls him into his latest project, in which technology is used to help psychics enter the dreams of troubled people.
Alex proves to be a fast learner and even gets romantically interested in project supervisor Jane (Kate Capshaw). Unfortunately, he also has a jealous dream-psychic rival in the malicious Tommy Ray (David Patrick Kelly) and the project takes a dark turn when high-level government spook Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) gets involved. All the plot threads come together when a new mission involved the troubled, nuclear war-themed dreams of the President (Eddie Albert).
Dreamscape is one of those films that genre critics generally don’t care for yet still manages to have a following. In fairness to the critics, you can poke holes in the film if you want to. The busy script from the team of David Loughery, Chuck Russell and director Joseph Ruben tries to be multiple films at once: sci-fi, adventure, horror, conspiracy thriller. There are too many characters and subplots for any to fully take hold and when the film commits to the conspiracy thriller angle in its second half, the plotting is vintage-t.v. simplistic and all of the twists and surprise reveals are easy to predict.
That said, it’s also easy to see why the fans like it. Ruben directs the storyline with vigor, keeping the non-dream parts of the film lively with chases and action and giving the proceedings a stylish, energetic feel (Brian Tufano’s elegant photography gives things a lift in the latter department). The dream scenes also offer plenty of popcorn-munching fun, including a menacing “snake man” monster and a memorable train ride through a nuke-ravaged Washington D.C.
A cast generously stuffed with familiar faces adds a further boost. Quaid was entering his leading man prime here and brings the appropriate raffish charm to his slacker-turned-hero character while Von Sydow and Plummer bring gravitas to stock characterizations. Elsewhere, Capshaw makes an appealing romantic foil for Quaid but the scene-stealer here is Kelly, who sneers his way through his “killer nerd” role with mean-spirited charisma. Those who loved his work in Commando will appreciate the darker, angrier variation he does here.
Finally, children of ‘80s will get a kick out of Dreamscape as it is thoroughly steeped in an early ‘80s vibe. From the nuclear war fear inherent to the plot to Maurice Jarre’s synth-and-sax score to the fashions and hairstyles, the period vibe infiltrates all aspects of the film and makes it a nostalgia trip par excellence.
In short, Dreamscape is the kind of mid-level film that might not live up to all the possibilities of its premise but offers enough fun and imaginative touches to endear it to its genre’s faithful fanbase.