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 dreamsc-posinno­v­a­tive 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.

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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.

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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.