Thursday 9 December 2010

Obscurity Files #32 - Dreamscape

With Inception arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, I thought I'd take a look at another film that travels into people's minds. Today it's the 1984 Dennis Quaid starring Dreamscape...

Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is a young psychic, living life on the run and forced into using his gift to win bets on the horse races. His abilities are quite in demand by the authorities, but he refuses to co-operate with them. When his old friend Dr Novotny (Max Von Sydow) gets in touch, he agrees to help with the experiments his research facility is conducting with dreams; or to be more exact, in dreams. Using complex machinery, Dr Novotny has found a way to place someone inside a sleeping person's subconscience. The dream linker needs to have a strong mind to handle the experience, and Alex's abilities are perfect for the process.

Like Inception, it's never really explained how the system works. They need to tap into some sort of mainframe a la The Matrix and Lawnmower Man, but they're smart enough to not even attempt to explain what they can't. The film wanders without any real plot for quite a while, seeing Alex enter the dreams of a little boy called Buddy to stop him having nightmares. The dream sequences are visually interesting (Buddy's dreams are somewhere between German expressionism and Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey) and the giant Snake-man is a cool bad guy, but it's not really the most inspiring of stories to start the film off with.

Alex is soon the new hot shot at the research facility, setting up a Top Gun-ish rivalry with the other dream linker, Tommy Ray (played with some gusto by future Twin Peaks cast member, David Patrick Kelly). Both want to be the best at dream linking, but Tommy Ray's clearly got some mental problems that make him a loose cannon. The film is able to change gears with the introduction of the President's nuclear holocaust nightmares. It seems that the pressure of potentially killing millions of people is getting a little too much, and he keeps having visions of the potential aftermath of a nuclear winter.

Unbeknownst to Alex, some shadowy parts of the government have got involved in the dream research, seeing the project's potential as a way of procuring secrets from people. Fearing the President may renege his support of nuclear arms, defense specialist Bob Blake (Christopher Plummer) plans to use the unhinged Tommy Ray as a dream assassin, using the President's worst fear to ensure he never wakes up. It's up to Alex to also enter the President's dreamscape and protect him from Tommy Ray.

The film's score was provided by Maurice Jarre, evidently called that because his music is so jarring. Dreamscape was part of a rash of 80's film's that assumed everything in the not so distant future would sound synthesised and electronic, but it immediately dates the film in an unkind way. Like the Dario Argento score for Dawn of the Dead, it's not completely devoid of kitschy charm, but sounds horrendously dated now.

The Drew Struzan designed poster seems to show Alex as an Indiana Jones type hero (Quaid's co-star, Kate Capshaw, had appeared in The Temple of Doom earlier that year), but he's nowhere near that kind of character. Alex has spent the last 8 years living on the run, using his ability to earn cash. It's also heavily implied that he enjoys using his gift to woo women; tricking them in to bed with him and then ignoring their phone calls. What a charmer. Still, it appears to have worked on Kate Capshaw.

It's fair to say that Dreamscape had been completely forgotten by audiences until a little film called Inception came along with some supposed similarities in story. Although this film is nowhere near as smart as Inception, there's definitely parallels between the two films; but then you can see parts of this story echoing through a lot of modern sci-fi. The Matrix, Strange Days, Lawnmower Man, The Cell, and yes, Inception. There's little bits of all those films present here. I wouldn't go as far as to say this film was an influence on them all; as often happens in the sci-fi genre, this film just happened to pre-date someone else having the same idea.

Dreamscape is a film with quite a few interesting elements, but they've been done better many times since. The parts where we travel through the synapses of the dreamer offer some unique visuals, but the bits in between are dull. There's a boring romance between Kate Capshaw and Dennis Quaid where you really don't care about the outcome, and the early sub plot about the little boy's nightmares doesn't really give the film any weight. Max Von Sydow and Christopher Plummer both rise above the material, but the younger members of the cast can't keep up with them. It's an early lead performance by Quaid, but he fails to keep the film interesting when it's not in the dreamscape. To give it its dues, this is a film of many great ideas and ambitions, but it fails in execution.

Save from obscurity? NO

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