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Dreamscape is a commercially successful thriller that places a superior star cast in a science fantasy with plenty of potential. In the long run, a weak script and lax production let the show down. David Loughery's original story has some solid ideas that in 1984 hadn't yet been over-exploited by the movies. These days every conceivable gateway including one's kitchen cupboard has seen service as a portal to another dimension, whether an alternate Sci-fi universe or a demonic region of ghosts and monsters. Dreamscape proposes that the dream-world can be entered and navigated just like our own, or like the cyber-world of Disney's Tron. As in the (literary) adventures of Philip K. Dick, individuals with psi- powers or using certain drugs can enter their own dreams or those of others, and make mischief.
Dreamscape expends ample screen time establishing its 'secret project' scenario. Proven psychic whiz Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is kidnapped from predicting winners at the racetrack to help his old associate Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) with his dream experiments. Two other psychically sensitive fellows have successfully penetrated the dreams of test subjects under lab conditions, but Novotny feels that Alex can do even better. Novotny's top psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) is boastful and suspicious but government overseer Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) is happy that Alex is on board. Alex enters the dreams of a cuckolded husband to get to the root of his anxiety. He then misuses his power to 'become intimate' with researcher Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), at least on a virtual plane. Alex atones by entering the nightmare of a disturbed young boy, whose 'dreamscape' has already sent one psychic to the hospital with a nervous breakdown. Alex helps the boy defeat his minatory "Snake Monster" in a haunted maze. Bob Blair rushes the experiment so that Novotny's 'dream team' can come to the aid of The President (Eddie Albert), who is experiencing debilitating nightmares. But Alex suddenly has misgivings -- rogue investigative novelist Charlie Prince (George Wendt) warns him that Bob Blair is up to no good...
Dreamscape would seem to be constructed from various movies done just previously, like David Cronenberg's Scanners (two super-powered psychics duel it out), The Dead Zone (man finds himself between two worlds, with Presidential politics involved) and Brainstorm (secret lab infiltrated by government creeps). The secret project and the paranoid government conspiracy plot are as predictable as anything in a TV show of the time, which makes the efforts of the capable Christopher Plummer seem especially wasted.
Good direction might have given this story a special feeling but Joseph Rubin's ordinary coverage of scenes adds very little. When George Wendt's character pops up to feed Alex some needed expository information our attention wanders, as we're way ahead of the story. We instead think of "Deep Throat" in All the President's Men, or Wendt's Norm Peterson on TV's Cheers -- especially when Wendt shows up in a bar.
Dennis Quaid is just okay as the psychic, because there's really no character there. Alex steals money from racetracks and rapes a woman in her dreams, but is otherwise just your average nice-guy hero type. Max von Sydow is a powerful presence reduced to 'explaining the plot' duties, a fate that becomes apparent when his Dr. Novotny worries that some outside presence has taken possession of his pre-teen patient. That we immediately think of The Exorcist doesn't add to our appreciation of this movie. David Patrick Kelly does his best to make his hiss-able (literally) villain interesting, but the screenplay tells us exactly what will happen and the direction offers Kelly few subtleties. Kate Capshaw has a lame role as the sexy lab assistant whose quick side-trip into dream sex spices up the second act. Her sole further involvement is to open a locked door and to kiss the hero at the finish. She has nothing to do with Alex Gardner's main dream adventures. 1
The production naturally relies on its special effects to make the "Dreamscape" memorable, and the plain fact is that the experts hired for the job weren't given the proper support. Peter Kuran's optical effects team conjures up some nice 'mental transportation' effects and strange landscapes for the nuked-Earth nightmares of Eddie Albert's President, but plenty of opticals look rushed, as if no time were allotted to get acceptable results. This includes the opening dream image of the First Lady trying to outrun a nuclear blast (shown hitting New York, with the World Trade Center visible). The film's various zombie-like creatures work well enough, but the centerpiece Snake Monster is compromised by poor design (by executive committee) and lighting that would make any monster look too obvious. It's the curse visited on too many effects experts -- their work is not properly photographed or edited. When you hear about an effects person demanding control over their work, this is why. Take a look at some of the detail shots of the Snake Monster -- as a stop-motion creature or an on-set special makeup creation, it looks terrific.
Dreamscape provides enough thrills for a matinee attraction, and if it were made twenty years earlier it would be a sensation. But the Dream World presented isn't all that interesting, visually speaking. Stepping into a dream is no more exciting than visiting a hologram in Tron or an eighties' episode of the Star Trek franchise. Alex Gardner can do it any time he wants, so there's no need for the scientific hoodoo, either. And saving the President from his nightmares is a lame idea at its basis - where Alex is really needed is at the President's side, to advise him on what's going to "happen next".
As an example of a "dream" concept that works beautifully, I nominate the next year's Sci-fi fantasy Explorers, directed by Joe Dante. As a sidebar to the main plot, a group of teenagers discover that they can share dreams of flying together over a nighttime landscape. The dreams express the innocent yearnings of the young heroes without anybody having to explain anything. The dreams also introduce the hero's discovery of the opposite sex as an equally innocent wonder: at the finish his girlfriend joins in the dream flights.
Equally inspired is Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which conjures up real screen terror through its understanding of the nature of real dreams. Sometimes we seem able to control them, and other times they're in control, and seem more real and horrible than reality.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of Dreamscape is a good encoding of the popular 1984 release. The improved resolution of HD mostly shows us where optical effects begin and end, and lays bare the film's lack of good art direction or design in the non-effects scenes. The transfer is sharp and accurate. Maurice Jarre's music score may be his least inspired, but it registers well.
Producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and writer David Loughery talk about their film on a full-length commentary, with Special Makeup Effects Artist Craig Reardon speaking up briefly when the fancy visuals come on screen. The producer and writer keep changing the subject back to general filming topics, crowding out technical discussion. Reardon does manage to get some good mentions in for Peter Kuran and his associates.
An interesting still gallery and makeup effects test reel are not fully explained. The many little sculptures of Snake Man heads were designed to work in a replacement animation sequence. They represented weeks of work but were indifferently lighted and cut short in editorial. This is the flip side of being a noted independent effects artist -- in The Gate, with a truly creative effects person like Randall Cook supervising, everybody's work looks good. When the front office undercuts the effects effort with last-minute changes and schedule-shuffling, everybody loses.
Dreamscape was originally rated R but at some point in its release a second PG-13 version was made by trimming some nudity; the idea of adult dream-sex was untouched, of course. The film's official poster (used on the disc cover) is a bald attempt to make the movie look like an Indiana Jones adventure, illustrating every commercial hook -- kung fu fighters, ghost wolves, a motorcycle racer. Hero Alex Gardner is given a leather jacket and posed with a kid and Kate Capshaw, just as if he were raiding a Temple of Doom. The 1980s produced some good fantasy films, but when they're commercially exploitative, they're shameless.
Image Entertainment has undergone some big management changes lately, and the disc sports a brand new animated logo.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dreamscape Blu-ray rates:
1. In the original R-rated version of the movie, the wife in dream adventure #1 was briefly seen nude, as was a body double for Ms. Capshaw.
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