I really wanted Dreamscape to work and when I was younger, it probably worked better. It was only the second film ever to earn the PG-13 rating (the first was Red Dawn, which beat it to theaters by one week), and thus carried the delicate whiff of forbidden fruit. It had a fantastic premise – psychics projecting themselves into other people’s dreams – as well as Indiana Jones’s reigning girlfriend (Kate Capshaw) as the female lead. All that and Ming the Merciless too? What could go wrong?
As it turns out, a lot. Dreamscape betrays the same problems that would-be blockbusters do today, with an emphasis on special effects over characters and a storyline beholden to the money shots instead of the other way around. Dennis Quaid plays the good psychic, recruited by Max von Sydow’s government scientist to help treat sleep disorders. He tangles with a nasty snake monster from a little boy’s deepest nightmares and seduces Capshaw on a train without asking for permission first. Things really get hairy when sinister agents want an evil psychic (David Patrick Kelly) to enter the dreams of the President (Eddie Albert) and kill him. If Freddy Krueger has taught us nothing, it’s that killing you in your dreams always works. Hence, our hero has to get to the President’s head for a battle royale amid all of those subconscious anxieties about nuclear war.
The comparatively silly effects don’t help sell us on the scenario, but they show a lot of imagination at the concept stage, and could have worked well with a tighter scenario. Unfortunately, the shaggy dog plot gets too caught up in minutia before falling back on the old government conspiracy chestnut to carry it. Quaid displays the right amount of cockiness, but he has nowhere to go with it, and the nonchalant attitude other characters display towards his abilities remove the gee-whiz factor of being able to play inside someone else’s dreams to begin with. (Check out the anime film Paprika for a much sharper take on the same idea.)
In other words, whenever we’re away from REM sleep, the film slips into a coma. The bad guys display murky motivations and dull ambitions, and while Kelly hams it up appreciably as the evil “psycho-psychic,” the rest of the cast just sets it on auto-pilot and cashes their checks. The political overtones lack all sense of subtlety, and the potential of this concept just withers to dust before our eyes. You need the vigor and imagination of a Tim Burton or a Guillermo Del Toro to bring material like this to life. Instead, Dreamscape relies upon studio standby Joseph Ruben to direct it, and while he firmly delivers a beginning, a middle and an end, he can’t find a unique vision to imprint upon the copious money shots. It results in a stiflingly pro-forma movie, with some compelling visual ideas wallpapering over a lot of stock characters and routine storylines.
To his credit, the director develops a nice surreal look for the film, and indeed some of the best scenes don’t involve any effects at all. (There’s a very funny dream sequence involving a man worried about his wife cheating.) A sense of humor helps it out too, especially since Quaid can readily make jokes without detracting from the film’s overall mood. But the vast majority of Dreamscape serves as an object lesson of Hollywood’s enduring laziness: taking a good idea and slowly crushing it beneath risk-adverse formula. We live in an era subjected to unnecessary remakes, and this one might actually benefit from a little reboot… especially with a director who has the gusto to go for broke. They couldn’t the first time, and more’s the pity.