The Film: 3.5/5
Dreamscape, the 1984 sci-fi cult classic from director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather) and screenwriters David Loughery (Passenger 57) and Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), stars Dennis Quaid in one of his earliest roles as charming psychic Alex Gardner. Having used his abilities for years to hustle the ladies and win big at the horse races, Gardner is blackmailed by his old mentor Dr. Novotny (Max Von Sydow) into joining a covert government program that employs psychics to enter the subconscious minds of troubled individuals through their dreams, for that is where the secret to curing their psychological maladies resides.
Released the same year as the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and predating similarly-themed films such as The Matrix and The Cell by fifteen years, Dreamscape is an efficient little genre entertainment that gets interesting just as soon as Gardner starts to take his unique powers seriously. The dream sequences he finds himself immersed in take their cues from a variety of genres, but it’s the scarier set-pieces that make the greatest impact. The President of the United States himself (Eddie Albert) has been having nightmares of a nuclear apocalypse because he fears his role in the arms role will eventually lead to the global devastation of World War III, so he decides to become an advocate for nuclear disarmament to the distress of his top aide Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer).
You know this guy Blair is bad news because…well…. he’s played by Christopher Plummer. Blair is quite well-connected in his government’s intelligence and espionage apparatus, so of course he knows all about Novotny’s program. He taps Gardner’s rival psychic Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), a troubled kid who murdered his own father, to enter the president’s dreams and assassinate him before he can bring his nuclear disarmament strategy to fruition. Since being killed in your dreams results in you dying in the real world, Alex springs into the action to battle Glatman, stop Blair’s devious plans, and save the president’s life with the help of colleague and love interest Dr. Jane Devries (Kate Capshaw).
Mismarketed as a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type adventure when it was released late in the summer of 1984 to mixed reviews and mediocre box office, Dreamscape plays well as a loose and limber genre hybrid that could not have been easy for any studio’s advertising division to represent to potential audiences. It was one of the first films to be released with the Motion Picture Association of America’s PG-13 rating, a certificate Ruben, his writers, and a supremely talented visual effects team gleefully push almost to its literal edges. Suggested sexuality is present during a romantic encounter between Quaid and Capshaw’s characters within her dream, but you won’t find any nudity here despite a persistent urban legend that the future Mrs. Spielberg got a little nude on screen.
The strongest emphasis in Dreamscape is on the most horrific images a $6 million budget can provide, the best of which are saved for the finale where Alex enters the president’s dream and engages Glatman in a series of confrontations alternately absurd and frightening. It’s goofy as all hell for David Patrick Kelly, playing a loud-and-proud Bruce Lee fan, to wield laser-tipped nunchakus with expert skill, but when he transforms via stop-motion clay animation into the film’s monstrous “Snake Man” it’s absolutely astounding and undoubtedly the film’s crowning glory. Hard to believe there was a time when fantasy films that weren’t made primarily for adults could still take a baseball bat to the boundaries of censorship and sneak some not-quite-safe-for-kids content past the Good Taste Gestapo, but that’s the 1980’s for ya.
Every member of the cast is well-chosen for their respective roles. Quaid oozes charisma and cool as our cocksure hero Alex. Von Sydow wears the mentor role like a comfortable pair of old shoes, and along with Albert supplies the film with more than enough gravitas to give its sillier moments dramatic heft. Plummer is terrific as the oily villain, perfectly emotionless and businesslike in the way he carries out his evil plot, but the screenplay can’t resist turning him into one of those baddies who feels the need to monologue when he could be putting a bullet between the hero’s eyes. Capshaw gets little to do but be a love interest for Quaid, but she’s good with the limited material given to her. The MVP of the cast is definitely Kelly, an actor who specializes in playing dark and intense characters, and he makes a tasty meal out of the Glatman character. The finale gives him a chance to cut loose and he brings some much-needed energy and humor to the film just as it’s running out of steam. George Wendt (Cheers), Peter Jason (They Live), and Chris Mulkey (First Blood) do well with glorified bit parts.
The screenplay by Loughery, Russell, and Ruben has its share of narrative gaps and subplots that go nowhere at top speed, but the pace is kept moving and the effects crew bring the nightmare sequences to life with staircases descending to bottomless night, subway trains full of irradiated zombies, and disorienting set design. The cinematography by Brian Tufano (Quadrophenia, Trainspotting) finds the proper visual mood for each dream and keeps the scenes in the outside world shrouded in imposing shadows. Only the chintzy synthesizer score composed by Maurice Jarre threatens to undermine the carefully-mounted tension; apparently Jarre felt that the synth approach suited the film best, but the man who created the classic scores for films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would Be King could do much better for a film that was crying out for an operatic orchestral soundtrack.
Dreamscape is back on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory and looking and sounding its absolute best thanks to a new high-definition transfer (sourced from a new 2K scan of the original camera negative) that is a remarkable improvement on Image Entertainment’s stunningly subpar 2010 Blu-ray release. Framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the picture contains a few traces of dirt and damage that were not able to be removed but aren’t frequent enough to be a distraction. Colors are bright and vivid, black levels during the night scenes and certain interior scenes are strong and balanced, and the grain is represented by a fine layer that remains consistent throughout the film but is kept to an acceptable minimum. Soundtrack options are here in the form of English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. Both channels are mixed very well, and depending on your television set-up, either will suit your needs. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are presented with solid volume levels and a lack of distortion and overlap, and one element of the overall mix never threatens to overwhelm another. English subtitles have also been provided.
Held over from the 2010 Image Blu-ray are an audio commentary featuring producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, screenwriter David Loughery, and special make-up effects artist Craig Reardon that was originally recorded for an earlier DVD release, and two minutes of test footage with the hideous “Snake Man”. The rest was created by Scream Factory for this edition, starting off with “Dreamscapes and Dreammakers” (62 minutes), an extensive retrospective documentary that covers the production of Dreamscape from Loughery’s first script draft to the completion of the ambitious visual effects. Most of the film’s key creative team was interviewed – with David Patrick Kelly the only member of the cast to participate – and their insightful comments are fascinating and invaluable. “Nightmares and Dreamsnakes” (23 minutes) covers the creative effort that went into bringing the Snake Man from page to screen with most of the interviewees from the “Dreamscapes” documentary.
Quaid discusses the early days of his career, working on Dreamscape, and his impressions of his co-stars in “The Actor’s Journey” (15 minutes). “Bruce Cohn Curtis & Chuck Russell – In Conversation 2016” (23 minutes) sits the producer and co-writer/producer down for a nice little chat that covers much ground, from their first film together (Chatterbox, a musical about a woman with a talking vagina) to how they both came to be involved with Dreamscape. Wrapping up the special features are an animated still gallery and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). The Blu-ray cover art sports new artwork on one side and the original Drew Struzan poster art on the reverse side.
Dreamscape is a fun little slice of mid-80’s genre-bending escapism deserving of its cult following that should see its audience expand thanks to this new Blu-ray from Scream Factory that should be the final word on this immensely satisfying adventure. Highly recommended.