A few months before Freddy Krueger began stalking the sleep of American teens in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and almost three decades before Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape used the world of dreams as a battleground. Where A Nightmare on Elm Street subverted the slasher genre and Inception was an inverted heist movie, Dreamscape was a sci-fi thriller in which the very future of the planet was at stake. Very loosely based on a treatment author Roger Zelazny wrote of his novel The Dream Master (1966), Dreamscape touched on an issue very much in people’s minds at the time. With fears of the possibility of nuclear Armageddon at their height, Ruben’s movie posited a scenario in which a trained dream-assassin would murder the president in his sleep, thus killing him in real life and halting his plans to bring nuclear proliferation to a halt.
Shady government agencies, compromised scientists and powerful psychics scheme, betray and fight in both the real and dream worlds. Dennis Quaid’s Alex Gardner, an affable but wayward psychic, is coerced into assisting on what is ostensibly a government-funded project to cure people of their nightmares. The programme’s star pupil and covert dream-assassin, Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly) – brash, egotistical and deeply troubled – is the Yang to Gardner’s Yin. Glatman’s damaged psyche makes him a dangerous weapon, easily able to terrorize the minds of those around him. Kelly gives a memorable performance as the proto-Krueger; turning dreams to nightmares, shape-shifting and even sporting blades for fingernails at one point. Gardner, by contrast, reconnects with his conscience and moral values as he is charged with stopping Glatman from carrying out his mission. The equally apposite, and equally manipulative, figures of Doctor Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and the project’s overseer, CIA operative Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), are the older reflections of Gardner’s naïve protégé and Glatman’s malleable prodigy. While Novotny wants to use the psychic’s abilities as a force for good, Blair’s crooked agent is bent on stopping the President’s plans, believing they will hand the initiative in the Cold War to the Russians.
Blending action movie tropes with horror movie imagery into a science fiction narrative written as a thriller gave Dreamscape a fresh feel and cross-genre appeal. Visions of monsters conjured up in the imaginations of psychologically scarred children, and post-nuclear wastelands in the president’s tortured mind, are as fittingly nightmarish as could be realised on screen by special effects teams at the time. The theme of dream and inner worlds, alternate realities and what-if scenarios seen in many later science fiction and horror movies, from Brainstorm to Source Code, Dream Demon to From Beyond, proved an enduring and endlessly recyclable one. The fact that the ‘enemy’ in Dreamscape comes from within, literally and figuratively, leaves the viewer in no doubt that Ruben and screenwriters David Loughery and Chuck Russell understand that sometimes those guarding our safety can do as much to endanger it as any perceived external threat. That the president is seen as a figurehead to be maneuvered and toyed with marionette-like by those agencies also speaks volumes for their views on the true locations of the power bases in American politics.
Somewhat under-appreciated, possibly due to a superfluous romantic sub-plot involving Gardner and Kate Capshaw’s research assistant Jane DeVries, Dreamscape nonetheless remains an important step on the evolutionary road for science fiction cinema. Alien, Blade Runner and the Star Wars franchise may be the era’s science fiction titans, but Dreamscape, along with Brainstorm, deserves more recognition for delving into inner rather than outer space in its futuristic what-if narrative.