I grew up in the ’80s during the height of the Cold War. It may not be so clear today, but back then, there was no doubt that Russia (nay, the Soviet Union) was the enemy. The nuclear arms race was in full swing, and everyone was afraid that The Big One could drop at any time. This constant fear of a Soviet nuclear attack pervaded everyday American life, and it is a driving force behind Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape. The sci-fi/fantasy thriller turns 35 years-old in 2019. I, personally, haven’t seen it in about two decades, so this milestone gave me a great excuse to revisit. How does it hold up after all these years? Is it a dream, or a nightmare?
Watch the trailer, then read on for this ’80s kid’s journey through dreamland!
Dreamscape Overview – Box Office, Cast, and Poster Art
Dreamscape premiered in theaters on August 17, 1984, finishing in 9th place its opening weekend. Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope took the top spot on a list that included such classic films as Gremlins, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, and Revenge of the Nerds. Dreamscape was the second film rated PG-13 by the MPAA ever released. The first? Another cold war themed film, Red Dawn, which hit theaters just one week earlier.
The incredible cast is the first thing you’ll notice about Dreamscape, which stars a fresh-faced, 30 year-old Dennis Quaid, alongside cinematic legends Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist 1973 – read our retro review here), Christopher Plummer (A Beautiful Mind 2001), and Eddie Albert (Green Acres TV series). The cast is rounded out by Kate Capshaw (straight from her big break in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Cheers icon George Wendt, and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks franchise, 48 Hrs. 1982). You’ll also recognize character actors Peter Jason (from multiple John Carpenter films) and Brian Libby (Silent Rage 1982) along the way.
Another thing that instantly stands out is the film’s stunning poster artwork from ionic poster artist Drew Struzan, who has designed more than 150 movie posters in his career, including multiple designs for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back To The Future film franchises. It’s stunningly cool. Check it out!
Dreamscape Synopsis and Story
A young psychic on the run from himself is recruited by a government agency experimenting with the use of the dream-sharing technology and is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of the U.S. president.
Dreamscape opens with a nightmare sequence: a woman running in terror from a nuclear blast. A man wakes up, terrified, in a cold sweat. This is the President of the United states (Albert), and this is not his first bad dream. We are then introduced to our hero, Alex Gardner, played to charming perfection by Dennis Quaid. Alex is at the racetrack betting on horses, and, of course, he wins big. You get the feeling he knew the outcome of the race before it started. This runs him afoul of some tough guys who have obviously given him issues in the past.
Alex escapes with a little creative trickery, and upon returning home, we learn this is his life: gambler, aspiring musician, womanizer. Scoundrel! Our kind of guy.
The Plot Thickens
Alex is summoned to Thornhill College where his is asked to participate in a program that aims to insert people with psychic abilities into test subjects’ dreams. The program is run by Dr. Paul Novotny (Von Sydow) and Dr. Jane Devries (Capshaw). We learn Alex and Novotny have history together. They had participated in a psychic study 9 years earlier in Chicago. Alex walked away back then and has no intention of returning now. A little blackmail (and a strong attraction to Dr. Devries) changes all that.
Alex soon asserts himself as the program’s rising star when he successfully enters a construction worker’s dream and helps a young boy banish a nightmare creature. The psychic star of the dream insertion program to that point was Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly). We soon learn that Tommy Ray and evil government intelligence chief Bob Blair (Plummer) are working together to take the dream program in a sinister direction.
Can Alex stop them? Will the President survive long enough to sign the nuclear arms treaty? What are you asking me for? You’ll have to find out for yourself!
What Dreams May Come?
Dreamscape feels awfully familiar. It plays like an amalgamation of similar films that all came out around the same time. The nuclear fear and paranoia plays heavily like in The Day After (1983). The psychic powers and the government study program channel Firestarter (1983) and The Dead Zone (1983). There is a psychic test between Quaid and Capshaw that was lifted directly from Ghostbusters (1984).
The biggest idea here, however, is the concept of entering and influencing dreams. This feels like something right out of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The problem? Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece hadn’t been released yet. It hit theaters later that year in November. However, Tommy Ray does a pretty mean Freddy Krueger impression… right down to the metal claws!
Hollywood is famous for releasing films with similar concepts in the same release window with different studios. In 1981, we got Madman, The Prowler, and Friday the 13th Part 2, which are all essentially the same film. At one point, Armageddon squared off against Deep Impact. Dante’s Peak hit the same time as Volcano. There was also that glorious run of Deepstar Six, The Abyss, Leviathan, The Rift, and Lords of the Deep in 1989. Is there a connection? Maybe. Dreamscape screenwriter Chuck Russell would go on to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in 1987. If you’re looking for a conspiracy theory, that’s probably the closest you’ll come to finding it.
What’s To Like?
Dennis Quaid is effortlessly charming. He has great chemistry with Kate Capshaw who, admittedly, is not a great actress, but her performance here is serviceable. Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow dominate the screen in every scene they’re in. David Patrick Kelly is an insufferable shitbag of a villain you’ll just love to hate. It’s a cool concept. If you enjoy films like The Dead Zone and A Nightmare On Elm Street, you’ll definitely appreciate Dreamscape‘s overall vibe. For me, there’s a good bit of nostalgia here. Fans of the 1980s will definitely appreciate the look back.
What’s Not To Like?
I’m not an FX snob by any stretch, but the visual FX here are jarringly bad in spots. You need to see the Snake Man to believe it (look out below!). The Cold War is a great historical backdrop, but doesn’t pack the same punch in 2019 as a motivating factor for the villains. Younger audiences might have trouble inserting themselves into this time period and feeling sufficiently engaged. The soundtrack is not super memorable and serves to further ground the film firmly in the ’80s.
Whether you’ve seen it before or not, I think Dreamscape is worth your time. It’s hard to believe it’s been 35 years. I certainly enjoyed the revisit, and Amazon Prime Video made it a snap. Psst… it’s streaming now! If you enjoy it as much as I did, you may want to check out Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. It has a ton of special features, including commentary tracks, documentaries, and tons of info about the infamous Snake… thing. I think I’ll snag a copy for myself. Those commentary tracks are calling my name!
Get Your Hands On Dreamscape Right Here!
So what do you think? Have you seen Dreamscape? Do you enjoy it as much as I do? Tell us in the comments!