Before 2010, nobody had ever seen anything quite like Inception. Complicated, a bit pretentious, and extremely mind-bending, it was a new breed of sci-fi blockbuster.
But the idea of infiltrating people’s dreams is as old as science fiction itself. Even Spongebob Squarepants toyed with the idea once upon a time. But never has this sci-fi technique been better explored than in one 1984 film, which blends sci-fi, action, comedy, and even romance into something entirely unique you need to see to believe.
Luckily, you still have a few more days to watch Dreamscape before it leaves HBO Max on June 30.
Directed by Joseph Ruben and released in 1984, Dreamscape stars Dennis Quaid as Alex, a young psychic who gets roped into a secret government project and begins exploring other people’s dreams. Sci-fi legend Max von Sydow plays his elderly mentor, Christopher Plummer plays a conniving villain, and the love interest is portrayed by none other than Kate Capshaw, who’d starred in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom mere months earlier.
At first, it appears Alex’s job is nothing more than helping out those plagued with nightmares, he soon realizes the real nature of his mission: to cure the President of the United States of his nuclear fallout nightmares so he won’t declare a nuclear armistice and, to quote Plummer’s Bob Blair, “bring this country to its knees.”
Just like Inception, Dreamscape features all sorts of surreal dream effects. While such visual techniques were still in their infancy in 1984, the more practical effects are convincing. And even when they’re not, they’re charming in a ramshackle way. “We had everything from miniature work to green screen to animation,” director Joseph Ruben once told Lights Camera Austin. “We used all sorts of different things, but the biggest limitation was we did not have a lot of money.”
37 years later, that low-budget feel gives Dreamscape a very specific thrown-together feel. It’s not terribly focused on convincing you that it’s set in a real world, instead focusing on telling a gripping story (which it does, in spades). When Alex realizes there’s a dark secret behind the technology, thanks to a tip from a novelist played by George Wendt (yes, Norm from Cheers) the film’s stakes are instantly raised, and Dreamscape transforms from a middling sci-fi comedy into a thrilling action-mystery.
Some parts of Dreamscape didn’t age well. When Alex finds his colleague Dr. Jane DeVries sleeping, he non-consensually enters her dream, where they share their first kiss. It’s wrong, and Jane tells him as much, though she admits the encounter was something she had dreamed about.
Ultimately, Dreamscape gave me what I wanted out of Inception: a sci-fi thriller that’s twisty, schlocky, funny, and yet still cerebral. No offense to the great Christopher Nolan, but there’s something to be said for letting your characters’ personalities, not the dream-invading technology, drive the story.
If you love genre-smashing sci-fi or simply want a blast from the past, definitely hit play on this feature before it disappears from HBO Max’s archives at the end of the month. By the time the credits roll, you’ll wonder why it isn’t a classic alongside Blade Runner and WarGames.
Dreamscape is streaming on HBO Max until June 30th.