What does it mean to be original? It is a question that has been asked time and again in the arts, particularly in contemporary times. In a media saturated landscape, the question is rather confusing, with so many voices, projects and ideas being tossed about at nearly the speed of thought. For many, the very concept of originality is dead, with all art considered a reworking or synthesis of old ideas and concepts into a new form.
Yet, the concept of originality remains an obsession in our culture, particularly when it comes to cinema. How often do we hear people complain that a given film is unoriginal, or similar to another idea? Putting aside that such complaints tend to miss that the very films they grant the status of being “original” are merely re-workings of other texts themselves, these complaints tend to associate the idea of being original as “superior” to the works that come later. It ignores the possibility of refinement, improvement or an alternative take on similar ideas.
Certainly, there is some merit to the lack of “originality” in modern cinema: the endless parade of remakes are a testament to Hollywood’s never ending cannibalism of its past. Yet, the vast majority of cinema is built upon cobbling ideas and concepts from elsewhere: classic Hollywood frequently adapted, “borrowed” and outright stole ideas from other media. These other media were frequently drawing from other sources and ideas themselves. Even the great William Shakespeare’s plays were frequently synthesising other works that had preceded him.
While films, at least within the commercial system, often rely on a blend of innovation and the familiar, what people respond to most often is how well a given film is executed. When a film enjoyed, the complaints about originality tend to be mild. Certainly, a brilliant premise is a great place to start, but if the execution of that premise is lacking, or even outright awful, then it matters not how strong the premise is. Likewise, a thin or well worn premise properly executed can become a magnificent film.
Which brings us to the 1984 science fiction film Dreamscape and recent comments by filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers) regarding the similarity of Christopher Nolan’s Inception to the earlier film. While Landis praised Nolan, he made sure to make clear that the film was not an original, referencing Dreamscape as having beaten Nolan to the punch by 26 years. And indeed the basic premise of the film, in which a man is able to enter the dreams of others, is similar to the premise of Inception. Furthermore, like Inception, Dreamscape’s narrative centers on the eventual invasion of the mind of an important man and the blurring of various dreams together. Yet Dreamscape is a decidedly inferior work compared to Nolan’s Inception, with its unique premise serving little purpose beyond spicing up an otherwise conventional thriller that is filled with the stock characters and situations, which are executed in a fairly tired manner.
Dreamscape focuses on the character of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid), a young psychic who is dragged into an experimental program by Dr. Novotny (Max von Sydow), who years ago studied Alex when his abilities first emerged. Novotny has created a device which allows psychics to enter the dreams of others as a form of therapy/psychoanalysis. Alex is blackmailed into helping Novotny, but he at least sees the project as a way to try and woo Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), another scientist working on the project.
The thriller side of the film is provided by Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), a high ranking head of a secret government organization and friend of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert). The President is suffering from recurring nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, and has decided to push the country towards nuclear disarmament. Blair, fearful such an approach will put the United States at risk, decides that the only course of action is to eliminate the President while he dreams. When Alex stumbles upon the plot, he is put on the run in a desperate race to save the President’s life.
The lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers is evident in nearly every frame of Dreamscape, starting with its cast of characters. For a film that involves human psychology in its very premise, the film is peopled by cartoons found in below average thrillers. Dennis Quaid is once again stuck playing a second rate Harrison Ford as Alex, the supposedly loveable cocky bastard. Quaid does his best with the material, but given how simplistic the character is, he is reduced to getting by on charm, which becomes hopeless after a certain sequence (more on that in a minute). Capshaw, Plummer and von Sydow fair no better, being stuck with the roles of the hero’s love interest, bad-for-the-hell-of-it-villain, and wise old mentor figure respectively.
The closest the film comes to dealing with the psychology of its characters is a scene in which Alex enters Jane’s dream, which quickly becomes an erotic fantasy. The scene is played for its seeming sexiness, yet the context of this “love” scene involves Alex entering Jane’s dream without her permission, evoking notions of rape. The film however chooses to ignore the implications of this scene, brushing them under the rug as quickly as possible to get on with the plot. The aftermath of these scene is doubly damaging for the film, introducing an unsettling and complicated side to the otherwise bland Alex that might have been interesting, if disturbing, to explore, only to ignore the subject while asking the audience to keep finding Alex a likeable rogue. As such, it is hard to find the film a fun romp as much as the film would like to convince the audience it is when our “hero” comes close to being an out and out sexual predator.
Speaking of the dreamscapes, these might be the most disappointing aspect of the film overall. As with everything else in the film, the dream reality is treated in as safe and standard a manner as possible, marked off from reality with extreme lighting, off kilter camera work and a far too literal correlation between the fears of characters and their realization within the dreamscape. Why is it that one patient is struggling at achieving an erection? It is because he is afraid that his wife is sleeping around, and that is just what happens in the dream. What is the weakness to the assassin sent to kill the president? Why, it just so happens to be the personal detail Alex learns early on. The imagery for snake monsters and demonic dogs is so by the book that it is astounding that the filmmakers even bothered with them, and the fairly poor effects work in achieving these visions does nothing to help combat the lack of threat found in these dream sequences.
The worst sin of the film is how it fails to integrate the various components of the film together. The science fiction, thriller and romantic sides of the story all feel as if they are distinct films forced to exist together without any thought to whether they should coexist in the same narrative. Inception manages to successfully blend the various genres it pulls from together because the film is unified in its focus on the psychology of protagonist Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose issues ultimately subsume the dream worlds he finds himself in. Dreamscape lacks any similar type of unifying principle, bouncing from scene to scene without any goal. It is as if the filmmakers had three different scripts, snipping scenes from each one and stitched them together in the most basic fashion possible. The film was written by three writers, David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (The Blob) and director Joseph Ruben, and the film shows the signs of too many hands trying to guide the final product.
Given these problems, it is hard to give Dreamscape’s “original” premise any merit given its complete lack of originality in terms of execution. Yet, What damns Dreamscape all the more is not its failings in comparison with Inception, but its failings compared to another 1984 film: Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. With that film, director Craven blends reality and the dream world to much greater impact and thematic resonance, cleverly addressing issues of abuse and the disintegration of the American family within the seemingly limited confines of the slasher genre. As such, Craven’s film still feels modern and of our times; Dreamscape feels twenty years older than it is.