Dennis Quaid had a pretty good run as a leading man in the late 80s, and while he dipped, he did come back later pretty solidly in his later years, carving a decent niche for himself in those “So you couldn’t get Harrison Ford” roles. These parts were his bread and butter in the 80s. Tell me Tuck Pendleton in Inner Space didn’t have Han Solo in his DNA.
But reaching the top of the marquee does mean paying your dues, and one of Mr. Quaid’s dues was definitely Dreamscape.
The gist behind this movie is a well-worn trope of the 70s and 80s, in which the government and government-adjacent scientists delve into psychic research in the hopes of expanding human potential. I mean, we saw that in Stranger Things, and this movie is one MK-Ultra reference from being the same thing. And, of course, once we’re delving into psychic powers and shady research, we’re going to be dealing with weaponizing those things. That’s what it always comes to. But we’ll get to that.
When we start, the President (Eddie Albert) is having nightmares, and this is causing some serious concern among the his inner circle. The President is terrified of the prospect of being responsible for a nuclear war (imagine that!), and his people want him to, I don’t know, be ready to nuke at a moment’s notice? Yeah, I don’t know. But since the president’s problems are rooted in his dreams, that means more money gets shuffled into Psychic Dream research. Which brings us to Dennis Quaid.
Dennis plays a two-bit con man who spent his younger years being poked and prodded by Max von Sydow’s psychic experiments. He uses his psychic gifts for grifting and conning, and when he gets into some trouble with shady people, he reluctantly signs up with von Sydow’s new dream project.
Von Sydow—with the help of Kate Capshaw—wants to use psychics like Dennis to go into other people’s dreams, for the benevolent purpose of helping people deal with their anxieties and traumas through dream therapy. And just like I said, there’s a government jerk who’s hovering around to weaponize it. That’s Christopher Plummer.
So, there are two psychics who are doing the dreamtripping: Dennis Quaid and Crazy Eyes. That’s not his name, but he’s just CLEARLY CRAZY from the get go, and you know that’s not something good. So the scientists have made this giant hook-up machine so they can jump into other people’s dreams, and they put Dennis or Crazy Eyes on one side, and the Dream Recipient on the other, and then we have our dream sequences.
The dream sequences really are the showcase of this movie. They’re all done with a fair amount of style, including a touch I always liked: each time Dennis goes into a dream, the effect of it includes sound from the end of that dream merged into it. The other nice touch is how, in each dream, while he’s an active, conscious participant, for the other person, it’s just a dream where this guy happens to be around and that’s nothing strange. I like that because it fits with my own experience with dreams: no matter how outlandish they are, within the context of the dream itself, everything feels normal.
So Dennis’s venture’s into dreams have a somewhat perfunctory progression: first a relatively pedestrian dream just to show that he can do it, even though it involves falling off a high-steel construction site at the end. It’s really just a scene to show that he can do it.
The next two are about actually helping test subjects. First, the light one, in which he helps a nebbish of a man’s anxiety. The nebbish is having nightmares he can’t remember, so it’s up to Dennis to go in and find out what’s going on. It turns out the guy’s have cuckolding nightmares where his wife is having sex with EVERYONE. His neighbor, his brother, his golf buddies, the gardener, EVERYONE. I don’t think it’s really resolved at all. It’s just, “Oh, that’s what his nightmares are.” and then we move on.
The other one is the real NIGHTMARE, where he helps a kid who feels abandoned and isolated from his parents. And he helps the kid for real, by fighting the SNAKEMAN. And the Snakeman is some serious scary stuff that spooks Dennis, to the point he even draws pictures of it. This will be important later.
Then, finally, Dennis jumps into Kate Capshaw while she’s napping and goes full on sex-dream with her. She wakes up and gets justifiably angry until he points out that he did it without the machine helping him out. Meanwhile, Crazy Eyes is also exploring his powers, by which I mean MURDERING PEOPLE IN THEIR DREAMS.
Dennis hooks up with Norm from Cheers, a sci-fi writer who has been researching this stuff, who more or less lays out that Crazy Eyes is crazy, and probably killed his own father. Over the course of all this, Christopher Plummer, who is more or less controlling Crazy Eyes, has Max von Sydow and Norm from Cheers killed, leaving Dennis and Kate on their own, knowing they are neck-deep in trouble.
Especially since the President is coming into the clinic for help with his nightmares. His nightmares are all about nuclear apocalypse, which means he’s considering disarmament talks with the Russians. Christopher Plummer is very much against these peacenik ideas, so he’s sending Crazy Eyes into the President’s head to dream-assassinate him.
So now we have a third-act mission. Dennis Quaid has to sneak into the building so he can be physically close enough to the President to get in there as well, and then its full on dream-battle between Dennis and Crazy Eyes within the president’s nightmare-psyche. Unfortunately, Crazy Eyes has been training himself to be a full on Dream Ninja Killing Machine, while Dennis was busy with cuckolding hijinks. So Dennis is at a tactical disadvantage. Plus Crazy Eyes decides to go Snakeman to really freak out Dennis.
Now, I have to say, I was always vaguely annoyed that Crazy Eyes’s Snakeman didn’t really match the one in the kid’s dream. But now that I’ve thought about it, he never saw the real one, he only saw Dennis’s sketches, so of course it wouldn’t be a perfect match. Snaked-up Crazy Eyes chases them around and seems to take Dennis out, but that’s about when Dennis figures out how to be a Dream Ninja, and makes himself look like Crazy Eyes’s father and gives him a guilt distraction. This buys the president time to ram a pipe through Crazy Eyes’s chest and kill him—in the dream and for real.
The President wakes up and gets out of there, but manages to run into Dennis for real and thank him. He’s worried about Christopher Plummer, but Dennis has it covered. Later he slips into Plummer’s head and dream-kills him. Because dream murder of government officials is fine if you’re the good guy!
Finally, we have a pseudo-happy ending where Dennis and Kate go off somewhere on a train, where everything is exactly like her sex-dream. Including the ticket-taker being the same guy. WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Nothing, really, other than they are probably about to make it the sex train for real.
All and all, it’s a frothy bit of psi-fi fluff, coasting on Dennis Quaid’s natural charm and some neat dream sequences. But, yeah, it’s not going to be in his Lifetime Achievement clip reel or anything.