Nunchucks! Dirt bike chases! Giant rubber snake monsters! Nuclear apocalypse! 'Dreamscape' has got it all!
The 1980s were a very special time for lovers of cornball sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. Best yet were those that combined all three genres into one delectable package, especially those that tried to belie their tiny budgets with tepid action set-pieces and hand-cobbled special effects. On the great and wide-ranging scale of vintage 1980s cheese, 'Dreamscape' is a veritable smorgasbord of the stuff. And we're not talking about any nice sharp cheddar or aromatic foreign fromage here. No, front and center of this spread is a giant block of bright orange, government-issue, processed cheese-like substance. Mmmm, tasty.
So what's this masterwork about, you ask? Dennis Quaid is psychic. Well, not the real Dennis Quaid, of course, but Alex Gardner, the character he plays. You got that, right? Anyway, Quaid is a smug young hustler who uses his psychic gifts to cheat at gambling and other small-time cons. Yet for some reason, he still has trouble making ends meet and staying on the good side of his creditors. You'd think he'd have better luck at that. This gets him into hot water with some shady characters who want to do him much physical harm. While on the lam, Quaid/Alex winds up hiding out at a dream research institute headed up by Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw, who plan to use pseudoscience voodoo to project psychic individuals into other people's dreams.
Ostensibly, the point of this is to cure sleep disorders and chronic nightmares. Alex gets suckered in by the plight of a kid (Cory "Bumper" Yothers, brother of 'Family Ties' star Tina Yothers) whose night terrors about an evil snake monster boogeyman are so severe that the last psychic to visit his head went catatonic afterwards. Sounds like a challenge.
Meanwhile, Oliver from 'Green Acres' (you know, Eddie Albert) has somehow ascended to be President of the United States, and is having bad dreams about the inevitable nuclear holocaust. They've driven him so crazy that he actually wants to (gasp!) sign a disarmament treaty. Government creep Christopher Plummer will have no talk of that mamby-pamby peacenik business. He convinces the Pres to seek help at the dream clinic, where he's recruited evil psychic David Patrick Kelly ("Warr-ee-orrs... Come out to plaay-aay!") to invade his dreams and kill him. That old wives' tale about dying in your dreams and dying for real is true, you see. Naturally, this must eventually lead to a big showdown between the good psychic and the bad psychic in the roiling apocalyptic tumult of the President's subconscious.
'Dreamscape' was directed by Joseph Ruben, who would later hit paydirt with cult favorite 'The Stepfather', as well as the Julia Roberts blockbuster 'Sleeping with the Enemy'. It was produced and co-written by Chuck Russell, the schlockmeister behind 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' and 'The Mask'. In its day, the movie's elaborate surreal dream sequences, which feature 'Dr. Caligari'-like distorted sets and trippy ink blot imagery, must have seemed quite ambitious for a production of this budget. They haven't aged well, if in fact they could ever be taken seriously in the first place. The laughable optical effects, jerky stop-motion animation, and rubber monster costumes scream of 1980s cheese. The atomic blast that opens the picture is a real doozy. Dennis Quaid's perfect coif of wavy hair and insistence on strutting around in a Speedo don't help matters. Perhaps worst of all, legendary composer Maurice Jarre (yes, he of 'Lawrence of Arabia' fame!) contributes an absolutely atrocious electronic score that is one of the biggest embarrassments on his resumé.
Ironically, it's precisely all that off-the-charts datedness that keeps the movie so entertaining today. Despite its goofy concept and general disregard for scientific plausibility, in many respects 'Dreamscape' is actually a fairly competent thriller that plays out its story with almost perplexing seriousness and sincerity. The film refuses to indulge in outright camp or wink at the audience. If it had, it might be insufferable now. Instead, it holds up as a silly nostalgic treat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Image Entertainment offers up 'Dreamscape' on Blu-ray in a less-than-impressive Special Edition that mirrors its last DVD release from 2000. The movie has been squeezed onto a single-layer BD-25 disc with minimal bonus features. The studio couldn't even scrounge up any decent-looking still images for the back of the case art. Because the disc includes no alternate language tracks or subtitles, the main menu lacks any set-up options. On the plus side, at least there aren't any annoying forced trailers at the start.
Anything positive I have to say about the Blu-ray transfer will probably sound like I'm apologizing for it. I'm sure that some readers will find my 2.5 star rating too generous. Make no mistake, this is not a great-looking image. However, there are some extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into account.
'Dreamscape' was a low-budget production from the early 1980s. Most of the movie was shot on grainy high-speed film stocks intended for low-light situations. In addition, it has an abundance of optical effects that degraded the picture quality with each compositing pass. Higher-budgeted pictures of the time would use 65mm film stock for special effects scenes, in order to maintain final image quality about on par with the standard 35mm footage once all the composites were completed. I seriously doubt that 'Dreamscape' had that luxury. When not handled carefully enough, the compositing process also had a common side effect of trapping dirt and stray hairs in between the film layers, which would become embedded in the final composite. That very clearly happened here. Those attributes are endemic to the film, and will show up in any video transfer unless the studio spends the money on a full-blown restoration to have the artifacts digitally painted out and other touch-up work performed.
This Blu-ray is not a full restoration. It's just a straightforward transfer of the existing film elements. In fact, the 1080i encode leaves me to assume that Image has simply recycled an old HD broadcast master. At the very least, the transfer dates back no more recently than the DVD edition released a decade ago.
With all that said, the 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks acceptable enough… for 'Dreamscape'. I certainly haven't ever seen it look better. Yes, colors are dull and flesh tones are drab. That's common of movies from the era shot on fast film stocks. True, the picture is heavily grainy in many scenes. But it doesn't look like Digital Noise Reduction filtering has smeared away any detail. The grain looks like real film grain, not like digital noise, and moves in natural patterns on screen. I also don't see any artificial sharpening or contrast boosting.
The studio has slightly opened the mattes from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to fill a 16:9 frame. The difference is negligible. The picture isn't extraordinarily sharp by any means, but has a fair representation of detail (definitely better than DVD). Daylight scenes look best. Unfortunately, dirt, grit, and speckles appear throughout most of the movie, not just the FX footage, which suggests that the source elements for this transfer were not all they could be.
I'm sure that this is probably not the best that 'Dreamscape' could ever look. A studio that put more time, care, and money into the transfer might yield better results, if it felt that a limited-interest catalog title like this merited the investment. For what it's worth, the disc is also not the worst that the movie could ever look. That may not be much of a compliment, but it's got to count for something. Quite simply, it is what it is.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is easily the disc's best feature. Although Maurice Jarre's score is far from the composer's most renowned or accomplished work, it's presented on disc with pleasing breadth across the front soundstage. The music is loud, clear, and incorporates some modest but satisfying bass activity. Dialogue and sound effects are sufficiently crisp and coherent. The audio also makes use of some effective directional and ambient effects.
As a Dolby Stereo mix from the early 1980s, the track is primarily front-focused. Surround activity is limited. Nor is there any deep low-end, even during the atomic blast at the start of the movie. Also, some of the dream scenes sound too bright and uncomfortable at times. Nonetheless, considering the source, the soundtrack deserves some credit.
The Blu-ray carries over the limited selection of bonus features from the DVD released back in 2000.
From its poster art that makes the movie look like a low-rent 'Indiana Jones' knockoff, to its hilariously awful special effects, which honestly looked pretty ridiculous even 26 years ago, 'Dreamscape' is a sci-fi picture that could only have been made in the 1980s. The film is best enjoyed as an artifact of that era. Like the movie, the Blu-ray transfer is not "good" in any objective sense. But it'll do, for what it is. It's disappointing, but still the best that 'Dreamscape' has ever looked, if that means anything.
The MSRP and current asking price for the disc are pretty ridiculous, and not at all justified by what you get. Wait it out a little while, and surely the Blu-ray will slide in value. Once it sells for around $10, this'll make a decent guilty pleasure purchase.