Jesse Calderone is back this week with another episode of “Netflix After Dark”. A series where films that, to the naked eye, have no business being compared, are thrown on the chopping block together. This week, Inception is thrown in the ring with Dreamscape.
Alex, of dreamscape is kind of a dick. He’s a little annoying, not very responsible, and not always a great person. However, there is one thing he is not, and that is unbelievable. I know a ton of people like him, including myself. He isn’t immediately great at being in dreams; he has plenty of difficulty mastering it. He is skeptical of things and needs to see it to believe it. When presented with his romantic interest asleep in front of him he uses his dream tapping abilities to go into her dream and have sex with her. These are things lots of us would do in his position. Cobb, from Inception, is someone I find a lot more unbelievable; always seeming to have a cool and level head, yet being totally nuts about his dead wife and whatnot. More importantly he splits the film between being about the ensemble cast that is trying to pull off the dream heist and his own lost romance plot to the point that it is sort of unclear just who we should be following or caring about.
Though a corrupt government official is sort of the main villain, the definite antagonist award in Dreamscape goes to Tommy, the other psychic dream invader, Alex’s rival. He is jealous of Alex’s success, a believable early motive to antagonism. He’s kind of a little shit, but he does it so well. He sneers and talks shit at all the right times and makes us pretty damn annoyed with him. This makes it all the better when in the final dream sequence he faces of with Alex and completely outshines his ability. Tommy has been at the dream game longer than Alex and has much more ability. He can create himself to be anything he wants and has ultimate power. Not only did he used to be just annoying, then evil, but now he is an intense threat. We want him to die and his plans to not work out. It is immensely satisfying when Alex finally beats him at his own game by transforming into Tommy’s dead father that Tommy murdered and distracting him long enough to be impaled. All of this stuff is pretty cool and entertaining and we feel for it. That is a million times more than I can say about the villain of inception which is… not really anyone. It’s all people’s own minds turning against them. The only direct enemies are faceless robotic troops sent to eradicate intruders. Not so awesome.
Dreamscape uses sets, lighting, camera tricks, sound, acting, and admittedly primitive visual effects to convey the feeling of being in a dream. One environment transitions suddenly to another, lighting changes convey rapid changes in mood, sound is warped and echoed to give the hint of something being just a bit off. The film uses creative and stimulating techniques that constantly send the viewer thinking about their own dreams. Each different sort of dream also has its own feel and set of visual tropes that are consistent, creating a visual and aural map of the different consciousness Alex enters. Inception’s dreams are just like life (yes, I know that is sort of the point) but when they do get strange the only two things that change are time and gravity. Inception dreams work with interesting concepts of time and gravity and how they can change, but not necessarily with manipulation. Dreamers in Inception are victims of their environments, whereas dreamers in Dreamscape have command of the environment and are able to change it based on their wants and needs. Inception’s dreams are fascinating to watch, to be sure, but fail to emulate the dream state as fully and as usefully as Dreamscape.
When making a film about dreams is it a cool idea to include several types. Dreamscape runs the gamut from terrible nightmares, to romantic sexy dreams, to anxiety produced dreams, to comedic absurd dreams. Each sort of dream has a different set of rules and is there for a purpose. Alex also interacts with the dreams not always as an observer, but usually as an active participant, making his presence there immediately important and not just a gimmick. Inception features mostly dreams about hanging around cool architecture and wearing awesome suits. It works for the plot and style but it misses out on a great opportunity to really tap into the emotion of dreams. Dreams are not as cut and dry as a slick heist movie. Dreams have a power and a lot of emotion to them that has to be acknowledged. Dreamscape uses this well, letting the characters be affected emotionally by the dreams in the real world. Comprehensiveness is far from absolutely necessary, but I have found it to be a powerful factor in bumping a dream movie up several notches. Taking the time to explore different environments is usually superior to sticking to the same tricks for every dream sequence.
Dreamscape is about a real life plot to kill the president. Wham! Presidential assassinations are totally high stakes shit! Even if you find it cheesy, the point is that the film and its idea of being an active participant in dreams is massively motivated and important. The villains plan to tap into the president’s nightmares, kill him, and make it look like he died in his sleep. This plot is made even direr because it does not happen only in the dreams, far from it. Alex experiences a number of real life run-ins with the bad guys and some legitimately good action scenes result. The film builds to a great climax and at the point of finally entering the president’s dream we are on the edge of our seats. People in real life have been killed at this point. Alex is seeking to both avenge his friend’s death and save the president’s life. We totally want him to succeed and are with him every step of the way. Inception’s stakes are a corporate takeover. The head of one company wants to convince the head of another company in his dreams to dissolve his company. This is interesting, but also distracting. While we are still trying to figure out just why such an elaborate plan is necessary, the plot of the film erupts and we are sucked into dreamland. By the end of the film the reason for all the dreaming is nearly forgotten. You could say that this is a sign of just how engrossing the film is, but the fact remains that what is at stake in Inception is not important enough to override Cobb’s mad quest to perform ‘inception’ successfully. Dreamscape’s plot and larger than life story propel it upward from just a bunch of dream nerds running an experiment, to a practical application of the dream tapping abilities.