‘Inception’ Is Only The Latest Blockbuster To Explore Dream Worlds In Hollywood

I’ve been adhering to a self-imposed ban on all things “Inception.” I found the first trailer to be utterly captivating in a non-revealing sort of way, in many ways reminiscent of how I felt after seeing the debut trailer for “The Matrix.” Subsequent ads have spoiled some of the story particulars, most notably (spoiler alert?) that the wacky vistas we’ve glimpsed are quite literally the stuff of dreams. The story in some way deals with people who have the ability to explore sleeptime fantasies and nightmares. To what end I have no idea, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Hollywood explore the REM state.

Dreams are an old motif in film, stretching all the way to Hollywood’s earliest efforts. Sometimes they pop up in the midst of a story, the better to illustrate a particular character’s fears and anxieties. Other times they serve as a framing device, with most of the story in question occurring in a sleep-created fantasy world. In honor of the Friday release of “Inception,” I’ve decided to take a look back at some of my own favorite dreamscapes from Hollywood’s past.

Ah, the oft-forgotten “Dreamscape.” There’s a great cast here, including an early starring role from Dennis Quaid along with Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Kate Capshaw and George Wendt. The story follows a young man (Quaid) with psychic powers and a government-funded plot that involves entering a person’s dreams as an assassination tool. As you might expect from a dream-based movie, this plot outline is just a launch point for what amounts to a pretty surreal adventure.

“Total Recall”
So many things to pinpoint in this classic Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, directed by Paul Verhoeven and adapted from the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” There’s the talking old lady disguise that doubles as an explosive device. The three-breasted woman. The “tugging a ping pong ball-sized tracking device out of his nose” scene. And of course, “Give those people air!” But is the story that unfolds really all just a dream?

“Alice in Wonderland”
I’m referring here to the classic Disney animated film, not the live-action sequel that hit theaters earlier this year. While the more recent Tim Burton-directed sequel is clearly not a dream world fantasy, the original tale certainly is. Alice, lounging lazily outside at the beginning of the story, follows a well-dressed, talking white rabbit down his nearby rabbit hole. The adventure through Wonderland that follows goes to some weird places, and that’s because it’s all the product of a wildly imaginative dream. The story ends with Alice waking up from an afternoon nap in the same place that she first saw the rabbit.

“The Wizard of Oz”
I’m pretty sure there were a few examples of dream worlds in film before “The Wizard of Oz” came along in 1939, but this is certainly the most prominent early example. Young Dorothy Gale is caught in a Kansas tornado and whisked away to the magical land of Oz. A magical dream land, she later learns when she wakes up from her adventure safe and sound in Kansas. There’s no place like home indeed.

The “Nightmare on Elm Street” series
Where would a tribute to Hollywood’s dreamland escapades be without some reference to the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series? Nightmares are the unquestioned domain of Freddy Krueger, a formerly human pedophile-turned-malevolent, homicidal demon who preys on his victims while they sleep. Not just that, but in their dreams! “Nightmare” was recently the subject of a 2010 adaptation, but few horror flicks are as terrifying as the 1984 original.