EIGHT FILMS CONTAINING DREAM SEQUENCES MORE INTERESTING THAN THE ONES IN INCEPTION

 

THINGS I LIKED ABOUT INCEPTION:

 

1) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Michel Caine. (I liked Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins, but he was miscast here. Too-weird looking for the role.) I really wanted to attend one of Caine’s lectures in Dream Architecture at the Sorbonne.

 

2) Leonardo DiCaprio and Page folding Paris up like a map (which I’d already seen in the teaser trailer) followed by Page’s use of mirrors. This was promising, but after the Paris scenes we never saw these tricks again. What’s the point of showing a gun in the first act if you don’t use it in the third?

 

3) Gordon-Levitt trying to corral everyone into the lift while they were sleeping and weightless. It was funny and frustrating and strange and a little bit silly. Just like something in a dream, in fact.

 

4) The MC Escher staircases were great.

 

5) Inception is a summer blockbuster which is neither a sequel nor a remake.

 

 

THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT INCEPTION:

 

1) It was like Ocean’s 11: stuffed with MacGuffins and needlessly overelaborate caper movie hokum. Perhaps Christopher Nolan thought that if he made it complicated enough, we’d be too befuddled or bedazzled to question his lack of basic craftsmanship when it came to plot and characters.

 

2) Leonardo DiCaprio appears to playing the exact same character he played in Shutter Island. A bit bonkers? Tick. Guilty about wife’s death? Tick. Refusal to face reality? Tick. DiCaprio has no hidden depths – he wears his art on his sleeve, and we’ve seen it all before. Also, I don’t find him very attractive, and he’s too earnest to be charming.

 

2) Nolan can’t direct action for toffee. The shoot-outs were straight out of a bog-standard action-for-beginners manual, with anonymous enemy shooters falling like Stormtroopers; if these guys were supposed to be protecting Cillian Murphy’s subconscious, they weren’t doing a very good job of it. And did they have to be shooters? Couldn’t Nolan have rung the changes on one or more of the levels with more imaginative traps or snares or guardians?

 

Some of Inception‘s basic two-shots were awfully clunky too – and this is not something I generally look out for, so they must have been ropey if I noticed them. I’m starting to think Nolan is not so much a film director as a film architect – creator of worlds, but not so great at knowing where to put the camera.

 

3) I had no sense that any of the characters (other than DiCaprio) had histories or lives beyond the story; they were interchangeable blanks, entirely reliant on the actors playing them to sock over a bit of their own personality. If the characters had been better developed, maybe their dreams might have been more interesting? Just saying.

 

4) Anonymous settings (generic streets, hotel, Ice Station Zebra snow station), routine shoot-em-ups – these were some of the dullest dreams in the history of dreaming in the cinema. My dreams knock these pieces of crap out of the ballpark, and I expect yours do too.

 

I have accordingly compiled a list of Eight Films Containing Dream Sequences More Interesting Than the Ones in Inception; these dreams are sinister, scary, bizarre, astonishing or alarming in ways the ones in Inception were not.

 

The ending of Inception echoes the endings of eXistenZ or Avalon but I haven’t included those films because they’re not technically about dreaming – though there is nothing in Inception remotely as disturbing, funny and dreamlike as the gun constructed out of Chinese food in eXistenZ. Nor have I included alternate realities, hallucinations brought about by blows to the head or drug-induced visions.

 

If this list had been longer, it might also have included: Stranger on the Third Floor, The Woman in the Window, Vertigo, Still of the Night, Dream Demon, Aliens, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, An American Werewolf in London, The Fly, Total Recall, Audition, Living in Oblivion, Blade Runner, Eraserhead, Heathers, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as well as dream episodes of The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In any case, this selection is subjective, fairly arbitrary and not intended to be definitive.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

SPELLBOUND (1945)

“They tell you what you are trying to hide, but they tell it to you all mixed up, like pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit.”

The Dream: designed by Salvador Dali, filled with stylised, exaggerated symbolism relating to Gregory Peck’s repressed memories, which contain the keys to a murder and to Peck’s own amnesia. Director Alfred Hitchcock described it as “just another manhunt story wrapped in pseudo-psychology.”

 

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

“I’ve seen you in my dreams. Sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamt about you over and over again, Doctor.”

The Dream: the entire film is revealed to be one long dream, which at the end looks set to repeat itself (though some argue that the last few minutes actually do take place in the real world). Architect Mervyn Johns arrives at a country cotttage he’s never been to before but experiences ominous sensations of déjà-vu as the other guests relate their experiences of the uncanny. I like the way the climax of the dream incorporates all the characters and stories from earlier in the film and gives them an extra nightmarish twist.



 

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

“Night after night, the Major was plagued by the same recurring nightmare.”

Before I saw it for the first time, nobody told me The Manchurian Candidate was funny. But it is, and extremely weird to boot. Frank Sinatra and the rest of his platoon are suffering from recurring nightmares apparently set in a New Jersey hotel playing host to a “Fun with Hydrangeas” convention populated by Women’s Institute types, though in reality the dreams are the result of their having been brainwashed in Korea. The detail I particularly love is the way the colour of the women’s skin changes according to the ethnicity of the man who’s dreaming.

 

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”

The Dream: Rosemary dreams she’s on a yacht with JFK, then she’s naked, then she’s being raped by the Devil in a roomful of naked old folk. Depicting this as a dream was a masterstroke (can’t remember if it was Ira Levin’s idea or Roman Polanski’s); filmed straight, the ritual would have been absurd (like the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut) but mixing it up with Rosemary’s subconscious makes it subjective, ambiguous and very creepy. It also, incidentally, slips in the information that Rosemary has been “chosen” because she’s a nice Catholic girl. This is arguably a drug-induced dream (or at least a chocolate mousse-induced one) but I’m including it anyway because I love the way it blends fantasy, reality and celebs.

 

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

“Le sergeant a un rêve très sympathique à vous raconter.”

The Dream: The entire film can be interpreted as a series of interlocking dreams in which a group of middle-class people repeatedly try to sit down and eat dinner, but are prevented from doing so for increasingly outlandish reasons. In one scene, a young army sergeant describes a dream (the very fact that he’s describing it in the first place is dreamlike and bizarre) in which he’s walking down an empty street; first he bumps into a friend who has been dead for six years, then his mother, who is also long dead). Meanwhile, on the soundtrack there’s the ominous sound of a tolling bell and the constant murmur of an invisible crowd. Nothing much happens, but it’s very creepy.

 

DREAMSCAPE (1984)

“When you dream that you die, you die in life at the very same instant. Now we can go into an enemy’s dream, kill him, make it look as if he died in his sleep.”

The Dream: Dreamscape is a direct antecedent of Inception. Dennis Quaid (one of the good guys) and David Patrick Kelly (team evil) have the ability to enter people’s dreams. The President has been having nightmares about a nuclear holocaust and wants to sign a peace treaty; Christopher Plummer tries to stop him by sending Kelly into his dream. In the climax, Kelly chases Quaid and the President through a trainful of zombies and turns into a snake monster. Many people think the special effects are clunky, but I think they’re great.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

 

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

The Dream: Freddy Krueger is a dead bogeyman who murders teenagers in their dreams. Wes Craven’s first film in what would be a long-running but increasingly jokey franchise is a genuinely eerie and imaginative slasher movie which exploits the confusion between dreams and reality.

 

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

“I’m just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place.”

The Dream: even before three-quarters of the plot is revealed to be a dream, watching Mulholland Drive feels like dreaming with your eyes open. Unlike Inception, it feels as though every single element in the film has been placed there for a purpose: the scene behind the diner, the sinister cowboy, dreams within dreams, apparent non-sequiturs, the blue box, “Silenzio”, amputated plot threads left over from the film’s first incarnation as a TV series pilot, things that don’t seem quite right. To me, Mulholland Drive feels like the most uncanny depiction of the dream state ever filmed. I like to think that if ever David Lynch were to film my nightmares, they would end up something like this.

 

More Annotated Film Lists

 

My Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time
 

Holy Motors & My Top Ten Musical Entr’actes in Non-Musical Films
 

Ten Actresses on Whom I Have Girlcrushes
 

Six Reasons Why The Thing Prequel is Better than John Carpenter’s 1982 Film
 

Ten Best Men’s Style Movies
 

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13 thoughts on “EIGHT FILMS CONTAINING DREAM SEQUENCES MORE INTERESTING THAN THE ONES IN INCEPTION

  1. Though I think I enjoyed the film more than you did, I can't fault any of your comments here Anne. I too had some problems with the shooting of the action – I suspect some of it is to do with too many directors directing for the monitor on set. So many 'action' films now look better on DVD/at home than on the big screen, because they seem shot for a screen of that size. Cinema screens so amplify the shake of some of the shots as to be almost unwatchable at times.

    Love the inclusion of Manchurian Candidate in the list here – those scenes really unsettled me first time I saw them. And Mullholland Drive – what can I say. The 'Silenzio' sequence gives me chills every time. Unutterably affecting just watching them watch that woman sing, listening to her voice; it's an astonishingly moving sequence…

    Tragically, my own dreams are 90% utter mundanity. I like to think because so many of my waking thoughts are so odd. 🙂

  2. I DID enjoy it, though I became increasingly impatient as the film went on (and on) and failed to live up to the promise of the earlier scenes.

    But I PARTICULARLY enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen. Rigorous spoiler avoidance DOES pay off.

  3. It depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I went in to Inception expecting a high-concept action thriller and got way WAY more than I expected. It's not a life-changing movie, it isn't meant to be disturbing or erotic the way some of these other films are, it's a caper movie with a gloss of intellectual/philosophical depth that was entirely missing from (for example) The Matrix, Inception's obvious progenitor. It dealt in STRUCTURED dream landscapes….I was actually quite affected by how something as simple as a woman appearing unexpectedly in the midst of a scene reflected exactly the sort of thing that happens in dreams all the time, as opposed to the enirely riduculous, over-wrought and decidedly UN-dreamlike Dali sequence in Spellbound.Nolan said he could have gone down the horror or character-study routes with this idea. He chose the slick action movie genre. That's what you got.

    Anyway, we agree that Bunuel kicked ass at this sort of thing, better than anyone before or since.

  4. I agree with a lot of what you're saying about the flaws of Inception. One thing I found on reflection is that despite the stated subject being dreams, a lot of the imagery and narrative drive seems more to be about games – specifically, video games.

    The plotting seemed very much to be about the kind of puzzle-solving that such games, especially first-person shooters, thrive on (the synchronized kick and Arthur's solution to the zero-g problem in the hotel especially). Also, the architecture itself (simple reiterated structures with occasional striking variation) and the action scenes had a lot in common with FPS such as Call of Duty – Modern Warfare (especially in the Mombassa chase & the Bond fortress), Half Life 2 and FEAR.

    It'd be interesting to see a sequel set in that world through that medium rather than film…

  5. I think catvincent is really on to something. The problem that people have with the film seems to stem from the use of the terminology of 'dreams.' If there was another term for manufactured realities existing inside our heads, that would be more apt.

  6. I agree, Cat and Dan, that the plot Of Inception seems to be more to do with gaming than with dreaming. The whole business with the levels, for example.

    I would be very interested to know what people's dreams were like, in terms of imagery and narrative, before the invention of cinema. Extended exposure to movies must surely have changed the way we dream. To a limited extent, I've found I can “programme” my dreams depending on which DVDs I watch just before bedtime. It might not affect the content, but it certainly dictates the mood.

  7. Wish I could programme mine. Might have to start trying.

    But I've been thinking on this a bit more too, and the above gaming comments are really interesting. But even sticking with dreams, I think there's a logic at work.

    1/The dreams are 'created' by a thrid person. Controlledand constructed – by definition that makes these dreams a concious construct, not an unconcious one. And thus not the unfettered imaginings we might normally experience in dreams.

    2/If you're going to create a dream for someone with the purpose of stealing or implanting an idea, you'd want that dream to be ultimately forgettable. You don't want the person to KNOW that you've done it. Hence a more seemingly mundane dream of the kind you forget by the time you're brushing your teeth is surely more desirable than the one with the rainbow dragon that ate its own testicles, then turned out to be secretly your dad, who you had to kill so you could cut his hcest open since that's the place you hid all your most valuable things…

    Having said that, I still could have done with a bit more of the Paprika kind of imagery and madness. But it sets up a lot of possible questions and scenarios in which grander imagery might play.

    I suspect thogh, that for the most part, the imagery was played downa bit bbecause it's a $200 million movie and Nolan is astute and responsible enough to want to try to ensure that it plays for a mainstream audience. Hence it looks like a more striaght forward kind of high tech thriller, but there's a twist… it's a trojan horse for ideas…

  8. I haven't seen Inception -and don't know much about it- but it seems faffy to me. I usually hate dream sequences,to be honest, but that's a fine collection of films. Amercian Werwolf is a good one too.

  9. Wild Strawberries has 2 very haunting dream sequences. The idyllic dream sequence that opens Ivan’s Childhood is worth mentioning (when Ivan wakes up, it seems he’s in a nightmare, but of course that’s his reality). Also the opening of 8 1/2, with Marcello Mastroianni floating out of the traffic jam and into the air…..

  10. PS. I’m surprised more people haven’t called out the bogusness of Inception’s “dreams within dreams within dreams” premise. It is, of course, nonsense. Dreams are dreams. How can there possibly be a dream “within” a dream? The entire premise is phooey.

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