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“I know you said dreams sequences are for f**s, but I think it could work, don’t you?”
Although the above quote is offensive, Martin McDonagh’s film Seven Psychopaths provocatively points out that the presence of dream sequences in films has been played out. They stretch back to Dorothy discovering that, actually, she was still in Kansas (anymore). However, the reason people still talk about The Wizard of Oz isn’t because of the impact the revelation that it was all just a dream had, but rather because it is remembered as the first feature film to be released in full colour. This pivotal technological development was echoed through the narrative structure of the film; the dream sequence became the vehicle for featuring a groundbreaking development. The creative freedom offered by the world of dreams has lead to the kind of filmmaking that would go on to leave a lasting impact on both viewers and even cinema itself. So here now are some examples of dreams in films, and films about dreams, that we most appreciate, because:
“We all gotta dream, don’t we? …Oh [and] by the way, I don’t think they like being called f**s anymore”
—Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Inception (2010) ★★★★
Director: Christopher Nolan
Released in 2010, the movie was destined to be a box office success with a blockbuster cast including Leonardo Dicaprio, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Caine. It was directed by Christopher Nolan, and had music composed by one of the greatest cinematic composers of all time, Hans Zimmer.
The movie focuses on Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio), who has the ability to enter people’s dreams using military hardware. An ability that leads him into corporate espionage where its application in stealing secrets is invaluable.
Cinematically this movie is outstanding. Nolan utilizes every available tool at his disposal to keep the viewer transfixed and constantly guessing as to what is a dream and what is reality. For example, in all the early dream sequences Nolan uses a disproportionate number of medium and close up shots compared to establishing and long shots. While this does not seem strange at the time, it is only when Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to the real world that we understand as only then we see the first panoramic shot, the train crossing the bridge. While this seems like a fairly straightforward concept to differentiate between dream and reality, Nolan utilises it so well that the viewer may not even realise it is happening.
Throughout the movie Nolan pushes one main idea—what is reality? Due to the constant switches between different layers of dreams and reality, the viewer is kept on their toes trying to decipher the mental state of Cobb, the movies chronological timeline, and, as shown in the infamous final scene, whether any of the movie was real in the first place.
Only a director such as Nolan is able to take a viewer’s perception of reality and warp it in such a way that they are left questioning not only whether the characters are dreaming, but whether reality itself is nothing more than a dream.
Total Recall (1990) ★★★★
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Total Recall is probably one of the more ridiculous entries in Schwarzenegger’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating film that encapsulates director Paul Verhoeven’s over the top violence and dry, macabre sense of humour.
It’s full of goofy acting and elements (some of which are more backwards looking in hindsight—the three breasted sex worker), and also a pretty funny dream sequence showcasing asphyxiation on Mars’s surface. That’s not to say that the movie is overly clever; these ridiculous aspects only make it more memorable.
Inarguably, it’s the strength of Total Recall’s ludicrous premise that gives it its charm. Schwarzenegger is a sort of average Joe in a future where life has become tedious to the point where people feel the need to implant memories of trips/vacations/fantasies they might never have had.
After Quaid (Schwarzenegger) goes to the company Rekall to have the memories of a secret agent implanted in his mind, he discovers that he actually is one, and consequently a corporation on Mars is out to get him.
The movie’s absurdity can be justified by the suggestion that it is all just a memory, or perhaps a dream. It’s possible to ask; was Quaid really a secret agent the whole time with amnesia who was compromised when he went to Rekall, or is the rest of the film the implanted memories in his head? The film doesn’t give us any indication of it being one or the other, and in this way it is much more compelling.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) ★★★★★
Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film interpretation of Dianna Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name contains an excellent example of a well-executed pseudo-dream sequence, that is both surreal and operates as a moment of reveal.
When used well, dream-sequences can enhance a movie-going experience. However, if done without subtlety, lacking in proper dream-like atmosphere and tone, or too on-the-nose, this narrative device can really ruin a film. It’s interesting to note that when they’re in books, dreams usually impart information to readers in a (supposedly) veiled manner to further the plot.
Set the night after Howl has flown into battle, the dream sequence firmly establishes Sophie’s acceptance of her feelings for Howl. During the scene, she dreams that Howl returns home, having turned himself into a monstrous bird. Sophie, reverted to her younger self, tries desperately to find out how she can help, only to be cruelly turned away by Howl, who exclaims, “you, can’t even break your own spell!” This is the first (and only) time in the film that viewers hear him acknowledge Sophie’s curse. When Sophie tells him that she loves him (also for the first and only time), Howl claims that she’s too late and flies off. As the dream ends Sophie is isolated in the darkness, old once again.
Not only are important declarations made in the dream, Miyazaki skillfully employs tone to create an excellent pinch, that reminds the audience of characters’ motivations and flaws. Howl is vain and prideful, unwilling to receive help from what he determines to be an ineffective source; while Sophie, though filled with desires, is too late to act upon them. These are Sophie’s fears, that her love for Howl will never be realized, and that he is in grave danger. As we see later in the film, the dream is a catalyst for Sophie’s action, she becomes a strong motivator.