Movies About Dreams: The World of Dreams in Cinema

Written by Stephanie DePaula

There are a host of movies involving the navigation of dreams, some very thought-provoking. Inception is certainly the most well-known and effective of late, but here I offer three other movies that bring interesting and unique takes on the world of dreams.

It was all a dream...

Sherlock, Jr., 1924

Sherlock, Jr.--where the fun of dream sequences was fully actualized and perfected. Truly, the "it was all a dream" film never got better than this, only with The Wizard of Oz coming close to equaling this fantastic motion picture. Made in 1924 by Buster Keaton, who is also the main character, the film is charming and fantastical.

A young projectionist who hopes to become a detective is blamed for a crime he did not commit, ruining the relationship he had hoped to have with the girl he loves. He falls asleep while at work, and dreams that he walks into the movie being played at the theater. A breathtaking lesson in film and the use of creative geography illuminates the screen as Buster's character wanders through a dream world, with the setting changing from garden to desert to ocean to snowy landscape.

dreaming projectionsist The dreaming projectionist walks out of the sleeping projectionist's body. Image from: 1001 Films

Then, in the dream world, the projectionist as Sherlock, Jr. attempts to solve the crime. It is never made explicit in the film that this is in fact a lesson in lucid dreaming, for it is not clear that Buster's character is in fact controlling the content of his dreams--the dream just seems to be a reflection of his wants and desires (perhaps Jungian in nature--see The Science of Sleep section below or this page for more).

The final product is a film that is newly innovative in its use of the dream state in cinema, and offers an entertaining perspective on the power of dreams to influence the waking world.

"In this world, Alex, you're nothing. And me, I'm God."

Dreamscape, 1984

It doesn't get much better than a young Dennis Quaid. Dreamscape, great 80's low budget at its best, is a bizarre journey into the world of dreams--it's a bit Inception, a hunk of Nightmare on Elm Street, a slathering of The Cell, with some of The Matrix thrown in for good measure. What makes this film even better is that it came before all these aforementioned films, and in many ways is completely different from them.

Dreamscape A poster of the film Dreamscape Image from: Chud

In the film, a young psychic (Quaid) is recruited to enter the dreams of sleeping patients (specifically, he enters the dreams of the President of the United State of America). Things take a terrible turn when one of the patients dies in his sleep--one of the other psychics hired has killed the man.

The dream scenes are very interesting. Each dream on film begins with a certain color--perhaps a reference to each person experiencing the dream world differently, reflecting on the attitude of the character at the time, or maybe just a way to mark one dream as separate from another. This film also deals with nightmares; one dream with a snake man is particularly disturbing. It deals with the unconscious--the world of Freudian sleep visions, and the hidden longings of individuals. The nightmare of the President is the most realized picture of an interpretation of the elements of the Freudian theory of dreaming. In particular, the dream is disturbing and remarkable to him; the latent content is enough to make the dream especially significant.

The motion picture itself seems confused about what it wants to be (a sci-fi thriller adventure horror film perhaps?), but it brings some of the more intriguing issues of dreaming to the visual forefront.

"In dreams emotions are overwhelming."

The Science of Sleep, 2006

StephaneTV from The Science Of Sleep A look at "Stephane TV"

This film is a sleep and dreams student's (for lack of a better word) dream. There's naked sleepwalking, REM sleep discussions, lucid dreaming, and a bit of sleep talking. The film is about a young man, Stephane Miroux, who often escapes into a dream world that runs like a mix between a television news program and a magic show (it is called "Stephane TV").

More than anything, the film offers an engaging discussion on the elements and nature of dreams and dreaming. At the very start of the film, Stephane offers an interesting recipe for what dreams are made of:

"As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day... mixed with some memories from the past. That's for two people. Love, friendships, relationships... and all those "ships", together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw, and also, uh... personal... Okay, I think it's done."

The Science of Sleep-Stephane's Big Hands In one of Stephane's dreams, he has enormous hands, which in real life he used to set type for calendars for his job. Image thanks to Warner Independent Pictures.

This discussion in the film is an interesting one, and though not scientific in nature, it is an easily relatable description of things that come up in our dreams. Dreams that Stephane has in the film generally align somewhat with Carl Jung's theory on the content of dreams being a combination of "the personal unconscious" and "the collective unconscious". Also, the influence of external stimuli in dreams, a theory worked on by our very own Dr. Dement, is dealt with in the film. For example, in one dream sequence, Stephane is interrupted in his dream by a ringing telephone.

Altogether, The Science of Sleep is a fascinating examination of the domain of sleeping and dreaming, and is chalk-full of references to phenomena discussed in various articles throughout this site.

More movies about dreams to check out:

  • Inception--This goes without saying. Though Christopher Nolan takes his creative liberties in describing the dream world (e.g. see this article on the way dream time is depicted), this lucid-dreaming-inspired hit puts a new spin (gotta love that pun if you've seen the film) on the exploration of dreams in cinema.

  • The Cell--This often-overlooked thriller brings another compelling stand on the mind, in particular, the mind of a serial-killer in a coma.

  • The Wizard of Oz--A must-see if one is looking for more films in the vein of a movie about a dream, framed by real life.

  • Spellbound--This marvelous Hitchcock thriller is all about psychoanalysis and dreams. The vague and hallucinatory visions featured in the movie were designed by Salvador Dali.

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Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

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Dr. Dement's pioneering textbook has been the core text for Sleep and Dreams since 1980, but it has just recently been made available to the wider public for the first time.

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Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

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