I've had such incredibly bad luck picking out movies lately that I desperately wanted something GOOD. I faintly remembered seeing this movie when it came out, and that I had liked it (had a crush on Dennis Quaid, a man who'll look handsome in his 90's no doubt) and it was about dreams which have always fascinated me. If you've ever had an experience with lucid dreaming (being in a dream and knowing that you are and controlling what you do) you know what a cool experience that can be. I've had the flying dreams, the special powers dreams, tons of not-so-good dreams, but when you get that lucid one, it is quite a rush. I remember one where I was at a county fair and knew it was a dream so I focused on looking at every person I passed. I saw detailed faces, clothes, hair, everything - and didn't know a single one of them. Or standing on a peak in the Columbia River Gorge, seeing the mountains and hills and river turn different colors. Massively cool. So this movie appealed to me then and still does now. And it's a good one. For an 80's movie the special effects aren't too hokey, the morphing scenes are pretty good for no CGI, the story is good and the characters are interesting. My only complaint? Why the hell did they make the movie poster look like Raiders Of The Lost Ark (the sequel, which also starred Kate Capshaw AND also premiered in 1984)? The only DUH is the poster. Oh well.
Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) has been a psychic prodigy all his life, but at 19 got tired of the wires and the tests and skipped out, making a pretty good living on betting (horses, sports, etc.) since he 'knows' who's going to win. But the institute he ran from needs him - they're developing a new project having to do with, not psychic ability, but lucid dreams where you can actually participate and change other people's dreams. Supposedly this was set up to help people with crippling nightmares. Dr. Paul (Max von Sydow) was his mentor when he was young and runs this project now with scientist Jane (Kate Capshaw the future Mrs. Steven Spielberg). They use a sort of mental hook-up to connect the dreamer with the psychic so he can 'enter' that person's dream. The other prodigy is a man named Tommy (David Patrick Kelley), a real piece of work, who acts sinister from the start.
Alex first practices his technique on minor dream problems - fear of infidelity, fear of falling, etc. He then wants to tackle the problem of a young child with a massive monster that is messing him up. Another psychic who attempted this had to be institutionalized. He goes for it, and we have a pretty cool monster movie dream sequence better than most full-length horror movies. He helps the kid vanquish his fear - a massive snake-headed monster and the kid wakes, incredibly relieved that it is now gone. But Alex was really messed up by it. He draws a picture of it, which Tommy sees, and files away for future reference.
Now we have the President (the ever lovable late Eddie Albert) who is getting sick from having increasingly horrible nightmares about him causing a nuclear holocaust (stock footage but still cool). He decides that because of them, he's going to have a disarmament agreement with the Russians (Cold War time, remember?). Well a high powered government agent Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) can't have that. Under the pretense of 'helping' the president with his problem, he gets him into the institute - for the sole purpose of having Tommy, who is a psychopath who murdered his own father, enter the President's dream and 'assassinate' him. Tommy has already killed another person in their dream so they know the 'wives tale' that if you die in your dream you die in real life. Now reality dictates that this cannot possibly be proven - if you're dead who's going to know if a dream did it? And if you're thinking this is ripping off Nightmare On Elm Street - it actually was released two months before NOES came out.
Alex discovers the plot so needs to die. Bob has already murdered Dr. Paul and Alex is next so we have some chase scenes, they fit a love scene between Alex and Jane in there somewhere (just a dream of course) and finally we get down to the main purpose of this study - the President. By this time both Tommy and Alex can enter a person's dream without the hardware, so both race to get into the President's dream. Alex finds him first, again in his holocaust dream, and assures the President that he did not cause a tragedy, it is just a dream. Then Tommy shows up and, being longer at the game, proceeds to control the dream and everything in it (including razors sprouting from his fingers but again - two months before NOES).
We get a great zombie sequence (they're supposed to be deformed by radiation but I say zombies so there) where the streetcar they're riding in becomes full of them. Tommy, himself transformed into a zombie tells them it's the President's fault and they attack. Alex gets him off the train, but Tommy has an extra trick - he knows what scares Alex. And we get the big snake headed man once again. So they're chased through some nasty post-nuclear scenes (Eddie had to do a lot of physical stuff in this movie for a guy his age) and finally they come to a dead end. Alex has to 'face his fear'. So he has an idea, since Tommy himself told him they could do anything in a dream - he turns into Tommy's father, asking him 'Why did you kill me?' which deflates Tommy pretty quickly. While he's distracted the President, a pipe in hand, stabs him in the back and he dies - both in the dream and in bed.
Bob knows he's screwed now. The President tells him to stay away from him - but Bob knows he'll never get people to believe Bob tried to kill him in a dream. Alex tells the President that Bob will kill him and is promised protection - but says he thinks he can handle it himself. We then see Bob walking down a hall and entering an elevator - but Alex is there. And turns into his own version of a nasty monster. In Bob's house, his wife attempts to wake him, but he's dead, his eyes wide open in fright.
Alex and Jane decide to take a train trip to unwind (that's where their dream love sequence was). As the train gets underway, the ticket conductor checks their tickets - he's the same guy both saw in Jane's dream. Silly but okay.