Dream Scenario


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Dream Scenario
"Despite its scale this is a small story, and at that level it's classic science fiction."

The college where Dream Scenario's protagonist works is called Osler. It might be named for Sir William, 1st Baronet, one of the fathers of modern medicine. That surname is probably derived from (h)ostler, one who looks after horses at an inn. Somewhere between the two is an old diagnostic adage. "If you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras".

'A24' isn't a genre, but Dream Scenario suggests that it does have sufficiently close associations with one that it might serve as proxy. A familiar tone, a space somewhere between horror and awkwardness, references to Talking Heads. There's a certain weight, the kind that one might find tied to names like Jonathan Cape or Picador.

Other names spring to mind too. Beau Is Afraid, though longer and, frankly, better. The Weather Man had a younger Nicolas Cage going through some other tribulations. A Serious Man is the Coens doing a similar job. Cage is more restrained than he's been in a while. There are flashes of bombast but it is a reminder that he can pair the scenery-chewing and church-related burnings of Renfield and Mandy with the stumbling and mumbling of grief as with Pig.

It's Kristoffer Borgli's first English language feature film, I was reminded (as with Sick Of Myself) of some of Cronenberg's output. That might be a sense that, smartphones and cancel culture aside, this could be from the 1970s. There are parts that reminded me of the works of cult authors like Robert Sheckley or Philip K Dick, but some of that might be exposure. While millions of folk have bookcases that look like mine (IKEA Billy in Black, Expedit in White) there aren't too many that have bookshelves that look the same. Some parts reminded me of Ghostbusters, and very specifically Zach Weinersmith's assertion that it's the "most American movie."

The film itself references Jordan Peterson, and I'd reference Jordan Peele. This is knowing, awash with nods (often comic) to campus culture or at least perceptions thereof. There's definitely traction in its use of intruding into dreams as a reflection of cultural zeitgeist. Its change of direction isn't as startling as that of Sorry To Bother You, but one hesitates to describe either as 'a twist'. More an escalation, an evolution.

There's definitely a degree of ironic detachment in discussions of commercialisation. I didn't count how many times the word 'sprite' appears but in the listings of things unnatural I did register both the word "Paultergeist" and the presence of a Coke-branded vending machine in a corridor. That's not the only branding, though the team of Trent, Molly, and Mary are source of enough disassociation that I did have to check that they weren't all slang terms for intoxicants.

Michael Cera is channelling Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg as chief of a firm that does something in an office somewhere. Kate Berlant's contributions are full of corporate unspeak, though never as empty as Vanessa Bayer's Morgan Dawn-Cherry in HBO's Barry. That's a heck of a sentence but consider it a recommendation to watch both. Dylan Gelula more than holds her own in scenes with Cage that are as excruciating as any of the moments in Uncut Gems.

Cage is Paul Matthews, changed his name to that of his wife Janet. Julianne Nicholson, and Jessica Clement and Lily Bird as daughters Hannah and Sophie convince in the efficiencies of their dysfunction. There are far more in the cast, performances throughout that captivate in their small moments of oneiric weirdness.

I'm still thinking about a week after seeing it. I'll probably think about it randomly, when I'm looking at it snowing. I will make associations between it and other works like Total Recall, Inception, Waking Life. The film itself references Elm Street but that's because it's more likely audiences will pick up Kreuger sooner than they will Hegel or even Jung.

There's a line that I think is central to at least one interpretation, "looking for the insult." There are plenty of them, many self-inflicted. Some of the film's confrontations are telling, and I think there's enough room in the film for multiple interpretations. That's to its credit, to be clear, but even with that it could be a bit more focused.

If this is social commentary I'm not entirely sure I agree with its perspective, and if it's got a different agenda it's not very good at pushing it. Some of that might be things lost in translation, adaptation is never easy but this is, at least ostensibly, an original work. Cage's performance is enough to sell the film and goodness knows there's plenty worse that he's carried. The shoulders may be slumped here but they're no less to the wheel. Plenty of other performances help though, indeed it's Paul's passivity that gives so many room to act themselves.

Despite its scale this is a small story, and at that level it's classic science fiction. Per Theodore Sturgeon's definition, a human story with a human solution, caused and brought about by science. Across much of genre that 'science' is a bit woollier, and that's from more than the counting of sheep. It's a central mystery, whose process matters less than its consequences. In that it's a close cousin to Colossal, among others, to stable-mate The Green Knight and precursor Being John Malkovich.

That the film reminds me of so many things may be an accident, I may have dreamt them while dozing away as a butterfly. I still laughed, squirmed, emerged from it blinking. One can do that for free though, in one's own dreams.

Reviewed on: 10 Nov 2023
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