I tend to not remember my dreams very often, but when I look back at the handful of dreams I do remember, most of them were memorable because of their emotional content. A lot of the dreams I had in the months after my father died have stayed with me because they were very intense. (I'm thinking in particular of one long and involved nightmare that was ironically soundtracked by the Smashing Pumpkins song Today.) Most of the dreams that I actively try to remember are the ones that I find really funny, like the dream I had about centaurs telling George Washington that if the constitution was going to have a 3/5ths compromise for slaves it should also have a 5/3rds compromise for them. I'm sure I've had dreams that contained elaborate sights, but that's such a tiny percentage of them that it doesn't seem significant to me. So why is it that the measuring stick for a movie about dreams is it's ability to conjure up visionary visuals?
Dreamscape is about a team of researchers that train psychics to go into the minds of troubled people while they sleep to try to help them process their traumas. It's an interesting premise that the film squanders with a by-the-numbers execution, but I think I could have still enjoyed the movie even though all of it's scenes set in the real world were humdrum if the dreaming scenes had been engaging. Sure, it's not surprising when the petty dick who is rude to Alex Gardner, the protagonist played by Dennis Quaid, turns out to be his enemy in the third act, but there's nothing wrong with a blatant antagonist - in many ways it just speeds the plot along. But there is no real justification for how bland the imagery is when we finally leave the real world for the dream world.
At one point early in his training Gardner goes into a young man's nightmare to help him fight the monsters both real and imagined that are keeping him from sleeping through the night. When Gardner and the boy try to run away from a lizard creature, they are confronted by an impossible staircase that looks pretty cheesy: the various steps are out of alignment and of differing widths, and they go from an ominous doorway into a never ending void. It's the first image you would draw if you were asked to draw unsafe stairs. It gets the point across but totally lacks imagination. They should have done what Labyrinth' s did and stolen M.C. Escher's style of impossible stairs; yes, it would have been derivative but it would have at least popped visually.
Most of the set pieces in Dreamscape are similarly uninspiring. One early scene is set at the top of a skyscraper with the whole world below and most of the ending is set in claustrophobic settings like tunnels and caves. The settings are constructed reasonably well, but they come from such a stock conception of nightmare locations that they never convey the sense that anything is possible in this world, and that's what you really want from a movie that is set in a place where the only limit is the length of your imagination.
There's a good reason why that anything can happen feeling is so important to a movie about dreams: most of the emotional content of our nighttime reveries can be replicated in a variety of other movies, but dream movies are some of the only places you can convey that sort of hallucinatory abandon in a way that's narratively justified. The reason why this film's ho-hum story about a secret government conspiracy didn't strike me as a missed opportunity was because Hollywood makes that type of paranoid thriller often enough that I know there will be many other chances to see a similar story that is executed better. On the other hand, this film's uninspired dream imagery was a letdown because there aren't that many good movies about dream worlds, so this movie's mediocrity represented more of a squandered prospect. I mean, political intrigue is great, but if you're going to give me political intrigue in a dream movie, it had better be at least as imaginative as our founding fathers hotly debating our founding centaurs.