There was a legendary Chinese philosopher who lived some centuries before the Common Era. He can be found on the Internet under the name Zhuangzi (say Zhwan-za). Today he is best known for his brief parable of the butterfly dream. In this story he tells of dreaming that he was a butterfly. He wakes to wonder if he was a philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a philosopher. This provocative anecdote lives on into our time because there are those who suspect that this is the last great question of philosophy: Is all that we know merely the dream of some supreme intelligence beyond the horizons of consciousness? Or is that not it at all?

In the 20th century, it was the movie of 2001: A Space Odyssey that codified this question of a superior extra terrestrial intelligence and left it for future generations to ponder. Other movies that followed this seminal film of 1968 added their metaphors to the theme and contributed equal measures of clarity and confusion. My best guess is is that the idea of a disembodied superior intelligence is an imaginative projection of a time when the human race learns to use its brain to its full capacity.

The Matrix trilogy stands as a millennial marker on both counts of clarity and confusion. It penetrates deeper into the philosophical conundrum than any other movie of its time and it squanders the opportunity in an overabundance of punching and kicking, and doublespeak. See The Matrix (1999), followed by two sequels in 2003.

Little Nemo in Slumberland  (1990) – Animation

Based on the turn-of-the-last-century newspaper comic strips by Winsor McCay, this full-length feature may qualify as Freudian animation. Sometimes it looks like McCay meets Maurice Sendak. It opens with the boy, Nemo, in his famous traveling bed, and then goes to a classic nightmare where he is pursued by the proverbial steam locomotive. This work has some striking similarities to The Matrix, beginning with a young male destined to be “the One,” and a mentoring character called Morpheus. Nemo, an average youngster, is summoned to Slumberland, guided by “The Professor” (in a jaunty top hat) where he is to become heir to the power of King Morpheus (a combination of Zeus and Santa Claus). There is a strong young woman, called the Princess, who must help and advise the chosen male to achieve his destiny. Nemo is given a key by King Morpheus and told not to use it on the door with the dragon symbol. The insidious Flip entices Nemo into opening the door and a liquid black shadow is released in waves of evil. It carries off Morpheus, who had given his scepter of power to Nemo. Nemo extracts the map of Nightmareland from Flip and makes his way into the depths of darkness where he eventually encounters a Satan-like embodiment of evil who has imprisoned most of the good people in the story. Nemo masters the power of the scepter and destroys the Nightmare King in a kind of atomic cloud. He returns to the daytime world on his hot air balloon with a gondola, taking the Princess with him. There are parallels with The Neverending Story here. Back in his own bed, he wonders if it was all a dream. His parents have decided to take him to the circus. It was the circus parade of the day before that inspired his dream. There are some major stars doing voices, including Mickey Rooney as Flip. An American/Japanese collaboration, it was released in the U.S. in 1992.

When Dorothy awakens at the end of the movie, The Wizard of Oz (1939), she is faced with some of the same thoughts that afflicted Little Nemo on his awakening. She is sure her experience in Oz was real but all those around her tell her it was a dream, and the film makes it seem to be true. This dream motif was not found in the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); it was added for the movie. It is also necessary for Alice to grapple with the reality of her dream of Wonderland. Returning to adult sensibilities, there are several movies from the millennial period that propose the idea of crossing the boundaries of dreams.

Dreamscape (1983)

This sci-fi film is about a technology that allows people to enter the dreams of others. There is a sequence in which a dream researcher (Max Von Sydow) explains to Dennis Quaid the principles of Senoi dreamwork, putting an emphasis on the necessity for facing one’s demons. The Senoi are a Malaysian tribe known for being a “dream-instructed community.” Quaid then enters the dream of a young boy and helps slay a reptilian monster that has been terrorizing him in nightmares. The film degenerates into the usual conspiracy paranoia and chase scenes. In the end, Quaid enters the dream of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) to save both him and the free world. The villain (Christopher Plummer) has sent an assassin into the presidential dream. When Quaid opposes him, he takes the form of the regenerated reptilian monster. There is some serious shape-shifting going on here. Eventually Quaid and the President outmaneuver the assassin and kill him. In true dream fashion, Quaid and his beautiful ally (Kate Capshaw) ride off on a train.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

This is a Christian dream with underpinnings of Buddhism and the paranormal. Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are friendly antagonists (think Dante and Virgil) in this surreal film where Williams pursues his beloved wife into a special Hell after her suicide. The cinematic technique makes the scenes, many of them deeply Dantesque, seem like paintings come alive. Max von Sydow plays a role in Hell somewhat akin to the one he played in The Seventh Seal. It was a disappointment on first release, but seems far more interesting on second viewing. In the end, this movie has the same problem as Artificial Intelligence a few years later. It ends up being too much like an Internet greeting card.

This segment of MovieJourneys seems to stir up a lot of discussion about parallel realities, manipulated memories, extrasensory perception, and a variety of mind games. I have done my best to research most of these movies as they came to my attention though few of them meet the strict definitions of Dreamtime.

See The Magician (1958), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Inception (2010)The Tree of Life  (2011)

Alternate Realities & and Imagined Futures

2001, Contact, Logan’s Run

Dreamtime Related Posts:

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