In a chapter I co-wrote with Bernard Welt for the newly-published book Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness (Praeger, 2014), we discuss seven films that revolve around the experience of lucid dreaming, that is, becoming self-aware within the dream state. These movies are not necessarily "great" in the sense of being critically-acclaimed, cinematic classics. Most of them are fantasy or science fiction stories that tend to have limited appeal to mainstream audiences. What makes these seven films great is their vivid, intriguing portrayals of the possibilities and perils of lucid dreaming. They start with the premise that dream worlds can be as real as waking worlds, and from there they weave stories about people actively exploring those dream worlds and making discoveries both wondrous and horrifying.
Bernard and I talk about these films in further detail in the book chapter, along with additional context from the general history of film and dream research. But there is much more going on in these movies than we had space to cover. The lucid dream themes play out in the behavior of the characters, their dialogue, the cinematography and sound design, the special effects and the narrative arc of the plot. Anyone interested in the cultural history of lucid dreaming and its future potentials will enjoy watching and studying these films.
#1 Peter Ibbetson (1935). Gary Cooper and Ann Harding portray doomed lovers in a supernatural romantic fantasy. They defy the hardships and separation of waking reality by escaping into a shared world of lucid dreaming. Emotionally sentimental and beautifully filmed, the movie affirms the transcendent power of love, and of dreaming.
#2 Dead of Night (1945). A British thriller in which an architect finds himself trapped in a waking nightmare. The "portmanteau" structure of the film follows the other characters as share their own brief stories of strange, uncanny experiences. One of the characters is a pompous psychoanalyst, whose rationalist explanation their stories fails to prevent a final, shattering eruption of the irrational.
#3 Dreamscape (1984). Hollywood science-fiction with a Cold War political context as Eddie Albert playing a doddering old U.S. President very much like Ronald Reagan. A swaggering psychic (Dennis Quaid) uses lucid dream heroics to protect the President, save the world, and get the girl. Although the fashions and soundtrack may seem badly outdated, the dangers of goal-directed lucid dreaming are displayed in interesting and accurate ways.
#4 Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) A low-budget horror movie directed by Wes Craven, in the first of what turned into a series of eight films. Teenagers in a seemingly ordinary American town find themselves under deadly attack by a demon (Freddy Kruger, played by Robert Englund) who stalks them in their dreams. The teens have to learn how to use lucid dreaming to defeat Freddy and save their loved ones. Much darker than the other films, it delves into the shadowy psychological realms of adolescent sexual desire and anxieties about bodily transformations.
#5 The Matrix (1999). Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings, this dystopic science fiction movie stars Keanu Reeves as Neo, a rebellious computer hacker who breaks free of the nightmare world of digitally generated reality. A stylish, gun-crazy assault on the philosophical question of how we can ever know whether the waking world we seem to be inhabiting is real or just a dream.
#6 Waking Life (2001). Richard Linklater directed this rotoscope reverie, the most playful and contemplative of all the lucid dreaming films. A young man (Wiley Wiggins, playing himself) floats through several animated scenes, talking with various people about waking and dreaming realities. The movie does not treat lucid dreaming as an arena of heroic or romantic adventure, but rather as an authentic psychological experience that cannot be understood by reducing it to something else.
#7 Inception (2010). Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this action-packed, but rather depressing, science fiction story about corporate espionage via lucid dreaming. Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard star as a couple who fall too deeply into the dream world. A huge commercial success thanks to Nolan's reputation from his two previous Batman movies, this film presents lucid dreaming as a dangerous, multi-leveled labyrinth of repressed memories and fruitless desires.