Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Inception’s inception? 38 stories that take place largely within dreams

Illustration for article titled Inception’s inception? 38 stories that take place largely within dreams

1. Dreamscape (1984)
Real-life dreams are often vague, impenetrable, randomly plotted, and terribly paced, because there’s no limit to them. Nobody edits dreams, nobody checks the story points for plausibility, and nobody walks out on a dream because it doesn’t make sense. (“Hey! That is not how a dragon rapes a train station!”) So it’s no surprise that the dream-world has served as frequent inspiration and setting for all kinds of movies and television shows; the landscape of unconsciousness provides fertile ground for symbolism, scares, and cool special effects. The trick is to make the generally consequence-free dream world dramatically relevant. In 1984’s Dreamscape, super-psychic Dennis Quaid joins forces with Max Von Sydow to jump into people’s sleeping minds and help them deal with psychological trauma. This setup allows for a lot of charmingly overheated fantasy sequences, climaxing in a trip through the U.S. president’s nightmare of a nuclear apocalypse. Quaid is at his shit-eating-grin best, the cast supporting him is solid, and the script, while not exactly airtight, never gets too insulting. The real draw here, though, is the thrill of seeing mental worlds and puzzling out what to make of them. The stakes are very clear (watch out for the Snake Man!), and there’s an undeniable lure in visiting a place where literally anything is possible.


2. “A. B. And C.,” The Prisoner (1967)
People are at their most vulnerable when they’re asleep, so when all traditional forms of interrogation fail, why not try a little sleep-spying? The knowledge-hungry powers that run The Village in Patrick McGoohan’s classic TV series are willing to use any tools at their disposal to break the unbreakable super-spy Number Six, so when a scientist develops a way to invade and manipulate a subject’s dreams, it seems like a perfect solution to the problem. Six is drugged and then forced to relive an old party three times in succession, each time confronting a different colleague who attempts, via external suggestion, to ferret out why Six quit his government job. Like the best Prisoner episodes, it’s trippy, tricky, and sarcastic, and things only get stranger when Six realizes the game and turns the tables on his tormenters. After all, once the dreamer knows he’s dreaming, there are no limits to the tricks he can pull.

3. The Cell (2000)
This Jennifer Lopez vehicle (if it can be called that) plays with an interesting theory: People don’t just fall into comas, they’re actually trapped in dream worlds of their own creation. So it’s up to psychologist Lopez to slip on a form-fitting red wetsuit and dive into the victims’ minds, sweet-talking their dream selves back into consciousness. Director Tarsem Singh, who’s also responsible for the “Losing My Religion” video and the feature The Fall, paints dreams as a series of short scenes drawing almost directly from surrealist paintings—scenes that turn dark at a moment’s notice, especially inside the mind of a killer. At one point, Lopez follows the man’s dream-self half up a distant flight of stairs to find a horse, which is immediately sliced and splayed open multiple times. Later, when the evil side of the dream captures Lopez, she’s brought to him in a cavernous room where his cape covers 90 percent of the wall. Dreams in The Cell are equal parts whimsy and terror, holding plenty of secrets from the outside world. (The central plot involves trying to discover where the killer placed his latest victim.) But if real dreams were as brooding and imaginative as the ones in The Cell, it’d be tough to coax yourself to sleep at all.

4. “The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath” (1927)
The infinite possibilities of dreams offer just as many chances for terror as for colorful fantasy fun: Any dream can readily become a nightmare. Which is why it’s so bizarre that horror writer H.P. Lovecraft set his novella “The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath” almost entirely within dreams, but made it one of his lightest, least outré, least punishing stories. Protagonist Randolph Carter dreams of a beautiful city and prays to the gods to tell him where it is. When he then stops dreaming about it altogether, he sets out on a sleeping quest to find the gods and put them to the question in person. Traveling through a concrete dreamland with geography as elaborate and expansive as anything in the waking world, he meets ghouls, talking alien cats, and many varieties of foul things pretending to be men. But unlike the horrors that Lovecraft protagonists face when awake, these creatures and their knowledge do his body and sanity no lasting harm. And when things get serious, he has an out that none of Lovecraft’s usual horror-haunted characters can claim as an option: He just wakes up.

5. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Before ’80s-era slasher films got all gimmicky on us, they presented us with actual terrifying premises: Halloween played on the spooky uncertainty of a night where kids run around with minimal supervision, and adults stalk the streets in frightening costumes. Friday The 13th made the nameless dread felt of being alone in the dark, remote woods all too real. But none of them were as effective as Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, whose villain, the scarred lunatic Freddy Krueger, attacks teens when they were asleep and beyond vulnerable, using imagery straight out of their worst nightmares. Craven effectively used the fact that teenagers already feel ill at ease with their dreams—saturated as they are with incriminating sexual imagery—and made viewers feel the agony of either falling asleep and facing an unstoppable killer, or going slowly insane by constantly staying awake. Though the franchise eventually went as over-the-top and ridiculous as its peers, the first few Elm Street films were genuinely terrifying.

6. “For The Man Who Has Everything” (1985)
The superhero comics of the ’60s in particular were big on the “dream story” (or sometimes “imaginary story”) where big, dramatic events would take place—heroes would finally choose between love interests, get married, die, or sometimes all of the above, but a note that it was just a “dream story” would reset the continuity and remove the consequences. This dynamic was pretty ridiculous, but it did let creators step away from rigid setups and inject the kind of trippy, creative science fiction that ’60s mainstream hero comics adored. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons paid tribute to the era in 1985 with a single-issue story called “For The Man Who Has Everything,” in which one of Superman’s enemies gives him a psychic, parasitic plant that feeds on its victims by paralyzing them, placing them in a dream where they experience their “heart’s desire.” When the plant latches onto Superman, it drops him into a dream in which he lives life as Kal, a scientist, husband, and dad on a Krypton that never exploded. When Superman starts fighting off the plant’s influence, the cracks in the dream-world become apparent: His father (who wrongly predicted Krypton would self-destruct) is a bitter, humiliated crank; his cousin is attacked and brutalized in a political riot; his society is crumbling under the force of radical social groups; and once he starts to realize it’s all a dream, he has to look his beloved son in the face and say “I don’t think you’re real.” It’s a heartbreaking twist on the dream-story, one where instead of shrugging off the implications of a made-up world, Superman feels all the pain of having voluntarily walked away from normalcy and a family. And man, is he ever pissed as a result.

7. The Good Night (2007)
The vast majority of stories that take place in dreams eventually take advantage of the environment’s plasticity and potential for horror; most people just can’t find that much drama in the idea of someone getting a nice, relaxing night of sleep. But in his feature-director debut, Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother Jake found a way, by contrasting peaceful sleep with the struggles and disappointments of the decidedly less womblike real world. Office star Martin Freeman plays a nebbish in an unhappy relationship and living a generally unsatisfying life; when he starts dreaming about sweet romantic interludes with a beautiful woman played by Penélope Cruz, it’s no wonder he decides he’d rather be asleep than awake. Of all the films and stories on this list, none is as wistful and melancholy as The Good Night, which suggests that sleep really is, as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, the “chief nourisher in life’s feast,” and that the rest of the meal is kind of dry and tasteless as a result.

8. The Science Of Sleep (2006)
Reality has never been of great interest to Michel Gondry: Whether making music videos, feature films, or YouTube clips, he tends to twist the world to do his bidding. In The Science Of Sleep Gael García Bernal plays a character with much in common with the director, even though that sometimes gets in the way of his happiness. A typesetter at a calendar company with no use for his ideas—especially a calendar themed around famous disasters—Bernal lets his mind drift away from his everyday existence. Sometimes it isn’t clear where his dreams end, either to Bernal’s character, or to the film itself. That sometimes makes The Science Of Sleep a frustrating viewing experience. But then it hits a whimsical or impossibly romantic sequence, and all the problems disappear, just like a dream.

9. Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland (1951)
There’s little question that Lewis Carroll’s surrealistic children’s stories are meant to evoke dream states—the rabbit hole Alice falls into on her way to encountering the Mad Hatter and the rest of the antic cast is obviously a stand-in for either sleep, or a different sort of altered consciousness. But Walt Disney and company specialized in smoothing out such ambiguities: His animated version of Alice In Wonderland makes it absolutely clear that the nightmarish visions Alice undergoes are all in her mind, since she begins the film by ostentatiously yawning and slowly falling asleep, and ends it by waking up. How else, pray tell, could someone see a grin without a cat?


10. “The Inner Light,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992)
The Enterprise dealt with more than its fair share of strange alien devices, but the Bracewell Probe is something else entirely. Knocking Captain Jean-Luc Picard unconscious at the start of the episode, the probe allows the Starfleet officer to live decades as a member of a dying race, learning their customs, raising a family, and watching their final moments. In the end, he learns that the probe was designed to provide visitors with the culture of an entire civilization and help them understand what the loss of that civilization means, by giving them most of a life in a mere 25 minutes of real time. The Star Trek franchise doesn’t always use its science-fiction trappings to their full potential, but “Inner Light” is perfect example of high concept married to powerful emotion, showing the dream of an entire people in the time it takes to watch an episode of Two And A Half Men.

11. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
“And you were there! And you were there!” Judy Garland’s Dorothy shrieks at the many familiar faces who made up her subconscious sojourn to Oz, a trip inspired by a tornado-debris-induced coma. That closing sequence is one of the most famous endings in film history, parodied by everything from Married With Children to The Far Side. It’s also kind of lame, even as it’s a fairly classic, straightforward “It was all a dream!” moment. The whole ending completely negates whatever power the film had, making Oz into just another too-literal dream world. The book ends in a far stranger fashion, with Dorothy suddenly popping up on the Kansas prairie and racing up to her Aunt Em, who seems glad to see her, but apparently hadn’t even noticed she was missing.

12. The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953)
The only film with a screenplay and lyrics written entirely by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel—an artist whose work never lacked for dreamlike imagery—The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T is a childhood fantasy that is to the conformist ’50s what The Wizard Of Oz was to the dustbowl ’30s. During an interminable lesson with his hated piano teacher, young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) nods off and imagines a wondrous dream world. In the dream, Bart’s mother is enslaved by the piano teacher, who has himself been transformed into the merciless cartoon supervillain Dr. T (Hans Conried). A number of nightmarish images appear (including the legendary “Third Floor Dungeon” scene), but overall, the tone is playful and giddy; as in The Wizard Of Oz, young Bart incorporates elements of his own life into his dream-world, but for him, the greatest thing about going home is the possibility of ducking his responsibilities. Though Geisel wasn’t happy with the final product, the film achieved a cult following in later years. It even resonated with Matt Groening, who chose Dr. T’s last name—Terwilliger—as the surname of Bart Simpsons’s arch-nemesis.

13. Little Nemo In Slumberland (1905-1914)
Every installment of Winsor McCay’s newspaper comic Little Nemo In Slumberland takes the same form. (His Dreams Of A Rarebit Fiend is similar, for that matter.) Nemo’s protagonist, a tousle-haired child in a flowing nightshirt, steps into a world that grows progressively stranger with each passing panel. Objects melt, horizons warp, perspectives turn inside out. Sometimes the effect is wondrous, sometimes frightening, and sometimes both. Leaving the real world behind is exhilarating, but the journey is tinged with the fear of not being able to return. In the last panel, the main character always wakes up, startled and perhaps disappointed, but at least a little relieved.


14. 3rd Rock From The Sun: “A Nightmare On Dick Street, Parts 1 & 2” m(1997)
Pretty much every long-running television series eventually gets around to doing a dream episode. The late-’90s fish-out-of-water comedy about aliens posing as humans gave it an interesting twist: In the second season’s finale, Dick (John Lithgow) plans to ask his human lover Mary (Jane Curtin) to marry him. But suddenly, for the first time, he and his crew begin to dream. Since this has never happened before, they assume they’ve suffered some kind of irreparable brain damage, and decide to flee back to their homeworld. First, though, viewers are treated to gorgeous, cleverly filmed versions of the aliens’ first-ever dreams: Dick has a Expressionist nightmare about being discovered as an extraterrestrial life form; sister Sally has an operatic Italian intermezzo about her boyfriend Don; son Tommy has anxious school nightmares punctuated by visions of a tropical island; and brother Harry dreams a full-blown ’40s-style musical number, singing and dancing to a Randy Newman song. It’s all filmed in 3-D, as well.

15. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
One theory about dreams suggests that if you find yourself having a nightmare, simply remind yourself that you’re dreaming, and you’ll immediately regain control of your unconscious self. (This works for some people, though even lucid dreamers have to wonder whether they’re actually in control, or just dreaming they’re in control.) In Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, gaining control of a dream is of the utmost importance. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), distraught from a bad break-up, hires Lacuna Inc.—a company that delves into its clients’ dreams and eliminates all trace of the former flame from their subconscious. Barish, asleep with a metallic bowl over his head, realizes halfway through the process that he wants to keep his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) after all, so he flees around his own memories, hoping to hide her from the Lacuna technicians inside his childhood and some embarrassing, masturbatory memories. On top of all the surreal images, Gondry’s story follows a nonlinear progression, and the spliced-together narrative lends a hallucinatory effect to the film, telling the love story with the fuzzy logic and unexpected twists of dreams themselves.

16. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Restless” (2000)
The fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer threw fans for a loop: Its penultimate episode wrapped up the season’s Big Bad storyline, leaving the final hour to deal with the slayer mythology itself. The exhausted gang gathers at Buffy’s place to unwind after the big fight, and all four fall asleep almost immediately—unaware that the First Slayer, the spirit of that early vampire-fighter, is out to get Buffy and her friends. The episode is told as a series of dreams, with the First Slayer taking down Willow, Xander, and Giles one by one. Finally, the First Slayer confronts Buffy in her dream, stating that she must work alone; Buffy rejects that notion, wills herself to wake up, and stirs her friends. Joss Whedon veered away from traditional narrative a few times in the fourth season, most notably with the mostly silent episode “Hush,” but his unexpected foray into dream territory cemented Buffy as a risk-taking show. The dreams themselves aren’t as weird as other pop-culture dream sequences, though Whedon did throw in an odd cheese-slice man whom he later admitted had no significance. (Sometimes a dude with cheese on his head is just what he appears to be.)


17. Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)
The popular anime series Urusei Yatsura generally stuck to light themes of slapstick and romantic comedy built around the premise of an alien princess who disrupts life at a Japanese high school. The second movie based on the show, however, generated controversy with fans by diverging heavily in both mood and tone. Idiosyncratic auteur Mamoru Oshii came in to direct this film, and he saturated it with sometimes-disturbing mystical images, threaded it with the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, added some stunning visual designs. Deviating from the show’s normal formula, he added elements of darkness that later showed up in his own work (including The Red Spectacles and Ghost In The Shell), as well as surreal, absurdist images similar to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The plot unfolds as the students and faculty of Tomobiki High, right before a major school festival, realize they’re repeating the same day over and over; unable to leave the school grounds, they find the world coming to an unexpected and silent end, with all the insanity—and all the believability—of a dream. It’s beautiful, indeed, as well as disturbing and strange, and entirely unlike anything else the series did before or since.

18. Newhart (1982-1990)
For eight seasons, Newhart stranded history’s greatest straight man, Bob Newhart, in the middle of an increasingly absurd, unidentified Vermont hamlet. Newhart’s frustration with his neighbors’ quirks reached its apex in the show’s series finale, when everyone in town sold out to the demands of a Japanese businessman who intended to turn their little burg into a luxury resort and golf course. The finale also hit the height of Newhart’s absurdist plot points: Running a historic inn besieged by stray golf balls, alongside a wife who dressed like a geisha, Newhart took an errant slice to the head—and woke up in the Chicago bedroom the actor shared with Suzanne Pleshette on his previous sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. And Pleshette was there as well. In one slow dissolve, Newhart’s rural fantasia was revealed to be nothing more than the food-induced dream of a beleaguered Windy City psychologist. Which makes sense: What are Newhart favorites Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl if not backwoods, two-thirds mute equivalents of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion?


19. Season eight, Dallas (1984-1985)
Newhart isn’t the only show that dismissed large chunks of the series as not taking place in reality: St. Elsewhere proved to be the daily hallucinations of an autistic boy, and Roseanne tried to write off its final season as Roseanne’s weird fiction. But only Dallas had the stones to declare a whole season a dream. After Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing died, the show’s ratings entered a tailspin, and the only way producers could see to reverse the trend was to resurrect Duffy’s character. Thus, at the beginning of season nine, Bobby turned up in his wife’s shower, and she learned that the entirety of the show’s eighth season, including her marriage to interloper Mark, was all a horrible dream. It was a blatant attempt at a do-over, yet Duffy’s return halted the ratings skid. (The dream season prompted many shows, including Family Guy and Saturday Night Live, to jokingly declare episodes or whole seasons “dreams.”)

21-22. “Funhouse” (2000) and “The Test Dream” (2004), The Sopranos
The Sopranos was fond of short dream sequences designed to show its characters’ psychological states—appropriate for a series so obsessed with psychology. But in two episodes, one in the second season, the other in the fifth, the show dipped deep into Tony Soprano’s subconscious to explore just who this man might be at his most basic levels. “Funhouse” featured a memorable bout of food poisoning and a vision that gave Tony an important piece of information to keep his business interests safe. (It also featured a memorable image of Tony speaking with a fish that adopted the voice of one of his closest confidants.) “The Test Dream” was far more ambitious and strange, taking up a large portion of the episode with a blatantly symbolic dream where Tony revisited people he’d killed and important people in his life. Also, Annette Bening. (Season six opens with a lengthy sequence where Tony wanders through an afterlife California as a man named Kevin Finnerty, but the show suggests this is a kind of purgatory.)

23. Season six, The X-Files (1998-1999)
The X-Files had a number of episodes that featured dream sequences, but its sixth season positively crawled with episodes that suggested characters were trapped in some form of hallucinatory alternate reality. Most notable were “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” featuring Mulder and Scully being lured into a haunted house by two ghosts who try to trick them into murdering each other by making sure nothing is as it seems; “Monday,” where a woman doomed to live the same day over and over gradually pulls all reality into that day with her; and “Field Trip,” where a mushroom creates a hallucinatory reality where Mulder and Scully are able to get many of the things they most want. The show had recently moved production from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and was coping with severe burnout from fans and critics alike, after a season that skewed more comedic than horrific. The proliferation of dream episodes in the sixth season seems almost like a response to actual reality turning its back on the hit cult sensation.

24. Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987)
Sierra Online’s 1980s children’s adventure game soothes its young audience into realizing that they won’t be abducted from their homes by a weirdly sinister grandmother figure with designs on keeping them busy long enough to make them never realize that they have yet to return home. It does this by immediately couching the whole game in the idea that this is a dream the character—named after the player—is having, a dream involving all of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes getting scrambled in ways that might potentially amuse 4-year-olds, who are, after all, often easily amused by incongruity. But don’t worry, 4-year-old! You’re still safe at home, snug in your bed! You aren’t actually on the back of a cartoon goose! And your mission, should you choose to accept it, will include blocky EGA graphics and bleeps and bloops from the sound card.

Editor’s note: Many stories have used “And then the protagonist wakes up!” as the big shock ending, which means that simply including those stories in this Inventory spoils the surprise. We’ve isolated the surprise-ending stories on page two, so if you go on from here, consider yourself warned: spoilers abound.



25. The Twilight Zone, “The Midnight Sun” (1961)
The “It was all a dream” twist-ending story is practically its own genre, but whenever a given twist seemed too standard and obvious, The Twilight Zone would generally find a way to take it a step further. That’s the case with this third-season episode, in which a woman on a world falling into the sun deals with the increasingly suffocating, horrible heat. Finally, at the end, she wakes up and learns she’s been ill, and her entire experience was just a fever-induced nightmare; instead of coping with hundred-degree heat, she’s actually in a blessedly cool room. Whew! But no, that isn’t the end of it… As it turns out, her world is actually falling away from the sun, and that blessed chill will soon become fatal cold. (No, she doesn’t wake up out of that reality, too. Even The Twilight Zone only went so far with the just-a-dream endings.)


26-29. “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) / Jacob’s Ladder (1990) / Trauma (2004) / Stay (2005)
Also practically its own genre: the “dream before dying” story, most famously and efficiently expressed in Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” in which a man on the brink of being hanged believes he has escaped, evaded his pursuers, and returned home, only to find at the last second that it’s all a cruel fiction. It’s unclear whether his experience is wishful daydream, crazed hallucination, or actual dream, but either way, it inspired a series of similar but more fantastical cinematic stories, in which increasingly unsettling events are meant as a sign to viewers that the world is not what it should be. Eventually, the final reveal places the story inside the head of someone who’s apparently fighting for life by dreaming that he’s still living it, and fighting off the encroaching death his body knows is coming.

30-31. Abre Los Ojos (1997) / Vanilla Sky (2001)
The first hint that something isn’t quite right in the world of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 film Abre Los Ojos comes with the title, which translates as “open your eyes.” While the title’s full meaning doesn’t arrive until the film’s final moments, it demands viewers pay close attention to what they’re seeing. Eduardo Noriega plays a masked man accused of murdering his lover, and recounting his story to a psychiatrist. Or is he really someone experiencing a lifelike dream while kept in a coma by a company called “Life Extension”? Did his disfigurement really happen? What about the cure? And the murder? The film never fully answers any of the questions, but raises questions about the nature of reality worthy of Philip K. Dick. Cameron Crowe’s underappreciated American remake, Vanilla Sky, pulls the same tricks while doubling as an inquiry into what’s really valuable in life by stripping the super-successful protagonist played by Tom Cruise of his good looks and the trappings of success, then forcing him to look inward. It’s like Jerry Maguire re-imagined as a mindfuck, and set to trippily manipulated pop music.

32. Total Recall (1990)
Speaking of Philip K. Dick, the prolific science-fiction writer has been adapted numerous times, but few have captured the way he toyed with reality. Total Recall at least tries with its bookended opening sequences and final moments, which suggest Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful stint as a Martian freedom fighter might be nothing more than the imaginary vacation he purchased for himself at a company specializing in false memories. Of course, that procedure hit a snag when it discovered he already had false memories. Or did it? Oh look! Blue skies on Mars! Pretty!


33. “No Reason,” House (2006)
A brilliant diagnostician with a misanthropic view of patients, Dr. Gregory House spends as much time inside his head as possible, but that isn’t always a good thing. When a disgruntled former patient (Elias Koteas) shoots House in his office, the good doctor is seriously but not mortally injured. He wakes up in a room in the hospital, battered but bandaged, and everything seems normal. Then Koteas, apparently injured by security, is wheeled in to share House’s room. A patient’s nominally minor health problem turns nightmarish, and House’s leg pain, one of his life’s main constants, goes away. Each new anomaly is a clue, and the clues point toward something wrong inside House’s brain. He wonders whether he’s hallucinating, and how he could tell hallucinations from reality, but only in the episode’s final scenes does he realize that everything that’s happened since the gunshot has been a fantasy, and he can’t find a way out until he breaks the logic of the dream.

34. Life On Mars (2008-2009)
The American remake of the BBC series Life On Mars does a lot of things wrong. It’s tonally inconsistent, wavering between broad comedy, police drama, and surreal imagery without ever getting a handle on any one mode. And while it occasionally captures the original series’ eerieness, it never really knew what to do with the vibe. By far its worst crime, however, wasn’t revealed until the finale. Sam Tyler thinks he’s a cop from 2008 who somehow traveled back in time to 1973, but in the series’ last episode, he wakes up to discover that he’s really an astronaut who dreamed the whole time-travel experience (as well as his life in 2008) during hypersleep. What follows is a painfully literal explanation of nearly every element of the show, from the title (the astronauts are heading to Mars), to his fractious relationship with father figure Harvey Keitel (who turns out to be his actual father). Stories in dreams offer infinite possibilities, but some writers use that as an excuse to turn their work into a cryptogram with way-too-obvious keys.


35. Identity (2003)
A murderer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) attends a hearing that will determine his ability to stand trial for his crimes. Meanwhile, a bunch of strangers are stranded at a motel, and one by one, they die. Both storylines are important to Identity, but only one is actually happening in the context of the film; sadly, it isn’t the one starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta. It’s hard to imagine another movie trying to pull off the “he’s the killer and the cop” plotline since Charlie Kaufman skewered it so throughly in 2002’s Adaptation, but Identity gives it the old college try, providing audiences with a bunch of potentially likeable characters, only to reveal in the last act that every one of them was the figment of a killer’s surprisingly robust subconscious. Screenwriter Michael Cooney attempts to take his story’s tortured psychology at face value, positing the dream-world motel as a kind of advanced self-help seminar, but the resulting puzzlebox of a film fails to leave much impression. It’s hard to enjoy a movie where even the fiction is fake.

36. “The Sting,” Futurama (2003)
Futurama gets a lot of mileage out of narrative trickery, so it’s only fair that they’d go to the dream well at least once. After Fry, loveable goofball and ostensible protagonist, is killed during a dangerous hunt for space honey, his sometime love interest Leela starts having strange visions in her sleep and waking life. Given the show’s willingness to put its characters through horrific violence, there was no question that Fry was really dead, but the third-act twist was clever: Fry never died in the first place, and it was Leela who was seriously injured, trapped in a coma with only Fry’s constant encouragement pushing her to come back to the world. “It was all a dream” is one of the most hated tricks in storytelling, but writer Patric M. Verrone manages to make it work by centering on the affection between two well-loved characters. Plus there are giant, vicious space bees, and who doesn’t love those?


37. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Taylor Hackford tried to pepper this overblown legal horror-fantasy with references to Paradise Lost, even naming Al Pacino’s manipulative master attorney John Milton. But the movie itself is the kind of bunk that wouldn’t even have made it on the air as a bad episode of The Twilight Zone: in telling the story of an idealistic young attorney (Keanu Reeves) corrupted by money, power, and big-city temptations, Hackford gives us scene after scene of ludicrously over-the-top plot and dialogue. (It doesn’t help that it’s delivered by these actors: Keanu Reeves is in over his head as usual, but Al Pacino is in his scenery-chewing, crank-up-the-volume ’90s mode here, and he shows none of the restraint and brilliance he once had.) He and his screenwriters pour on the asinine plot twists as if they had plenty to spare (Pacino is Keanu’s father! And also he’s Satan!), before delivering the hokiest one of all: Yes, it turns out it was all a dream! Even that isn’t enough for this overblown pabulum, and after the dream reveal, the filmmakers throw in a “Or was it?” for good measure. But by that point, no one was paying attention.

38. Psycho Beach Party (2000)
As a spoof on ’60s beach movies and modern slasher flicks, 2000’s Psycho Beach Party (adapted from the Charles Busch Off-Broadway play) is a deliciously postmodern concept: It’s a campy parody of already campy genres. The film mercilessly, blithely lampoons its own cinematic inspirations, playing up ridiculous plot holes and a purposely wooden dialogue. The irony runs deep, and the clichéd film devices even deeper. So it shouldn’t surprise that Psycho Beach Party’s twist ending comes with its own spiraling loop: After the psycho beach killer is revealed as the least-suspected character, it then comes out that the entire tale was all just the hallucinatory dream of a psych-ward patient. But then—surprise!—the camera pulls back even further, revealing that the “dream” was all in a movie, finally ending the sprawling storyline on a couple at the drive-in discussing how much of what they just watched was actually based on real life.