Earlier this year, Ari Aster brought us Beau is Afraid. It was built from the ground up to be a disturbingly nightmarish acid trip of a movie about a middle-aged white man driven to catatonic anxiety and paranoia by an aggressively illogical world in which everything and everyone was out to destroy him for no discernible reason.
Aster did not write or direct Dream Scenario — that would be Kristoffer Borgli, here making his first Hollywood feature — but Aster did produce through his Square Peg shingle and his fingerprints are all over this one.
Nicolas Cage (also a producer through his Saturn Films label) plays Paul Matthews, a balding middle-aged schlub who works as a tenured professor of evolutionary biology. The filmmakers go out of their way to portray Paul as a boringly ordinary guy — his students, his colleagues, his two teenage daughters (played by Lily Bird and Jessica Clement), and even his wife (Janet, played by Julianne Nicholson) all give him only the barest minimum of acknowledgement and respect. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that Paul never actually got around to typing a single word of that book he’s always been so hyped about publishing.
Anyway, the plot begins in earnest with the revelation that Paul is somehow showing up in people’s dreams. Paul has no control over this, and he didn’t even know it was happening until somebody finally gets the nerve to tell him. Not everyone has recurring dreams of him, but it’s enough to get significant media attention.
On the one hand, Paul values his anonymity and he’s not equipped for this kind of attention. On the other hand, he’s a man of science who wants to figure out what’s happening and how. More importantly, he wants to use the new mainstream attention as a springboard to get a publisher and advance his own cause and career in the field of evolutionary biology. Thus he plays along with the trend and humors the people who claim to see him in his dreams. Inevitably, this brings him directly into the path of people who want to use him toward their own ends with little if any regard for his intended career path. He also runs afoul of people who think they know him even when they honestly don’t.
So far, we’ve got a pretty decent satirical allegory for being “internet famous”. We live in a time when literally anyone can go viral for some video or tweet that catches fire for whatever inexplicable reason. And of course that fame (as with any kind of fame) can come with certain unintended and unwanted consequences. All well and good.
The only issue here is that Paul didn’t actually do anything to make this happen. Sure, it makes sense that Paul has no control over how his image gets disseminated or interpreted, that’s a perfectly valid part of the allegory. But the bigger issue here is that Paul did literally nothing — even unintentionally — to put himself into everyone else’s heads. And going viral like this usually involves somebody putting their face or voice out there into some public forum, even in a seemingly innocuous way. Granted, Paul does escalate the issue somewhat with his media appearances, but only after the dreams become common knowledge. That’s not the same thing.
But then we get to the back half. This is where the character’s lack of agency gets to be a crucial factor and the movie flies clear off the rails.
See, at first, everyone dreams of Paul as this weird guy in the background who simply observes and doesn’t do anything. But then we start hearing more and more cases about Paul having sex with people. Then dreams of Paul raping, threatening, chasing, murdering… you get the idea.
The upshot is that people are legitimately traumatized by their nightmares of Paul, to the point where nobody wants to be anywhere near him. This puts Paul in a bind because he didn’t actually do anything, and it’s not like he ever had any control over this whole thing in the first place. Even so, it doesn’t stop people from reacting to him with deep-seated visceral revulsion as if he had actually done all those awful things.
Thus the film tries to pivot from “internet famous” to “cancel culture”. There are manifold reasons why this doesn’t work.
Again, it makes a huge difference that Paul did literally nothing to deserve any of this. Typically, when people get “cancelled”, it’s because they really did do something wrong, there’s at least partially legitimate reason to believe they did something wrong, or at least something was done or said that got blown out of proportion. So clearly, this film is meant to be an allegory for someone who got “cancelled” wrongly and unfairly for something he didn’t do. Fair enough. It doesn’t happen often, and presumption of innocence can be harmful in its own way, but false accusations do happen and they are damaging, so we’ll give the filmmakers that one.
Even then, we run into problems because the filmmakers only focus on the “witch hunt” aspect of online culture. Trouble is, that’s only half the truth. What the filmmakers fail to realize is that social media discourse isn’t just driven by quixotic self-righteousness, it’s driven by controversy.
Surely in all the internet, Paul would have defenders. There would have to be a subreddit somewhere in which people try to remind everyone that nobody actually got hurt and Paul never claimed to have any control over any of this. Hell, show me the crackpot contrarian psychopath who thinks it should be legal and acceptable to rape and murder people in their dreams so that he could do the same. The filmmakers could’ve easily shown Paul in the middle of a culture war between two sides he wants nothing to do with, but the movie never goes there.
Instead, the filmmakers are only out to show Paul suffer because the entire world is out to destroy him for illogical reasons he has no control over. Thus the movie makes the classic fatal blunder of talking about social media and online culture in simplistic emotional terms. In truth, this is a complex and multifaceted topic that must be discussed logically, with a calm and intelligent tone. To portray this in strictly horrific terms and such a panicked fearmongering tone doesn’t just come off as ignorant and backwards-thinking, but it actively insults the intelligence and experience of an audience that grew up steeped in this culture.
As the protagonist, Paul actively refuses to engage with the youth of social media. Even when he’s given no other choice but to engage, he makes no effort at trying to communicate in their terms or on their level. Because, again, everyone else in the world except for Paul is portrayed as a dumb, shallow, self-absorbed, self-righteous animal. Putting such a heavy focus on this middle-aged white man — with his own self-righteous attitude that everyone is too focused on blowing their traumas out of proportion and everyone claiming “discomfort” should grow the hell up already — comes off as genuinely hostile to everyone of millennial age and younger. What’s worse, it exclusively focuses on the most commercial and cutthroat aspects of social media, with no regard for its potential benefits. The internet’s capacity to bring communities together and give voice to the historically underrepresented is either outright ignored at best or cartoonishly demonized at worst.
As with godfather Ari Aster, Borgli proves himself a filmmaker far more comfortable with evoking terror through primal emotions and psychologically twisted imagery. And he was misguided enough to try and take that approach in commenting on social media and making us scared of it. This has never worked, it’s never going to work, it’s only ever going to make the storyteller look like an out-of-touch Luddite whackjob using transparently outdated scare tactics, screaming at kids to get off their lawn. (Seriously, does nobody else remember The Circle?!) An emotional approach to this topic is doomed to fail, it has to be done intellectually. Don’t try to make us scared of social media — we’re already fucking scared of social media for good goddamn reason, and we’ve all learned to live with that fear by now — help us to better understand it.
Any filmmaker who tries to comment on the internet had damn well better know what they’re talking about if they’re going to tell us something we don’t already know. Otherwise, if they’re stuck repeating on the same hyped-up talking points and pearl-clutching from back before the Metaverse collapsed, why should we take anything they have to say seriously?
As with anything else he’s done lately, Nicolas Cage is the only reason to see this movie. The character is a put-upon loser who acts in totally different ways depending on the dreamer — Paul was custom-built for such a wildly unpredictable and dynamic actor as Cage. I must also admit that the notion of a surreal film about dreams lends itself to some beautifully executed mindfucks. Alas, the rest of the cast is more or less wasted. It baffles me that the likes of Tim Meadows, Dylan Baker, and Michael Cera are given so little time or opportunity to do what they do best, while Julianne Nicholson is playing the role with maybe half the emotional bandwidth her character deserved.
Dream Scenario is a waste of a good premise and a great cast. This could’ve been a phenomenal examination of modern internet fame, if only the filmmakers had been content to stick with pitch-black satire instead of psychological horror. Alas, the filmmakers didn’t put in the thought or the effort to really think their premise through, so the film dissolves into reactionary bullshit that loses any kind of credibility just as quickly as the protagonist loses any reason for sympathy.
If you want an example of social media commentary done right, just look at Searching or Missing. Free Guy was a better examination of online culture. For fuck’s sake, the Roberto Benigni subplot of To Rome with Love did a smarter and funnier job examining the capricious highs and lows of pop cultural stardom, and that was a Woody Allen film from goddamn 2012! Those were all intelligent and insightful works that actually knew what the fuck they were talking about, without going for the gut and engaging in panicky technological fearmongering.
Science fiction isn’t your lane, Mr. Aster. Go back to supernatural horror and take your friends with you.