What did you Dream?
It's all right, we TOLD you what to DREAM!
Oh, it's not for lack of trying, but how does one really "ask" for this film without its title? That's especially for a film as hard to really describe as this one! I still remember the look on my poor dad's face when I said to him "What was the name of that movie where the one guy tells the other guy what to dream and then he totally does it and then what he dreams turns real to the point that when he dreams it everybody's skin turns to a different color? You know? He laid down in some putty-type stuff and the doctor kept saying 'I want you to dream of a world where blah-blah-blah!' and it kind of sounds like that one Pink Floyd song 'Welcome to the Machine'. You know? What was that called?" Folks I'm sure most of you are pretty good at guessing games but even with that evidence I can't imagine you'd look back at me and say "The Lathe of Heaven!"
Be that as it may (and, cousin, it is), The Lathe of Heaven is most assuredly the unnamed but not forgotten film in question. Yes, as in the 1980 low budget, feature-length Sci-Fi film based on the 1971 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin! And I was right to seek it on PBS (or LPB, as the Louisiana stations were called), seeing as how this brilliant and inspirational film was a TV movie, made for Public Broadcasting by WNET, channel 13, New York.
Sound cheesy? Sound like one of those low-budget, silly attempts at mediocrity from the post-Star Wars-era of knock-offs? Trust me... The Lathe of Heaven is anything but that. In fact, this is among the prime examples of Science Fiction as Art Film! This makes the fact that it is, in fact, a TV Movie all the more noteworthy.
At it's worst it's as good as an era-comparable episode of Doctor Who! The same imagination and inventiveness went into this exercise as the British Sci-Fi serial! As low budget as it is (and in many places, it shows), The Lathe of Heaven gives us a fantastic futuristic world due to the camera angles chosen by cinematographer Robbie Greenberg and directors Fred Barzyk and David Loxton and the shooting locations at existing "Post Modern" architecture in 1979 Dallas, Texas. While this should look dated, the way these are filmed still look like a world yet to come, even thirty years after the "near future" that The Lathe of Heaven predicted! Yes, it's something to look at, TV picture or no!
But what's this little movie about? I don't know, I've never heard of it.
Oh, yeah, this is that movie I've been looking for all these past three decades. Right.
Well, as a young me tried to describe to spark his dad's memory, in a nutshell, The Lathe of Heaven is about a seemingly ordinary man whose dreams reshape reality! His name is George Orr (or, occasionally, "JorJor", as very well played by Bruce Davison). He lives in an overpopulated, post nuclear war Portland, Oregon where the sun hasn't shined in years and all clothing is "rain gear". Orr is an average george with an average job and one small, strange peculiarity... he's cursed with the knowledge that whatever he dreams comes true! And that goes both for the wishes his heart makes when he's fast asleep and the horrifying nightmares alike!
Nobody else knows about Orr's peculiar ability because whatever George dreams changes reality retroactively... so that nobody knows that any change has been made... except George. And George is certain of that fact! So George must be insane, right? Maybe that's why he accidentally overdoses on drugs that he's taking to suppress his dreams! (I guess he has yet to dream up Hypnocil.)
Maybe that's why he's sent to "voluntary" therapy with oneirologist Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway). The good news is that Dr. Haber is a pretty good fellow who would love to make the world a better place, starting with curing George Orr, a man who may be schizophrenic enough to believe that his dreams control the world.
But what if George is right... and what if a psychiatrist as brilliant and ambitious as Dr. Haber figures out that George is right? And what happens to the world when this incredible power goes from a simple guy who doesn't want it to a Machiavellian scientist who craves it more and more?
Then again... what if even that is all a dream?
That's the premise... and that's all you need to know. This alone is both exciting and chilling... and that's what makes this seemingly cheap film mesmerizing!
Credit is due to Ursula K. Le Guin and her imaginative novel that spawned this amazing 105 minute slice of non-cinema. This credit must be shared with teleplay adapters Roger Swaybill and Diane English for their intelligent and thought-provoking interpretation of this work and the paced, artistic direction of Barzyk and Loxton! The music by Michael Small is a wonderful accompaniment, but still minimalist enough to never overpower the dialogue or sound effects! I've never praised a Location Coordinator before but the fact that this movie looks more expensive than it really was is thanks, in no small part, to Helen Gilbert! Hell, I'd name check the whole cast and crew if I had time or you had the desire... Alas, that's what IMDB is for. Isn't technology wonderful? In this movie or out, in dreams or reality.
Of course, the film relies a great deal on its special effects and striking artistic design, it's true. But locations, visual effects, cool music and all the smart angles and backdrops in the world couldn't save this movie if the actors sucked like pickled pulsars! Luckily they don't!
Veteran Actor Kevin "Kahless the Unforgettable" Conway is a canny and complex Dr. Haber while Bruce Davison gives one of those rare performances that could be over-the top and silly in the hands (and mouths) of many actors! Davison feels so immersed in "Jor-Jor" that even the most animated and extreme piece of dialogue feels natural out of his own mind. Out of the talented supporting cast Margaret Avery shines the brightest as George's lawyer and friend Heather LeLache! She is equally subtle and emotional and sells her drama perfectly!
The brilliance of this film has been praised by many better critics than me (and I'm sure George can dream of quite a few better). In fact, its influence can be seen on latter-day hits like Donnie Darko, Inception and The Matrix while keeping the look of Logan's Run or THX-1138.
Still, this is not a perfect film, nor will it appeal to everyone. The $250,000 budget (low even by 1980 standards) is used wisely and efficiently but corner-cutting shows occasionally in the television-esque picture quality and even some of the special effects that aren't quite "blockbuster" material. The intelligent crowd might not care much because this is a much more expressive and impressionistic film that relies on story, dialogue and acting with visuals supporting the story, never exploiting it! Many who have been weaned on big-budget, lowbrow entertainment that PBS wouldn't even air during Winterfest Pledge Week might scoff at those scenes that admittedly do feel a bit dated here and there without truly noting how timeless other moments really are. Obvious stock footage use and strange makeup and other-worldly props also show the flaws, while the limitations of the budget cause a suggestiveness that the less-than-attentive might not have the patience to follow.
Further, it should be noted that for all of its artistic inventiveness, this is, at core, a Science Fiction movie. It's a brilliant Sci-Fi film that gives us a metaphorical and surreal social commentary, but all of this is against a Fantasy backdrop. How Sci-Fi am I talking? Well it goes far beyond "mere" dream manipulation and retroactive continuity. We're talking about Alien Invaion, Post Apocalyptic survival, surreal battle sequences, walls of blinking lights (representing gargantuan computers, less powerful than my smartphone) and futuristic representations of restructured governments. Yes, it's a very artful film, but it requires both attention to the plot and an open mind to truly enjoy The Lathe of Heaven for all that it is!
And, I'm pleased to say that thirty (plus) years ago after its thirteen (plus) debut, The Lathe of Heaven is still more than the sum of its parts worth somewhere in the dreamscape of Four and One Half Stars out of Five! I'm just glad the quest to figure out what the hell this echoing memory from my past was is finally over... and with results that George Orr himself could scarcely have dreamed of! I googled a few key words like "I want you to Dream", "Science Fiction" and "Public Broadcasting" and found just what I was looking for. In under a half hour I was watching it streaming online. Now that's instant gratification, folks. Thirty years and a finger snap... and it's reviewed the very next day. Huzzah! So until I dream of what the hell that one movie was where the possessed chick repents by grabbing the crucifix at the last second before she's burned at the stake and then is reincarnated later and get to watch that one right away, I'll see you reality shapers in the next dreamy Alien-traded, antique reel! You won't BELIEVE how it turns out!
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