Lucid dream movies are probably so appealing because they present the dream world to be as life-like as reality, which can be exhilarating and horrifying. The relationship between dreams and reality is an interesting and thought-provoking theme that is explored in a multitude of ways in a growing number of films about lucid dreaming. Here we look into some of the most popular lucid dream movies ever made, as well as those that went relatively unnoticed but still offer something worthwhile to the audience.
This is arguably one of the most intelligent and confusing movies about lucid dreaming ever made. It is both written and directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Dunkirk fame, and features an all-star lineup of some of Hollywood’s most revered actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Elliot Page, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, and Cillian Murphy.
This is a sci-fi crime thriller that centers around DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, who is a master of extraction. This entails stealing secrets from a target while they are in a dream state, though Cobb winds up as a fugitive as a result of his skill and foray into corporate espionage. To redeem himself, he faces the impossible task of inception; to plant an idea into a person’s dreaming mind instead of stealing one. Cobb and his partner Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, ultimately become too deeply involved in the world of dreams and a tense adventure ensues. This is a hugely enjoyable movie if you can follow the dream within a dream within a dream plot and unsurprisingly performed very well at the box office.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
This is a remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Spanish movie released in 1997 entitled Abre Los Ojos, known in English as Open Your Eyes. Vanilla Sky is directed by Cameron Crowe and stars Hollywood heavyweights Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. The movie follows David Aames, played by Cruise, who is a handsome and wealthy young publishing executive with a seemingly perfect life. His world unravels after a mistake, and we follow him on an ever-spiraling journey of romance and disaster.
This movie keeps the audience on their toes and requires them to do some heavy investigative thinking. It has you constantly reconsidering what you previously held to be fact and will leave you pondering the storyline for days trying to come up with a reliable theory about what was happening. Most now agree that the second part of the movie, at the very least, was a lucid dream, while others believe the entire movie to have been happening during Aames’ dream state.
Despite the perplexing plot, Vanilla Sky is considered to be very watchable and even enjoyable at points. This movie performed well at the box office and was well-received by critics, earning two Golden Globe nominations and one Academy Award Nomination. The lingering reputation, though, leaves many viewers on opposite sides of the fence, with some rating it as a deeply touching movie and others declaring it confusing nonsense.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This is a horror movie directed by Wes Craven, starring Heather Langenkamp and a young Johnny Depp. It is a low-budget production that became a cult classic and inspired an entire franchise to include nine horror films, books, and a tv series. The story follows teenagers in an average American small town who find their lives turned upside down when a demon infiltrates their dreams to murder them, thereby killing them in real life.
The demon, Freddy Krueger, is played by Robert Englund and is the heinous spirit of a child murderer who has come to seek revenge by terrorizing his victims in their lucid dreams. Kruegers chosen targets are the teen children of the parents who he deems to be responsible for his premature death. These teenagers, as the story develops, have to navigate their way through lucid dreaming and find a way to defeat the demon to save themselves and their families.
The film is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time and is praised for its ability to lure the audience into a place of uncertainty between dreams and reality. Interestingly, Wes Craven has revealed that his inspiration for the movie was found in reality and borne from a series of newspaper articles appearing in the LA Times during the 1970s. The articles were about a group of refugees from Southeast Asia who reported experiencing nightmares that were so disturbing that they refused to go to sleep. Some died shortly afterward, during sleep, with reports indicating that refugees were dying during their nightmares.
The Matrix (1999)
This complex sci-fi movie is written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers and stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Ann Moss. The story follows Neo, a computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves, living in what he believes to be the year 1999. It is later revealed that the actual year, in reality, is 200 years in the future, where the earth has been taken over by Artificial Intelligence robots. They have simulated a fake shared reality, based in 1999, where the humans can remain unaware of reality while the robots use them as a source of energy.
As the story unfolds, Neo becomes aware of the terrifying truth that he is living in an artificially generated world, and the audience follows his journey as he seeks to remove the Artificial Intelligence robots from power and reclaim the earth for the humans. This action-packed movie explores the question of how anyone can ever know if they are truly in reality or in a lucid dream and whether our own experiences are based in reality or only exist in our minds. It features slick special effects and is a visual feast for the audience. The Matrix was a box office phenomenon that still receives high praise to this day and is regarded as one of the best action sci-fi movies of all time.
The Good Night (2007)
This drama-comedy movie was released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and focused its story around lucid dreaming. It was directed by Jake Paltrow and starred his sister Gwyneth Paltrow alongside Martin Freeman, Penelope Cruz, Danny DeVito, and Simon Pegg. The story revolves around Freeman’s character, Gary, who is struggling to accept the path his life has taken. He is in a miserable relationship and has fallen from the success of playing keyboard in a famous band to recording jingles for commercials. His only escape is his lucid dreams, where he becomes obsessed with another woman. In an effort to learn more about lucid dreaming, Gary seeks out a lucid-dreaming guru and consumes as much information as he can about the topic by reading books and attending classes.
In reality, Gary finds out that his dream girl actually exists, but ultimately she also turns out to be another disappointing part of his life. Rather than admit defeat, he works on ways to improve his ability to control his lucid dreams and even makes upgrades to his home, which will allow him to sleep for longer periods of time and be with his dream girl for as long as possible. Unsurprisingly, Gary’s real-life problems only worsen as he neglects reality in favor of lucid dreaming. This is a movie that offers some insight into the mechanics of lucid dreaming and is perfectly watchable with a few intelligent jokes sprinkled amongst the dark drama. It failed to achieve commercial success and only enjoyed a brief stint at cinemas before going straight to DVD.
Take Shelter (2011)
This psychological thriller was written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starred Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as young parents of a deaf child. Shannon plays Curtis, who experiences relentless apocalyptic dreams, which he hides from his family. His dreams and reality become intertwined, and Curtis begins to end relationships in real life with anyone who has wronged him in his dreams. The dreams consume him until he focuses all of his attention on building an enormous underground shelter in his backyard to protect his family from an impending storm he is convinced is coming. He constructs the shelter at the cost of his job and to the detriment of his relationship with his wife.
The audience is taken on a harrowing journey, where dreams and reality merge, and it is unclear what is fact and what is imagined. Curtis has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, and this begs the question as to whether his dreams are just that or paranoid hallucinations and delusions. The film ends with oil-like rain falling from the sky, which Curtis had earlier predicted, and the audience is left wondering if Curtis had been right all along or if the scene was another hallucination. This movie is a gripping dramatic thriller that received numerous awards and critical acclaim. Its ambiguity leaves much open to audience interpretation and plays on the theme of dreams in a new and interesting way.
Total Recall (1990)
This film is said to be loosely based on ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,’ a short story written by Phillip K Dick in 1966. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. The movie is based in the future, in the year 2084, and follows the story of a Quaid, a construction worker who is struggling with disturbing dreams about Mars, which is currently under siege.
Quaid decides to have the memory of a vacation implanted in his mind by a company that specializes in such procedures and opts for a created memory of a trip to Mars as a special undercover agent. The memory implantation is unsuccessful due to Quaid’s suppressed real memories of a trip of the same nature, and so the company wipes this memory from Quaid’s mind and sends him home.
While journeying home, Quaid is attacked and kills his colleagues, and this is the beginning of a long and bloody adventure on which Quaid is never sure if he is dreaming, experiencing reality, or watching an implanted memory. This movie is thoroughly entertaining and visually interesting, with a complex narrative that elevates it above the station of most violent sci-fi films of this nature. The movie was a huge box office hit and continues to remain popular to this day, with impressive ratings on Rotten Tomato and IMDB. It won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and several Saturn Awards.
The Science of Sleep (2006)
This Franco-Italian movie is known originally as La Science des rêves, which literally translated in English to ‘the science of dreams.’ It is directed by Michel Gondry, who was previously responsible for a similar project with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The movie follows French eccentric Stéphane, played by Gael García Bernal, who is in love with his next-door neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, though is unable to form a connection with her due to his unusual behaviors, which leave her confused. Stéphane instead tries to find the key to connecting with his neighbor in his lucid dreams, but his dreams and reality start to overlap, so that he is not clear whether his neighbor truly reciprocates his feelings or if it is only in his dreams.
The scenes within the movie also become unclear to the audience, so that like Stéphane, we are unsure which scenes are supposed to be reality and which are based in the character’s lucid dreams and imaginings. This movie was generally well-received by critics and the general audience, though in terms of sales, it fared much better internationally than it did in the United States. Many people find the movie hard work to understand or explain due to the somewhat incoherent narrative. However, the emotion and beautiful visuals of the movie make it a unique piece of filmmaking.
Lucid Dream (2017)
This movie is a South Korean sci-fi thriller which was written and directed by Kim Joon-sung. The story follows Dae-ho, a young father and investigative journalist whose son is abducted, as a result, he believes, of an act of revenge due to the corruptions he exposed. After three years with no leads on the whereabouts of his son, Dae-ho embarks on a journey of discovery using lucid dream techniques as a means of revealing hidden memories that could help him locate his son.
The lucid dream memory recovery is a form of therapy, which is led by one of Dae-ho’s old friends, and together they uncover important finds which set them on the trail to finding out where the missing boy is being kept. Along the way, a teenager keeps repeatedly appearing in Dae-ho’s lucid dreams, who he is able to track down in reality. It turns out that the mysterious teenager has discovered how to enter the lucid dreams of other people, which opens up a world of opportunity for finding out the real truth of what happened to his son. The movie was known to be inspired by ‘Inception’ and the real lucid dreams of the writer and director. It was poorly received in South Korea and lost money at the box office. Many critics agree that the movie is mediocre at best, though the special effects and the portrayal of Dae-ho by Go Soo make it worth watching.
This movie is a psychological thriller written by David Benioff and directed by Marc Forster. It stars Ryan Gosling as Henry Letham, who crashes his car on the Brooklyn Bridge and walks away unharmed. We then follow Henry as he attends therapy with psychiatrist Sam Foster, played by Ewan McGregor, where Henry admits to feeling remorse, guilt, and paranoia, as well as being able to predict the future.
Sam becomes suspicious of Henry as much of what he says doesn’t add up, and he spends his time trying to uncover the truth of what is really going on; however, he finds himself repeating narratives that are surreal and dream-like. Just moments before Henry’s 21st birthday, Sam learns that Henry’s favorite artist committed suicide on the Brooklyn Bridge on his own 21st birthday and realizes that Henry plans to imitate this last act. He finds Henry on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Henry states that he knows the world is a dream, before aiming the gun at himself and pulling the trigger.
The movie then returns to the earlier scene of the car crash on the Brooklyn Bridge to find that Henry was actually fatally injured. We then realize that the entire story was Henry’s dream in the last few moments of his life as he was suffering from survivor’s guilt. This movie explores how dreams and reality can cross over and how one can affect the other, making it thought-provoking to anyone interested in lucid dreaming. Most critics of the movie were unimpressed, finding it to be incoherent and pretentious. It was a huge failure at the box office and continues to be appealing to a minority of people.