Dream Scenario: wacky fantasy comedy satire on social media fame and post-modern cultural values

Kristoffer Borgli, “Dream Scenario” (2023)

This psychological fantasy comedy film is as oddball as they come, yet “Dream Scenario”, the first English-language feature film from Norwegian director Borgli, has a surprising dark underbelly and an element of Shakespearean tragedy in its plot. Unassuming college biology professor Paul Matthews (Nicholas Cage), snug in his comfort zone with wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and two teenage daughters Hannah and Sophie in their large house, so much so that he still hasn’t yet written that big tome he’s been meaning to write and publish over the past several years while his academic colleagues have been passing him by with original research and published papers, is jolted out of middle-aged complacency when people, even strangers who don’t know him, start reporting seeing him in their dreams. In these dreams, Paul simply stands by, passively observing the dreamer, as the dreamer himself / herself is being menaced by a zombie, two crocodiles or an alien space-ship hovering overhead. After an ex-girlfriend journalist posts her dream experiences of seeing Paul onto her Facebook page (after getting his permission), hundreds, even thousands of people reply to her post that they have also had dreams in which Paul appears. Paul revels in the unexpected attention and media fame, hoping that this will translate into an opportunity to find a publisher who will agree to publish his book, but expresses frustration that he only appears in the dreams as a passive bystander.

An incident in which a mentally ill man tries to kill Paul leads Paul to contact a marketing firm. The firm tries to get Paul to advertise Sprite products but Paul is adamant that he wants the firm to help him find a publisher. One of the employees later admits to Paul that she has had erotic dreams about him and though he is married, the two later try to re-enact one of these dreams, resulting in humiliation and distress for Paul.

The mass dreams soon start turning into nightmares and the flattering attention and adoration become revulsion leading to Paul having to go on extended leave after students stop attending his classes. Even people in cafes and restaurants are bothered by his presence and he ends up injured in a fight in a diner. Janet’s career as an architect is affected by her association with Paul and she asks him to issue a public apology, which he refuses to do. Paul then experiences a nightmare in which he is hunted and killed by … himself with a crossbow, and this leads him to issue a public self-pitying apology which appals Janet, so she throws him out of the house. Forced to take up lodgings with the dean of his college, Paul’s life spirals further downwards when he tries to attend Sophie’s school play (which her teacher asked him NOT to attend) and ends up causing an almighty ruckus when he accidentally jams the teacher’s fingers in the door, she ends up shrieking and several parents in the audience tackle him to the ground, though not before he notices his wife sitting with one of her work colleagues.

The film then abruptly switches to a corporate advertisement plugging dream-travel technology, the use of which enables the wearer to insert himself / herself into other people’s dreams. This technology is unashamedly based on the mass dream phenomenon surrounding Paul Matthews. By this point in the film, Paul and Janet have separated for good, and Paul also seems to have left Osler College permanently. He goes on a tour of France organised by the marketing firm to promote his autobiography “Dream Scenario” (retitled “I Am Your Nightmare” in French without his consent) and while there, uses the dream-travel technology to enter one of Janet’s dreams.

On the surface, the film is a satire about the fickle nature of fame and celebrity, and the havoc it can cause to the lives of people who suddenly become famous and discover that they have no control over their fame and its consequences. Sudden adoration and hero worship can quickly turn into hatred, irrational fear and resentment leading to isolation and even violent reactions. What makes Paul’s situation all the more poignant is that initially he does not know how he ends up appearing in so many people’s dreams (though it could be that some people are responding in mock sarcasm to the ex-girlfriend’s original Facebook article, or that the phenomenon is a shared delusional disorder sparked by the Facebook post) and has no control over the phenomenon. For all his education as a biologist and an academic, his attempts to deal with the phenomenon involve no advice or other input from social psychologists and end in failure. He shows little empathy for his students when their dreams about him turn into nightmares; for that matter, the students quickly isolate him, vandalise his car and force Osler College to turf him out altogether.

On a deeper level, the film satirises cancel culture and the role that social media technology plays in encouraging and fomenting modern forms of ostracism and bullying. This goes hand in hand with a culture that privileges emotion and subjective experience over reason and objectivity, in part because, in the past, reason, rationality and objectivity were used to justify Western cultural superiority (and thus colonial imperialism) over other, usually non-Western cultures. Now that we live in a post-modern age in which truth and objectivity are considered relative, stories with no basis in fact but based on emotion or justified by the narrator’s ethnic / religious background can claim equal status or respect even if their results can cause harm to others, as Paul and his family discover.

The creepiest and most tragic part of “Dream Scenario” comes when the phenomenon of a shared dream consciousness ends up being exploited for profit through social media and technology, and Paul himself is forced to monetise his life and his part in this phenomenon (at the behest of the marketing firm he initially contacted) in order to survive.

Throughout the film, Nicholas Cage demonstrates his brilliance as an actor in portraying a one-dimensional character lacking in self-insight who is thrown into a Kafkaesque situation through no fault of his own and who ends up being destroyed, with empathy. The rest of the cast is good with Michael Cera outstanding as know-it-all, self-absorbed but ultimately idiotic brand management expert Trent.

While the film’s resolution might appear to be unsatisfactory to most viewers, with loose ends left frayed, I consider its ending appropriate: after all his experiences, there can be no going back to his comfortable if unfulfilling life as a tenured college professor for Paul. Everything he took for granted has been turned upside down and there really is nowhere else left for him to go except … to turn up in people’s dreams or nightmares for real.