Dreams are essentially movies created by our minds, so it’s not surprising that so many films deal directly with our REM reveries. What is surprising, however, is that only a few focus on the topic of lucid dreaming — that is, a dream in which the dreamer recognizes that he is dreaming and therefore can manipulate that fantasy world as he sees fit.
Of the handful that do exist, which do an admirable job at depicting the ever morphing dreamscape? To figure it out, we recruited Robert Waggoner, lucid dreaming expert and author of “Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self” and co-author of “Lucid Dreaming, Plain and Simple: Tips and Techniques for Insight, Creativity, and Personal Growth”.
Waggoner walked us through some of the most popular lucid dreaming films and why or why not they accurately portray the REM realm.
Plot: In the future, a psychotherapy treatment exists that allows doctors to view patients’ dreams. But when the technology is stolen and used to hurt people rather than help them, a scientist — who goes by the secret dream identity “Paprika” — must travel through the REM world and prevent chaos from ensuing.
Waggoner’s Take: “In some ways, it’s a lovely film,” Waggoner says. “But this is one example where the film industry loves to dramatize the potential dark side of lucid dreaming, and the idea that you could somehow enter a patient’s dream and explore their unconscious and use it toward a negative end. So in that way, it’s not the most positive look at lucid dreaming.
“But it does bring out some interesting ideas, like lucid dreams could be used therapeutically or psychotherapeutically,” he says. “The idea that someone might enter your dreams and cause mass nightmares and suicide, I think is a little too far-fetched.”
Plot: A team of “extractors” who enter people’s dreams to steal valuable secrets is recruited for the dangerous task of planting an idea in someone’s dream, in a concept known as “inception.”
Waggoner’s Take: As perhaps the most well-known film about lucid dreaming, Waggoner says there’s a lot to admire about it.
“It brings up important questions, like if you become consciously aware that you’re dreaming, can you lucidly enter another person’s dream or bring them into your dream?” Waggoner says. “That might sound like a fantastic question, but it’s an important one. And also, if they share unknown information with you, will this provide evidence for a shared or mutual dream?”
“Those are the things I liked about ‘Inception,’ because it really makes us question reality and also Christopher Nolan has had lucid dreams himself. The things that I didn’t like...in my history of having more than 1,000 lucid dreams, I’ve never been involved in a gun battle or a car chase. If I was in a gun battle, I would realize the bullets were dream bullets and they would have no significance.”
Plot: A psychic (Dennis Quaid) is recruited for a government project to enter the dreams of the President of the United States and protect him from being assassinated by an evil government agent (Christopher Plummer) who wants to assassinate him in his sleep.
Waggoner’s Take: “‘Dreamscape’ is an interesting idea,” Waggoner says. “I was giving a workshop once, and a woman told me that in a lucid dream she tried to talk to President Obama, but she told me as she got close to the White House there was an impenetrable wall that she couldn’t get beyond. So [it makes you wonder] if there is some psychic protection of the president.
“In lucid dreams, sometimes strange things happen and you wonder ‘Why was I stopped there? Why did that come to an end?’”
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Plot: A man (Tom Cruise) discovers that he has spent the past 150 years cryogenically frozen, and living in a lucid dream reality.
Waggoner’s Take: Stay away from “Vanilla Sky,” Waggoner says. Why? Because the film perpetuates the idea that someone else is in charge of your lucid dream state, rather than you being solely the one in charge.
“It’s one that I really wouldn’t recommend to other lucid dreamers,” says Waggoner. “Lucid dreamers learn that you can manipulate your dream reality by manipulating your own mind. In ‘Vanilla Sky,’ it seems the main character really isn’t aware of this so much. He relies on another figure, a kind of concierge to do things for him. He’s not really fully lucid, and it’s a problem.”
Waking Life (2001)
Plot: Uh, what plot? Richard Linklater’s animated film is an existential exploration of dreams and reality, following an unnamed young man as he floats through philosophical conversations on subjects such as free will, politics and the existence of God. Is it all a dream...or something even stranger?
Expert’s Take: “Waking Life” is one of the most essential films for lucid dreamers, and for good reason, Waggoner says.
“The wonderful thing about ‘Waking Life’ is it brings up vignettes that many lucid dreamers have, where they question the nature of reality, the nature of the dream experience and the nature of existence,” says Waggoner.
“Throughout the movie, you see lots of examples of flying around and things suddenly changing in a dream-like fashion, and those seem very reminiscent of lucid dreams. With lucid dreams, you can fly around like Superman, you can float, you can levitate.”