The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The one good usage of dream sequences in movies

with 19 comments


Dream sequences in movies make my skin itch, almost as badly as it does during long sex scenes. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue not to call out my frustration


Before we start an argument over my lack of love for dreams in movies I want to put in a disclaimer. Yes, there are movies where dreaming is essential and an important part of the story. I loved Inception. I liked Danny Boyle’s latest move Trance quite a bit. Overall I’m a fan of movies that explore various aspects of the human mind, such as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix. Unlike many others I also liked Vanilla Sky and Shutter Island, not to mention Minority Report.

When I’m talking about my hatred for dream sequences it’s not that kind of dreams I refer to. The dreams, usually in the form of nightmares, that I hate so much are the ones that are tossed into the movie for no particular reason. And here are my objections:

1. They feel like fillers
As much as I love Star Trek and consider TNG the best series of them all, I always cringe when I realize it’s going to be a holo deck scene or – in worst case – an entire episode with it. I always imagined that the amount of holo deck was related to the state of the finances. If they were short on money they did more holo deck. It was cheaper per minute. And that’s how most dream sequences are in movies. They feel like a cheap way to spend some time, to drag out on a story that didn’t have enough of substance to fill an entire feature film.

2. They’re pointless
You would expect from a movie that there should be a reason for every scene they put into it. Shooting costs money and the time of the viewer’s is precious too, so you shouldn’t want to make a movie longer than necessary. But surprisingly dream scenes seem to go under a different set of rules. Over and over again we see scenes where the main characters are engaged doing things that have nothing to do with the plot whatsoever. It’s like a separate track that suddenly appears without any real tie to the rest of the film. You don’t learn anything new about the characters. You don’t learn anything about the story. They’re floating around like an isolated island and you never how why it’s there at all.

3. They undermine my trust and suspension of disbelief.
Nightmares are especially overused in suspension and horror movies and that’s where I hate them most. They’re always used in a manner that makes you believe that what you see is what happening “for real” in the film. There will inevitably be some sound-based jump scares and then things will horrendously bad and then the main character will wake up dripping with sweat and you learn that it was only a dream. I will fall for that trick the first time it’s used in a movie. I do it every single time, because that’s how I watch movies: I immerse myself into them completely. But then the revelation comes that it was “only a dream”, which makes me feel like a fool, and as a result I’ll be much more on my guard for the rest of the movie. My level of suspension of disbelief falls to a minimum and I take a step back from the movie, observing it rather than bathing in it. “Ok, things are going bad, huh? I wouldn’t make a big fuss about it. I bet it’s just another dream.”

4. They’re immensely boring
I never tell other people about my dreams. My number one reason for this is that I never remember them, so there isn’t much of a choice. But even if I did remember them, I wouldn’t say anything about them unless someone begged for me to share it. And the reason for this is that I don’t want to expose others to what I hate so much myself.

Frankly I find it very hard to listen to other people telling me about their dreams. Every time it happens I start drifting away. My head keeps nodding and my mouth is smiling or my forehead is frowning, depending on the tone in the voice of the story teller. In reality I’m somewhere else.

Basically I see dreams as the equivalence of screensavers. I guess they’ve got some kind of function and that our brain needs to do idle work once in a while as a part of its maintenance. But this doesn’t qualify them as material for storytelling, be it as a part of a dinner conversation or in a movie. It’s engaging only to the dreamer herself. If dreaming sparks your creativity, my best advice is to save it for your diary.

One reason to include them
As far as I’m concerned I only see one usage of random dreams in movies. Provided they’re long enough, they’re pretty good for a bio break in case of emergency.


This post is a part of a blogathon arranged by the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna. The theme was: “Nightmares” (and yes, I may have stretched it a little bit in this post). Here are links to the other blog posts.

In English:

Fredrik on Film

In Swedish:

Fiffis Filmtajm
Fripps filmrevyer
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord
Except Fear

photo credit: Axel Bührmann via photopin

Written by Jessica

November 27, 2013 at 6:00 am

19 Responses

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  1. I heartily agree…when you get into a path on a film (generally a terrible one) and then they just waive it off as not real, it makes the whole process seem arbitrary and precludes emotional investment. Except in the last Twilight film where it just let the film be that much more crazy and fun because emotional investment wasn’t the point there.


    November 27, 2013 at 7:46 am

    • It’s such a cheap trick, isn’t it. I haven’t seen the last Twilight film tbh. Or the one before. I stopped after the first one, despite the fact that I thought it was pretty good. I should catch up. Perhaps a project for the holiday season.


      November 27, 2013 at 7:57 am

  2. What if they are used in comedies? Maybe the term dream doesn’t completely fit, but I thought they can work effectively there.

    Two examples from the top of my head:
    – Analyze This! There is a scene where Billy Crystal’s character is having a conversation with a patient and he imagines him telling her exactly how he feels instead of thinking of her feelings. It’s very short and you immediately realize after it is his imagination. To me that was very funny
    – High Fidelity where Cusack’s character, together with his colleagues start beating up Tim Robbins character, which also turns out not to be real. It is one of the funniest moments in the movie.

    Interested to know what you think of them in that situation?


    November 27, 2013 at 10:35 am

    • I don’t remember the scene in High Fidelity and I haven’t seen Analyze This!. But it sounds like a more appropriate use, more like a daydream or something and not the pointless as many dreams end up being.


      November 27, 2013 at 12:30 pm

  3. I like thinking about my own dreams, and if somebody want´s to tell med theirs I listen. I think dreams are trying to tell us something important. Perhaps moviemakers think the same – the dreams are important for the film and we don´t give a damn if you care about them or not, we´re gonna show anyway! 😉


    November 27, 2013 at 10:58 am

  4. …show THEM anyway 🙂


    November 27, 2013 at 10:58 am

    • Indeed they can do what they want but I figure they should be somewhat interested in what the audience likes to see. Frankly I have no idea about the general opinion in this. Do most people like to see dream sequences like you ore are there more like me out there?


      November 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm

  5. I understand where you’re coming from Jessica but I actually tend to enjoy them. Particularly in the work of David Lynch as I think he works from a deep subconscious level. To each their own, of course, but it’s something I’m very much fascinated by. Great post, as always.


    November 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

    • This was me, by the way, my comments seem to be playing up that the moment. 😦

      Mark Walker

      November 27, 2013 at 11:04 am

      • I said that there are exceptions. I haven’t seen a lot of Lynch but I love Twin Peaks – including the second season that people tend to hate – and I didn’t mind the dreamy sequences at all there. They were perfect for the mood and the creepiness. However there are a lot of dreams in movies that are nowhere near that level.


        November 27, 2013 at 12:32 pm

  6. Interesting take. I must agree with you that meaningless dream sequences are meaningless. But I can’t remember so many that are that right now. Ususally the dream sequences add something to the narrative. No?

    The first one I thought of when reading your post was Ripley’s dream in the beginning of Aliens. The one when she in the dream wake up and she has a chest burster coming out. That dream sequence set up (or set focus on) the fear and dread of that movie, as well as the sequel Alien3 (where the dream comes true).

    I think if the dream sequences are used to make the film arty-farty I don’t like them so much. If the dream sequences are used to pinpoint something important in the mind of the main character or in the story, then I am all for them.

    If you want to try to get used to dreams on film, try the movie The Cell. Good flick.


    November 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    • Without having a list ready to prove my point, I’ve got a feeling that there are a great deal of pretty pointless dream sequences. Perhaps it’s more common in TV series though where there’s a ton of taime to waste. I like dreams best when they’re a part of the plot and you really have a reason to see and care about them.


      November 27, 2013 at 9:12 pm

  7. While I’m no great fan of pointless segments in movies, I’m nto sure I agree with you on this one. Like Henke I have a feeling that dream sequences quite often at least try to add something to the narrative. The problem for me is rather the opposite of your objection — dreams tend to make a movie overly pointed about what the character is supposed to be feeling or discover.

    And on the part of undermining trust, how do you feel about delusions or hallucinations like the one in Gravity?

    Also like Henke, I can vouch for the goodness of The Cell.


    November 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    • The scene in Gravity IS a bit of a cheat but I enjoyed the movie too much to become really annoyed with it. If there would have been more I would have felt strongly against it I think. Playing that kind of games with the viewer is’t all that fair imo. But again: I could accept it in Gravity.


      November 27, 2013 at 9:14 pm

  8. I partly agree. Mostly it feels like a filler but i does not disturb me so much. I´m kind of middle of the road about this subject. But i didn´t like the dream/apparition in Gravity


    November 27, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    • I thought that was ok actually as well as I’m fine with Lynch’s dreamy stuff. But when it feels cheap and ointless – that’s when I react.


      November 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm

  9. Personally I’m a fan of dreams, hallucinations, surrealism and things of that nature.

    It makes sense that you like the dreaming in Inception because for me that doesn’t really feel like dreaming. It was just a technical plot device and it felt more like they doing some sort of surgery. It felt clinical and not dreamy weird. But that was the whole point and overall I liked Inception. But I loooove Mulholland Drive for example which basically is a long dream sequence. 🙂


    December 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    • I honestly haven’t seen Mulholland Drive, but I’m determined to get to it one day. Dreamy or not.


      December 31, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  10. 100% agreed about nightmares in horror films. They are a God damn cheat. Sometimes it’s implied the ghost or whatever caused them, but why then make it a dream at all? It makes an anti-climax out the scary scene that was just shown. You have to subtract what you just saw from the story in many cases, as it didn’t happen for the characters. Some movies have several, and you realize very little else actually occurs. I hate dreams in horror movies. I do not see the point. Ever. Never have I seen it improve the film

    A Bipolar Guy

    February 10, 2017 at 11:50 pm

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