Entertainment

Does 'Dreamcatcher' Actually Suck?

Lawrence Kasdan's 2003 alien invasion movie was a huge misstep in the filmmaker's career—but is it any better upon rewatch?
July 10, 2017, 4:08pm
Castle Rock Entertainment

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

The biggest movies of 2003 were The Return of the King, Finding Nemo, and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Dreamcatcher came in 87th, sandwiched between a horror movie about the tooth fairy and a comedy starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins.

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Reviews were bad—Roger Ebert called Dreamcatcher "a monster movie of stunning awfulness"—but a semi-flattering consensus soon formed that Dreamcatcher was destined for a certain type of greatness, or at least infamy. A.V. Club's Scott Tobias wrote, "the word 'excess' doesn't even begin to describe the breathtaking insanity of Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher, an instant bad-cinema classic." He was right; Dreamcatcher is still captivating. It overflows with bonkers dialogue, extraterrestrial slapstick, and peculiarly dated paranoia.

Dreamcatcher is about four friends with useless psychic powers, capable of feats like humiliating a fat psychiatric patient, finding car keys, and following a psychic projection into traffic. It's only on their annual hunting trip that they discover the true purpose for their abilities, planted in them by the absent Duddits, the mentally disabled friend at the center of their metaphorical dreamcatcher (don't worry, there's a literal one too).

It's an odd set-up, soon topped by a burping, bloated hunter dying on their toilet just after some Nutty Professor farts and just before a "shit weasel" (basically a toothy, alien eel) falls out of his ass to kill Beaver (Jason Lee). It's the beginning of an alien infestation, countered by the Blue Boy Group, a special military unit headed by Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman). Curtis swoops in to quarantine the whole forest, now overrun with red alien fungus ("the men call the red stuff Ripley, after the broad in the Alien movies").

It doesn't matter that Dreamcatcher was written by two of the most accomplished screenwriters in history: William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark). There's just no saving the catchphrases Stephen King placed in these characters' mouths. Lines that barely worked on the page sound like an alien language on-screen. No actor alive or dead could sell "fuck me Freddie," "Jesus Christ bananas," and Beav's near incomprehensible "this is turning into a double fuckarow, a real jabba-nabba."

In attempting to capture King's idiom, Dreamcatcher reaches a level of hyperbolic pseudo-life that's fun to watch, even as it deflates all tension and character coherence. The actors—all accomplished, familiar faces—are put through some serious hell in Dreamcatcher. Topping even Timothy Olyphant's long-winded aside about Viagra is the gauntlet poor Jason Lee is forced to run ("bitch in a buzzsaw, I've heard some mighty burps in my time, but that's the blue-ribbon baby!")—full of Kevin Smith–like nerdisms and repetition that makes his quick death a mercy. Dreamcatcher's dialogue is full of ignominious quotables like a long, ensemble discussion of the word "priapismic."

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But nothing tops Mr. Gray, the alien possessing Jonesy (Damian Lewis). Every bit of Jonesy's Smeagol/Gollum relationship spirals out from completely incomprehensible storytelling choices, often employing Dreamcatcher's most bizarre device: the memory palace Jonesy uses to organize his memories (King likely borrowed the concept from Thomas Harris, after reviewing Hannibal for the Times two years earlier), full of boxes with labels like "Jerk-Off Fantasies" (beginning at age 11) and "Sports Humiliations." It's here that the human Jonesy is trapped while the slug-alien puppets his body.

As much fun as it is cataloging the curiosities in the Dreamcatcher circus, it can never capture the jaw-dropping gestalt of weird lines, baffling character choices (you don't need that fucking toothpick, Beav!), and self-defeating tonal shifts. There's no forgetting a shit weasel burrowing through snow like the Caddyshack gopher, bumping its head against a beer bottle.

But a complete reckoning with the Dreamcatcher magic requires a return to 2003, when Dreamcatcher accidentally butted heads with the Iraq War. Released just one day after moviegoers watched the first explosions in Baghdad—the opening of a "shock and awe" salvo and a permanent state of war—Dreamcatcher feels like a perfect focus for the grim lens with which we scrutinize pop culture's political fixations and moral culpability, particularly in light of Colonel Curtis's total war mentality.

But as tempting as it may be to analogize Dreamcatcher to the moment of its release, giving Dreamcatcher that much thematic weight can only collapse it. And despite its unlucky release date, Dreamcatcher is not a post-9/11 or War on Terror movie. There are politics here, just curiously discordant politics to the time.

To understand Dreamcatcher, don't look to George W. Bush—instead, look to the Clinton era's William Cooper, whose 1991 book Behold a Pale Horse described a grand conspiracy of New World Order globalists and malevolent, limb-collecting aliens that would politicize UFO-logy and become, by the time of the Oklahoma City Bombing, "the manifesto of the militia movement."

Steeped in the imagery and ideas of 90s UFO conspiracies, Dreamcatcher is like a garbled transmission across the millennium's divide. Dreamcatcher, like Behold a Pale Horse, depicts a secret world run amok, where patriots are rounded up to be killed by their own government. True power lives in an all-encompassing shadow world (conveniently vulnerable to small bands of rifle-toting white dudes). The intricate faux-logic connecting the alien biology, Colonel Curtis and Duddits may be bad storytelling, but it's also strangely evocative, stimulating the same pleasure points as reading a gonzo new conspiracy theory.

Too late for the 90s and a poor fit for 2003, Dreamcatcher marks the slow, creeping death of a previous era's paranoia. Its end is undignified, the stately alien grays and their elegant flying saucers reduced to shit weasels. These aliens aren't brought down by Will Smith or Kurt Russell, but by four aggrieved man-babies, still psyching themselves up with the Scooby Doo theme like they did as kids.

But what about viewers who don't care to savor Dreamcatcher's funhouse mirror vision of the 90s UFO fever? How's Dreamcatcher as just another movie, queued up in some streaming service? Its endless barrage of bewildering choices save it from sucking. Dreamcatcher exists on a fascinating intersection of bad Stephen King, 90s lunacy, and 2000s militancy, strung together in an ill-shaped talisman only useful for catching the strangest dreams.