Dream Scenario, the new film from Kristoffer Borgli, sports a premise so clever and exciting that it seems almost impossible to live up to or make good on as a fully realized film. Sometimes ideas are like that—more engaging as questions or conceits than developed as drawn-out experiments or inquiries. This is probably because questions or conceits are limitless in their potential, kaleidoscopic teasers with permutations of interesting outcomes, while experiments or inquiries only happen one way.
Dream Scenario’s conceit is indeed excellent. The film is about an ordinary middle-aged man who starts mysteriously appearing in people’s dreams, all over the world. This is one of the most stimulating narrative prompts I’ve encountered a while, at least since I saw the wonderful trailer for Marc Forster and Zach Helm’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006) when I was fourteen. Unlike Stranger Than Fiction, which as a whole film and not a trailer I found fascinating but also a bit uncertain and a bit unfulfilled and a bit unsatisfying, I found Dream Scenario able to sidestep a hampering by its own scintillating prospects. It does eventually wobble as it builds a new story from its bracing gambit, but for the most part, it develops into a funny, interesting film with much to say about parasocial bonds and other illusions about possession of public figures.
The film stars Nicolas Cage (transformed by a fuzzy beard and bald head) as Paul Matthews, PhD, an evolutionary biologist and tenured professor at a small regional university. The film stresses that he is a very mediocre man. He hasn’t risen to any great heights in academia. As a father and husband, he’s fairly ineffectual. He suspects that a former colleague may have stolen his grad school research, but it’s been decades since and he hasn’t written his book on that work during all this time. It’s never directly stated, but it’s clear from little snide inflections and minute scowls in Cage’s performance that Paul lives his life feeling a little like a victim, wishing for notoriety and inclusion, and feeling resentful for his lack of it.
And then, people begin dreaming about him. No one knows why, but people all over the world begin reporting that they see him in the background of their dreams—watching the main events of the dreams play out, he is a curious but powerless and occasionally uninterested interloper. Paul becomes a celebrity, to the suspicious confusion of his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and beguilement of his daughters Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird), and to his own delight.
Dream Scenario isn’t a fable about a man taken in and destroyed by fame; it’s more nuanced. Although Paul is tickled by his sudden notoriety, he hopes to use it to land a book deal for his own research. He signs with a management start-up (whose team consists of Michael Cera, Kate Berlant, and Dylan Gelula, all grotesque caricatures of media marketers), but they want him to appear in people’s dreams to advertise Sprite or other products, and Paul doesn’t want to sell out, just as much as he explains that he can’t control what he does in others’ dreams. His visage belongs to others, is seemingly controlled by their own brains and not his—a fact which begins to pose problems for him. And soon, his life becomes a waking nightmare.
For a while, the film evolves as a social satire rather than a sci-fi story about collective subconsciousness. It skirts past rails about cancel culture before settling in an inquiry about how the figures we encounter in life become characters in our own personal alternate realities, in a way that feels very relevant and useful in light of contemporary celebrity culture. It’s a longstanding fact of the social world that the more famous someone becomes, the more they belong to others and the less they belong to themselves, but Dream Scenario pushes an interrogation about this to extremes in a way that seems to resonate with, say, how our highly visual online culture leads to parasocial obsessions with celebrities like Taylor Swift. What does it mean when someone you don’t know becomes a dominant character in your life? What does it mean when you interpret someone else in certain ways, to the point where those interpretations begin to influence your opinions about the actual person?
Dream Scenario begins to lose its footing when it moves towards its third act, escalating into a different genre and abandoning its more philosophical questions for other ones that seem more immediate (especially given the looming threat of AI and the encroachment of various technological marketing assaults). Dream Scenario doesn’t spend enough time on these questions to pull off a multi-pronged critique, but it remains a fascinating and darkly funny film. Nicolas Cage, who has been enjoying a career renaissance as a character actor with films like Mandy, Pig, and even Renfield, is the film’s strongest propeller—his performance in Dream Scenario is a highlight even amongst this very strong recent run. He delivers a nuanced, very raw performance as the middling, over-his-head Paul. One scene, in which he attempts to behave like the more suave version of himself that someone else has dreamed, is one of the most cringey, hilarious interludes I’ve watched all year.
Dream Scenario is not the wild thought experiment that Borgli’s previous film, 2022’s Sick of Myself, is. That film, also a meditation on attention and audience, goes off the rails in a way that allows it to have a clearer thesis than Dream Scenario, which feels a little nebulous in terms of argument. Still, it is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking exercise, curious about what it means to be a captive audience, and also how your audience can hold you captive.