10 Mind-Blowing Films Influenced By Dream Theory

You don't have to be a psych major to catch the gist of dream theory - especially if you're down to explore the deep abstractions of the human mind.

Dreams, according to Freud, remove our cognitive filters; "they are disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes." They tell us what we really want, without all the whips and chains of society. Freud blames our repressed sexual desires, but it's simpler than that. In dreams, we have complete control, and the best filmmakers know how to use this control to sway audiences. 

To movie buffs, this is known as the Oneiric Metaphor, which expresses the intricacies of the human subconscious through picture. A closer look at these metaphors shows us a bit more about the creators of film and the people who watch them.

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • Inception
    Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

    Have you ever woken up from a dream only to realize you were still dreaming? Christopher Nolan hacks into the minds of his audience through Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose sole motive is to extract secrets from the minds of his targets. 

    Inception shows audiences the true expansion of the human mind; the deeper levels of dreams within dreams within dreams lands us in limbo, or Cobb's subconscious, where we also find Mal (Marion Cotillard), his unrequited lover. 

    Dream theory helps us see why Inception is so dang good. Yes, it's action-packed and visually stunning, but the truth is we get to watch the characters control their dreams, which in a way, allows us to watch Nolan controlling us. Nolan explains, "I've always found dreams to be a very inspiring part of my life...everything within that dream is created by your own mind as you experience it."

    So, as the audience watches the characters control the dreams of other characters, we also catch a glimpse of Nolan controlling his audience. As director, he chooses what we see and when. He manipulates time. He tells us what to feel and we're okay with that because we trust him.

    In this way, films are the director's projection of a certain time in space, a certain reality where different rules apply. Does Nolan have an unfulfilled wish to control his dreams? Maybe. But what's certain is Inception places ideas in our heads, much like Cobb does within the film. 

    • Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe
    • Released: 2010
    • Directed by: Christopher Nolan

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  • The Matrix
    Photo: The Matrix

    Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, this 1999 film sends audiences spinning. Centered around Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), this film questions the nature of our reality and those who inhabit it. Are we living in a simulation?

    Anderson leads a double life; by day, he is an average computer programmer and, by night, he is Neo, a great computer hacker. When Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a famous hacker, contacts him, Neo must make a decision - should he take the blue pill and go back to his day-to-day doings, or take the red and experience his enlightenment?

    Lucky for us, Neo chooses red and "unplugs" from the matrix to live in the film's "real" reality. "What we were trying to achieve with the story overall," Lana Wachowski explains, "was a shift, the same kind of shift that happens for Neo, that Neo goes from being in this sort of cocooned and programmed world, to having to participate in the construction of meaning to his life."

    In other words, Neo "wakes up," and the audience is supposed to "wake up" with him. In dream theory, this transition of sleep to awake is paramount to gaining understanding. The reality of two separate worlds, one awake and one not, provides a framework for comparison. Because we realize we're awake, we have a set of rules. When we're asleep, we see which of these rules we break. By comparing one to the other, we get a better idea of what we really want in life.

    • Actors: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

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  • Blue Velvet
    Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

    Award-winning filmmaker David Lynch has a knack for strumming the tune buried deep within our human psyche. Known for manipulating color and motifs of beauty and decay, this 1986 film tickles then slaps the audience, allowing us to fall deeper into a pit of visceral desire.

    The vibrant colors of blue, red, and white set a strangely patriotic, yet certainly sadistic tone during key interactions between Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) and blues singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). "Color," Lynch explains, "is not an intellectual overlay; it's living inside the ideas, and being true to them."

    As the scene grows dim, we watch as Beaumont's innocent curiosity slowly transforms into something a bit more violent. Pushed and prodded by Vallens, he falls deeper into the violent aquarium of brutal sex. In true Lynch fashion, this is nicely countered by Jeffrey's blossoming relationship with the sweet Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). 

    To crawl to the depths of our souls, Lynch attributes his ability to his daily practice of transcendental meditation. Lynch describes, "there's waking, sleeping, and dreaming, and then the fourth state of consciousness, is that transcendental consciousness, pure consciousness." By the end of the film, the audience can't help but wonder why they kept watching. 

    • Actors: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Hope Lange
    • Released: 1986
    • Directed by: David Lynch

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  • Get Out

    Get Out
    Photo: Blumhouse Productions

    Speaking of hacking into people's brains, this 2017 film written and directed by Jordan Peele gives new meaning to the phenomenon of hypnosis and sheds new light on 21st-century racism. 

    In the beginning of the film, we watch as Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) visits the family of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), for the first time. When a friendly late night "chat" with Rose's mother causes him to fall into the "sunken place," we realize Washington's repressed memories will be used against him. 

    The hypnosis causes Washington to lose complete control, and this loss represents the crippling bonds of racism today. "People need to know," Peele says, "this [film] is from a black writer and director...what this movie sort of shows is being in the position of somebody who might feel like they're being seen for their color first before being connected as an individual." 

    In this way, this film is an expression of Peele's wish to portray a new side to racism. He chooses to use Washington's repressed memories in a dream-like state to silence him, which builds a new layer for the audience; perhaps we are crippled by our past. Can someone cripple you with something outside your control? 

  • A Nightmare On Elm Street
    Photo: New Line Cinema

    This 1984 classic gives new meaning to the word nightmare. Set in a cozy, Midwestern town, teenager Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is stalked by serial killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) in her sleep. 

    Feeding on fear, Krueger attacks his victims in their dreams, making this monster even spookier for the audience. Director Wes Craven plays with the most primal fears known to man - the fear of never waking from sleep, the fear of losing complete control. 

    Craven explains,

    "...the whole thing of A Nightmare on Elm Street really was based on eastern philosophy that I was studying at the time...you have to take total responsibility for consciousness... and sleep, by that, is the paradigm of not being conscious, so in order to be conscious, the most primal thing you had to do was stay awake..."

    In this film, dreams are not just repressed wishes, but the manifestations of death itself.

    Craven credits his idea to strange mishaps that happened during the early '80s. The New York Times reported 18 Laotian refugees died in their sleep due to the terror induced by nightmares. Death by nightmare proved possible and pushes even audiences today to question the true power of our dreams. If dreams are created by our own minds, is death by nightmare considered suicide? 

    • Actors: John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp
    • Released: 1984
    • Directed by: Wes Craven

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  • Fight Club
    Photo: 20th Century Fox

    This 1999 film caused cuts, bruises and broken bones across school yards everywhere. A dynamic duo—Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and an unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton)—create a fight-club-turned-gang to break the confines of their mundane lives.

    The audience quickly latches onto Norton as the depressed narrator of the film. We watch as he meets Durden, his exact opposite, and cringe when they both start banging the same girl. It's not until the end that we realize these two dudes are one and the same.

    "Fight Club," Fincher says, "is about moving through a modern disconnected society. It’s a satire." It's also packed with bombs, blood and soap—yes, soap, and enacts what many people inwardly feel about an unfair world. Who wouldn't want to see credit card companies blow up? 

    • Actors: Brad Pitt, Ed Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: David Fincher

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