Freddy Krueger has been remade -- or rebooted, or reinvented, or whatever you want to call the new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which opens wide on Friday. The important thing is that a brand new batch of cinematic bad dreams will be unleashed upon the world, which gives us an excuse to explore nightmares from a science fiction perspective.
One dictionary defines "nightmare" as "a situation resembling a terrifying dream," and that's the definition I've used in compiling my list of The Top Ten Sci-Fi Nightmares. Naturally, I'm wary of spoiling some of the movies on this list simply by including them, so let me instead describe all of these movies as having nightmare scenarios, rather than restrict the selections solely to films featuring characters having nightmares. That broadens the scope a bit, I think, without damaging the integrity of the word.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Eloquent and chilling, the opening scene of James Cameron's sequel immediately establishes the film as a more ambitious project than its predecessor. The nightmare scenario to end all nightmare scenarios -- psst! note the title -- is the fuel that burns within Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), driving her forward, making her single-minded to protect her son, John (Edward Furlong). The kid has only experienced the nightmare second-hand, but begins to believe when he encounters the fabled Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) at a mall in Reseda, California [insert your own joke about shopping malls being the worst nightmare of all].
2. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Freaky. Is it a vision or a nightmare? Luke Skywalker is undergoing Jedi training from Yoda and takes a fateful walk. This short and dark scene startled me when I first saw it and continues to hold sway in the Star Wars mythology.
3. Battle Royale
An unsettling gut punch. Imagine Japan in the near future, at a time when juvenile delinquency runs rampant, and the government decides that it will randomly select one class of teens and pit them against each other on an isolated island in a fight to the death. It's outrageous, sensational, and sobering. Director Kinji Fukasaku brought to bear all his expertise in making superb genre pictures in a film as serious as he ever made.
4. Abre Los Ojos
Mind-bending. Cameron Crowe made a noble attempt at a remake, but Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 original twists and turns in ways that are highly original and follow dream logic -- which is to say that it's very challenging to follow at first, but utterly fascinating and satisfying to figure out, at least to a degree.
Haunting. Sam Bell (the great Sam Rockwell) is about to conclude his three-year job assignment on the Moon when he makes a startling discovery. Any more plot information would definitely spoil the pleasure of seeing this film for the first time, but, suffice to say, Sam's situation eventually falls into the category of a nightmare scenario.
Great premise. Unfortunately, Joseph Ruben's film, released a scant few months before A Nightmare on Elm Street, doesn't live up to its potential. Maybe that's because it takes a more sober-minded approach to the idea that people can enter the dreams of others, which is a wild idea and deserves a much wilder treatment. But, mercy, those dream / nightmare sequences still looked pretty terrific back in 1984.
7. Pulse (AKA Kairo)
Nerve-jangling. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Japanese-language film is more correctly labeled a straight horror flick (or a ghost picture), but I wanted to include it here because it so perfectly captures nightmare imagery. The whole thing feels like a terrifying dream. And it envisions a world in which people are becoming increasingly disconnected from one another, which is very much territory belonging to the very best social science fiction.
8. The Matrix
Mind-expanding. Encompassing dreams, nightmares, doomsday scenarios, and virtual reality, the Wachowskis create a crazed environment in which it seems entirely natural for Keanu Reeves to say "Whoa" -- and mean it.
9. Total Recall
Oh, no, you don't! Only in the movies would a construction worker wake up from a bad dream, only to find himself in bed with Sharon Stone. Paul Verhoeven's movie is a steamroller, flattening common sense in the name of propulsive entertainment. Yet that old dream logic gets twisted into a pretzel, which adds welcome layers of intrigue and mystery to the proceedings.
10. Invaders From Mars
Nostalgia rules. I must admit that I hate the way this movie ends, but I love the nightmarish idea that a young boy must convince adults that an alien invasion is actually taking place right under their noses.