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Opinion: This Nicolas Cage movie is a hard lesson in being human

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Across the political spectrum, there’s a consensus that social media is dangerous. Republicans promise to ban TikTok, because they claim it is collecting data for the Chinese government and spreading antisemitism. Critics on the left worry that X, formerly Twitter, has become “a sewer of disinformation,” boosting hate speech and right wing state propaganda.

Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky

Meanwhile, the right worries about cancel culture and people targeted for public shaming by the left; the left worries about stochastic, or random, terror, and how right-wing hate speech online directed towards LGBTQ people and others can encourage death threats and worse.

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Director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest film, “Dream Scenario,” half builds on, half parodies those fears and anxieties for its absurdist plot. It also suggests, though, that the dynamics and dangers of online existence aren’t exactly new and aren’t exactly about social media at all.

Human interconnection is an odd, difficult, bizarre and uncomfortable phenomenon that predates X and TikTok. “Dream Scenario” is about how, even before we could see short hip hop dance videos on loop, we’ve always been in each other’s skulls.

The movie’s main character is Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a tenured professor of evolutionary biology at a small college. Paul’s a boring average guy in a boring average job who never wrote, much less published, his scholarly monograph and is experiencing a bit of a mid-life crisis.

Then things get strange. Paul starts to appear in the dreams of his daughter. Then he starts appearing in the dreams of old acquaintances. Then he starts appearing in the dreams of people he doesn’t know at all.

Mostly (to real-life Paul’s frustration) dream Paul doesn’t do anything; he just stands there and watches as people get attacked by dream alligators or chased through fields of dream mushrooms. But his passive presence is nonetheless there, and it makes him famous.

His class is packed with students who saw him in their dreams and want to see him for real. The advertising agency “Thoughts” wants to hire him to endorse Sprite. His kids’ classmates think he’s a “cool dad.” Even his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), starts to get more opportunities at work. Everything’s great. Until the Paul seen in dreams stops being so passive, and everything for real-life Paul goes to hell.

The parallels with social media are obvious and obviously intentional. Paul goes viral for opaque reasons; the world just chooses him to be the thing it’s thinking about, the way social media sometimes latches onto a meme or a craze about a striped dress or a “BBC dad.” And then, for equally random reasons, everyone decides to hate him. The internet giveth, the internet taketh away.

It’s not just the internet, though. Dreams in the film are a kind of metaphor for social media. But they’re also a metaphor for a celebrity culture that predates the web. Paul is, after all, actually Nicolas Cage, a ubiquitous movie star who really does almost certainly appear in people’s dreams from time to time.

“Dream Scenario” could just as easily be about the way we live with and form opinions and even relationships with people on the screen even though we don’t really know them at all. You may well have some ideas about what sort of person Cage is, even if you’ve never met him. Cage, like Paul, is part of our collective dreaming, which gives him a certain cachet, but also potentially exposes him — he’s been stalked by fans, just as Paul is stalked in the film.

The movie has implications beyond a movie celebrity, too. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of collective consciousness are mentioned, and Paul’s own research focuses on group intelligence among insects (what he calls “antelligence.”)

The movie doesn’t exactly buy into these grand theories of psychic hive minds. Instead, it shows, in smaller ways, how we are shaped by what other people think of us.

When people dream that Paul is everywhere, he finds himself in the news, and is suddenly everywhere. When people dream that Paul is sexy, he becomes — not sexy, exactly, but at least more promiscuous. When people dream that Paul is a violent, abusive figure, and stigmatize him, he becomes belligerent, self-pitying, angry and even to some degree violent.

Visions of Paul affect other people in unpredictable ways. But by the same token, other people’s visions of Paul affect Paul himself. You don’t have to believe in psychic powers to see that who we are is in part a function of who other people think we are.

The fact that we rely on other people to tell us who we are isn’t always a good thing. As “Dream Scenario” suggests, it can be boring or traumatic. It can also just be a nuisance when advertisers and marketing flacks try to place soft drinks and/or crypto scams on your social media feed and/or in your cerebral cortex.

But while having other people in your head isn’t always great, the alternative can be significantly worse. (Spoiler alert) Paul, by the end of the film, is isolated from friends, family, work; he ends up dreaming alone about the connections he’s lost. Having people think about you can feel like an impingement on or an infringement of yourself; you’re not fully you if other people have you in their heads. But at the same time, it’s hard to be human in isolation. If you don’t belong to other people, do you even exist?

“Dream Scenario” can be viewed as yet another warning about the dangers of social media, viral fame, celebrity culture, cancel culture and so on. It also, though, puts these newfangled fears in the context of longer-standing anxieties about being trapped in here with all the other humans. Interconnection is always messy and dangerous, whether you’re using an app or relying on older technologies — dial-up internet, phones, speech, even language. TikTok and X are frightening in part because the fact that we can influence each other, and think for each other, is frightening.

It’s also hopeful though. As “Dream Scenario” suggests, for better and worse, to be human is to dream together.

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