Dream Scenario (2023)

SCORE: 4/5


In the style of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays (e.g., Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)), Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario (his first English-language feature film) is a smart and stinging rebuke to the celebrity of influencer culture, consumer capitalism and, perhaps most provocatively, cancel culture. As such, there is a decidedly conservative streak to this satirical film with, at one point, overt references made to the ‘Alt-Right’ and IDW-aligned figures (e.g., Rogan, Peterson, Tucker). As an outsider’s critique of American culture, Dream Scenario follows in the steps of Borgli’s first film, the well-received black comedy Sick of Myself (2022), which skewers the social cult of inclusivity/diversity and its associated reward mechanisms for exaggerated claims of victimization. “Though there were good intentions,” Borgli has noted, “an economy formed around being a victim, being marginalized or looking differently. That’s what incentivized me to think that placed in the wrong hands, it could have a very fatalistic outcome” (Keogan, 2023). (Borgli wrote the scripts of both films shortly after moving from Norway to Los Angeles, a place he found far more narcissist than his home country).

In Dream Scenario, Nic Cage plays Paul Matthews, a meek and frumpy professor of evolutionary biology who lives with his wife and two teen daughters (both perpetually glued to their cell phones) in an upscale suburban neighborhood in Massachusetts. He is a drab and unremarkable figure, and somewhat emasculated: we learn, for example, that he “chose” to take his wife’s last name in a cringe-worthy, misplaced gesture of feminist solidarity; at home we see him continuously defer to the females of his household, and at the college where he teaches we see him generally ignored by his class of bored students. As the movie unfolds, one could argue that Paul’s arc becomes an allegory for the accumulated cultural repression of White males in modern American society and the potentially explosive, defensive reactions from said White males that might ensue if pushed to the breaking point. Borgli subtly frames the film’s events within the Darwinian contours of evolutionary biology and its sister field of memetics.

Influenced by Jung’s writings on the tension between the conscious and unconscious mind, as well as his internet dives into online discussions of astral projection (Kaplan, 2023), Borgli depicts a freak phenomenon of the collective unconsciousness manifesting itself in a strange new way: Paul begins to appear in other people’s dreams, the common feature of these dreams being Paul’s disinterest and inaction while the dreamer is being hunted or otherwise threatened. In these dream scenarios, Paul’s curbed role as a bystander partially serves as a representation of the aforementioned generalized White male anxiety, emasculation, and beta male passivity. In an interview about the film, Borgli notes:

We spend a lot of our lives dreaming in bed, but we also spend our waking life mostly in our heads too. I feel like we’re not participating in reality as much as we are thinking about our past or the imagined future at any moment. That is a big part of the experience of life. I thought of this movie as a possibility of going there and exploring that. There’s a discrepancy between reality and what you dream about, and I wanted to put those two in dialogue and explore that tension (Lee, 2023).

Despite his bystander passivity, and due largely to the novelty of the phenomenon, Paul becomes fleetingly famous, a viral sensation driven primarily by Gen Z types on social media. At the college where Paul teaches, a throng of students has experienced his appearance in their dreams. As Paul enters the lecture hall one day, instead of it being nearly empty (as is typical for his lectures) the room is crowded. The students in attendance give him a round of applause, and although he’s a bit embarrassed by the adulation, Paul soaks it in before talking to the students:

PAUL: Who’s really here for the lecture on kin selection? Show of hands… Okay, the rest of you, I’ll give you five minutes before I start the lecture, okay? Ask me anything… Yes, you?

STUDENT: How does it feel to go viral?

PAUL: Huh… Well, we can discuss that when we get to memetics later this year.

Paul hopes to leverage his newfound fame to find a publisher for his yet-to-be-written academic book on ants — itself an apt allusion to the collective, hive-mind, human behavior generated by social media and ubiquitous advertising. Borgli says of Paul:

He feels he is being robbed of academic success and has an image of himself that doesn’t match his image in the world. It’s interesting that while he has this midlife crisis, that’s when everyone starts dreaming about him. He’s so starved for attention that he conflates being seen in this way with success (Lee, 2023).

As he listlessly attempts to find a publisher, we see the awfulness of Madison Avenue types represented in Trent (Michael Cera), an unscrupulous upstart public relations agent and his sycophant assistant Mary, who essentially deliver to Paul one false promise after another in an effort to lock him down as an account. They’re eager for Paul to agree to do product-placement (Sprite) in other people’s dreams, a proposition that Paul is disgusted by. However, despite extolling such principles we see the lure of fame ensnare Paul: a young woman from the Madison Ave agency named Molly pursues him in the hopes of actualizing the sexually explicit dreams she’s had of him. He clumsily facilitates the setting for this scenario, but for Molly it doesn’t go down quite as expected, and for Paul it leads to a moment of humiliation that begins a subsequent unraveling of his life.

“So, I’m starting to think that maybe Nick Bostrom was right about the simulation theory,” Paul says at a dinner party that turns sour. “That would sure explain a lot about my situation.”

Whereas in Act 1 Paul was an odd but welcome feature in others’ dreams, Act 2 takes a darker turn as Paul becomes a Freddie Krueger-type nightmare character in these people’s dreams, engaging in all sorts of sadistic depravities there. It is within this context — where some of his college students become “traumatized” by Paul’s sudden appearance in their nightmares — that the film engages in an effective critique of cancel culture. When pushed into a corner by false and baseless allegations, and with nowhere else to turn, might the White male become the very thing society is accusing him of being?

At Paul’s college, we see a cognitive behavioral therapist working with a dozen or so students who feel “unsafe” around Paul. In several instances, the film mocks woke mantras of “lived experience” and how infantilized students being triggered is, on woke campuses, sufficient cause for a college to cancel someone, especially if the ‘offender’ is a straight White male. The bullying mob mentality of social media-fueled cancel culture is most pointedly depicted when a large group of students paint “Loser” on Paul’s car and in response he shouts insults at them (his rage captured on students’ cell phone cameras, of course). To the college’s Dean, Paul protests against the absurdity that he is somehow responsible for their dreams, but his protests are in vain. The handwriting is already on the wall. Despite tenure, his employment at the college is threatened. Fissures begin to appear in his marriage, leading to its ultimate dissolution.

Trent, the Madison Ave agent, explains to Paul that, given the dark turn people’s dreams of Paul have taken, Sprite has pulled out of consideration as an advertiser. The corporations are now scared and risk-averse, Trent and his team explain to Paul, however, they propose an “audience-pivot”:

TRENT: We’re talking about a complete 180. We have to think fresh. Corporate culture won’t touch this. It’s too risky.

MARY: Yeah, but we are getting positive signals from a different venue. The whole — I don’t want to say ‘alt-right’ — but the kind of anti-establishment space, you know, kind of the Jordan Peterson route.

TRENT: Yeah, we can maybe get you on Rogan or something. Share your experience of being cancelled and just, like, pivot…

PAUL: Guys, no. I hate that idea. I don’t want to be some culture war person. I… I… I don’t want to be controversial.

TRENT: There is a chance, we think, to get you on Tucker Carlson this week… So, that’s a big audience. Just think about that. Don’t answer right now.

MARY: And then also, there’s France, Paul. For some reason, they love you over there. Even with the nightmares, they love it.

TRENT: Yeah. You’re building a fanbase over there.

A striking sequence is when Paul dreams of being hunted with bow and arrow by a version of himself wearing hunter camouflage. The allegory here seems to be that while in a social media age where the operative dynamics of ‘natural selection’ appear to be shaped less by physical prowess (genetics) and more by the cunning manipulation of cultural tropes (memetics), especially with respect to wokeness and how it currently serves as a winning strategy in our current ‘evolutionary biological’ game/model, it is physical strength and power – however dormant it might be at the moment – that will prevail in the end.

Desperate to keep his job, Paul tries to get ahead of the cancel culture mob by releasing a self-pitying apology video, where he cries and asserts that he is the victim, which might provide him some leeway in a culture animated by the victimology cult of wokeness. This video humiliates his wife and leads to their imminent divorce.

In the final sequences of the film, set at some undetermined but near point in the future, we see how the discovery of a shared collective unconscious experience has led Silicon Valley to develop wearable tech allowing one to enter someone else’s dream… and promote corporate advertising or one’s personal projects. We see youth gravitate towards this tech commodification and praise it in the most superficial and conformist of ways. Of this sequence in the film, Borgli says:

I was thinking about taking a strange, abstract, and metaphysical concept from an H.P. Lovecraft story and placing it into our banal and real culture to see how they clash. I just followed what I thought would be the playbook of how that would all play out. I thought that if this were to really happen, at some point, the dream phenomenon would get co-opted and made into a product. It captured some of my fears—i.e. if we let everything be a race to the bottom of market decisions, we will have nothing sacred left. I’m scared of the American model winning over and then turning everything into products (Lee, 2023).

With respect to the uncertain future between Paul and his wife, the film ends on an ambiguous and bittersweet note, although that ambiguity is somewhat clarified by Borgli in an interview. “He loses perspective over his values,” notes Borgli, “and at the film’s conclusion you see a man who finally understands what is important, but at the cost of having lost everything” (Lee, 2023).


In its critique of American culture, Dream Scenario offers many prescient and interwoven layers. Being a Norwegian who is quite fluent in English, Borgli offers us an outsider’s perspective, and Dream Scenario is instructive satire, pressing various themes that the New Right has been pressing for quite a long time. Of the commodification of virtually everything, Borgli notes:

As a filmmaker from a country where they have a film institute that funds movies and who’s coming to work in America where there’s no such system, there’s only the business model. I’m always aware and fearful of how market incentives can corrupt anything good, original, or sacred. It’s something that I want to talk about because there are ways that we don’t even see that advertising and marketing are slowly paving the road to hell (Shaffer, 2023).

Of social media and influencer culture:

There [are] so many of these 24-hour viral sensations—unlikely celebrities—and some capitalize on it and even create a career around this accidental fame. Some, of course, get completely humiliated and shamed and wish they could delete themselves from the internet. It just feels like more of a scary time to engage with the public, because the public is the world now (Kaplan, 2023).

Through both the film and in interviews, Borgli hammers home the detrimental and dysfunctional aspects of this dominant cultural trend:

We’re more and more pressured into making ourselves personal brands. It’s hard to live up to that personal brand. I think the discrepancy between person and persona is extremely vital and vibrant in the culture right now because we’re curating and branding ourselves. Maybe in ways that we don’t know, it’s damaging our own identity and self-worth. It’s harder to change positions on things because you’ve made yourself a solid, one-idea brand. That’s sort of how we deal with people now. There’s less space for nuance in that way, and we’re contributing to that (Shaffer, 2023).

When asked if he believes the celebrity and fame dynamics of social media and influencer culture are redeemable in their current form, Borgli offers a trenchant reply that employs an Aristotelian definition of excellence:

We need to understand that some of the goals we pursue in the more conceptual and abstract parts of our modern life have an effect on our bodies. For example, we realized that fast food is not something we can run on. We can’t live a life on empty calories. Similarly, I think there’s a lot of empty calories in our culture right now. There’s a lot of noise and not a lot of signals. There’s something positive about status and recognition. It’s important that collectively, we can deem something as “good,” such as a good piece of art. While this mechanism for recognition is positive and a good cultural tool, it has been weaponized against us with all these different ways that we can self-promote and get what we think feels like status. But it’s this empty calorie version of status. We need to parse out what is healthy and unhealthy, and we need to stop chasing the byproduct of achievement and start chasing achievement itself (Lee, 2023).

Lastly, there is a metatextual element to Dream Scenario when one considers the memeification of Nic Cage himself, usually surrounding his often intense (and sometimes endearingly over-the-top) performances. In a highly informative interview to promote the film, Cage discusses all of this and places it within the context of his character Paul:

I think the movie works on many different levels. It’s a bit like peeling an onion, it has different layers. On my mind was more of my own memeification and how I was trying to process waking up in 2009 and foolishly Googling my name and seeing those ‘Cage Loses His Sh*t’ memes, and thinking, well, I signed up to be a film actor. I didn’t sign up to be an internet meme. I don’t know what this is. I had no reference point for it. I found it frustrating, but I also found it stimulating. I thought it was confusing, but I had nowhere to put it.

So, when Dream Scenario came along, I quickly thought I might have, in some strange little way, the life experience to play Paul’s dreamification, because what he’s going through is not really unlike that: People start dreaming about him overnight and then they start talking about their dreams and it goes viral. And I thought, I can make it real for myself and real within the performance because of my memeification. I don’t say this with any complaint anymore or with any ill will. I’ve made friends with it, subsequently, and I’ve decided that, if anything, it’s kept me in the conversation. And it’s also given people a kind of id release. I mean, when they see these meltdowns, I think there’s some vicarious enjoyment to be able to kind of play out those fantasies that we can’t really do, because we all want to behave in society, you know? (Wise, 2024)


Kaplan, Ilana. “‘Dream Scenario’ Director Kristoffer Borgli on How His Surreal A24 Film Is Inspired By ‘Shin Godzilla’,” Backstage, November 15, 2023, https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/dream-scenario-director-interview-kristoffer-borgli-76637/

Keogan, Natalia. ‘“I’m Very Comfortable With Repeating Ideas Until They Are Perfected”: Kristoffer Borgli on Sick of Myself ,’ Filmmaker, April 12, 2023, https://filmmakermagazine.com/120781-interview-kristoffer-borgli-sick-of-myself/.

Lee, Zachary. “Inside My Head: Kristoffer Borgli on Dream Scenario,” RogerEbert.com, November 06, 2023, https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/inside-my-head-kristoffer-borgli-on-dream-scenario.

Shaffer, Marshall. “Interview: Kristoffer Borgli on Satirizing Meme-ification and Cancellation in Dream Scenario,” Slant, November 10, 2023, https://www.slantmagazine.com/features/kristoffer-borgli-interview-dream-scenario/.

Wise, Damon. “Nicolas Cage On ‘Dream Scenario,’ Resurrecting Superman And Working In Television: “I Never Would’ve Considered It Five Years Ago.”,” Deadline, January 11, 2024, https://deadline.com/2024/01/dream-scenario-nicolas-cage-the-flash-interview-1235699131/.

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