The James Clayton Column: The nightmare is real!

Zac Efron's 17 Again brings up the subject of alternate realities in movies for James...

Have you ever worried that one day you’ll wake up and find that the nightmare was real? Do you panic at the thought that the dreadful dreams that emerge from your subconscious when you sleep may not be illusory fantasy but could, in fact, be the truth of reality? I have a slight anxiety that one morning I’ll open my eyes to discover that I’m either dead or that my bedroom is not as it was when I drifted off – most probably turned into a bombsite following the overnight outbreak of World War III.

Luckily, as I say, this fear is slight and fleeting, but thanks to the release of 17 Again in cinemas, I’ve found myself visually forced to contemplate the kind of horrendous waking reality that renders eternal sleep a state of eternal bliss. Imagine, if your nerves can stand it, rising in the early morning light, stumbling into the bathroom and looking into the mirror to find that you’ve turned into – horror! – Zac Efron.

Such is the case for Matthew Perry’s character in the film – the latest adult/adolescent bodyswap comedy in the style of Big, Freaky Friday and 13 Going On 30 to stumble awkwardly onto the movie scene. The predictable premise of 17 Again sees Perry’s sad middle-ager fall off a bridge and wake up to find that he’s now trapped in the body of his younger self which, bizarrely, turns out to look just like Efron. Despite physically being the High School Musical icon, he’s still a 37-year-old man in mind and so 17 Again’s running time is filled with all the usual generation-clash challenges you’d expect as the main protagonist learns key life lessons thanks to his new perspective.

I’m all for giving men in the midst of a mid-life crisis a vivid shake-up to reiterate some core values and fire ‘em up out of their wallowing regret and self-pity, but turning them into Zac Efron is way too extreme a step. What do you mean you wouldn’t mind waking up to discover that you’re a hot young thing loved by the world and its little sister? I warn you, readers: don’t capitulate to the cult-of-no-personality. He’s the cold blue-eyed base upon which the universal forces of evil are building their scheme of world domination.

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Whilst the rest of the High School Musical stable of ‘talents’ tighten their grip across kids’ TV and poppy R&B music, Efron has been employed to tackle the adults, already taking every opportunity to outline a future ambition of “serious acting roles”, aloofly underplaying his tweeny-bopper ascent and praising Leonardo DiCaprio as his inspiration. Whether you find him dreamy or drippy, you’d be wrong to dismiss the 17 Again star as a harmless clean teen idol; he’s a cold-hearted megalomaniac who reminds me of Ozymandias from Watchmen, with despicable designs on total supremacy and the eradication of all that doesn’t bow down to his desire for a utopian Disneyfied world. Pity poor Matthew Perry;he’s woken to find that he is evil incarnate.

I can’t decide whether it’d be worse to pull back the bedsheets and discover that you’ve become Satan himself or, as is the case in Rosemary’s Baby, been impregnated by Satan. As a particularly outstanding example of an unpleasant post-slumber scenario from film history, it’s also true that Rosemary’s reality is just as terrifying as her sleeping visions. If it wasn’t enough that Mia Farrow’s poor protagonist had to face surreal dreams of being raped by Beelzebub upon putting head to pillow, when she’s awake she must suffer the repressive interference of the occultists from the apartment next door and live with the knowledge that she’s the mother of the Anti-Christ.

So goes one nightmare that lives outside the Land of Nod. You could go on forever recalling all the outlandish dream sequences and trips of reverie that have troubled, traumatised or tantalised characters though film history, but thinking on the frightening circumstances of 17 Again, I’m drawn to consider The Wizard Of Oz. Having Dorothy’s adventure in Oz brought about by a tremendous tornado is a captivating and creative idea, so to find at the end that it was ‘all a dream’ comes as a disappointing anti-climax. It’s an irritating cop-out and I don’t completely believe Dorothy’s relief at waking from her delusional drift to find herself back home with Auntie Em in Kansas.

Why on Earth would she want to trade in the technicolour thrills of Oz for a dim life in the Midwestern dustbowl? She had a place in the Munchkin Hall of Fame! She had a set of unique, loyal and lovable friends! Despite it all, she’d still rather go through the motions in the sepia-tinged struggle of mundane depression-era America rather than literally live the dream. Where’s your imagination, Dorothy? What happened to your desire to fly off Somewhere Over The Rainbow? Given the choice, I’d give the ruby slipper heel-click trick a miss and ignore the “there’s no place like home hogwash (which, funnily enough, is Dorothy’s fate for the rest of her life upon returning to the pigsty and patronising tutelage of Auntie Em back on the farm). If I could stay within the dream, I’d happily laugh the days away in the merry old Land of Oz than wake up to mundane reality.

The scenario set out in 17 Again, however, would make me take the opposite course of action. Alongside the waking reality of The Matrix – where aroused and unplugged hackers find that they’ve been suspended in an artificial reality by machines that have taken over the world and use humans as batteries – the dawn discovery that you now dwell in Zac Efron’s body strikes me as something that would lead you to scream and leap back into bed.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic and overly malicious towards the High School Musical teen hero, but I reckon that if Neo, instead of finding himself skinny, naked and suspended in a pod as a power source, awoke to find that, actually, the truth looks like Zac Efron, he’d have done more than throw up at the feet of Morpheus. It’s enough to make anyone ask: “Why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Facing up to that kind of cataclysmic revelation in the early morning light, I know I’d rather return to bury my head beneath the bedsheets in blissful ignorance. Lay me down with sedatives – I can’t handle the truth!

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James’ previous column can be found here.