Movies are the dreams of our culture. Both dreams and movies unspool vivid images into our brains while we restore ourselves in the dark. Both play with time, telling their stories in flashbacks, flash-forwards, dissolves, quick cuts, fade-ins and fade-outs. Both emerge out of the dark and entrance us, engrossing us completely in other times and other worlds. As in dreams, in movies we live vicariously.

"Talking about dreams is like talking about movies," said master filmmaker Federico Fellini, "The cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It's a language made of images. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream."

Fellini was so taken with the fundamental similarities between the mechanics of dreams and films that, after studying the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung's essay "On Synchronicity," he met regularly with Rome's most distinguished Jungian analyst, Dr. Ernest Bernhard, and kept a meticulous dream journal that had a great influence on his films.

Jung was no less taken with movies. "The cinema," he wrote, "makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life."

Below the surface of our awareness, Jung taught, lies an accumulation of attitudes, beliefs, values, mindsets, and accepted "wisdom" that is common to everyone in our society, and our world. Jung pictured all of this human experience draining into what he called the Collective Unconscious, just as a continent's streams and rivers drain into a great body of water. Out of the Collective Unconscious arise archetypes-characters that typify humanity and scenarios that summarize the history of our species.

As a summer of action movies and comedies winds down, we moviegoers can feel as if we are bobbing on a great lake of images and sounds, formula plots and swoony leading men and ladies. They are our archetypes.

The kinship between films and dream studies is partly a matter of history. Freud published his "Interpretation of Dreams," the first clinical examination of the subject, just four years after the Lumiere Brothers' first public exhibition of movies in Paris in 1896. By the time Jung's "On the Psychology of the Unconscious" appeared a decade later, D.W. Griffith's landmark "The Birth of a Nation" had already created the blockbuster, propelling movies to their central place in popular culture. It's little wonder these cradle mates share ideas and even terminology. Jung spoke about amplification, the shadow, projection, and the persona. Hollywood was nicknamed "the dream factory."

But the connection is more than chronological. Movies allow us to examine our culture the way a psychoanalyst uses dreams as a key to personality. Showing at the multiplex is what we really believe about the grand metaphysical issues that animate our material and spiritual lives--life, death, the afterlife, our human destiny, and God.

We need not look to deeply metaphysical films to tap into our dreamlife; quite the opposite. Since we're seeking a collective unconscious, blockbusters yield the purest information, since movies that make the most money are the ones that connect with something deep down. The huge moneymakers represent our common denominator, and therefore say the most about what is hanging out -- and hiding out -- in the human psyche.

We also need to suspend our critical facultiies. The usual thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach doesn't help us here. Art has little or nothing to do with a movie's usefulness as a shared cultural dream. Popularity, market saturation, merchandizing opportunities, and box office stats are everything.

For instance, let's examine the top-grossing movie of all time: Titanic, which has earned $1.8 billion since its release in 1997 (so far). Set at the end of empire and economic expansion, the popularity of "Titanic" signals our fear that our present age is passing, threatened by external forces and by shifts deep inside us.. In "Independence Day," still 19th on the all-time money list after eight years, the old order was threatened by aliens from outer space. The next year, "Armageddon" (No. 55) showed earth earmarked for annihilation by an asteroid.

Alien invasion is even at the heart of "Titanic." Remember the moment in when the sharp point of the iceberg pierces the hull of the 'indestructible'ocean liner? Think of that image juxtaposed with the now iconic video pictures of planes puncturing the walls of the World Trade Center. It was as if the movie had dreamed this defining event of our time, predicting it four years before it happened.

More recently, the agent of change has become a natural event, albeit one we are helping to bring on ourselves, as this year's "The Day After Tomorrow." Whatever births our new eposch, we seem to be convinced that, whatever is bringing it on, the coming of the new age will be accompanied by bloodshed and large-scale destruction.