Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review of Inception

Inception cements a lot of ideas in my mind. The first is that Leonardo Dicaprio is possibly the best Hollywood male actor of his generation, with the less active Liam Neeson and Daniel Day Lewis providing the only real competition. The second is that the 39 year old Christopher Nolan is probably the best producer-director right now. Inception is a great film, and it comes on the heels of Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Inception might actually be better than The Dark Knight. My impression before the film was that it might be a Final Fantasy III / Chrono Trigger situation (it might have been Final Fantasy 7 rather than Chrono Trigger). At the time, industry observers were wondering how Square Soft could possibly make a better game than Final Fantasy III. When Chrono Trigger came out, the response was that they didn't, but they still made a great game. I don't think this is the case here, Inception is at least on par with The Dark Knight.

Inception has everything you need. A great story, a great cast, cinematographic beauty, a great score and a great use of sound effects. Like The Dark Knight, it feels like the climax of the movie is 2 hours and 27 minutes long. It's not a build-up to the climax the way you would expect from what English teachers lecture about story format, it's simply a consistent and energizing emotional high. I don't really know how he does it, every moment feels like the discovery of something new.

That's partly because this was a creative movie. They've created an entire technology, the technology to tap into people's dreams and influence or read them, something which is without a straight analogue in the science fiction I have seen or read. They've created that technology and given it details. Within dreams there are deeper levels of dreams, we've all had a few dreams within a dreams in our lifetimes and we know it's fucked. They've said it's easier to read someones mind than it is to plant an idea in someones mind. They've not just created a new technology, but they pulled through on Avatar's greatest failure: They explored the social ramifications. The dream reading technology is used for industrial espionage, but it's also used a drug, for people who want to escape from the grind of daily life. We see old people in a room hooked up to the dream technology, living out what feels like decades. This recalls the greatness of Babylon 5, and how they actually explored the social consequences of telepathy.

The ideas behind Inception have existed before. Christopher Nolan and his team merely took it to a much deeper level than was done previously. The movie has antecedents in the science fiction canon. In the season 4 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Hard Time, engineering chief O'Brien lives out a 19-year prison sentence within a dream. We have episodes of Buffy such as "Normal Again" and of Smallville such as "Labyrinth" that have the protagonist blurring the line between dreams and reality, confusing the difference. The Matrix is one of the biggest movies of the past fifteen years, and is all about the bulk of humanity living in a dream. Add Joss Whedon's tv show Dollhouse, the films Surrogate and Avatar, the entire Vampire craze, and the incredible novel Glasshouse by Charles Stross and there is a clear trend: A zeitgeist for mind-body separation. I'm not sure what exactly is at play here. It could be our existential angst due to being the first broadly atheist/agnostic society in history, we search for meaning as to what we are in a world where we have no choice but to take on the responsibility of defining our own meanings. Perhaps it is the collective class consciousness of the unwashed masses, crying out in agony at the futility of a lot of the tedium of our daily lives... we yearn for the more luxurious lives of the vampires, but in reality we're not even as awesome as werewolves. Dream escape is a similar idea, within their dreams Dicaprio and Page's characters can arbitrarily reconstruct the world around to them, tapping into a power they wish they had in the real world of their powerlessness. In that real world, they are no more than employees and tools of the people who can build buildings. This makes me quite sad -- it's a painful reminder of what Dollhouse could have been. It was the right story at the right time, it just wasn't properly executed and marketed in spite of being in the hands of some great executors (Mutant Enemy) and marketers (Fox).

Returning to the zeitgeist, I'm not exactly sure what the meaning of this mind-body trend is in science fiction, but it deep and it is broad. It's a good example of the power of literature and storytelling to explore human interactions and society. Human language and communication is largely just a string of metaphors of varying quality, and storytelling is our medium of cognition. We realize things metaphorically before we realize them literally. Therein lies an irony of Inception, as the dream worlds explored are themselves metaphorical.

I adored Inception. I will likely go see it again. I don't expect a sequel in spite of there being unanswered questions, I think it works great as a stand-alone movie but you never know. I feel very confident about the upcoming Superman film now... Nolan may just be a godfather to the project, but he knows how to pick a team. He's the real deal with a long track record of success, of high success. His use of actors in multiple movies (at least two Dark Knight actors were in Inception, Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine) makes me just wonder: How about Leonardo Dicaprio as John Corben (Metallo) in the next Superman movie?

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