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Inception is the movie that, were it to be made five to ten years ago, would’ve been the one to inspire me to want to be a filmmaker. It’s the perfect blend of science-fiction ideas and dazzling action/adventure filmmaking.

I recall talking about this movie for Episode 7 of Dreck Fiction, the podcast whose creation was the origin of this blog. Back when Podcast Co-Host and I talked about Inception for that asshole podcast that sucks and I will do anything to disown for fear that it will act upon me as though libel, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the film as everyone else was. We agreed that it was director Christopher Nolan’s best, edging out even one of the three superhero movies close to my heart, Batman Begins, but maintained that it was still just a blockbuster with a brain, which is doubtlessly derogatory. Smart, but not intelligent, was the quote I recall.

How foolish I was, because on my most recent reviewing of the movie, I’ve turned around entirely on it. This movie is great great. A great film. Not a movie I’d consider one of my personal favorites, but a film I can appreciate as special and monumental for the genre. The major factor from Inception I failed to note in that audio review was that element of exploration which is so dear to the genre.

Never once in The Matrix does Neo say quietly to Mouse aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, “If I was just woken from what I percieved as the real world, how do I know this is real? Just because Furious said it was? And don’t give me that crap about doubting the doubter…” The Matrix built up a classically SF world, brimming with laws to be applied later on in its breathtaking 90 minutes. It doesn’t frequently explore that world though, doesn’t really delve into the Matrix-as-Descartes-exercise (think evil demon) to give us something new to think about. So when the sequels went on to continue not exploring, and didn’t contain the sleeper hit surprise of the original, people jumped all over them. (Story for another day)

I don’t want to turn this into an Inception versus The Matrix Trilogy debate, because personally I have a bias that would hinder the argument of this post. However, Inception on the other hand sets up its world slowly and measuredly throughout the movie, and explores it, sometimes doing both concurrently.

What I’m speaking to specifically is the unique character exploration in Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, the oddly named Dom Cobb. As his backstory with the deceased wife unravels, all sorts of ideas bubble to the surface and have tragic depth. Suddenly we’ve found that the Inception world has startling, heartbreaking implications, where realities can be confused and have dire consequence.

Yes, we’ve seen this before, and that was what made me write it off initially, which was truly what effected my first opinion on the film. In Oshii’s Avalon (2001) does the confused reality take place, this time with virtual reality. The difference between Oshii’s movie and Nolan’s is what they were both striving to achieve. Though they both employed the same trope, Avalon was going for intellectual depth while Inception was more emotionally-driven, making the former a foreign curio and the latter the crowd-pleaser that it is.

Afterall, interspersed between the touching moments with Dom’s wife are totally kickass action scenes, often in escapist, James Bond locales.

Dom’s wife, let’s call her Moll, like Molly, I don’t know – they say her name constantly but I don’t know what it is – had become lost to the dream world, and as we discover, this was due to Dom’s interfering: the proof of concept for performing inceptions. Now he blames himself, and this emotional situation he’s in and keeps going back to pushes the action forward, gives us things to think about, and makes the film unique. This specific character conflict could only come about through Inception‘s world building; Nolan has accomplished here an exquisite embrace of science-fiction’s conventions.

He is also capable of continually driving the story forward, and the balance he maintains between world continuity and logic with sound plot structure and story beats is masterful, inspirational work. We’re constantly riveted, and it’s a mix of elements that keeps us on that cliche seat-edge.

Most prominently, the script keeps the stakes high. It’s a wonderful screenplay, not because of the dialogue necessarily, though there are a few brilliant character interactions, but because of the weave it maintains between the world and the plot, a heavy burden it pulls off with panache. For example, after the crew enters the first dream they’re ambushed and Saito is mortally wounded. They take refuge in some warehouse and Dom freaks out because he didn’t expect a militarized subconscious. What we discover in this scene sets the tension bar high, because if the characters are killed, they enter limbo, a theoretically infinite sprawl of the unknown.

In any other movie, this would be like having a scene where the characters sit around and explain that if they’re killed, they die. Of course, we know that already, so in some way we’re desensitized to the consequence the characters face. That’s when characterization must be employed to make us invest in the characters’ survivals. In this movie, the consequences are laid out in a way that couldn’t be in a movie existing in the non-Inception universe, and they’re damn scary. We can’t be desensitized to it because we’ve never heard it before, and this makes the threat of death more real than it was before, silly as that may sound.

For the rest of the movie, we don’t want these people to die because that would mean spending an eternity in some freaky-deaky – or stark white – mind world. Now I said that other movies need characterization to make us care about characters dying, and that sort implies that Inception doesn’t have that. Well, that’s kind of true, but it’s not unfortunate.

I heard from a guy who heard from a guy that there are characters who are compelling because they change, and characters who are compelling because they don’t, like the Man with No Name, James Bond, even guys like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop and Nikita. The guys in Inception, Eaves, Arthur, Juno, even Saito, are just that. They’re here to do a job, not go on a personal journey like Dom. They are the optimal supporting characters for a 90 minute-long narrative with this style: interesting and easy to watch, particularly Arthur and Eaves, who are totally badass, and have entertaining interplay between them.

Also keeping us riveted, and this does deserve a special mention, is Hans Zimmer’s score. Once again, the first time I saw the flick, I wrote the music off as the typical invasive Zimmer score, but have since come around to really appreciate the effect it has on the movie. The action is heightened by the throbbing, intense music, adding a layer of suspense that gives Inception a dark, edgy feeling, like what we’re watching is more brutal than it actually is. There were moments in the music, particularly around the snow base area, that felt reminiscent of Clint Mansell’s work in The Fountain, one of the most powerful scores in recent memory.

Inception is a perfectly flawless movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going gaga over it like I did with Scott Pilgrim. As much as I found more to enjoy in it than I did the last time I watched it, which was opening night last year, my inner sci-fan fan is still not satisfied fully, but never could be with this type of movie. Essentially the problem for me personally boils down to this: I much, much prefer Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell cycle to his Avalon, and I prefer Videodrome to eXistenZ. Virtual reality is for cyberpunk what time travel is for greater science-fiction: my least favorite trope. I find it to be a limiting foundation to build a story off of, and I found it hard to really latch onto what was going on in the film where I could with lesser fare like Terminator Salvation, as mentioned in the last post. The Matrix is, and always will be, the key exception.

Also, there is something on the – dare I say – meta level, that irks me. This movie is wildly popular. Not a bad thing, certainly, but almost… unfair. Does it deserve the popularity? Of damn course, if I can coin a phrase. But I do believe that its near-universal acclaim by critics and fans shields the movie with an armor that didn’t protect another movie I care about (somehow still, even after exorcising myself of the movie recently), Avatar.

Pardon my French, but Avatar got fucking shit on all the fucking time for being derivative. Ever hear of FernGully? I hadn’t, not before Avatar (though curiously I swear I’d seen the movie at a young age and liked it). What about Call Me Joe, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and that one with the castles in the sky, where it was animated? No, not Castle in the Sky. Well, some of those we’ve heard before, but my point remains: those titles were dredged up from the past to taunt Avatar with for two different time periods. The first was when the trailer didn’t look so good, which it definitely didn’t, but even the executives at Fox agreed that Avatar wasn’t really a coventional trailer type of movie. The second time window was when the movie was released and blew the fuck up. The nerd minority in particular becomes hostile at popularity, like a feral cat – trust me, as a dedicated contrarian (read: dick), I know.

It’s easy for reviewers to use familiar terms when describing things, because the reader too can understand what’s going on. Peruse any online review of Dead Space and you’ll doubtless come across “Alien meets Resident Evil 4” boundless many times. Dead Space wasn’t, like Call of Duty or Fallout, an established triple-A franchise, though it tried to be right out of the gate. So it becamse easier to pidgeon-hole the game this way because it was only an alright game. And also, inconsequentially – just look at it. It really is Alien meets Resident Evil 4.

Avatar wasn’t nerd-popular because it was popular-popular. So nerds scrambled like the United States military in 1941 to come up with comparisons and point accusing, Cheeto-stained fingers at James Cameron. What about Inception? Don’t try to tell me that movies like Dark City, Strange Days, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Avalon, and The Matrix aren’t obscure, because – FernGully? Come on.

By his own admittance, Nolan was trying to strike back into that era in the 90’s where we had those reality-what movies where we were never really on solid ground, he even likened Memento to the group to some extent. He also found influence in Paprika, a recent animated movie from the late Satoshi Kon about dreams.

That Inception didn’t catch never as much flak – if it caught any – about its influences as Avatar did pisses me off. Now, I have no problem with it taking influence, though this argument implies that in nerd-crying fashion, I’m really just upset that nobody seems to notice. It’s like injustice, but really, if people started to bitch about Inception being unoriginal, I’d probably have a bigger headache than I do now with just Avatar alone.

My theory as to why nobody compares Inception to Strange Days, though they share similar themes of indulging in lost fantasy, or Inception to Dark City, which explores a fantastical world within a world, is that Inception is a movie taken out of nerds’ hands. When this movie came out, people had high expectations, and they were all satisfied, a rare happenstance that I can only imagine is moviegoing ecstasy, something I would’ve felt if Machete was actually good. It has wide-appeal, being a star-studded flick – stars being Leo and Nolan, at this point – and holdover between Batman sequels, which will undoubtedly add up to huge by next year with Rises. The wide demographic wouldn’t want their darling Inception to languish in the genre of science-fiction, which it shares with Battlefield Earth and Dune (1984).

It may seem assholistic that I’d actually be upset by a movie’s popularity, but I can’t help it because Inception is exactly what we sci-fi fans need right now – an original SF work in film that’s worked, take notes Battle: LA, ahem – and it’s almost too successful. It’s not Blade Runner, which revolutionized a genre by appealing to the filmmakers only. Inception appeals to everyone, and I doubt that anybody will try to follow those footsteps and do the same, it’s just a bar set too high.

Indeed, we will never see Inception 2.

Well, that’s certainly enough of my gripes. I don’t have a real reason to dislike Inception, as you’ve no doubt concluded. It’s implaceable, very difficult to pin down. Especially when, afterall, it’s an amazing movie. Absolutely incredible. So at the end of the day, this really was a movie that required two watches to understand.

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Man, I really missed science-fiction. The last few posts have been pretty Movie-centric in terms of the Movie/Science-fiction split on this website, so this should be a nice return to form. I guess the posts here do happen to reflect my movie-watching habits – lately I’ve been watching a lot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – and I’ve seen some cool non-SF movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Mulholland Drive, it was nice to finally sit down with a movie about cops in the future.

It was also nice to see a movie I knew I was going to like – and liked! I assumed I would like End of Days, but it didn’t have the one liners or the action of other Schwarzenegger classics, but Minority Report certainly worked out. It’s a good movie.

It’s definitely a Spielberg thriller; elements of drama, elements of action, elements of genuine science fiction, but none of these are more pronounced than the others. Combined, it’s an entertaining film, but right in the center of Dick adaptations to the right of A Scanner Darkly and to the left of Paycheck. It’s a great premise, and throwing in this convulted murder mystery seemed to be the right way to go, but everything non-Philip K. Dick and not pertaining to the look and feel of the film was formulaic. The tortured backstory for Tom Cruise, the twists and turns, the one dimensional secondary cast – those didn’t add up to much in the movie’s favor.

In the original short story, “The Minority Report,” John Anderton is a middle-aged bald fat man, but in the film adaptation he’s Tom Cruise. That should begin to illustrate the level of adaptation we’re working with here: not quite as faithful as Linklater’s rather strict constructionist take, but then again not as overtly “Philip K. What?” as John Woo’s extremely embarassing outting, just another in his line of extremely embarassing American movies.

It is perhaps more Spielberg than Dick, but that is never a bad thing. Spielberg is ace at nearly everything when it comes to that little thing we call filmmaking, so Minority Report may not be one of his better science-fiction blockbusters, but this is really only due to of the weakness of the script.

A wonderful irony here is that the screenwriters didn’t take any risks. My guess is that they had only the gall for one risk, and that was adapting something by this author whose popularity was only beginning to show, and was kind of weird. The script isn’t wholly reflective of ‘weird,’ for example the PreCogs are just psychics rather than deformed and mentally challenged mutants, but this I believe actually works in the movie’s favor. In the end it’s really just bland dialogue that doesn’t allow the movie to get deep with either emotion or judicial philosophy and morals.

To go back to the PreCog thing – I remember hearing one complaint about Inception, and at first I took it as a legitimate criticism, but quickly realized why the movie was the way it was. Essentially the moviegoer was hoping to see more dream stuff, as assumedly inside someone’s dream anything is possible, so why is it that the craziest thing to happen was the buildings folded over? We could’ve had robot unicorns eating the sun but instead we had some pretty cool gun fights – what gives?

That’s an issue that comes to production and art design. Christopher Nolan was going for a specific look as he did with the very Blade Runner-inspired Batman Begins and the period piece The Prestige. Inception was meant to be something of a neo-noir, and it was science-fiction but not embarassingly so. It had to have consistent art design, and therefore couldn’t have superfluous robot unicorns.

This is analogous somewhat to the world of Minority Report, which is one originally created by Philip K. Dick. The author made a habit of writing stories where time travel and space travel often co-exist, where off-world colonies hide ESPers and where androids see the future.

Because of the limited scope of the screen, filmmakers like Spielberg and like Nolan need to streamline. Some elements that some viewers may find distracting of what’s most important in the narrative (like deformed mutants) need to be altered, or adapted, to fit with the Minority Report look and feel. It’s a movie about cops in the future, and it works pretty well, looks really cool, moves forward most of the time.

In this case and in the case of Blade Runner, we actually benefitted by less Dick. Odd, but certainly not every filmmaker is capable of such a thing.

 

 

 

I don’t want to keep talking about Chan-Wook Park, I’ve done it so much. But I recently happened across a French movie called La Haine. Haven’t seen it yet, but it seems interesting, kind of a Boyz N the Hood but with Vincent Cassel, which is fine by me. I looked up the director, and it seems that the latest movie he did was Babylon AD, AKA shitty Children of Men. This is a pretty common thing, and I don’t know why, but you see it all the time: foreign filmmakers coming to America and destroying their careers. Only John Woo made it back. And it’s usually like horror remakes they do – there was a time where if you saw a trailer for some PG-13 horror remake about ghosts, it’d have some Asianguy name attached to it as director.

Chan-Wook Park was offered to remake The Evil Dead in the United States – that surely would’ve ruined him just like America did Ryuhei Kitamura and all them. And that sucks because America already has a bad reputation when it comes to foreign movies. There’s a video on YouTube called something like Akira: the American version. It’s a funny video in execution, but deadly serious in premise. All the comments below fight the good fight the video does in it’s anti-American movie cause. It’s crazy how narrow-minded people can be; I recall one of the more egregious comments being something like “I hate it when people make a movie but don’t understand the source material.” How the hell do you know that nobody understands the source material? I haven’t read the manga, but the movie isn’t deeper than every American movie ever. Goddamn.

Foreign filmmakers aren’t the only ones who can fall victim to the biggest film industry in the world – so too can our homegrown. Give them too much money, and fans will note to the end of time how they got too much money. For the most part it seems to be true, at least, that’s how it’s percieved. David Twohy did Pitch Black, and then he did The Chronicles of Riddick. Kurt Wimmer did Equilibrium, and then he did Ultraviolet. I haven’t seen Ultraviolet, but critical consensus has steered me clear. James Cameron to a lesser extent also seems to get worse with increased budget, but that’s more complicated. Terminator 2 was totally sweet, but Avatar… not so much.

One of the more tragic examples is Alex Proyas. This is one frustrating filmmaker, not only because he’s so damn picky with scripts he seemingly barely makes movies, but because he’s had a visible downward spiral. I haven’t seen The Crow but was told recently it was pretty meh. I haven’t seen Knowing either but I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. I tend not to believe that because anything with Nicolas Cage is both a hater-magnet and the greatest thing ever. The thing is – Dark City was really good, and I, Robot, while good for what it was, is a startling step downward in quality and step up in budget. All of the visual opulence from Dark City was there, though I am a dead sucker for cyberpunk anything, but the attention to detail, the lack of cliche, the script – it was all gone.

When studios give writer/directors these big budgets, they tend to flounder and seemingly forget whatever style they had used before. Why did John Singleton stop making personal movies about South Central? I’m not saying that that’s the only thing he’d be good at, but I don’t care for 2 Fast 2 Furious, aside from the obviously great title.

I watched a trailer for Insomnia, a movie by Christopher Nolan, and it looked very similar to Memento – a briskly paced, possibly clever psychological thriller. When the studios handed the job down to Nolan to do Batman, I’m sure there was someone who feared a ‘dumbing down’ of his style. But rather than do as others before him had, he made the Batman movies very much in the fashion of the smaller budgeted Memento rather than just making the Batman movies like the Burtons and Schumakers had before him.

Inception, another big budget movie, cements Nolan as someone who hasn’t lost the touch, hasn’t forgotten his roots. When the roots are good, we hope that these guys don’t forget them, but unfortunately Nolan is rare. And certainly the Batman movies aren’t as deep as Memento, but that’s not really important – I believe that the two movies were a test, and that he arrived on the other side unchanged is a major victory for everyone.

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