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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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The prospect of a big bad Mass Effect movie is enough to get fanboys in a tiff, as there is some actual mythology there to be potentially ‘ruined,’ just like how after the abysmal sequel to Resident Evil (2002), they couldn’t make any more video-games. What a ruined brand, damn shame. Super Mario, also. As a fan of space opera when mixed with military SF elements, the Mass Effect universe was a natural fit for me, and I’d gladly watch a non-playable version. We haven’t really had video-game movies lately, and I must be the only one complaining about that, but some of the best games have yet to be attempted – Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, (what ever happened to Joust, man?) etc.

If Mass Effect was adapted into a movie, I would be into it, so long as they don’t get another music video first timer dude to do most of the creative aspects. But as far as I’m concerned, the more stuff like Mass Effect the better – let’s expand this franchise to what Halo used to be. My one concern over the potential Mass Effect movie (I don’t want to keep using it in terms like it’s being made, not matter what IMDb.com might have you think) is the hero of the tale. Commander Shepard is a wonderful character in the way that the Transformers (2007) script is: he is able to satisfy many different demands without necessarily being deep, or… good, in a traditional sense. The renegade option makes him more a badass than a creepo (you can tell the writers had a good time with some of the dialogue), and his depth, of which there can be none as an RPG avatar, is offset by the supporting cast. Garrus is totally awesome.

But the problem here is that he, the male Shepard, is the default. My only complete playthroughs of either games. Have been with female Shepards, but she is not the default sex. The default Shepard, the one you see on the box, is modeled after a real person. FemShep, as it were, is not. There are many fans out there who choose the female Shepard over the male, and some of these reasons are silly (lesbian alien sex). Sometimes people just want to follow around a cute little buttocks. Some people find Jennifer Hale to be a better voice actress. I agree, she is pretty solid.

I prefer the female Shepard partly on principle. No lesbians – my Shepard got with Kaiden, which was a strange experience for me to hit on a guy. But at the end of it all I reasoned that there simply aren’t enough badass female characters in audio/visual science fiction, and markedly less in this neato space opera environment. To support this claim, I’d like to deconstruct some of the names people bring up when we say, strong female character.

Let’s start this off with an easy one. I love the Major just as much as I love her respective series, though to varying degrees based on which medium. Stand Alone Complex Major was highly entertaining to watch kick cyborg ass, and the movie character (in both films) was thought-provoking in premise, and intruiging in Innocence. But there are several reasons why she doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. 1) Masamune Shirow. 2) That episode in 2nd GIG where she was touring China with that little kid… creepy hotel scene with ambiguity in the English dub. 3) it’s debatable whether or not the nudity in the original film came about prominently because of the existentialist themes, or for fan service bullshit. The fact that it is debatable is deflating, and is rooted in number 1.

Now for a fan favorite, one I’ll never understand. Princess Leia from the ‘holy trilogy,’ is considered to be a classic strong female character in SF. I guess it’s kind of easy to figure out; the reason why good or positive or equal-to-or-greater-than-men female characters are rare as good weather in New England (zing) is because it’s written notoriously by nerds. Male nerds. Remember what Philip K. Dick said about his kind, the SF writers – they know little about science and their fiction is generally dreadful. Indeed, these people are people after all, not gods. I don’t know if you knew that. So I guess you can’t blame them entirely for the Princess Leia being totally lame, first a kidnapped princess to be rescued, then an object of cliche romance, and finally, and my favorite, a ‘sexy’ slave girl in the iconic metal bikini. At least she had compelling characterization to back it all up, of course.

The Matrix gets a lot of hate. But one element people never criticize is the only element I ever will: Trinity. A good, if shallow and hopelessly sidekicky character, she does the Kung Fu and motorcycle jumping, and this is a good thing. But just like a lot of The Matrix, she’s not original. She’s essentially a carbon copy of Molly from Neuromancer, in terms of appearance and role, despite lacking Freddy Kreuger cyber enhancements and Batou eyeglasseyes.

Mace from Strange Days. No complaints. Now we just need people to watch Strange Days.

I’d catch a grenade or jump in front of a train for a woman like Summer Glau, like that terrible song goes, though in reality she’s had to endure plenty of networks lobbing grenades at her time and time again – and I just stood by, helpless. Firefly is one of the great tragedies of TV and science-fiction, and while Terminator: SCC was alright, it still got cancelled. If you put Summer Glau in your show, two things will happen: I’ll perk up, it’ll get cancelled. So let’s look at one of her better known characters: River Tam from Firefly/Serenity. I saw Serenity first, and thought she was just a crazy kick-ass crazy girl, but Firefly showed me that no, she didn’t do the kung-fu all the time. Basically what we have here is this blank slate personality akin to the Major, but instead of being quietly philosophical or barking orders, her perogative is to alternate mumbling and screaming. And going back, the kung-fu kind of pisses me off. I don’t know why. Firefly didn’t exactly have the best female characters though, probably the worst being Inara, who was so blatantly eyecandy it was embarrasing. What the hell does high-class prostitution have to do with anything in this universe?

James Cameron knows how to combine women and robots without compromising either. Sarah Connor was badass enough to warrant her own TV show, and the adapted Ellen Ripley earned Sigourney Weaver a nomination at the Oscars. Even the Lindsay Briggs in The Abyss was more complicated than required by the premise of an exploratory underwater adventure. But Netyri is hell weak, man. Out of context, “you will never be one of the people,” is one of the worst lines ever. “You are like a baby!” on the other hand makes me chortle; the former is cringe-inducing.

Think of the great man characters filmed sci-fi has given us. First one that pops to my mind is Snake Plissken. Bit of a cliche, but totally owned by Kurt Russel. How about Han Solo? Everyone loves Han Solo. I got nothing bad to say there. He was essentially the cookiecutter Western genre badass, maybe a Man with No Name (or a Man with a Ridiculous Name) in space. But he gave back to SF, showing us that not every space opera needs black and white heroes, but even anti-heroes can be redeemed and sympathetic. He also gave us Malcolm Reynolds, the successor to the form.

Some people do however know how to write cool female characters. A more recent example is Eden Sinclair from Doomsday. Awesome movie, awesome actress, awesome name. Maj. Eden Sinclair is essentially just a better version of Snake (that says a lot, both Escape movies are stellar), but with a robot eyeball. I doubt I would have liked the movie as much if it had starred, I don’t know the guy from Dog Soldiers. Conversely, Dog Soldiers would have been more entertaining to me had it starred Rhona Mitra. Well isn’t that interesting? Probably not, I think I just appreciate Rhona Mitra as a screen presence.

Basically I’m just tired of science-fiction film and TV and video-games being a man’s only club. For the most part, women play supporting roles, and when they don’t, they are men without penises. I guess it’s a difficult thing to write a compelling or at least positive woman character for the average SF writer. I know I sure as fuck couldn’t do it – I don’t hang around women, I just choose to see them shoot up alien worlds on the televsion.

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