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Two things were zapping through my head as the lightcycles and disccs passed across the screen: Avatar, and – strangely – Mamoru Oshii. For the former, this movie is its little brother. It creates a world, and populates it with characters created digitally. For the latter, I wished earnestly during the first half that a movie this visually dazzling was more cerebral, slower. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that Tron Legacy shouldn’t be an Oshii picture, that it’s a great film even without that meditative bent.

Having never seen the 1982 original, my only familiarity with the universe is vicarious through fellow nerds on the Internet and scifi history books. It’s the movie that revolutionized the use of computer graphics in film, and established a distinct look. It also came at a price for fans – the movie, from what I understand (and can infer from from Legacy), is totally goofy. Truly nobody believes that this is what the inside of a computer looks like…

No, it’s not cyberpunk by way of Gibson, but it’s a family movie. Kids, as we know, are ace at suspending their disbelief. Assumedly then the theory is ‘turn your brain off, sit back, and enjoy.’ Have your mind blown – one half of it, anyway.

Tron Legacy does the same thing: it numbs the skull as it blows the mind. It’s a battle between A to B storytelling and character and a devastatingly beautiful world. For me, the victor of this struggle was undeniably the visuals. In the end I suppose that this movie stands where Avatar falls, and it becomes one of the best scifi action movies in recent memory. The story and characters aren’t stellar, but they aren’t stultifying or offensive like most action contemporaries like The Expendables and Machete.

We find the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges’ character from the original), Sam, the daredevil bad boy type, returning to Tronworld, better known as the Grid. There he meets his father who’s been trapped for twenty years, and one of the few non-hostile inhabitants of this strange world, Quorra. Together, they journey back to the Real World, and must contend with Clu, a doppleganger of Flynn who’s trying to defect to the Real World for nefarious Bond villain reasons. Blow up the ocean, probably. Father and son will reunite, good will fight evil, there will be betrayals, there will be chases of all kinds.

On paper, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. So how did something like this get greenlit? Well, that’s a question that has more to do with the Tron brand than anything, but it works because of the product on screen. It can’t help but feel fresh. I’ve seen stills and a trailer from Tron, and this is very rather different – they definitely embodied the J.J. Abrams philosophy of design, where everything has that Apple Store shine, right down to the lens flares themselves. The polygonal cyberspace of Tron has been given quite the update – I believe on critic described the world as “Blade Runner after gentrification.”

No matter what you call it, it’s still┬ápure visual stimuli. It’s the kind of thing one watches scifi film to see – I feel like we’re glimpsing a rare thing here, the climax of cinema dreams thirty years old. I’d advise you to turn the sound off and just take the world in, but that’d be doing everybody a disservice. Yes, the dialogue is flat – though never poorly delivered – but the real kicker is the sound effects and score. Daft Punk’s thumping soundtrack looms with foreboding swell or pops with electric energy when the scene calls for it – layer this on top of some of the movie’s action scenes and you’ve got a recipe for gold.

It’s an action movie where the story doesn’t bother me; in movies in the mold of Bond or Bourne, the budgets are high, giving the action scenes the filmmakers’ attention. They may be entertaining, but much less focus put on the characters, premise, and storytelling shows. So in between car chases we must slog through dead characters and poorly told story that was bland to begin with.

The argument can be made that Legacy is the same way. But it offers something new in these hard times between the action. The characters don’t gather into the Pentagon or in a hotel room or outside the White House to move the story along, they sit on a floating laser train in an electrical sky, or on the neon streets of the Downtown area, where fog and light dance in the background like classic Ridley Scott.

Of course, the action scenes alternating the obligatory plotforwards are so good, they make the movie. Fighting with discs may sound idiotic, but it’s elevated to aesthetically violent pleasure by the art design of the costumes, the environments, and the weapons themselves, all of which light up and react when touched. Everything’s streamlined and coupled with the slick energy and movement of the choreography and cinematography. The director comes off as an expert here, despite this being his first – and rather ambitious – feature film. He establishes rules for the action and then lets the situation run wild. Everything feels logical as it flows by us.

There is also that great sense of invention pervading these sequences. I know that the trailing light was a product of the first movie, but it’s a great idea, and lovingly applied to the new film. For offense and defense, the characters find many inventive purposes for it, and it feels like something that would be difficult to handle. Every time a vehicle would emanate with that light stream my interest would pique, the suspense would ratchet up – how are the heroes going to maneuver this challenge?

As inventive and dizzying as everything was, there was one major issue I have with the action scenes, and with the movie in general, and her name is Quorra. Olivia Wilde’s character is terrible, an absolute joke that makes the movie feel like it was made in 1982, an era where genre women had to be punched in the gut by the hero for him to move on, like in the otherwise awesome Streets of Fire, or nearly raped as in Blade Runner: the women that make Ripley look like a fucking saint. Remember the little girl from The Matrix Revolutions? The one Neo meets in Mobil Station? That’s Quorra. A program who doesn’t quite understand you humans, only twenty-something years old, just like all the naive alien babes out there who you can totally have sex with.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd, from the other update of a 1982 classic, may have been a simple imitation of the aforementioned Alien heroine, but she was proper in the form of the Strong Science-fiction Female Character arehetype. These women don’t get kidnapped – and by extension don’t get rescued – they kick just as much ass as everyone else, whether that means fighting Agents in the Matrix or Renaissance knights in the post-apocalypse, and probably looking good as they’re at it, because there’s nothing nerds like better.

It wouldn’t be a problem (I can handle weak females just like I can handle weak males), but it didn’t match up with expectations. Wilde, in some of her press interviews, discussed how little girls these days don’t really have movie role models anymore – obviously this doesn’t mean women a la Kill Bill, but certainly not this. I did assume that her perception of Quorra was pure marketing speak, but in my heart, I hoped. Cyberpunk is generally pretty good about tough, well-to-do women, but alas.

One minor fumble aside, Tron Legacy is great fun. It’s an exhilarating marriage of image and sound – there’s nothing that looks or sounds like it, not even Tron. Maybe it could’ve been bettered if there was no dialogue (same solution to Wall-E), and if it was ninety minutes of straight action, but as it stands, it’s a delightful entry in a cult favorite franchise. My appreciation of Tron Legacy was as a nerd. I liked the flashbacks, the moments where we find that Tron had fought to save Flynn from Clu during the creation of the Grid – I don’t know, something about that rang right with me, the history of this world. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the original mythos, so named for a character and not the world itself, a fact I always found odd, but it was interesting to me nonetheless. I look forward to this story being furthered.

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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.

Spoiler Alert, seriously. You should make the effort to read Ubik if you haven’t already, and then come back and skim this, the usual stuff. It’s actually a pretty quick read, and this is coming from somebody who rarely meanders onto the printed page. It must have taken me three months to read Childhood’s End, but Ubik was only a matter of three days.

Ubik is the most maddening, perplexing, fascinating, and mind-blowing novel I’ve yet to read. It feels, essentially, like a funny PKD short story like “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but blown up to 200 pages. That’s not a bad thing, but it does present one crucial problem. There’s a punchline to the novel, and it feels like a giant joke, in some way, that Philip K. Dick is dictating to us with his usual wit and entertaining prose. That’s fine, except that I didn’t feel nearly as much sympathy for the hero of the aforementioned short story as I did with Joe Chip or Glen Runciter – or even Pat Conley, who’s involvement in the narrative took me the most. When the characters are victims of some massive farce by the end of a phildickian short story, it’s the story itself that sticks with us; the characters are just vessels by which the story’s punchline gets through. In the longform medium, the paradigm shifts, and the length and complexity of the journey undertaken by the characters engages us on a higher level with those characters.

And yet, Ubik ends with the short story kick, which, by the time I reached the About the Author section and gazed upon it with wild eyes, caused me to emit a sound not unlike a groan, but more like a yelp. I was shocked, but this feeling was both amplified and frustrated by emotions gathered in the immediately preceeding chapter: disgust, mostly. When Jory was revealed I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to reveal how hero Joe Chip would resolve this larger-than-life conflict in the last twenty or so pages, meanwhile ticking away in my mind about how the scenario depicted is like The Matrix (or Inception, if you’d rather) but so much more fucked up, unbelievably so.

In the novel’s final moments, I was constantly reminded of how close to death Joe Chip was, how horrible this death would be, how irreversibly screwed he was, and how no matter what satirical 1992 future he lived in where life and death operate on a strange new level – he could never escape it. My mind was churning with these dark, intense thoughts, and after I put the book down one last time I experienced something very rare.

Usually in science-fiction I really fall in love with, I find myself thinking about the themes and ideas explored long after the title has expired, and usually I relate them here on this website. After Ubik, I was literally thoughtless. My mind was actually blown, taken up to a height unprecedented by an author with golden wings and dropped at the turn of the final page onto hard pavement. The disturbing nature of half-life and of Jory shook me, carrying me with jolting unease through the rest of the novel, where my mental discomfort paralleled hero Joe Chip’s frantic and shattering struggle to regain control of his body – inside his mind.

Based on what Wikipedia has to offer, and the scrawling I’ve found on the inside covers as penned by the book’s previous owner, the eponymous Ubik has been interpreted as God, something that heals us and is everywhere. The argument is that Ubik restores our faith in ourselves, makes Joe Chip believe that he can win the unwinnable fight against Jory. But in the end, he cannot. Eventually things run out – everything ends, and in the Ubik universe, things seem to end with Jory. So is Dick in this way criticizing God and our faith in him? The ending makes me think so, which essentially says that we can’t be sure of anything, not even God or his healing powers, but death is a constant for everyone, no matter how far we get into the future.

I don’t know. Philip K. Dick would go on to write more blatantly theological novels, yet Ubik isn’t considered one of them. It is however, very phildickian, and one clear tell is the inclusion of the dark-haired girl. This time it’s a character named Pat Conley, who indeed is malevolent and a force of destruction. For me, she’s also a force of more discomfort – I really didn’t take to the idea that she was eaten by Jory, that just didn’t sit well with me. Otherwise she was an interesting character among a cast of interesting characters, and I can’t help but wonder how Philip K. Dick manages to balance so many well-rounded elements in one novel, considering how fast he put these and the short stories out.

There’s a lot to be said about Ubik, but I don’t have the capacity to say it. I’ll leave this one up to you, dear reader, because I think what we have here is something of a personal journey to be undertaken, and I can only point you in the Dickiest direction.

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