Sunday, July 25, 2010
I was worried I would hate it, but I shouldn't have worried, because Christopher Nolan really is more than just a technician. Inception is good and I liked it.***
But I guess I do wonder why this movie, why now, which is something I always wonder whenever something becomes super-popular or a symbol of something or in some other sense a cultural event.
It makes sense that as real life becomes more information-saturated and we get better and more used to decoding a lot of information quickly, we'd ask for correspondingly more complex entertainments -- or at least entertainments with denser plots that have the appearance of being more complex. Inception is absolutely state of the art in this respect. And like previous state-of-the-art mega-hit The Matrix, it is also, at its core, basically a conventional action-thriller, though in this case a quite well-acted, well-constructed one where Matrix was always pretty schlocky.
The ideas Inception is working with -- reality, dream-reality, subjectivity -- are well-worn sci-fi movie tropes, to the point that it's sort of weird to me that this movie is seen as a mind-blower. (I think it's the density of the plot.) On the highbrow end, there is Solaris or Abre los ojos or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Lowbrow end would be The Matrix or Total Recall. There's Blade Runner, which is a bit of both. There are certainly dozens of others I haven't seen or am forgetting.
Film lends itself to what-is-reality mindfucks because on some level we always accept what we see on the screen as a "real" event. Inception makes a clever meta-reference to this in its own editing when a scene opens with Ellen Page and Leonardo Dicaprio sitting at a cafe, and the big reveal happens when Leo notes that dreams always begin in media res, then looks around and asks, "This cafe. How did we get here?" Good point: We're dreaming.
That's clever, but then again most of the movie is about vans going off bridges and people shooting at each other on skis and dudes running around the walls as gravity shifts. I think in some respects one of Inception's biggest accomplishments is that it does succeed at making the audience (me included) experience it as more original than it actually is.
The thing about what-is-reality stories -- at least the ones that become popular megahits -- is that what the audience really seems to want out of them is a kind of morality tale that reinforces the concreteness of the things around us. We want to be taken for a rollercoaster ride through many realities and then deposited safely back on terra firma, whether or not the characters are.
In The Matrix, the "real" world turns out to be fake, and what's really real is the crazy post-apocalyptic computers-vs.-humans wasteland. But reality itself is unimpeachable. And Inception -- which I really want to emphasize is better than The Matrix in virtually every way, it's just that the comparison presents itself -- is doing basically the same thing. If there is, in the course of the movie, a choice between real-reality and dream-reality, it's never presented as a particularly hard choice for its characters. You basically always want to go with what's real, the movies tell us. There is a real and a not-real and it's villainous to entertain thoughts otherwise. Just try not to get shot by the other dudes on skis so that you can be sure to get back to the real-real-real reality in time.
Hey, they're probably right! I don't really find fault with that message. But given that it's being delivered to us in the form of a movie, it does represent a weird type of movie-moralism: How dare you be so enchanted by these enchanting images?
***By the way, this does not contain any spoilers and is not really even a review. Also if you want Talmudic plot dissection you are better off elsewhere.