Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.


Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)


More on Strangeness in Fiction

August 17, 2010

A topic that has interested me of late (well, it’s always interested me, but recently I posted about it) is, what exactly is it speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, etc), attempts to do? What is the point of the unfaithfulness to reality?

There’s an article today on the Atlantic website called Telling Tales, and while it’s not about spec-fic, it is about the nature of the imagination and the proper way of writing — i.e. don’t be boring. While it’s not amazing it’s worth reading if you have five minutes to spare. Enjoy.


Power-Disking

August 12, 2010

This is a word I’ve come across recently. “Power-disking” refers to the practice of quickly watching every episode of a show over a short period of time, usually by powering through the DVDs, watching, say, an entire disk in one sitting.

I’ve done this somewhat often over the last few years. I’ve compiled a list of all the shows of which I’ve seen every episode; here it is, in roughly chronological order:

There are a few interesting things about this list.

  • The majority of these shows I watched on the collected series DVD set after the series was canceled.
  • Two (The Wire, 24) I watched on a per-series basis, watching all episodes of a season after it ended, but not waiting between seasons.
  • Only one (Jericho) did I ever watch “in real time,” so to speak, by which I mean “as it were originally shown on TV.” And ever there, I saw the first several episodes online before deciding to watch the show as it progressed, and watched the second season entirely online.

This is clearly significantly different from my television habits, say, six years ago. Mostly this is because what I now do was not technologically feasible back then. Yet the change reflects also a change in ways of thinking about television. I never watch TV regularly any more. Instead, the default is to watch no television, and occasionally to watch entire series over the course of a few weeks, just as one would a read a book over the course of a few weeks.

There is a significant difference between television and novels, however. The quantity of quality television is severely limited, compared to the quantity of quality novels. This has to do both with the economics of it — it costs more to make a TV show than to write a book — and with the fact that television is a fairly recent medium. When I discover a new author I like, say, Cormac McCarthy, I can read and have read) every book he’s written over the last twenty-five years. And then do that again for every author I find I like. The same is not true of television. I suspect I will run out of shows to watch fairly soon –  and then what? Watch nothing, or, rather, continue in the current habit of watching nothing except watching a lot at random intervals and have the size of the intervals increase? I have little interest in going back to watching shows as they air. I don’t think the medium works as well with the narrative broken up like that. It’s like reading a novel but only one chapter per week.

The number of good shows available isn’t zero, of course. Given the shows I’ve listed above, it’s clear my interest is in shows with strong narrative arcs running across seasons, and for the most part in shows with strong sci-fi or fantasy elements, such that the mythopoeic elements of the show loom large. This leaves me with a few interesting options to explore. This is what’s on my mind right now:

  • Stargate: Atlantis — I already have the DVDs, and am halfway through the first season. So this I will definitely watch.
  • Babylon 5 – I began watching this a year ago or so, but never really go into it. So I don’t know if I’ll ever end up watching it.
  • The Prisoner – This is considered one of the greatest series of all time, and I’m interested in seeing it. Of course it’s really old and I might never get around to it.

Any suggestions for other shows worth watching?


Stargate: SG-1 and What Sci-Fi Can’t Do

August 10, 2010

I noticed today that my three most recent posts have not been posts at all, in fact, and have instead just been links to other sites. I’ll attempt to rectify that now, and more so, with a rather epically long discussion of the show I’ve been watching most recently – Stargate: SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons and spun off two series, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, as well as two direct-to-DVD movies. I haven’t seen any of it but SG-1 itself and a few episodes of Atlantis, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what the Stargate universe is like.

Before I begin, though, you should read this article: Seeing the truth of the world through science fiction. It’s a good description of what some say sci-fi aspires to, and what I myself have said sci-fi is about on occasion. It reveals to us our own limitations, our inability to find the Ding-an-sich, and the necessity of the attempt to do so. It helps us to understand ourselves. Or, at the Teal’c look-alike at the end of the comical SG-1 episode “200″ says,

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

This is what some say sci-fi tries to do. But… is this really what sci-fi is all about?

SG-1, as I said, went on for ten seasons. For the first eight of them, the central theme of the show was the struggle against an obviously evil race of technologically advanced beings who impersonated gods from ancient mythology. In the last two seasons they go up against a race of evil energy beings of arbitrarily great power who demand everyone worship them. Are they gods or not? What is a god, exactly? How do you decide what deserves worship? These are all interesting questions one would feel compelled to explore coming up against either the Goa’uld or the Ori. All of them are alluded to. None of them are ever really addressed in any meaningful way.

Instead, the show, and the characters, assume that the Goa’uld and Ori are not gods, that they do not deserve worship, that they are instead hostile forces bent on destroying human civilization as we know it. As it turns out, these assumptions are pretty much correct. The Goa’uld are evil, the Ori are evil, end of story. But this isn’t demonstrated by the fact that they’re claiming to be gods deserving worship when they’re really corporeal beings (the Ori aren’t even corporeal… kinda), it’s demonstrated by the fact that they’re mass murderers. The question of whether the claim to be a god in and of itself is ever justifiable is never addressed. This is the question that the “existential metaphor” actually raises, but for the most part it is ignored, though always in the back of the viewer’s mind.

The audience lets the show get away with ignoring this because they’re not worried about the existential questions raised; they’re more interested in the complex mythology being built up around the show. We don’t really stop to think about the nature of godhood; instead, we learn about the society of the Jaffa, and the different Goa’uld System Lords that pose a danger to the Tau’ri, and the different technologies the Ancients left behind to be discovered. The philosophical questions are never at the fore. My conversations with by brothers are never about whether humans or robots, or what it is to be a god, or even whether or not it was ethical to do what a certain character did in a certain situation; instead, we talk about whether there was really a scientific explanation for what happened, or what we think the bad guy will do next, or what a piece of technology discovered in the episode is really capable of.

In other words: if we want to say that the philosophical, existential queries being posed are the important part, and the rest just a way of communicating those queries, then the show is clearly a failure, because what we focus on is invariably the fluff, not the substance. I don’t judge SG-1 by its philosophy (if I did, it would fail) but by its characters, its plotlines, and its worldbuilding/mythopoeia — only the last of which is distinct to science fiction.

Now much of this ability to mythopoeticize comes from the long-form narrative modern television takes. SG-1, like many modern shows, has story arcs running through and even across entire seasons, with various alien civilizations introduced, fleshed out, fought with, defeated, over the course of years of in-world time and dozens of hours of on-screen material. This allows for the material to be explored in great detail, every possible factual question about the in-show universe can be asked and answered — but doing so brings us no closer to unpacking the “existential metaphor.” That metaphor is just as thoroughly explored in a single episode of The Twilight Zone. But I don’t watch The Twilight Zone nearly as much as I do SG-1, or BSG, or Buffy, or Angel. (Those last two are fantasy, but in this post I’m talking less about sci-fi specifically than speculative fiction in general.) I do truly believe that, while The Twilight Zone is in many ways brilliant, it is not as good as these others — but this judgment is clearly not based on the shows’ relative ability to metaphorically moralize.

What, then, can’t science fiction do? It cannot, except in a very limited sense, actually offer those existential metaphors that its proponents so often say is what redeems it. The fictional world sci-fi presents to us can indeed offer to us a metaphor worth considering — but after the initial presentation, it is not giving us with that metaphor, it is ornamenting the world used to create it and creating complex mythologies around it and making us care about people and civilizations that have never existed and will never exist. That activity of ornamentation is something very different, and it, not the existential metaphor itself, is what lies at the heart of sci-fi and fantasy.

To put it a different way; sci-fi is at its heart concerned not with black and white, but with color. Existential metaphors are black and white. They reveal stark truths about the nature of the human condition. They are also amazingly simple. We are reading The Road in my American Literature class right now. It’s a sublime book. Perhaps it’s a work of science fiction in some vague almost meaningless sense, but at its heart it is no different from his other work, none of which can be called sci-fi, or from even more obviously non-sci-fi fiction. Yes, I suppose it’s set in post-apocalyptic America. But it’s not at all interested in exploring the new make-up of the world, in politics or society or biology. Those are all dead. It is interested in Life and Death and Love and arriving the essence of those things. And it takes place in a world devoid of color. (The Twilight Zone, I note, was shot in black and white, and I seriously doubt a color version would have been an improvement.) It contains elements of sci-fi – primarily the descriptions of how people survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland – but apart from that there is no world-building going on, no interest in the exterior world — rather the exterior has been reduced to the interior.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is interested primarily in color. Specifically in colors never before seen. Sci-fi isn’t black and white; it tries to show us colors that don’t exist except in our imagination. Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space. A meteor crashes that is made of a material that is not red, blue, green, yellow, nor any color known to man. It sticks around for a while, causes problems, then vanishes. That, not The Road, is science fiction boiled down to its essence — an encounter with the never before seen. Though of course since part of the essence of sci-fi is its baroque density such a boiling down fails to really illustrate by example. This is not to say that works of science fiction can’t be serious, nor that sci-fi cannot reduce the world to black and white. It is rather to say that this is not the essence of sci-fi.

So what exactly is my point? Why does it matter what the essence of sci-fi truly is? Because the nature of sci-fi’s essence determines how we defend it to those who discount its true worth. I want us (“us” meaning those of us who love speculative fiction) to realize that the usual defense of it, that it functions as a metaphor for real life that can reveal things not easily seen in ordinary fiction, does not really hold up under scrutiny. Something else is going on.

What that is, I’m not sure exactly. As I said, I think it has something to do with discovering new colors. But is that really worthwhile? Is that a legitimate endeavor? It may just be ornament for ornament’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, the act of subcreation as an exploration of the power of the human imagination. That sounds to me incurably romantic, and I’m not sure it makes for a good defense. But exploring this question will have to wait for another day. I’ve already gotten too far off-topic from my original idea for this post, which was to rant about how naive SG-1 often is. Perhaps another time.


Three Items of Note

July 7, 2010

I don’t often post links to articles rather than writing my own essays, but over the last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write up anything and I’ve ran into two articles I find interesting, so I think I’ll make an exception.

First,  a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the book’s 50th anniversary is July 11th. I’ve never liked the book, and this article does a decent, though incomplete, job of explaining why. I like what Flannery O’Connor has to say about TKAM: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Second, an explanation of the problems with veganism. This article is written, from what I can tell, from a liberal, atheist, perspective – the guy likes Peter Singer – but it still recognizes the inherent problem with believing it morally wrong to use animal products: “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer.” I don’t mind people being vegans, but I do find it rather silly for them to think I am acting immorally by not adopting their eating habits.

Finally, while on vacation I had a strange dream about the nature of speculative fiction and wrote a poem about it. It’s intended to be humorous, and I certainly don’t pretend it’s great poetry. Enjoy.


    Numbering AIs

    June 22, 2010

    I’ve been watching Stargate: SG-1 recently, and came across something interesting halfway through season 6 (episode 12: “Natural Selection”). One of the enemy races in the Stargate universe is the “replicators,” who are basically self-replicating machines with artificial intelligence that look like legos and re-arrange themselves to form various useful shapes, often insect-like in appearance. In this episode, for assorted reasons, the replicators have created humanoid variants – still machines, mind you, but to every appearance human. And they’re numbered. There are six of them, though they’re making more; the first one is “first,” the second “second,” and so on.

    What does this remind me of? Battlestar Galactica, of course. BSG has the humanoid Cylons, who go by the order in which they were created – “number one,” “number two,” etc. But wait, it gets better. In SG1, “first” is a dignified old man who is also ruthless and completely devoted to what his programming tells him to do, replicate. It’s only a later model, “fifth,” who has emotions (which has good and bad consequences). In BSG, “number one” is a dignified old man who claims to be an atheist and whose only desire is to take over the universe and eliminate all traces of his humanity. Many of the other models end up siding with the humans, but “number one” is devoted to the machine cause till the end.

    I’m wondering if this was coincidence, or if the writers of BSG took a bit of inspiration from SG1; the SG1 episode came out in 2002, and the BSG miniseries was in 2003, so it’s possible. But there also seems to be just a natural impulse to make number one in a set of numbered characters be evil, and to make artificial intelligences not get names, and thus go by the order of their creation. I’m thinking of the movie 9 (not a very good movie, sadly), which has nine ragdoll-robots that go by “1,” “2,” etc. In it, “1″ isn’t exactly evil (since the ragdolls are the good guys), but he is the least sympathetic character, in theory (I actually liked him more than some of the other ones), and he’s an obvious stand-in for dogmatic religion.

    I wonder if TvTropes.org has anything to say about this. I didn’t see anything on the BSG page.


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