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.

I Was There In My Dreams

May 24, 2009

I had a very strange and vivid dream a few nights ago. It went something like this:

It is raining and dark outside. The world is coming to an end, and only I can save it. But I decide doing so would be too hard, so I don’t. Instead, I somehow break into someone’s car, steal the CD player lying on the floor of their car, and begin walking around – I’m apparently at a university of some sort, though not the one I attend. I’m looking for CDs to listen to, because I need to find the right music to listen to – maybe this was how I was supposed to save the world in the first place, I don’t quite recall.

But the first CD I find is filled with really bad music (which I listen to anyway – the rest of the dream has a truly horrible soundtrack), and after that, every time I pick up what looks like a CD (these things are lying around everywhere – on tables, in chairs, on bookshelves, etc), it turns out to be a DVD. I know I saw a DVD of season 3 of the Simpsons, and a few movies I can’t remember. I keep frantically walking around trying to find something good to listen to, but couldn’t. Then I woke up.

Where am I going with this? Well, partially, just to relate the story of this strange dream I had. But also, to point out how much more… exciting, in certain ways, this dream was than reality. And how much more exciting every dream, really every story worth telling, is than reality.

We tell stories about things we have no experience in – how many of us have ever actually had to save the world (none), or lead an army into battle (almost none), or even been in war at all (some, but not anywhere near a majority)? Most people have had romantic entanglements of some kind, but how many have been as intense as those of Romeo and Juliet – they both commit suicide rather than live without the other – or Othello, who kills his wife out of jealousy then commits suicide when he realizes he was tricked? (None.) In a sense, literature isn’t about life at all. It’s about what life could be – about a potential that few of us will ever realize.

I don’t think this makes it worthless. Nor do I think it means we ought to move to a literature that is about everyday life, excluding anything extraordinary. Partially, because doing so means moving to a literature that is boring. But also because doing so means saying that the world as it is, and our life as it is, is all that there can be. There is no potential for anything better.

The title of this post is a reference to a song by TYR called Dreams. It’s about what this post is about – how mythology isn’t about life, but it’s about what we dream about, what is possible but not actual.

The Crawling Chaos

November 5, 2007

I recently read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. For those who don’t know, H.P. Lovecraft was a horror writer from the early twentieth century most famous for his Cthulhu Mythos.

Now, the Dream-Quest is not from the Cthulhu Mythos. It is from the Dream Cycle. Though there are occasional cross-references between the two, they are usually considered separate entities, and I endorse that view. Of course, Lovecraft was not nearly as, shall we say, rigorous in his mythopoeia as J.R.R. Tolkien was. He described what he was doing as creating “pseudo-mythology”. The world(s) Lovecraft describes isn’t coherent, and it’s not supposed to be; it’s just supposed to evoke a certain emotion, namely, terror. In fact, he probably wanted it to not only make no sense, but nonsense; after all, one of the main themes of the Cthulhu Mythos is that mankind cannot understand the universe and that, if anyone comes close, he becomes a gibbering idiot because of the sheer horror contained therein. Note that I don’t really like this approach to mythopoeia, but I do recognize Lovecraft’s genius for it.

On to the story itself. I’m a big fan of the Dream-Quest; it’s probably my favorite Lovecraftean tale. It’s not exactly typical Lovecraft, though. It is fairly long, a novella really, unlike most of his pieces, which are short stories. It focuses not on one particular horror, but on a long sequence of rather surreal and disconnected adventures. Most importantly, though, unlike most Lovecraft pieces, it has a happy ending. At least somewhat happy.

Now one reason I like the Dream-Quest is that it seems to me like Lovecraft’s best statement of the idea of an illogical, absurd universe with no inherent meaning, in which there may be deities but they are neither good, nor bad, but amoral. The tale is filled with mentions of the Other Gods, who are described as “mindless”, and whose herald Nyarlathotep is called the “horror of infinite shapes and dread soul and messenger of the Other Gods”. The lord of this world is the Daemon-Sultan Azathoth who rules from the outer abyss that would drive any man who perceived it into insanity.

I think this idea is well summed up in my favorite quote from the Dream-Quest, from when Randolph Carter, the hero of the tale, thinks he has completed his quest: “Carter had come to unknown Kadath in the cold waste, but he had not found the gods.” Carter had come through innumerable dangers in the hope of finding the gods and pleading before them to be allowed to enter the golden city, only to find that they do not even live where he thought they did. That is the bleakest picture of a world with a deity that I can imagine. It is a rebuke to those who assume that it logically follows that if there is a God, he must be good. He could be the Daemon-Sultan set on mocking us, toying with us, and eventually leading us all into oblivion.

So the Dream-Quest seems to be pretty clearly espousing a cosmology that makes no sense, or that if it does make sense is to vast and terrible as to be incomprehensible to humanity. It is a rather depressing idea. At the same time, the happy ending seems to refute this world-view. I actually don’t know why Lovecraft would have the story end how it does – it seems to refute his theology (if it can be called that). Perhaps because, while Randolph Carter isn’t turned into a gibbering idiot by the nameless horror of the Outer Gods, the story still ends with the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep brooding and devising tortures for the inhabitants of the dream-world. It shows that, while you can perhaps escape from the creeping darkness for the time being, eventually it will find you and catch you and rend the veil that protects you from the dark beyond. There is no salvation.

Of course I don’t believe that the universe is like that, that God is really Azathoth, or that his messenger is Nyarlathotep. Nor should you. But I read H.P. Lovecraft because it seems like a good idea to examine other possible cosmologies in order to learn more about what I actually believe. In other words – yes, I think reading H.P. Lovecraft has made me a better Catholic. I’ve heard that it can be damaging to faith to read him, but I think no more than it can be damaging to read Homer or Virgil. The only danger is if you read uncritically – if you fail to consider the possibility (probability) that the author was wrong.

Dream Narrative

October 10, 2007


I had a quite strange dream last night.

I was Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes. I was with Hobbes, of course, and was playing (what else?) Calvinball. For those who don’t know, Calvinball is… well,

Other kids’ games are all such a bore!
They’ve gotta have rules and they gotta keep score!
Calvinball is better by far!
It’s never the same! It’s always bizarre!
You don’t need a team or a referee!
You know that it’s great, ’cause it’s named after me!

— Calvin

Anyway, we were playing indoors for whatever reason. (You know how those things are in dreams.) Suddenly Hobbes went over to the window and told me to come look at something. There were a bunch of blue jays outside (not that I know what a blue jay looks like – I just knew that’s what kind of bird they were). Hobbes said they were playing calvinball, and playing it better than we were.

Suddenly, they started bringing stuff to us. It seemed to have something to do with the game. When we inspected their gifts, however, they turned out to be body parts of birds –  heads, talons, wings. They weren’t bleeding, or messy at all, but they were clearly from actual birds.

The dream then ended. (Or, rather, shifted to a completely different setting such that I’m even sure it was the same dream. This second one was less interesting; it had to do with physics class or something…) For some reason I remembered it.

Why am I relating this narrative? Because of this blog post from Heaven Tree, which I happened to read a few days ago (I have absolutely no connection to the author, but it looks like an interesting blog so I might start reading it regularly). The above dream narrative sounds full of mystical significance, at least to me. But it doesn’t really mean anything; it resulted, most likely, from my brain randomly piecing together stuff that had been floating around in my head the previous day. And, detail-less as it is, I’m not even sure if the details there are are correct. Was I really Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes? I think so, but I’m also pretty sure the dream was in three dimensions. I have no idea what Hobbes looks like in three dimensions. So how could I have been Calvin, and my companion Hobbes?

And what the hell does it mean for blue jays to be playing calvinball better than Calvin? It sounds like something out of T. H. White –  remember the wild geese, and how man supposedly wouldn’t fight wars if he learned how to fly?

But even if it makes no sense, it still seems full of mystical significance. What this indicates, perhaps, is that this sort of artistic mysticism is really just randomness, and its mystic appearance comes from the human impulse to find order and meaning in things that are really random. If that’s the case, then, does that mean that things of this nature are worthless? Was this dream worthless?

I don’t think it was, because meaningful or not, it still seems like a rather beautiful image. Meaningless, but haunting, I would say.  Perhaps that is the nature of most art – randomness that we attempt to find meaning in, and sometimes succeed, but even if we fail it doesn’t matter. All I know right now is, I’m not going to be able to forget the image of blue jays bringing body parts as gifts while playing calvinball for a long time.

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