18 July 2010

It's All In Your Head. Everything May Be In Your Head

Inception is proof that an idea doesn’t need to be new to be original. The expertly crafted work from Christopher Nolan comes after decades of movies of a similar topic. Think of all of the big budget movies that have come out with the premise that all of reality is in our imagination.

The Manchurian Candidate - The pop-culture idea that the brain was an erector set came out of the Korean War. The Chinese attempted to use brainwashing to change its subjects. In the 1962 thriller, Frank Sinatra tried to find out how the Chinese messed with his head and the head of the titular character played by Lawrence Harvey.

The Matrix - The granddaddy headspace of the last decade or so was The Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers movie lent from Dark City, Terminator and other movies to weave a figurative matrix that does two things at the same time: it gives you a visual feast and a lot of philosophy to chew on.

Total Recall - The Schwarzenegger blockbuster Total Recall used “is this for real” as a massive plot device. The company, Recall, sells memories of vacations. When they go to imprint Arnie’s character, they discover that he’s living with an imprinted memory. So: is he a secret agent jarred into turmoil through the Recall process; or is he living out the ultimate fantasy vacation as a double agent on Mars.

Dreamscape - When I first heard of Inception I thought, “Oh man... Dreamscape...” and was worried that even Christopher Nolan could turn out a turkey. This movie from 1984 shares a lot of similarities to Inception. Dennis Quaid has the job of delving into people’s nightmares. Ironically, this movie about nightmares was eclipsed by the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie that came out that same year.

The Cell - Before Jennifer Lopez was a punchline she was in the imaginative and gripping movie, The Cell. Like Dreamscape and Inception, the characters in The Cell move into the dreaming minds of people. When they take a walk into the Serial Killer mind of Vincent D'Onofrio things get going.

Brainstorm - Like Inception, The Cell and others, Brainstorm hinges on the technology held inside of a super box. In The last movie to star Natalie Wood co-starred Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher as a trio of scientists who could record and replay what people experienced. The doodad in Inception became so much military surplus, but the government in Brainstorm wanted to take it over and make it into a torture device. Along the way they trapped the dying moments of the someone’s life and the tape becomes forbidden fruit.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carey’s characters was too many memories and he wants to pay to have some of them excised. Say good-bye to heart ache and loss-- deleted like bad photos. But then, what are we, if all of the sadness could get zapped out?

Dark City - In Dark City, they’ve taken the chemistry set approach and what we are, then use bad experiences and good memories to melange people. Aliens want to learn who we are by distilling us-- our personalities-- and recombining them like a massive extended compare contrast. Who are we if our memories were just ingredients off of a shelf?

Waking Life - To get into the surrealism of what is reality, there’s Waking Life. The movie was shot on video and then the scenes were re-done as animations. Director Richard Linklater takes the palette of the animations and adds an extra visual dimension to this long but fascinating rumination on what Waking Life actually is.

Dollhouse - On the small screen, Dollhouse started with a shallow premise that evolved into so much more. The short-lived series from Joss Whedon featured a “Dollhouse”-- a place that sold people programmed to be other people. The sinister potential of this concept came to fruition later in the series as it was revealed that the Dollhouse corporation was treating human consciousness like hard drives-- and you both copy, blank out, edit and shelve hard drives.

Christoper Nolan’s movie comes into a thicket of other movies that ask “What is real?” I like to think that all movies-- works of fiction-- are not real and the irony that they pose these questions is terrific.

Did I miss anything?

17 July 2010

Inception (2010)

Inception, like The Matrix and Waking Life, challenges the viewer's concept of reality. All three films do so by wrapping the philosophy inside a grenade of visual effects. The risk taken by these films is that viewers may not "get it" -- that they will walk away more frustrated than amazed. Of the three, The Matrix is still the benchmark for mass appeal but Inception should be a close second.

The definition of inception is "the beginning of something, a commencement or origin" and for the purposes of this film, it is the seed of an idea that can be planted deep in a person's subconscious through a shared dream state. To believe that this is possible, one must first accept the film's premise that dreams can be not only shared but also built, directed, and manipulated by others. Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) work together with a carefully selected crew of chemists, architects and forgers to infiltrate minds and secure secrets for their clients. We learn that extracting information is much easier than planting an idea and that both activities are not only illegal but also very dangerous.

It's not the first film to illustrate the dangers of messing with people's minds -- both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich also explore this realm. While the crumbling memories of Eternal Sunshine are well-represented in Inception, I also think writer-director Christopher Nolan picked up on Malkovich's pride of self in building believable worlds for the dreamer.

Nolan wrote the first draft of the script about 8 years ago but has said that the idea grew from his own attempts (and apparent success) of lucid dreaming. Nolan's scripts frequently delve into the mind's corners, dragging the viewer into situations that seem just barely plausible. In lesser films I would be not so forgiving of the apparent lack of internal consistency afforded one key plot point, the kick. I won't discuss it here but for a great summary of my problem with it, check point #39 in "50 Things About Inception" by Adam Best (but be warned, the article is wall-to-wall spoilers).

My only other complaint is that I would have preferred to see better use of some of the supporting cast -- Levitt's Arthur is particularly strong as the straight man who just wants to go in and get the job done but is also able to adapt to Cobb's penchant for bending the rules. On the other hand, if Inception were to ever become a franchise, Nolan could easily develop a film around Arthur or almost any one of the other characters.

While there is grumbling across the net about the ending, I appreciated it, just as I don't mind following Nolan's breadcrumbs through a film. The breadcrumbs are what make Memento and his adaptation of The Prestige so much fun to watch again and again; once you know how each film ends, watching one from the beginning adds a new layer to your understanding. Inception is very similar in its structure and while I can't say I will rush to see it a second time in its first run, I am already looking forward to seeing Cobb and his crew again.

**** 1/2

P.S. If you've seen the film, or if you want a better idea of the world in which it takes place, check out Inception: the Cobol Job, a prequel in comic form.