Random Thoughts about Inception

First off: I do plan to talk about other things I learned from ARGfest, and how the concerns of transmedia reach out far beyond ARGs. But the “hot brunette” comment has attracted a lot of attention, and it’s been some interesting exploration for me, so I ran with it. And when I wasn’t working or ill over the weekend, some new thoughts have slammed into my brain about video games that I want to touch on at some point.

But right now, fuck all that. I just got back from watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and I want to nerd out over it for a while. For those who haven’t seen it, it might be best to read this after you’ve seen the movie, because I’ll likely step all over spoiler country.

Inception Isn’t About Dreams

Let’s start off with one of the lesser (but still awesome) observations I had about the movie – the writing was fantastic. I really appreciate spare, powerful writing, and this movie has it in spades. The characters are also really good examples of what I talked about in my last couple of posts – Ariadne is (sigh) a hot brunette, but she is not Superwoman, nor does she require rescuing, nor is she a love interest. But every character is interesting and engaging, even the ones that are only on screen for a scene or two. The link above is to the core team in the movie, and that’s intentional – many of them are overt stereotypes, but all are given an interesting twist. I’m almost glad I came to these conclusions beforehand, because now I can point to Inception and say “yes, that.”

Which leads to my first conclusion about the movie: it isn’t really about being able to walk in dreams. Rather, it’s all about the characters – the dreams are just a metaphor for literal character exploration. Nolan does a great job of setting up the premise (people can walk in dreams; there is technology that allows this; people can specialize in this new technology; corporations have developed security specialists against this technology) in a very short space, but doesn’t waste time actually telling you what it is or how long it’s been around or even what year the movie is set in. That’s because it doesn’t matter – it’s just a conceit to get the characters in front of the audience and make them start caring about them enough to go stomping around in their personalities for nearly three hours.

Inception Could Only Be A Movie

The next thing I noticed was that Inception could only be a movie. Like Memento (shockingly, another Christopher Nolan film), film editing becomes not only a method of compressing time, but a narrative device in its own right. In Memento the reason is immediately obvious (the memory jumps), but in Inception its much more subtle, using film editing (and once in a while, jump cuts) to sell dream logic without having to say “hey, this is a dream” over and over. It could be done in, say, a novel, but novel readers aren’t as used to sudden jumps in narrative, while film audiences are. A case could be made for it being translated to television, but there are so many subtle elements that would be lost on a smaller screen – although I might be biased, since I saw it for the first time in IMAX. I believe that while you could tell the same story in other media, it wouldn’t be nearly as elegant or engaging as it is as a movie. Inception uses the language of movie tropes to tell a new and exciting story, and I’m a big fan of experiencing a story in its idealized form.

Inception Is Film Noir

Which leads to my final thought. I could tell from the trailers (and from the people trying to compare it to other movies) that this was a movie that pushed genre boundaries. So, I approached the movie trying to see what genre conventions it had at the core, instead of on the surface. For a while, I thought it was a deconstructed cyberpunk movie – it involves flawed people using quasi-legal technology in suspect ways against an equally suspect status quo, demonstrating that technology is only as good or bad as the people utilizing it. But when the tropes of technology, corporate espionage, and even the heist team started going in different directions, I wasn’t so sure anymore. On the ride home, David put words to it for me.

Inception is the world’s brightest film noir. Let’s toss out the visual techniques of noir and focus only on the story elements.

  • Most films noir are crime dramas. Check: the main story is about a heist (albeit a very unusual one).
  • Most films noir are about cynical attitudes. Check: there’s this amazing dream technology, and it’s being used to steal corporate secrets.
  • Most films noir are about complex romantic or sexual relationships. Check: Cobb and Mal’s relationship is pretty much a textbook example of “complex.”
  • Most films noir are unabashedly urban and claustrophic. Check: Even scenes involving beaches and mountain have buildings crammed into them, and expansive exotic locals are often compressed into a single building or even a few rooms.
  • Most films noir have endings that are, at best, conflicted, and often quite bad for the main protagonist. Check: assuming you believe Inception has an ending (which I know Chuck Wendig does), it’s certainly an ambivalent one at best.

Now, there are legendary fights over what actually constitutes film noir, and I’m sure many folks will disagree with me putting Inception in this category. But it pushed a lot of the same buttons that other films noir push with me, and there are too many points of similarity for me to think that Christopher Nolan hasn’t at least heavily internalized the conceits of noir.

Inception Is Awesome

I’m kind of all over the map right now. My opinions might change after I’ve had some time to think (and maybe watch the movie again once or twice), but a sharp, intelligent movie hasn’t gotten me this excited in years. If for some bizarre reason you were waiting on my opinion before deciding for yourself to see it or not, do not wait any longer. Go see it right now.

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