Monday, July 19, 2010

"Inception" and the Secret of Character Development in Cyber-Punky Narratives

It's summer, and while there's still plenty of art world business, I'm taking advantage of the sweltering heat and slightly slower pace as my excuse for indulging in another passion of mine, amateur movie deconstruction (which isn't to say I enjoy deconstructing amateur movies, but rather love picking apart major motion pictures in my own less-than-professional way).

Like apparently
millions of other people this past weekend, we saw "Inception" ... you know, that new Leonardo di Caprio flick described variably as "The Matrix meets Oceans Eleven" or "The Matrix meets Casablanca" or "James Bond meets The Matrix" (it's the special effects, not the nearly catatonic under-acting, that's drawing the main parallel).

Each member of our three-person party expressed being somewhat bored at times during the film, but feeling totally invested and engaged by the end, which is a movie experience I rather prefer to the other way around.

Do not continue reading if you don't want to know certain things about the film.


What consumed the bulk of our discussion after the film were the holes in the plot, of course. There were two big ones for us. My main problem was why Fischer wouldn't be more suspicious that the people he'd just spent 10 hours dreaming with were in the same first-class cabin on the plane with him. Sure, it was a dream but the exact same people? Not even a bit suspicious?

After that, it might have made sense that Fischer's anti-extraction training would create armed guards trying to kill his kidnappers, but by they time he agreed to enter the third level of the dream (the snowy fortress), why were they still there? He willingly entered that dreamscape.

And while, with the cliff-hanger ending, it's easy enough for the movie makers to argue that all will be answered in the sequel, that wouldn't address the cheater's path they took to getting the Ellen Page character back into the dream team. As one member of our party pointed out, having Leo say "She'll be back" was a lame narrative short-cut. We understood why Nolan chose it (he had a great deal of more interesting story to tell, and to "show" us why she changed her mind would have easily taken another 3 minutes at least), but over dinner this opened up a discussion of two central critiques (I'd go so far as to call them genre flaws) of cyber-punky narratives.

The first one is central to the second one---which is why the Ellen Page short-cut stood out so much---actually, so forgive the careless leaping transition here.

One failure of the film (and of cyberpunk stories in general) is that the villains (usually uber-wealthy egomaniacs or corporations) and/or their geopolitical situations are generally left so generic that it's difficult to relate to the peril they pose or the characters' conflicts in any depth.
Funny enough, and I have to wonder if self-aware on "Inception"'s writers' part, it's kind of like the "projections" (other people walking around in a collaborative dream) noticing that something isn't quite right with the central dreamer and becoming annoyed with or aggressive toward him/her. If you make the details of the villain or geopolitical time/space too specific, your reader becomes subconsciously obsessed with the anachronisms and their suspension of disbelief falls through. By leaving the landscape more vague, you assure the audience won't notice the anachronisms (as much) and will let you lead them through the story. Moreover, in stories in which the suspension of disbelief is the only way some technological advance seems plausible (such as the notion that you can extract memories/ideas from other people's dreams), the more specific the landscape you set that in becomes, the less likely the reader/viewer will be able to dismiss the nagging doubts they'll unquestionably have cropping up.

The big problem with these vague landscapes, and the second flaw of the genre in general, is that it is precisely specific details that one can relate to that most quickly endears any story's characters to the reader/viewer. Without those shared experiences, empathy is much more difficult. Of course, like ramming a blunt object into your audience's mind, you can introduce some defining tragedy (and "Inception" does) to make the audience care a bit, but even there, to truly feel their tragedy requires that you know this person a bit first, and cyberpunk stories are too bursting full of clever inventions and plot twists generally to leave the time to let you get to know more than one or two of their characters, if that.

Because of this, many people complain that they just don't care about the characters in much science fiction or cyberpunk stories. What happens to them might as well be happening to a crash-test dummy.

By the end of "Inception," we had all climbed on board the thrill ride emotionally; we felt we cared about the characters, somewhat.

Maybe we had been forcefully manipulated into it, I can't tell, but we agreed that our early favorite among the characters was Eames (the forger, who could make himself look like other people inside a dream).
The reason we liked Eames the most (and a simple trick that too many science fiction / cyberpunky storytellers forget) is because he made us laugh. It was also his fantastical talent as a shape-shifter, but mostly it was his charm and humor. Charming characters are much more attractive and seem to cut right through our empathy defenses.

More than even charm, though, humor seems to be the most powerful antidote to the empathy problem introduced by necessarily vague landscapes. Unfortunately, too few "serious" science fiction writers (I know, we literary snobs consider that an life goes on, I really don't care as much about such things) seem to remember that. Humor is the fastest path through most types of defenses, which is why I like it in literature and visual art. Done well, it's universally disarming.

Of course, doing it well is anything but easy.

Labels: amatuer reviews, movies, narrative


Anonymous Gam said...

Haven't yet seen the movie, so I can't comment on that, but one of your comments strikes me Ed:

Humor is the fastest path through most types of defenses, which is why I like it in literature and visual art.

humour - where reality is suspended and then with the punch line slips back to our logical reality (o joy! life still makes sense!)

play - where reality is suspended and when we return to our reality, we have mastered without permanent risk some part of the skills used for successful social interactions

art - where reality is temporarily suspended so when we return to our daily lives, we can gain insights into the unseen paradigms of our reality without detriment

.... Defenses sidestepped by the temporary suspension of reality. In three different ways no less.

Humanity never fails to amaze me!

7/19/2010 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the film needed one less layer (an unusual criticism for me!). The first layer in the van and the layer in the snow (The Where Eagles Dare/Eiger Sanction/last Bond film layer) were identical with 90% chase and 10% plot and a waste of time. If you could have taken one of those layers and given us more character information it would have been much more interesting.

Add to that the central conceit of the Energy monopoly which was really under explained and the motivation of our under-drawn characters was basically greed and the movie left me much colder than it should have. The human connection in films is way too important to leave out.

I don't want to watch DiCaprio playing constipated anymore, he gets that same expression every time he's emoting and serious and it's boring. Also the most valid criticism I have read about the film is that dreams and the subconscious are where the sex drive is sublimated and this film is sexually constipated as well. Dreams are much more David Lynch's territory than Nolan's. In "Inception" dreams are just where bullets fly and CGI gets used.

----ondine nyc

7/19/2010 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...


I don't know if you remember
but Paprika, an anime japanese
directed by Satoshi Kon from 2006
it's sooooooo similar to Inception.
I found a forum discussion.
There's literally several scenes suck up from Paprika, and it's also about a trip through others people dreams,
Worth watch it more than one time.
a real feast to our eyes.

No doubt Chris Nolan movie also is a delight to creative minds.


7/20/2010 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...


by the way...

when we're visual artist and we're able to do the same thing over and over
they call us, consistent. Right?

But if Leonardo Decaprio play consistent character over and over we call it : constipated

This is funny


7/20/2010 09:10:00 AM  
Anonymous mark creegan said...

Nice analysis. I enjoyed the film not only in terms of its creativity but also by how it made me think about the creative process.

Firstly, I am fascinated by the idea of a dream architect, someone who creates for another a basic structure that is filled in by the dreamer's subconscious projections. This is a nice take on the artist's role of presenting new versions of reality that are altered by the viewer's or experiencer's subjectivity. I imagine a new medium for an artist like Matt Barney who creates or programs some sort of drug that is ingested by the dreamer, the ultimate video art piece! The movie hinted at this being an artistic medium when it told of the main character's playing with the medium with his wife as they experimented with the limbo state.

Another aspect of the movie that got my attention as an artist is the idea of the totem, this object that can only be handled by the dreamer because its physical properties are specifically engineered for that subject. I appreciate that intimate aesthetic relationship with an object's form, weight, texture, ect.
And the time differential and extension is interesting as well in artistic terms.

Were there narrative and logical holes? sure. Were some of the archetypes boring? yep. But I can forgive all that for the visceral and intellectual ride it gave me. I do wonder tho if this would have been better represented in the medium of TV ala Lost? Perhaps certain aspects and character details could be explored better, but then again i do like the concise nature of the film format? Any thoughts on that?

7/21/2010 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger RACHEL WOLFE said...

C. L. DeMedeiros's comment cracks me up! pun intended; I think.

Anyway! I thought the movie was a blast. Bland Leo aside (never been a fan so I knew I was going to have to let that go) I enjoyed myself.

It is the summer. I was surprised that it held any sort of meaningful content at all! My enthusiasm may very well be unjust-but it's there. I doubt I'll see it ten times like other people who said they liked it. Once was enough for me.

7/21/2010 10:27:00 AM  

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