Inception

Because what the internet needs, clearly, is another post about this film. At least it should be relatively short, since at this point all I really need to do is stake out my position relative to those of other people. Matt Cheney links to a post arguing that Inception is “not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie” which seems fair enough, allowing for two quibbles: (1) it assumes the conventional fictional representation of dreams as incessantly surreal is the representation of dreams to which all such work should aspire, and I at least found the fragile normality of Nolan’s dreamscapes quite familiar, and refreshing (though I should say I’m not a great one for remembering dreams); and (2) these are entirely neutral descriptions, and we all accept that a “dreamer’s movie” is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a “clockmaker’s movie”. I dislike, for instance, Annalee Newitz’ contention that Inception offers an “intellectual high” but is “emotionally cold”; that intellectual buzz is itself an emotional reaction, and for me Inception is a powerful film.

That said, these are only quibbles, because I would have no trouble substituting “idea-centred” and “character-centred” into Newitz’ piece, and because I don’t really think Christopher Nolan is particularly interested in dreams as dreams. One thing that doesn’t particularly interest me, then, is whether Cobb ends the film in “reality”, because in a trivial sense he doesn’t – he’s still a character in a film – and if the clever tricks with the music mean anything, I think that’s what they’re intended to signal: that Inception is ultimately the dream we are sharing with Nolan. No, where I think Nolan’s interest lies – as in Memento, as in The Prestige — is in the mechanisms of narrative, and in constructing models through which to explore the workings of those mechanisms, which is why the ending, although delicately handled, is never less than expected. The excitement of the film for me, from about half-way through, was simply watching Nolan keep his various plates spinning, and tension came not from whether the characters would achieve their goals, but from whether Nolan would allow the characters to achieve their goals. Another way of putting this is that I think Inception is essentially Nolan showing off.

This, I think, puts me largely in agreement with Brian Francis Slattery, over in the comments of Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and I do take Nolan’s purpose to be the same as that of his characters, to place the seed of an idea within viewers’ minds. As in the film’s plot itself, I think this is done obliquely, not explicitly; so the answer I’d suggest to Abigail’s question, “what is Nolan saying about storytelling?”, is: don’t trust stories. Remember that stories have a storyteller. Realise that our responses to the stories we’re told shape the stories we tell. The ambiguity of the ending, in this view, is necessary not to set up a simple question about whether or not what we’re seeing is “real”, but as an expression of scepticism: we shouldn’t take the catharsis we’re apparently being offered without thinking about it first. For this to work, you do have to find the film well-paced — have to be convinced by the stories being told all the way through — which I know is the stumbling block for many; fortunately, it was all balanced just about right for me, and I enjoyed watching the tumblers of the various dreams click into alignment. Like Martin Lewis, I’d say Inception is lesser Nolan, if only because it doesn’t push as far as it could, but I’d say it’s still very much worth seeing.

EDIT: And now I’m mulling over Adam Roberts’ take.

EDIT 2: And Abigail has some further thoughts here, including discussion of inception as a model for storytelling.

n Things Make a Post

Mike Glyer tagged me for a meme a little while ago. It’s the “which sf novels that have been made into films have you read?” list. Bold if I’ve read it, italicized if I started but didn’t finish.

  • Jurassic Park
  • War of the Worlds
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park
  • I, Robot
  • Contact
  • Congo
  • Cocoon
  • The Stepford Wives
  • The Time Machine
  • Starship Troopers
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • K-PAX
  • 2010
  • The Running Man
  • Sphere
  • The Mothman Prophecies
  • Dreamcatcher
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Dune
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • The Body Snatchers
  • The Iron Giant/The Iron Man
  • Battlefield Earth
  • The Incredible Shrinking Woman
  • Fire in the Sky
  • Altered States
  • Timeline
  • The Postman
  • Freejack/Immortality, Inc.
  • Solaris
  • Memoirs of an Invisible Man
  • The Thing/Who Goes There?
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • Lifeforce/Space Vampires
  • Deadly Friend
  • The Puppet Masters
  • 1984
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Creator
  • Monkey Shines
  • Solo/Weapon
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Communion
  • Carnosaur
  • From Beyond
  • Nightflyers
  • Watchers

(I’ve assumed that “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Body Snatchers” both refer to The Body Snatchers, and combined accordingly.)

Just for once, I’m not too bothered about doing badly on one of these lists, since there’s not many books on it I actually want to read and haven’t. (Although, yes, I probably have read more Michael Crichton novels than strictly necessary.) Some of the entries, as noted at SF Signal, look a bit dodgy; the one that jumped out at me was The Thirteenth Floor, although it looks like that may have been based on a comic. I assume films like The Prestige and Children of Men don’t make the grade because they didn’t take enough money. Of course, the adaptation I’m looking forward to most at the moment is Blindness.


F&SF are doing another one of their blogger giveaways, this time of the October/November double issue. Since I don’t have a subscription at the moment (yeah, yeah, I know), I put my name in the hat, and was lucky enough to receive a copy. So far I’ve only read M. Rickert’s story, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” and, while I’m not as completely bowled over as Chris Barzak, it’s definitely a powerful story.


Other recent reading, and future plans: I’ve finished Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories, and am working on a review, although depending on how it turns out I’m toying with submitting it to the Virginia Quarterly Review Young Reviewers Contest rather than posting it here. Like Liz, I’ve read Anathem and enjoyed it; I’ve submitted my review to IROSF. I’m currently reading, on the one hand, Kairos by Gwyneth Jones (in advance of her BSFA interview on Wednesday) and, on the other hand, The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, with the aim of writing a series of posts about various heroric fantasy stories for early next month. It’s the Gollancz Ultimate Fantasy edition, the best thing about which — as with the SF4U titles — is not the pretty cover (although that’s nice) but the fact that the text has been re-set so as to be legible. After that lot’s out of the way, I’ve got a number of review commitments for various places: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, Going Under by Justina Robson, Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Dogs and Nano Comes to Clifford Falls by Nancy Kress, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley and (if I’m honest, the one I’m most impatient to get to) Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod.


And now, some links:

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.