Why “Inception” is a great film

The word “dream” in the English language is a complicated one. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a person’s hopes and aspirations. For instance, it might be your dream to own your own business or to make out with Ellen Page. Or Leonardo DiCaprio. I suppose it’s a matter of preference.

The word “dream” also refers to the activity of the brain during REM sleep, when our unconscious mind creates a world for us to inhabit while we slumber. Both of these meanings of the word are applicable in the case of the fantastic film “Inception,” by visionary–and I do not use this term lightly–director Christopher Nolan. You might remember him from such films as “Memento” (it wasn’t as good the second time, though we all must admit it was really, really good the first time) and also, of course, “Batman Begins” and incomparably, “The Dark Knight.”

Spoiler Alert: You have been warned.

“Inception” works as a film on several levels. As a science fiction film, it is totally in the vein of Phillip K. Dick. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction which is commonly called magic-realism. We have a device, this dream machine, which is totally fantastical, and yet Nolan has deposited it into modern day, and the characters in the story treat it as commonplace. It has been seamlessly integrated into our modern world. Its functioning is not explained and doesn’t need to be. How it works is not important. What is important is that we, as the audience, can accept it because the characters do. This was a common technique in Dick’s stories. Recall the Empathy Boxes and Mercerism from Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep.

So what Nolan does with this science fiction device, by making it commonplace and not bothering to spend absurd amounts of exposition explaining how it works (a very huge mistake made in a lot of modern sci-fi movies), is open himself up to exploring the important themes of the film. And boy, there are a lot of them. First, he discusses the concept of an idea as a virus. This is something that is proven every day. I’ve discussed memetics before on my blog, but this film hits it on the head. The main character (Leo DiCaprio) is plagued by the guilt of having murdered his wife essentially by implanting an idea into her head. Her death came about as a direct result of his first attempt at the inception of an idea. An artificial inspiration which caused her to commit suicide. The idea that he put in her head is another big theme that is lightly but poignantly touched on by Nolan. Namely, death as an exit from reality. Death as a solution to a reality that can’t be verified.

What I get a kick out of in terms of theme is how Nolan integrated the idea of memory. How memory changes the way we view the past. I recently read about a psychologist who had set up video cameras all around his home with the intention of capturing all the significant events in his growing child’s life. After so many years, he was remembering his child’s first step. He remembered it as happening in the evening in the living room. When he reviewed the tapes, he discovered that the event had actually occurred in the upstairs hall in the middle of the day. This is because when we remember things, it is not like replaying a video tape. Every time you remember a significant event, you are reconstructing it. Re-experiencing it and at the same time, changing it. Every time you remember something, you remember it differently. And this is why it is interesting when Cobb (DiCaprio) builds these memory worlds where he is trying to change the past in his own mind. All he really succeeds in doing is torturing himself, because, despite his sharp memory, he cannot actually recreate the entire event or the characters in their entirety any more than he can deliberately change them. His dead wife as a subconscious projection is a shadow of the real person. She becomes something malevolent. Something cancerous in his psyche. Something that haunts him and his work.

It is also important to point out the film’s success as an action film. And if we do this, it becomes necessary (and somewhat enjoyable) to make the obvious comparison with The Matrix. I say pleasurable because I can finally drop The Matrix from my list of movies to ever watch again. Inception does everything that The Matrix did only better and in greater abundance. The Wachowski brothers took the Platonic idea of the Cave or the Brain in the Box, if you will, and made it into an action film. It took the philosophic and touched on it and used it as an excuse to make what amounts to an escapist fantasy. Then they tried to pass it off as deep when in the end, there’s nothing of real substance or value.

Nolan has done something completely different. Instead of posing the question and then never bothering to answer it, Inception continues to dig, relentlessly exposing more facets of the question of dreams and the unconscious just as the characters, Cobb in particular, continue to dig deeper, moving further and further into the meta-dream. Dreams within dreams within dreams. The thought that he and his wife spent fifty subjective years in their own world, constructed from their own thought goobers, is astonishing.

And again, looking at the action of the film, I find it to be very successful. It is not as…”techie” as The Matrix. They didn’t use as many wires or CG. In fact, there’s very little CG. Nolan likes to put stuff on film as much as possible. And he does a great job of it. The fight scenes are more believable, even if they are fantastical. The action is more exciting because the characters are more realistic. The dream-within-dream time dilation thing is incredible. That there are, at one point in the film, three different action scenes happening at the same time and at different speeds is pure magic.

It is rare to see a film so expertly plotted. And we can see echoes of this in his big breakout film. Memento was very well plotted and had the mark of something very cool. But it was, in the end, premature. I can’t watch that movie anymore. I don’t even particularly like it. I am a little nervous that Inception won’t stand up to repeated viewings, but I am cautiously optimistic about it.

In the end, I think what makes Inception successful is a sort of perfect storm of very cool things. The cast is superb. The acting and dialogue are stoic in the places they need to be, funny where appropriate, and emotionally challenging at just the right moments. The set design is immaculate. The world-building (the meta-narrative) is perfectly executed. The integration of themes, the mixing and matching of what amounts to be a sort of theme-salad, is so well proportioned, doesn’t stifle the action, and manages to flourish while nothing else suffers. It is not didactic, I mean and The Matrix is horrifyingly didactic, which is absurd considering it has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool. Inception is magnificently plotted and paced. I was spellbound. I was entranced.

In the end, Inception did something for me that only a few films do. It affected me. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself questioning my state of awareness. Was I asleep? Was I awake? Was the world real? The idea infected me and even today, about twenty-odd hours after watching the film, I’ll find myself looking for clues that I am awake.

Zu träumen ist zu leben.

Why “Terminator Vision” is Inaccurate Terminology


This is one of the possible results of congress enacting the Terminators as Secret Service Agents Act. The world could use fewer jerks.

I found this article on BBC today. Augmented Reality (AR) is a pretty sweet concept. The technology looks very cool, totally validating years of cyberpunk fiction. But there’s a problem with the article as written. And the problem stems not from any direct fault of the journalist, but from a dramatic misunderstanding of the nature of computers and robots.

The article mentions “Terminator Vision” and it is this very concept that is suspect here. By way of explaining, let’s build a mental concept of the flow of information inside of a Terminator’s computer-mind.

In the films (and indeed, in many robot films) when we, the viewers, see from the Terminator’s perspective, it’s a sort of infrared image with a text-based overlay. A Heads Up Display (HUD). I always passed it off as an abstraction, so we could relate, in some way, to how a Terminator relates to the world. However, it never occurred to me that someone would take that as literal. Why, exactly, would a Terminator need to generate this needless text in its image field? It doesn’t need to read it. It creates an unnecessary step in its data processing.

Here’s the algorithm that would be going through the CPU’s image analysis circuit:

  1. Input image from eye-cameras
  2. Analyze image thusly: separate out faces, identify them, identify weapons, identify surrounding structures and other objects
  3. Evaluate possible threat sources
  4. Evaluate possible actions based on threats, possibility for combat, and meaningful interactions with human companions (See Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
  5. Generate text cues
  6. Output: Overlay text cues on HUD for Terminator Higher Brain to then READ and presumably respond.

Why would the Terminator ever need to read this text in order to make an informed decision? The beauty of being a walking computer is the ability to evaluate raw data and process it without forming it into words. It’s faster and far more efficient. I can make allowances for, say, Robocop, who is actually a man with human eyes who might actually need a HUD in order to evaluate incoming data. In fact, any scenario involving a human inside a machine is going to necessitate some sort of AR technology. A cyborg’s lower and higher brain functions occur in the same place (unlike in humans). A cyborg doesn’t need the raw data to be filtered through a process, evaluated, and then passed back through the eyes. It’s ludicrous. Thus, the entire concept of “Terminator Vision” as a euphemism for AR is formed out of ignorance of computer technology. QED.

As for the recent American behavior at town hall meetings: grow up America. Read your history and study other countries. This country is far more likely to turn into Nazi Germany than Maoist China if continue to allow ourselves to be controlled by corporate interests. Don’t people understand that the government is a non-profit organization (or negative-profit, as the case may be)?

I don’t understand how people can allow themselves to be so closed minded about this issue. There is a certain income discrimination going on in health care in this country, and so many people are totally willing to let it continue. I mean, we all know that poor people don’t actually deserve health care, right? Right?

Anyway, one other thing:

Presumably, they would stay in Canada. Where they belong.


A Funny Thing About Harry Potter

harry and snape

Some years ago, I wrote a post on my old blog about Harry Potter and certain moral issues pertaining to it. At the time, I had primarily been lamenting the fact that these kids at Hogwarts never take an English class. I mean, they’re growing up to be illiterate wackos with the power of the cosmos at their fingertips. Dangerous to say the least. But at the time I was also taking issue with the fact that they never learn science. It’s not like it doesn’t exist. There’s the muggle world, where tons of people are doing science every day, but the wizarding world is totally ignorant of this fact to their own detriment. Finally, I figured that the existence of magic ought to be utilized for humanity as a whole, and not just for the people who could wield it.

I was, essentially, being deliberately obtuse. Obviously I understand that nature of the narrative. I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and enjoy the films as a visualization of the stories that were so carefully told in the novels. Rowling is a wizard of a sort herself. A wizard of words, if that isn’t too cheesy for you. But it’s more than that. Her prose itself is not really that sophisticated. It’s more her ability to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later. The world in Harry Potter is actually quite stellar. It’s an entire mythos that’s very fun and engaging.

In some fictions, we get pretty generic settings. Take for instance, one of my favorite sci-fi television shows: Firefly. It’s an incredibly generic sci-fi setting that is only held together by the strength of its characters and the writing. I mean, a sci-fi western is a really cheesy idea that has been literally done to death. And yet, a stellar cast with great chemistry, great acting, and helluva decent script make the show what it is.

But in Harry Potter, we have a setting that carries its characters. Let’s face it, most of the characters are cardboard cutout archetypes, Harry Potter being the worst, most boring offender. He’s an utterly one-dimensional character who, despite this fact, we actually manage to cheer for. Who is he really? In a high-school drama, he’s the jock. Think about it. If it weren’t for that British accent, you’d have exactly the character in the above image.

I watched the new film last night and it did not disappoint. I’ll spare you the details, because they’re not relevant. Suffice to say, it is and does exactly what it’s supposed to be and do. It is satisfying in that you can watch it once and never have any pressing desire or need to ever watch it again. In a sense, it was a blessing to get it over and done with at the midnight showing.

It was fun, but the films, moreso than the book, have this thing called set dressing that highlights some of the holes in the world that Harry Potter inhabits. A lot of crazy stuff is happening left and right. Terrorist activities by the Death Eaters, right? Just what in the hell is the British government doing about it? I’m talking about the government that governs sixty million beer swilling britons, not the Ministry of Magic that oversees a few thousand (?) magic-slinging ones.

I mean, isn’t there a public outcry to, oh, I don’t know, do something? All I want to know is, how they’re spinning it. I think it’s perfectly possible for the right spin to be spun and still manage to maintain the same narrative, but there’s just this part of me that is absolutely dying to know what’s going on in the muggle world!

Is that because I’m a muggle and, thus, sympathize with them? Is it because I’m a compulsive critic who’s always looking for flaws and problems? Who knows? I invite anyone and everyone to think up headlines that might appear on TV and in muggle newspapers to explain these catastrophes and post them in the comments section.

verbotene Künste.

Why Transformers 2 is not a terrible movie

Or: Roger Ebert takes himself too seriously.


On my old blog, I wrote an analysis of the original Transformers movie in light of memetic theory. It bore the title, “Do you really think we can trust the Decepticons?”

It was common in eighties action cartoons, like Transformers, to have an episode where the “good guys” and the “bad guys” team up to defeat a common foe. It happened in He-Man. It happened in GI-Joe. It happened in Transformers. One could presumably imagine a conversation, not necessarily with Captain Picard and Jeff Goldblum (who is not quite dead yet), in this episode of Transformers. The penultimate line in the image, the dramatic crux upon which the entire exchange rests, would be delivered completely without irony. As a child, I would have been too caught up in the drama to notice this lack. Or even to understand that there probably ought to be a snicker or a guffaw.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen after I saw the movie. Though I suspect that if the order were reversed, I might have made a concerted effort to enjoy it even more than I did. In fact, in light of some of the reviews, I find myself looking for reasons to like the movie. I don’t know why I dislike Ebert so intensely. I mean, it’s obvious that he’s not seeing eye to eye with me ever. I mean, can everyone agree that he’s utterly incorrect about Star Trek?

Everything Ebert says is true: the plot is nonsensical, the characters are vapid and shallow, the movie is loud. The question: what’s wrong with that?

I guess it’s a question of expectations. I was expecting something on par with the first movie. What I got was something that actually corrected several of the problems with the first movie. I went to the film expecting (and desiring) a 2.5 hour robot slugfest. And you know what? Michael Bay delivered. This shit was crazy!

In the first film, it was difficult to see much of the action. In this new iteration, he did a few things to make the action more intelligible and i applaud him for it. First of all, he chose his environments with more care. The scene where Optimus dukes it out with Megatron and Starscream in the woods was great because the camera could sit farther back, and the robots stood out against the vegetation. It was easily one of my favorite scenes in the film.

His use of slow motion was nice as well. This gave us an opportunity to see, in detail, the results of some of these blows. I mean, a giant robot has to put some pretty tremendous power behind a punch. I could barely contain myself when Bumblebee stripped that dog robot down to its spine, or when another robot got its face ripped in half.

A friend of mine pointed out afterwards, using the word “Cronenbergian,” the use of fluids and ichors and sinus invasion with some of the robots. It was seriously that creepy in spots.

I liked the look of the robots. In particular, his use of very small robots was cool. Hordes of tiny robots are to giant robots what hordes of scorpions are to grizzly bears. They are all terrifying, but for very different reasons.

There are obviously a ton of plot holes and problems with this film. It’s not a “great” film. It’s not even a “good” film. But it certainly isn’t terrible and it’s for this reason that the film manages to succeed. It has excellent pacing for it’s length. There was always something happening and I wasn’t bored. I was looking for a particular type of entertainment and I got it.

This movie shows that a movie doesn’t have to be great in order to deliver on a promise.

The question of why this movie is far superior to the Wolverine movie of earlier this summer is much more complex. They both appeal to the same primitive emotions. They both aim at the same goal: a re-imagining of an old franchise. But somehow Wolverine felt like it was written by a fourteen-year-old. Transformers 2 felt like it was written by an adult for the fourteen-year-old in all of us. Except Roger Ebert.

Look at that old pretentious fuddy-duddy:

Assumed to be fair use.

Assumed to be fair use.


A Proof of Pan-Dimensional Travel


I’m getting married in a couple of months that entails a honeymoon that me and the future missus are planning on spending on the north shore of Lake Superior. A lovely town called Grand Marais. There are bike trails in the area, so, rather than rent bicycles there, we decided to bring our own bikes. This made a bike rack for the old Buick a necessity.

As luck would have it, we received one as a gift recently. While trying to decide whether to install it immediately–the only upside being the pleasure of being seen as the type of people who have a bike rack on the car–or wait till later, I noticed the above label which so intrigued me that I snapped the picture you are now glancing up at with my cellphone.

In case you’re not up on your French or Spanish (or English), the three sentences are informing you of where the rack itself was manufactured. Presumably, if you speak English, it was manufactured in the good old US of A. If you speak Spanish, however, then you be under the impression that it was manufactured in Mexico. But the French could only assume that it was manufactured in China.

To imagine that this exact bike rack’s place of manufacture is wholly dependent on the language that you speak is absurd. So there must be another explanation. I see two possibilities.

On the one hand, perhaps someone screwed up. It’s entirely possible that the person who designed the label got mixed up and the copy-editor didn’t catch the error. Or, what seems more likely, is that the factory that built this bike rack actually exists in some sort of pocket dimension, outside of our objective reality, that happens to have openings into our reality in the US, Mexico, and China. I just find it so unlikely that someone missed this obvious error on the packaging, that this is the only logical conclusion.

The question is, if this company has independently developed the technology to build factories in pocket dimensions, why aren’t they marketing that instead of just building bike racks. The question almost answers itself. They did not, in fact, build the factory. They happened to stumble upon the open rifts to another dimension accidentally and there was already a bike-rack factory there. Perhaps left there by an ancient civilization that had developed dimensional travel technology and presumably enjoyed taking their bicycles with them when they went on road trips.

So all at once, this label is proof of the existence of pocket dimensions, the possibility of accessing them, and the past existence of a great and mighty civilization capable of dimensional travel that, for one reason or another, has long since disappeared without so much as a trace.

Take that, causality.