Thursday, August 26, 2010

Troubled Dreams

As summer winds to a close and the school year looms, I treated myself to a film I'd heard only good things about: Inception. I'm happy to report that the reviewers didn't lie; it's a great film, one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in a while. Maybe not quite Blade Runner or Alien quality, but right up there.

Inception is the kind of science fiction I like best: the kind that wears its science (and its fiction) lightly, with whatever visionary elements it introduces operating in the service of an investigation into what it means to be human. The film takes place in a time that could be our own, with one small but significant exception: a technology (or technique) exists whereby individuals called "extractors" can enter other people's dreams to steal information. The story revolves around the efforts of one extractor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to perform a reverse (and, most people believe, impossible) operation: to implant an idea in a dreamer's mind, a process called "inception." I won't go into the details of why or how he does this; suffice it to say that in order to make the implanted idea stick, he and his assistants reason that they have to go deeper into the dreamer's mind than a single layer of dreaming, not only into a dream within a dream but into a dream within a dream within a dream. Needless to say, this leads to some very cool and creepy stuff where the edges of reality and fantasy blur and nothing is quite what it seems.

Inception is full of startling, Matrix-generation visuals, where dream burglars scamper about ceilings and walls and entire cityscapes unfurl from sand and surf. But at its heart, it's not about the mind-blowing images or mind-bending plot but about two of the most basic human emotions: guilt and grief. During an early experiment in the construction of dream-worlds, it turns out, DiCaprio's wife came to doubt the reality of reality, with devastating results--and DiCaprio's character is hounded by the belief that it was he who led her down this path. Thus when he (and we) enter the dream-world, we're entering the world of trauma: a place of frozen time and deadly distortion, a place where early, awful events have produced demons from which the dreamer can neither escape nor awake. To its considerable credit, the film mostly suggests these horrors rather than divulging them; I kept waiting for the monster to pop out of the closet, but it never does. And in that sense, one is left at movie's end with an uneasy feeling akin to the characters': there's no simple resolution, no quick catharsis, just a sinking realization that the real work has yet to be done.

Maybe I saw Inception at just the right time, given my recent thoughts about reality versus fantasy, the actual against the virtual. Maybe I was drawn to it because it resembled some of my own recently published fiction, such as Your Name Here. Or maybe, in the larger sense, I saw it at the right time of life: smack in the middle, when I'm thinking about how my past has shaped my present (and how it will continue to cast its shadow on my future). Whatever the case, I know this film--like a dream--will stick with me for a long time.

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