Spoilers herein for the movie Inception. You have been warned!
I’ve seen the movie Inception four times, including on IMAX. Thinking about buying it when it comes out in DVD, etc. I even bought the Hans Zimmer soundtrack; it’s excellent music for writing about gods and epic stuff.
Now, let me put this in context: the last movie I saw multiple times in the theater, and still didn’t buy, was The Matrix. And that was only because somebody pointed out the green tint thing, which I’d missed on the first run-through. I’m ridiculously picky and jaded about my media. I don’t watch much TV to begin with (writing time has to come from somewhere) and when I do there are very, very few shows, movies, or video games that can capture and hold my interest, let alone bring me back for seconds or thirds. The ones that do aren’t always the greatest thing since sliced bread — as Inception is not; its characterization is so thin as to be archetypal, though in certain rare cases archetypes are all you need to tell a story (c.f. fairy tales).
But every so often, something will come along that hits one of my aesthetic sweet spots, and then I just. can’t. stop. watching/consuming/engaging. In the case of Inception, I love the look of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s and Marion Cotillard’s wardrobes alone are worth the price of admission. Nolan’s got a good eye for combining the stark with the surreal, and even though his dreamscapes seem awfully monotonous — I’ve been calling Cobb’s city in Limbo “Cutandpasteopolis” — there’s still a strangeness to them that really works for me, especially in combination with Zimmer’s haunting film score. And I love the actors, who do a phenomenal job within those thin slices of characterization. DiCaprio’s good, but Gordon-Levitt really shines, Dileep Rao did a much better job than the film’s marketing would suggest (he’s the only member of “the team” who didn’t get an individualized poster), and I never thought I would find Marion Cotillard frightening but she does it so well. I could watch Ken Watanabe paint a wall and be floored by his technique. And Tom Hardy is surprisingly hot in three-day stubble and a Seventies butterfly collar. (…I’m kind of disturbed to see myself write this. But writers must be willing to embrace their own fears and eccentricities…)
But here’s part of what intrigues me about the film. I’ve been following some interesting discussions online as to whether Inception counts as a science fiction film, or a heist film with SFnal elements. I’m of a mind with those who argue that Inception is a terrible heist film, if that’s what it’s aiming to be… but I’m not sure it’s a science fiction film, either. The science in it is the softest of soft science — psychodynamics (also known as psychoanalytics), most notably Jungian and Freudian. Now, note that I’m a psychologist in day job life and I hate the term “soft science”. In theory it’s supposed to refer to science that can’t be empirically proven, but in reality SF fans tend to slap it on anything they deem too girly or foreign, or which cannot potentially blow stuff up. Which may be why so many fans are quick to slap the science fiction label on Inception — because it’s chock full of explosions, gunfire, manly banter (…manter?), etc. But as any headshrinker will tell you, psychodynamic theory will never be empirically definable because much of it consists of philosophical speculation about how the mind works. In other words, we think Jung’s collective unconscious — represented in the film as Limbo — makes sense on an intuitive level, but how do we prove it exists? We can’t, not in any consistently reproducible way. We simply decide whether to believe in it.
The headshrinker term for this kind of thing is magical thinking*, which is awfully apropos given what I’m about to suggest. Which is, namely, that Inception is fantasy, not science fiction.
Bear with me. In most fantasy, magic is a state of mind. Proper use of magic almost always relies on specialized knowledge and some kind of mental or emotional effort — often just willpower or concentration — sometimes in conjunction with special objects, environmental properties (e.g., ley lines), or innate qualities like a genetic predisposition. But in the world of Inception — like in our world — anyone can dream. Anyone can do the tricks that Cobb’s team performs in the dreamstate; there have been schools of thought and religion dedicated to lucid dreaming for millennia. And per psychodynamic theory, all human beings can potentially access one another’s thoughts (via the collective unconscious). So when there’s no explanation given as to what makes Cobb such a good extractor, or Ariadne a good architect, that’s fine — because most viewers simply accept that they are good at their jobs, with no proof necessary beyond the characters’ assurances. They’re good because we’re told they’re good, which makes us believe they’re good. They accomplish the feats that they do, not because of the drugs or devices, but because they imagine that they can, and they can convince others of this. Imagination, not technology, is the source of power, or dare I say magic, in this world.
So what we have in Inception is a film about people literally using magical thinking to alter their environment. The fact that the environment is someone’s mind, and that this results in reading or altering that subject’s mind, is also relevant. In most fantasies, mind-alteration/reading is done more simply — Obi-Wan’s “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” or Voldemort dragging secrets out of Harry Potter’s mind by staring at him and making angry faces. Inception simply makes the process of invading the mind look as difficult as it probably should be — a marathon therapy session requiring customized drugs, an entire team of specialists, and great expense, carrying substantial risk for all involved.
And why isn’t this science fiction? Granted, a certain amount of magical thinking is common in science fiction — FTL, for example, or human beings surviving in space for long periods of time, despite empirical evidence suggesting that neither will ever be possible. Psychic stuff usually gets lumped into science fiction along with the rest of these scientifically questionable tropes, especially if someone paints a spaceship into the background or positions a not-really-necessary device on a side table. (Or adds explosions.) But really, psychic science fiction is no different from fantasy. Both have rules: angry faces, arcane words. Both have devices: the the PASIV, the One Ring, the Macguffin of Powah. But in the end, Anne McCaffrey’s Rowan stories, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, and Cronenberg’s Scanners all succeed simply because we agree to believe in their basic premise, not because of any provable science involved. Magical thinking, again. The basis of fantasy.
Not to disparage Inception in any way; I’m a fantasy writer, remember. But it does tickle me that most of the hardcore science fiction fans I know — the kinds of people who wouldn’t normally touch fantasy with a ten-foot pole because it’s ew, gross, non-empirical, or who think any science ending in “-ology” is complete bunk — absolutely love this film. Because that means they do believe in magic, and that means they’re potentially mine to woo, as a storyteller.
Today, dream heists. Tomorrow, unicorns. Yeah. ::rubs hands and cackles megalomaniacally::**
* Note: I don’t think psychodynamic theory is magical thinking. I’ve studied Jung and Freud extensively; the reason so many people buy into their theories is because they’re on to something, particularly regarding the tripartate nature of consciousness and the existence of a collective state. But these are just theories at present (though there is a growing body of empirical evidence developing behind them, as we understand more about the brain itself), and the choice to structure a world around these beliefs is the magical thinking part.
** Yes, fantasy writers actually do this. Trufax!