Movie Night: ingesting Inception

What lies at the other end of the passage?

A tunnel between dreams, or a black hole?

No Album Walk today, as I went to the movies instead, and only podcasts were listened to. Yes, I’ve finally had a chance to see Inception.

I liked it.

Whether or not you liked the film, or even if you have seen it, you must agree: people are talking about it.

hate spoilers. I like to experience things for myself, thank-you-very-much, like the story to play out on its own. I like the unfolding of a mystery, the game of questioning reality that happens in most suspenseful movies. That’s a big reason why I went to see it as soon as I found out an English-language version was playing in my area.

More detailed, spoiler-free discussion below the jump.

I was pretty sure that I’d like this movie. That’s saying a considerable amount, because I don’t really like Leonardo di Caprio. That’s undoubtedly unfair, as I haven’t seen a large number of the movies he’s made; I can only name two off-hand: Titanic (why did I bother?) and Catch Me If You Can (great movie!). There’s just something in the way that he’s aged — or rather, in the way that he hasn’t: the scruffy moustaches always remind me of the trying-too-hard-to-grow-up smoking teens at my highschool..

Anyway, my irrational unfairness aside, he does a great job in this movie. There are a lot of moments where he simply has to stare, or to move with sudden, intense uncertainty, or sell someone a line, and they just work.

It would, I think, be easy to deconstruct this film, rearrange it and make it into a standard summer blockbuster like so many others. But the premise — that you can go inside someone’s dreams and interact with them as a reality (or even super-reality) — adds a remix aspect that makes this better than standard.

It’s a deliciously science fiction concept. This makes me snicker a bit, knowing how many people would never accept that description, can’t accept that science fiction can exist without spaceships and aliens and pew-pew-pew!

Now, I love that stuff greatly, but once and a while it’s nice to see a simple science fiction idea done well. It satisfies the great thought experiment notion of sf, as the “what-if” scenario exploration.

I also greatly enjoy movies which confuse my sense of reality, even if only for a while… Leaving the theatre, I passed through four stages of reality: the semi-darkness of the partially-lit theatre; the sudden bright light of the corner hallway; the outer ridge of stairs, a mix of natural and artificial light; and the outside, teeming with people where the other three were nearly empty.

After leaving the theatre, I further isolated myself from reality, at least for the walk home: I donned my sunglasses, which my light-sensitive eyes insisted on, as the falling sun is bright normally for me but even brighter here; and I put in my headphones and resumed listening to a nearly-instrumental Mogwai concert recorded by NPR’s All Songs Considered.

My reality was shaded; the loud, enveloping sounds of the post-rock band filled my ears, blocking out the sound of the milling crowds and cars. I was walking through reality, yet also distant from it, constructing my own virtual reality space as I went. I knew I was there, but I was also somewhere else, peering through the dimmed glasses and blotted soundscape at the less-real world around me.

On the way, I relished that feeling. It doesn’t happen every time I wear shades and listen to loud music, but only when I have achieved a certain mindscape, a separation of my mental processes suspended high above this self-propelled meatsack.

There were two things that I pondered on that magical walk back: time and space.

Or rather: the movie’s use of differing time-scales and the notion of creative virtual spaces.

(I refuse to give out spoilers; those who have seen the movie will understand my references directly, but I’ll endeavour to keep them understandable to those who haven’t.)

The former is really the idea that things happen simultaneously, but in different time-frames. There aren’t many movies that attempt this, but when you think about it, it isn’t actually hard to do. You need to have ways to separate the timeframes in the minds of the audience — preferably visually, but subtly, without explicit labels. You need to have a reason for that to happen. And you need to be able to create dramatic tension between these timeframes that relates to each other. They did this very well, with people acting in all of the timeframes, in their own frames of reference, but with clear synchronization points.

I can’t recall any other movies that do this, with the possible exception of The Time Machine (and perhaps some of the variants). I’m thinking of the classic, perhaps “canonical” film version here (I’d look it up on IMDB, but it’s blocked.) In that movie, I recall seeing the traveller’s point of view, where he views the landscape grow and change around him in rapid time compared to his timeframe.

Beyond that, all I can think of is the various “slow-mo” shots in movies like The Matrix or TV shows like Smallville. But “slow-mo” is like a cheap variation, a momentary shifting of timescales. A show like The Flash should take advantage of this, but instead goes in the other direction, making the titular character appear fast rather than seeing his time dilation.

I could see a movie set on the event horizon of a black hole as being able to show this shifting time frame. Or the separation in time of distant space ships travelling at near-light speeds, perhaps with the concession of using quantum entanglement for communication.

(ASIDE: I’ve had the interesting science fiction notion to combine the mildly demonstrated quantum entanglement’s ability to apparently transfer information instantaneously without medium and regardless of distance (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”) and the time dilation of near-light-speed travel to create an interesting situation in which one party gets information at an enormous rate, from the future. I suppose the question is: do relativistic effects have any affect on quantum entanglement?)

The second notion of creative virtual spaces can be summed up in one character’s statement: “It’s like pure creation.” There should be no surprise that virtual worlds are popular distractions from our own world: they offer an escape, like a crude dream. As they get better, they’ll get more and more interesting. Having played World of Warcraft for a number of years, I can attest to how much fun it was, even to just explore this massive world and see what was there.

Creative virtual spaces are more rare. The main two that are prominently known are Second Life and There. I’ve looked briefly at both of them, and I have to say: they’re disappointing. They feature crude controls and are way too hampered by the sharing. They aren’t inspiring, but are rather disheartening. By being shared creative spaces, they run into two problems immediately: the transfer of information and the “idiot factor”.

The transfer of information means that information is at a premium. You can’t send too much, because it needs to come at a rate that can be received and interpreted properly. You send less, so the world is cruder. People sometimes scoff at WoW’s graphics level — its two-dimensional trees, for example — and that’s done for this information transfer limit reason. But they are still vastly superior to the open worlds, simply because all that information is actually stored locally, and only the player and critter information is sent, rather than whole worlds. They can have hundreds of people in a location, because that’s the only information they need to send.

I’d rather see a creative virtual space that is entirely local. No information transfer required, so the maximum amount of information can be displayed. I love first-person shooters with beautiful worlds, not because I like capping aliens, but because they give me a sense of being in a dream, a space that isn’t real. Bioshock is a great world — I’d love to just wander around there, without having murderous genetically-enhanced crazies or overprotective guardians attempting to kill me. And if they added the ability to create within such a space, wonders would be seen.

I remember a game (Stunt Racer, maybe?) that allowed me to build tracks that you could then drive around on. I seem to recall that there was a pairing between Sim City and Streets of Sim City, where you could build a city and then drive around in it. Grand Theft Auto contains aspects of that, but its too focussed on violence for me to really enjoy it. (I just wanted to drive around and listen to the virtual radio stations and music all the time..)

Now, the sharing aspect should not be removed entirely. It’s more fun to share, more fun to take someone through your created world. Little Big Planet gets it. All the level-builders for Half-Life and Doom get it.

I want something like that, but with even more creative aspect, and more interaction. I like the avatar model of building featured in Little Big Planet. (I admit, I’ve only really watched the game being played, as I stopped buying Playstations after the PS2.) I like the intricacy and realism levels you can achieve in Half-Life.

I loved the world of Mirror’s Edge, wanted to go wandering around the city more or create my own city.

(The “idiot factor” really needs no explanation, does it?)

I’ve always loved the notion of the lucid dream; that is, a dream in which you are aware its a dream, in which you can take control. It would be like “pure creation”, like imagination unleashed.

I don’t have many dreams — or, I don’t remember many dreams, which amounts to the same thing. Once in a blue moon, there is a brief moment of awareness, and the thrill of possibility runs through me, until the sad moment when either the dream collapses into a waking state (and quickly fades, leaving me with a disrupted feeling of the loss of power or the powerlessness of ordinary life) or fades into an unaware state, after which I know not what happens (as I do not recall it).

I love active imagination, but don’t really have much capacity to visualize things — my conscious dreams are sparse of detail, operating on an abstract level of information or on a mentally-vocalized level of words.

But for a moment — an all-too-brief and tenuous moment — as I walked home, I allowed myself to think:

“Maybe all this is just a dream.”

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