Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

What I Learned From Inception

July 19th, 2010

I enjoyed and admired the movie Inception, and highly recommend it. I also learned a couple interesting things from it, from a writer’s perspective. (I don’t think there are any spoilers in the following, but if you’re like me and want to know as little as possible about a movie once you’ve decided to see it, than come back later . . .)

* The tech doesn’t have to be explained. The script successfully handles lots of tricky concepts, but says not one word (that I can recall) about how the architecture of shared dreams is communicated, and that’s okay. I don’t need to know. I just need the “What if”—what if we could do this. Coming from a hard science fiction background, this was enlightening.

* World building isn’t always necessary. So far as I could tell, the story was set in the present, in the world we live in, except that this dream technology exists. There’s no attempt to extrapolate what the world might look like ten or fifteen years hence when this technology is maturing, or to explore what other effects it might have on society. The story is tightly focused on itself and not at all interested in the world at large, which works great in this movie.

And a minor bonus lesson:

* Titles are tricky. I love one word titles, but “Inception” was hard to get my head around. Exception? Incision? Invictus? What the hell was it again?

If you can remember the title, go see it, and let me know what you think.

Posted on: Monday, July 19th, 2010 at 10:32 am
Categories: Movies, Writing.

7 Responses to “What I Learned From Inception”

  1. iamwhite Says:

    This reminds me a lot of the John August blog post a while back about Groundhog day and its unexplained magic. The audience is typically pretty smart and savvy when it comes to movie magic–moviegoing being one of America’s number one pastimes–and will typically accept a stupendous level of magic offhand as long as the rules are clearly discernible and plausible…we expect it, in fact! I suspect that it’s much the same for science fiction: as long as there are clear ground rules, it’s acceptable.

    Here is the John August post, just for reference. I think he breaks it down better than I do:

  2. Ryan Says:

    Hi Linda. I recently discovered your blog and am currently in the slow process of catching up on previous entries.

    Anyhow, I got to see Inception and, once invited, feel glad to share my thoughts about it. I agree with what you learned, but I wonder how much of that pertains to audience expectations, whether it’s easier for someone seeing a movie to suspend disbelief regarding the fictional tech, than for someone reading a SF novel. I suspect not. After all, it’s part of an audience’s “training” to suspend disbelief, and the only obstacle I can foresee a SF novelist encountering is a certain, if minor, portion of SF/Fantasy readers who have been led to expect and enjoy a wealth of information, the sort that authors write appendices to deal with. I myself hope genre fiction continues to steer away from that practice; as you stated, it’s largely, if not completely, unnecessary. (M John Harrison once called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”; I always get a chuckle, recalling that.)

    As for my own learnings, Inception brought me closer to understanding the power of structural elements. I think much of what stimulated me about the film stemmed directly from the framing of the dream layers. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by this, but if you were to merely describe several layers of linked action, all progressing in distinct locations and at different speeds, I would not believe that could be implemented in a coherent fashion. Yet, Nolan managed to make it not only work, but entertain, and extremely well at that. My one criticism of the movie is the extent to which it pledged itself to being a “concept film,” with the result of shoving character aside in the interest of getting all the rules across and applying them in the allotted run-time. I think Ellen Page’s character in particular held a lot of untapped potential. A small quibble, though, considering that I could do little more than awe at how well-crafted the film was throughout.

  3. Linda Says:

    I think you can skate over explanations more easily in movies, simply because things move so inevitably to the next scene, leaving no chance to stop and complain about missing pieces. I know there have been several movies where I’ve leaned over to my husband in the theater and whispered “In a book, I’d have to explain that.” Of course, maybe the issue in these cases is just lazy plotting!

    I thought the explanations in Inception were clear and sufficient, telling us what we needed to know without trying to invent a science. So yep, Ed and Ryan, I think you’re both right!

    Ryan, I too really enjoyed the multilayered timeflow concepts. I thought that was very well done. In the sequence that alternated between the van and the hotel corridor, I was thinking how hard it would be to write a scene like that. It truly needed a visual medium.

  4. Glen Kilpatrick Says:

    I saw Inception just last night, and was stunned. Only Avatar seems to be of the same quality, and they’re quite dissimilar.

    Inception is a complex story that requires audience attention to detail (be seated before the lights dim…), a juggling of ~parallel subplots, and, uhhh, and for those who haven’t seen it I don’t want to give away _anything_.

    By contrast, Avatar seems to be a Rorschach inkblot story; people have read into it what they brought to the story themselves. I see ecosystem damage, the evil Conquest of the West, Vietnam, and a love story just for starters. The only place where there seems to be just one thing, unalloyed, brought my theatre audience to total silence when Jake said, “They’ve killed their mother”.

    I for one hope that this “trend” of deeply thoughtful, deeply powerful video continues; I was saddened when “New Amsterdam” checked out with less than a season broadcast, and also when “Defying Gravity” died early. But perhaps there’s hope.

  5. Linda Says:

    I’ve been surprised by how many people seem to not like Inception. A few appear downright hostile. A recent comment was “cold and bloodless.” I didn’t think so. I found it fascinating.

    I enjoyed Avatar. I confess to being especially amused at a couple parallels to my own novel Deception Well. I’ll have to watch it again before long.

    Alas, I’m not familiar with either New Amsterdam or Defying Gravity. Maybe they’re on hulu. When it comes to being in front of the tv at a specific time, I fail.

  6. Glen Kilpatrick Says:

    For you, Linda (not written for posting) —

    Thank you for the posting approval. New Amsterdam is only on Hulu, no DVD to purchase, it’ll probably go away one day. It concerns a Dutch non-soldier in (1600?) in the first invasion of what would be Manhattan. He prevents a shaman from being killed, is himself mortally wounded by a soldier, saved by her, and promised by her that he would live until he meets the one true one. Fast forward to modern-day New York City, where John Amsterdam is a young-looking detective still in search. He’s a complex character who remembers everything, mourns those he’s loved over the centuries, and has a dog named “Thirty-Six”. Immortality is not the 2D thing of “Highlander”, this is much, much more interesting.

    Defying was described as “Gray’s Anatomy” in space, and yes, there’s significant time devoted to the couplings of aging adolescents :). But spouse and I saw much more, _e.g._ in the attitudes toward failure (how do wannabe astronauts handle not making it into space) and in other human frailties. I have a feeling that there would have been significant character development, had the series been allowed to complete their tour of the Solar System (and incidentally, we would find out _why_ the tour, that was never fleshed out).

    It’s apparently not on Hulu, and I can’t seem to find any reputable place that offers it (I tend to caution as regards promises of “free stuff” on the web). But I’ve ordered the “First Season” of Defying Gravity on DVD from Amazon; it consists of the eight episodes broadcast on US TV, and an additional five apparently released only in Canada.

    P.S. I *really* liked the photos in – thank you.

  7. Linda Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the photos.

    New Amsterdam sounds vaguely like a novel I read several years ago, only this involved an Irishman who secretly practiced the old religion and later came to New York–but in that book I always thought the historical opening was the most interesting part.

    New Amsterdam sounds interesting though. I’ll look for it on hulu.