Film review: Inception (no spoilers)

Following in the tracks of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film takes a speculative look at how the brain works while maintaining at least some level of plausibility, unlike the case of the Matrix franchise which seemed to have been a case of special effects run amuck.

Inception examines the possibility of one or more people entering the dream of another and thereby manipulating that person’s dream to discover secrets or, as in the main storyline here, plant the germ of an idea in the mind so that the person thinks it originated spontaneously. I found it to be an interesting film. It plays with the age-old question that everyone has speculated about at some point about how we would know whether the lives we perceive we are living are real or a dream.

One has to follow the film closely because the story involves a dream within a dream within a dream, i.e., three levels down, and the story jumps between the three levels. The plot depends heavily on the idea that time in dreams elapses ten times faster than it does in real life, so that when one has descended to the third level, one second in real life corresponds to about 1,000 seconds in dream time, or about 15 minutes.

I read recently (but unfortunately did not keep the reference and cannot find it now) that this view has been challenged and that dream time and real time are similar. I dream a lot and since seeing the film, I have tried to remember on waking if the events in my dreams seemed to cover a lot of time and haven’t noticed such an effect.

Inception is the kind of film that, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, requires a second (or even a third) viewing in order to try and fill in some of the details that confused one the first time around. But I will not be doing so. The reason is that the film is too long, running about two and a half hours. While I think that the ideal length for a film is 90 minutes, some films require a longer time to do the story justice and I have no problem with that. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, for example, runs well over three hours and is well worth it.

What I dislike are films (Casino Royale is another example) that seem to spend a lot of time on chases and shootouts that seem highly repetitive and do not serve to advance the story. I am guessing that filmmakers add these scenes to make things exciting and suspenseful but I find them boring and this film could have eliminated about 30 minutes without any loss and that would have, at least to me, made it better. Maybe I have seen too many such chases since the classic one (below) in Bullitt (1968), where Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang flying through the air in San Francisco created the template. Maybe younger filmgoers are not as jaded as I am and enjoy these extended chases.

Inception has lots of special effects, such as an entire cityscape being folded over so that the streets of one part get placed upside down on top of another part so that cars drive along a street that turns upwards and then come back upside down. But I find that with the advent of sophisticated computers, these effects don’t wow me anymore. Since Star Wars came out in 1977, we know that computers can produce all these spectacular visual effects and creating these effects have become the province of graphic artists. Although they do require a lot of painstaking work, they don’t arouse any more wonder than the effects produced by cartoon animators because animations and computers both enable you to ignore the laws of science,

It was different before the days when computers could seamlessly blend live action with illustrations. When you saw special effects in a film you wondered how they did it and when the secrets were revealed you marveled at the cleverness of the filmmakers. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in 1968 and wondering how they captured the effects of space travel. Decades later I watched the DVD version that in its bonus section explained some of the tricks used and it was impressive to see how with ordinary objects and clever camera work they managed to do extraordinary things despite having to work within the constraints of the laws of science and with gravity. That required real ingenuity.

Here’s the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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