A Review of a Review of a Review of INCEPTION

In this article, which he describes as a review of a review, James Bowman laments that films are no longer about real things related to the real world, but merely about spectacle, sound and fury. He further laments that film criticism is no longer about criticism, but about alienism or mass psychology.


I must reject James Bowman’s criticism of INCEPTION in the strongest possible terms. His argument, boiled down to its ugly nub, is that since the action in the movie takes place in the dream world, nothing real is happening ergo there is no plot.

I puke contempt upon this muggle thinking. INCEPTION is the best science fiction movie qua science fiction I have ever seen, bar none. I do not make that statement lightly.

There are better movies. There are even better movies qua movies that take place in a science fiction genre. But science fiction qua science fiction, hard SF, is the art of taking one counterfactual idea, spinning out the implications which the reader will not expect, but which, once explained, seem not only logical but inevitable, and around this frame to build a story.  The story must have the normal elements of a story (plot, character, theme, craft) but adapted or distorted by the counterfactual science-fictional setting and props, to entertain, awe, or interest the audience in how the adaption plays out.

The story in INCEPTION  is two parallel plots of a man’s desperation to return to his family and atone for an unnamed guilt in his life, combined with a plot of one last caper. This is basically a heist movie, except that what is being stolen is information from the subconscious mind.

The character arc centers around Cobb, the dream-spy, who is driven to take greater and greater risks, and to put others at risk, for the most heartbreakingly human motive of all: he wants to return home and see the faces of his children again. But an internal demon of grief, personified by a figure he sees in his dreams whom he loves and fears, a ghost from his subconscious, must first be confronted.

The theme is the oldest in science fiction: the film questions what is the nature of reality. Cobb is transfixed between what his reason tells him is true and what his heart tells him he wants to believe. (Refreshingly for a modern film, what his reason tells him is true turns out to be true. This story about dreams is not a story about how dreaming makes it so.)

The craftsmanship of story telling was simply perfect: the plot was watertight, no cheating, no midichlorians, no transporter accidents. The foreshadowing gave you enough information to make an educated guess about what was coming, and some of it you could figure out, and some you could not. No plot point introduced was left dangling. The artistry of showing inside the dream the elements intruding from the real world (the dreamers could hear noises or feel the sensation of being moved if their sleeping bodies were moved) by means of rain, or quakes, was handled in a masterful fashion, not too obvious and not too obscure.

Ah! but the setting is the astonishing and wonderful thing here: the film takes place in at least four levels of dream-reality, one of which is deadly, perhaps inescapable.

The science fiction in this movie was one simple counterfactual premise — a technology to allow people to invade each other’s dreams. From this premise the film deduces a large number of astonishing but perfectly logical implications of such a technology, such as the need for dream defense training, the possibility of dreams within dreams, the use of small objects to remind oneself what is real and what is not, the difference in time between dreams, and so on and so on.

With the expert clarity only the best science fiction writers can match, the movie very smoothly explains the rules, dangers, and limitations of the dream world — and then every plot point, the growing tension, the very real risk of death or permanent insanity, was built around those rules. Each time you thought you knew where the plot was going, it went suddenly somewhere worse. This plot weaving was tight.

I can think of one other SF film where the rules of the unreal world were explained and never broken, and the resolution came out of the rules fair and square, unexpectedly but without cheating the rules — and that is DARK CITY directed by Alex Proyas.

The reviewer here was unable or unwilling to grant the counterfactual premise, and he was either asleep or not paying attention when the movie explained what was at stake, and what the limits of the rules were.

Consequently, the reviewer’s misunderstanding of the movie is so severe that he cannot even tell what it was about. He dismisses it as spectacle, when in fact there is far less eye candy or fantastic special effects than any other SF picture since the 1950’s. This was as cerebral as a Twilight Zone story — the whole impact of the film was intellectual, and the main action was a series of conversations or revelations where we discovered more and more of the secrets of Cobb’s dark past, and how that past was endangering the caper which was the forefront plot, not to mention endangering the life and sanity of the other members of his team.

Spectacle, quotha? The climax of the main plot of the film is a tearful, whispered conversation between a man and his dead wife, and the climax of the secondary plot is a tearful, whispered conversation between a man and his dead father.

(The cerebral cleverness of this latter scene comes in because the son thinks the image of the father from comes from the subconscious of his godfather, whose dream the son thinks he is invading, when actually he is talking to his own subconscious father image without knowing it, having been tricked into invading his own dream unawares.)

Indeed, if there was any flaw to be found in this film — and I would be hard pressed to find any — was that it was if anything too cerebral. Like most ‘Caper’ films, the emphasis is on the events, the chess-problem moves and countermoves of the dreamers trying to perform or to thwart the caper. Like most hard SF, the character development is secondary to the science fictional implications. Hard SF is about problem solving giving limited time and resources: for example, in this film, one character has put five sleeping people under gravity in weightlessness, and he has to use the materials at hand to solve the problem withing a narrowing time limit. As an exercise in problem-solving, that sequence could have come straight out of APOLLO THIRTEEN.

Other flaws? Well, I do not like caper movies from a moral angle. Whether the caper succeeds or fails, caper movies basically have us cheering for crooks and thieves. A film that is a ‘one last caper’ film gets around this by promising that the thief will go straight hereafter. But this is a convention of the genre, and so cannot be called a flaw. As well complain about murders in a murder mystery, or pirates in a pirate film.

To be sure, there are films in the science fiction genre that I like better. But I like them better for their filmatic reasons, the spectacle of STAR WARS, the nostalgic love of STAR TREK, the fuzzy warmth of E.T., the austere severity of the original DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, the noir mood of DARK CITY, the outrageous wire fu action of MATRIX. But — and this is a very significant but — it was not the specifically science fictional elements in those films I liked better than INCEPTION. They might be more enjoyable films on a number of levels. INCEPTION was better science fiction.

And this reviewer does not grok science fiction. To him, dreams aren’t real, so the plot actions have no emotional resonance with him. The fact that the main character is facing permanent insanity in the dream world, drowned by his own buried guilt, while facing permanent incarceration in the real world if he cannot complete his mission before his time runs out or his boss bleeds to death apparently did not register.

Phaugh! Well, baseball is not real either, so I suppose PRIDE OF THE YANKEES or KARATE KID any other sports drama should mean nothing either.

This is why muggles should not review slan films, and why slans should not read muggle reviewers. The muggles do not have the imagination needed to grasp on an emotional level that a story setting, a world, can be counterfactual yet real. To the muggles, if it does not happen in New York or DC, it does not happen.