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Inception and PKD

After reviewing the book about PKD in my last post, I realized I’d said nothing about the film Inception, which I saw a few weeks ago. I’m going to come out and say what I think about the film, and what it means for cinematic SF, but save the spoilers (and much of my explanation) for the extended part of this post, so that those who wish can avoid the spoilers.

(Note, if you’re reading on the RSS feed you might not have a cut. I’ll warn you.)

So, what is Inception?

It’s one of the most Phildickian films I’ve seen to date that didn’t outright confess to being an adaptation of a PKD novel or story. It did bring UBIK to mind, and has many similarities, but one cannot quite call it an adaptation, nor ought one to do so.

That is to say, I think what it means is, Philip K. Dick’s patent approach to SF — the shifting realities, the dubious trustworthiness of the senses, the Cartesian worries about knowing whether the world is real or not, and of course the applicability of all these anxieties to a technological society that has descralized its universe — has finally become so essentially mainstream that it’s no longer so much Phildickian as it is just SFnal, period.

That’s hardly surprising, given the nature of the medium. Film’s great for presenting realities and then shifting them into alienness; it’s superb for immersing viewers in a reality and then yanking the carpet out from under them (sometimes by rubbing one character’s face in it — ha, there’s a line for someone who’s seen the film!). I think in PKD film has found the strain of SFnal thought that is most suited to the highly visual, cinematic approach to storytelling.

Well, and now, on to my more specific thoughts about the film… which are, of course, dependent on my mentioning spoilers, so read on only if you don’t mind those…

There are some problems with the ideas in the story, of course. One of the most problematic is this silliness of how time moves at a specific degree of acceleration depending on how deeply nested in a series of dreams-within-dreams you go. It’s a purely magical formulation, since:

There are a few other things I thought were needlessly overstructured, such as the whole schtick about who is dreaming, who controls the dream, who fills it up… that stuff read like nonsense, just as the extrusions from the subconscious that populate the dreamed worlds were basically just Agent Smith clonazoids. No big excitement there. The corporate espionage plotline — complete with mind-invasive agents, though they’re telepaths in PKD’s UBIK — is pretty simple and pretty familiar. And one reviewer — I can remember who — pointed out that there are more than a few similarities with another recent Dicaprio film, Shutter Island.

In fact, the ending purports to be one of them. I had an interesting chat with a friend about that, who wanted to talk about whether the Dicaprio character, Cobb, was — or was not — in a dream. The top left spinning at the end, just before cutting to credits, falls, or so he insisted. It was just too clear — to my friend — that Dicaprio was in the real world, period.

I read it differently: I think if we were to walk away from the film with a definite sense of conclusion either way, the top would have been shown spinning for much longer, or else it would have been shown falling over. There are, after all, just as many hints that the homecoming in the last scene is a dream — one of the biggest being that Cobb’s home is just as he remembers it. When you end up on the lam abroad, after the suicide of your wife and after your kids end up in the care of a relative, you usually don’t return home to find your kitchenware where you left it. Also, I suspect the top did spin longer than a real top would — I’d wager CGI was used in the last scene to extend its spin to an unnatural duration, actually — and that it’s implied Cobb is in a “dream”…

… of sorts, that is. I don’t think, though, the main significance of the long-spinning top in the final moments before the cut to credits is its relation to the story of Cobb, however. What I walked away with was a sense of invitation to the viewer to reflect on the shared dream that constituted the film itself, and the fact that, “waking from that dream,” the characters would be left behind in their fictional world. Cobb goes on to… probably, to question the reality he is living in. Is it a dream? Is it real? Perhaps, sometimes, he even wonders whether it’s an SF movie.

Which is, in fact, exactly what it is. So here, I see a Phildickian conclusion, one rather similar to the ending of Blade Runner, when Deckard leaves with Rachael, abandoning himself to his suspected inhumanness — which is, in some sense, equivalent to his patent unreality which is not quite (but almost) equivalent to his utter fictionality.

I guess what I’m saying is that I suspect, in the world of cinema (or some corners of it), Philip K. Dick’s SFnal grab-bag of tropes — doubt, paranoia, synthetic people who are indistinguishable from real ones, and the questioning of reality and its knowability in the face of demonstratedly convincing illusions — has become the language for the expression of postmodernist self-referentiality in a way that is “cool” and, well, not so alienating to filmgoers.

What this says about the 21st century, considering the conditions under which PKD arrived at these obsessions of his, is anyone’s guess, but it makes me wonder what kind of century we’re in for, artistically and politically too…

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