Dream Logic

by on Jul.19, 2010, under Movies

“It’s a dream, Alex. You can do anything you want in here.”

Dreamscape (1984), the second or third PG-13 movie

Inception has a few good things going for it. Spoilers ahead.

The climax of Inception takes place in a triple-layer dream. A crack team of dream manipulators have invaded the head of a young mogul and heir to persuade him to break up his father’s company, a good-enough wafer of a Maguffin that suffers only from the tendency of movies to show capitalists as very serious, solemn people, but benefits from the tendency of this movie to show this Inception as Cillian Murphy, about whom, yum.

The first level of the dream finds them on a rainy Los Angeles street (6th near Figueroa, I think) where they kidnap Murphy’s character. They’re not surprised to meet resistance — Inception subscribes to an immune system theory of dream invasion, in which psychological projections act like antibodies and repel unwelcome guests. But they are surprised that it takes the form of armed, trained security and a mammoth freight train bearing down on their kidnap-mobile.

They repair to a warehouse and try to amend their plans to account for the resistance. Leonardo DiCaprio’s team leader Cobb figures that their target has had training: “We’re in a heavily militarized mind.”

And so it goes from there on out. The dreams we see are built by clever architects and militarized into smoothness. With a few exceptions, it’s the least dreamlike dream-movie ever — or, to be generous, Christopher Nolan’s dreams are nothing like mine.

In some places, they’re wondrous. The scene where Paris explodes and folds over on itself is stunning, but a dead end — there’s nowhere else that Ellen Page’s architect gets to tear space out of its Euclidian bonds, though it would have come in handy.  The use of paradox is architecturally literal — an M.C. Escher staircase effect is repeated exactly to a fight scene advantage.

In one case, I did resonate with them. The team’s techniques rely on inner-ear disruptions to wake them up — they use a “kick”, off a chair or into a tub, to wake up. But if they don’t wake up, the kick upsets their gravity in the dream. (My most common flying dreams are uncontrollable swooping arcs; my hypothesis is that this comes from inner-ear fluid sloshing around from rolling over.) The middle layer of the third-act dreamcake features Joseph Gordon-Levitt (about whom, yum) protecting the rest of the dreamers in a hotel. One layer up, the dreamers fall through the air in a van as it drives off a bridge, so the hotel has no gravity. It’s a thrilling fight sequence, staged with cables and a rotating set, and the highlight of the movie.

But the bulk of the action happens three levels down, in an assault by the team on a winter fortress that doesn’t even have the benefit of ghillie suits (see Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, dressed as a frickin’ yeti). Highly militarized indeed. There’s nothing dreamlike about this space — not even an errant freight train. It’s just skis, concrete and A-Team Firing. And too much of the movie is just like it. It’s internally consistent — these minds are militarized or constructed by architects — but the trailer of Dreamscape has weirder dreams.

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Josh H. Pille

    I have been trying to figure out how to explain why it is that about half of the way through the movie I stopped caring.

    This quote from the WSJ captures it: “By convoluting the various planes of experience, by overlapping and obscuring ostensible realities and ostensible dreams, Mr. Nolan deprives us the opportunity of investing emotionally in any of it.”

    Much like with Blade Runner, one of the smart things about this movie is that its endless regression (like the two mirrors that Juno holds up to each other) has the possibility to drive one mad. Yeah, sure, the action happens on three levels. Or so we think. But by the end, it’s clear that the action happens on many, many more levels than three. Whose dream is it? On what level of the dream are we operating? These questions can be debated at length.

    But with Blade Runner, you _care_ whether or not Decker is human or replicant. You _care_ about how he – and those around him – will deal with the knowledge of that fact.

    By the time that Inception gets around to laying out the real landscape – the whole “operation” may or may not be real, and Cobb may or may not be grieving a dead wife, and Cobb may or may not be aware of his own reality – I found myself no longer giving a shit. If Cobb isn’t really Cobb (in any meaningful sense) and if there’s essentially no way to distinguish reality from perceived-reality, then what is there to invest in or care about?

    I enjoyed the movie. Visually very cool. And the basic germ of an idea is a very solid one. And I still love watching most of these actors (yum indeed). But I couldn’t bring myself to care, and the godawfulness of the dialogue elicited way too many eye-rolls.

    It wasn’t exactly a bad movie or an unenjoyable one or a stupid one or a failure. But it was not good, and it was not smart and it was not successful.

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