Tag Archives: science fiction



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

USA/UK 2010

148 mins

As Christopher Nolan’s Inception is all about dreams and the persistence of memory, it’s entirely fitting that my feelings about the film changed as time elapsed after it ended. Immediately after leaving the cinema, my overall impression was that I loved the experience and wanted to watch (at the least the beginning of) the film again, preferably in an IMAX cinema. However, after a couple of days’ reflection, while I still would happily recommend the film as one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen this year, the flaws of the movie became increasingly apparent.

One of the main themes of the film is the seductive nature of subconscious fantasies, and indeed the world(s) the film presents are often beguiling, and the audience enjoys being immersed in them as much as some of the characters do on screen. However, while Inception is laced with great (if familiar) ideas, their strength and novelty diminish as the film progresses.

The plot of the film, which presumably is set in the near-future - although only the concept of the technology, which allows people to share their dreams, is futuristic, not its rendering, which looks like a 1980s child’s toy - is about corporate espionage, with characters entering the minds of CEOs to steal secrets and subvert their future decision-making. Corporate espionage was fairly common in late 20th-century speculative fiction, but hasn’t really taken off in the cinema outside of films such as Cypher (2002) and Largo Winch (2008), which both deserved greater attention but slipped under the radar of many genre fans. Indeed, in a world where corporate interests have greater power than national ones, it’s surprising that, in contrast to cyberpunk fiction in print, films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999) have focused more on protagonists struggling to define their humanity under the onslaught of technology rather than on man versus (evil) corporations. Perhaps as big-budget films are financed by corporations, filmmakers might be worried about biting the hands that feed them.

Inception is basically a cross between The Matrix (1999) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), with a touch of Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001) thrown in. Like The Matrix, it presents us with imaginary worlds that allow the protagonists to perform heroic deeds, kill bad guys with no consequences (as they’re not real) and manipulate the world around them on a practically quantum level - such elements as gravity and architecture being vulnerable to manipulation. A Nightmare on Elm Street lends the idea of a nemesis from beyond the grave, who can trap our heroes in the dream world, leading to their (brain) death in the real one. Ocean’s Eleven and the briefly resurrected heist movies of the last decade lend the idea of a group with different attributes who team up to perform a scam/break-in for financial reward. In fact, this is pretty much a magpie’s nest of a film, including imagery from MC Escher prints and James Bond movies, with echoes of other films that have similar plots from Total Recall (1990) to Dark City (1998).

However, director Christopher Nolan just about pulls it off. The various characters in the movie are well cast and not so two-dimensional that you don’t enjoy their company, even if only really the lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has anything to lose (and that’s somewhat debatable too). This is cinema as spectacle, and having honed their art on the 21st-century Batman films, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister are exemplary creators of films that feature great locations, intriguing set pieces and plenty of things blowing up. The film is constantly exciting, entertaining and impressively mounted. The cast, featuring a trio of veterans from the director’s first Batman film (Watanabe, Caine, Murphy) alongside relative newcomers to the action genre (Page, Gordon-Levitt and Hardy) are all extremely engaging, to the extent that the attraction of the ensemble alone makes the idea of a sequel welcome, albeit one that would focus more on character development.

The slickness of the first third of the film, cut to a relentless Hans Zimmer score as if it was a trailer, is initially off-putting, suggesting another Michael Bay-style experience. It’s a film that never lets you think about the ideas it’s presenting while it cuts from one beautifully constructed scene to another. As we enter the dream worlds within worlds within worlds, the initial complexity of the various narratives running concurrently makes you occasional want Christopher Lloyd to come along with a blackboard and explain what’s going on. However, while the narrative seems overly complex at times, in the style of the more baffling entries in the Mission: Impossible franchise (which this film also evokes, both in terms of a team of spies and the impersonation of one character by another), the plot is actually quite simple. In fact, this is storytelling on the level of computer games, with different scenarios - city-based car chase, Bond-esque Alpine battle, terrorists in a lush hotel - starring the same characters taking place at the same time rather than in sequence as in most other movies. This is entertainment for people with attention-deficit disorder, and it makes Hollywood appear one step behind computer games, which already provide changes of genre or location twice a minute in products such as Pix’n Rush or WarioWare.

In the late 1980s, I saw a terrific animated short called Rarg about a dream world where the inhabitants become aware of the nature of their existence and their impending doom when the dreamer wakes up. They travel into our world and do everything they can to stop this happening - they turn off his alarm clock, fluff his pillows, put earplugs in his ears - but haven’t taken account of the consequences of what might happen if he just started dreaming about something else. In the 23 minutes of that film, the writer-director came up with a tighter and more memorable scenario about dream worlds than Nolan does in two and half hours of Inception, which makes you wish the latter had allowed more collaborators in at the scripting level.

Inception isn’t nearly as dumbed down as many of its peers and is the first ‘virtual worlds’ blockbuster that’s been attempted that is, in many ways, as good as the original Matrix. This being a film about dream worlds means Nolan can create any scenario he wants for the characters to visit, but that’s a double-edged sword. An early scene has a dream ‘architect’ played by Ellen Page bend the landscape she and DiCaprio are walking in through 180 degrees so that the land also becomes the sky (a scene that has been recreated, albeit differently, for the film’s poster). Later on, as all the oneironauts are trapped under gunfire for the first time, one character says to another (who is using a machine gun), ‘You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger’, and blasts away at the bad guys with a grenade launcher. However, unlike the protagonists of The Matrix, these heroes don’t choose to fly (except when the entire building is in free fall) or shoot impossible weapons, and so the film, having teased us with the idea of impossible worlds, rarely presents them again, except for one further use of Escher’s endless staircase.

Perhaps this is both the film’s blessing and its curse: Nolan’s cinematic success has allowed him to make a multi-million-dollar movie where he can basically put anything he or his characters can dream of on screen, but he and they come up against the limits of their own imagination. If other movies hadn’t already tackled this subject - Dark City, perhaps, most provocatively so - then this film would be a ground-breaking masterpiece. However, as a compilation of the best bits of the last 30 years of action cinema strung together, it’s merely a good, entertaining film.

Alex Fitch

The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 April 2010

Venue: ICA Cinema (London) + preview BFI Southbank April 16

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Writer: Chihiro Itou

Based on the novel by: Hiroshi Mori

Original title: Sukai kurora

Japan 2008

122 mins

A glorious return to form for director Mamoru Oshii after the innovative but impenetrable Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters in 2006, the pointless CGI remix of Ghost in the Shell (as version 2.0) in 2008, and the overly complicated and visually crowded Innocence in 2004. The Sky Crawlers is a languid tale of young fighter pilots in a near future that evokes both real world conflicts, such as the 1940s War in the Pacific, and fictional ones, such as the perpetual warfare in George Orwell’s 1984.

Although not explicitly located in the same fictional universe as Oshii’s ongoing ‘Kerberos saga’, which includes the aforementioned Amazing Lives, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (for which he wrote the script) and a number of manga and live action films, this is another depiction of alternate history that explores Orwellian themes of continually ongoing, distant warfare against a vague enemy and a retro future in which the development of culture is stalled due to the priority given to war. Set against the backdrop of conflict, The Sky Crawlers resembles American live action movies that use the Second World War as the historical setting for generic romance, but Oshii uses these tropes as a springboard for meditations on youth, memory, the fetishising of technology and the war against terror.

The above might suggest this is a dark, heavily laden movie about war and death, but this is far from the case. The Sky Crawlers is a dreamy, beautiful film that gently weaves its way around the lives of various young fighter pilots as they learn their skills, romance local girls, clash with authority and take part in graceful, exhilarating dogfights with the enemy. The general look of the film is inspired by the 40s and 50s but with a hard SF twist that I won’t reveal here, which adds additional poignancy to the notion of the brief lives of the (handsome) young when pressed into military service. Many of Oshii’s films unwind at a deliberate pace, but the elegiac animation of sky, land, sea and aircraft here also seems inspired by younger filmmakers such as Makoto Shinkai, whose melancholy style suits the material and is echoed as Oshii captures memories of long, golden, youthful summers that now seem alien and impossible.

But it is not simply a wistful, nostalgic film and there are clear parallels with the real world, starting with the so-called war on terror: the young pilots are kept ignorant of all but the skills required to do their jobs while the long, pointless war with a foreign enemy serves as almost another form of entertainment in the media. There are also parallels with the dumbing down and narrow focus of modern education and entertainment and the resulting short attention span of audiences, but all of these themes are subtly dealt with and never mentioned explicitly or heavy-handedly. Wherever these ideas come from, be it from Hiroshi Mori’s original novel or Chihiro Itou’s screenplay, it is interesting that they should fit so well with the worldview expressed in the rest of Mamoru Oshii’s filmography.

The Sky Crawlers is Oshii’s finest film since 2001’s underrated Avalon and his best animé since the original Ghost in the Shell. The familiar subject matter of wartime romance may even attract new fans to the director’s work who might not have initially warmed to the cyberpunk thrillers and Gothic siege warfare found elsewhere in his oeuvre. My only concern is that the gentle pace of the film might put off viewers who expect more ‘bangs for their bucks’ after the violence of Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor and the director’s various other war movies.

Alex Fitch