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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 18, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


When Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004, I reviewed it very positively, calling it the best science fiction movie ever. But I qualified that statement very carefully.

First, most people think of sci-fi movies as movies about space or monsters. Or monsters in space. But I think of it as "movies that cover the topics of written science fiction."

Second, Eternal Sunshine was an art movie. That is, it was deliberately difficult while trying to be edgy and cool. It succeeded on both counts.

That's why I warned my readers at the time that it was definitely not a movie for everyone.

I say this because when my wife and I went back to see Eternal Sunshine a day or two after my review came out, an older woman (i.e., older than me) made a point of saying loudly, in my hearing, "That was the worst movie I ever saw." I think she held me responsible for her miserable experience. But I warned her! If all you get from a review is "best sci-fi movie ever" and you miss "very difficult and sometimes hard to follow" or "weird" (not actual quotes from my original review, by the way) then don't blame me if it's not the movie experience you prefer.

All of this is merely a way of introducing Inception, which is, in my carefully considered opinion, the best science fiction movie ever. Yes, even better than Eternal Sunshine. But please keep all the above warnings in mind, because this is sci-fi that does not involve space or monsters, and while it is not an art movie (it is designed to make millions of dollars, and deserves them), it is difficult and sometimes hard to follow.

But it's worth it, if you're willing to pay attention, and if you enjoy movies that explore actual ideas in an intelligent, illuminating way. You know, like the best of print science fiction.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan already has an outstanding track record. Beginning with his first feature, the clever time-manipulation nightmare Memento, Nolan has given us some better-than-anyone-could-have-expected movies like Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight.

But this is truly his masterpiece -- that is, the film that ushers him into the ranks of truly great filmmakers.

The story centers around a group of dream-hijackers. That is, these guys use technology to enter into other people's dreams to steal secrets they would never have revealed even under torture.

The thieves can create a landscape in which the dream will take place, but the victim's subconscious provides all the people (except the thieves themselves). If the victim unconsciously realizes that the thieves are interlopers, all the people in his dream -- being projections of his subconscious -- begin to act to expel the interlopers. This involves shooting and other acts of hostility, for if you die in the dream, you simply ... wake up.

Meanwhile, the dreamer's deepest secrets are closely guarded; in their dreams, the "guarding" takes the form of vaults and safes, or even well-defended fortresses, depending on just how important it is to the person to keep it a secret.

The hero, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio in what may be his best performance ever), is so good at what he does that he can drill down deeper than most. Not only a dream within a dream, but sometimes a dream at yet a third level. The trouble is that he also brings along his own baggage -- his dead wife keeps showing up in other people's dreams, brought there by his own profound guilt at the way she died.

In fact, for reasons the movie makes clear, Cobb was framed for his wife's murder and has to live in hiding, unable to go home and see his children. So when a seemingly impossible job comes along from a guy with real power, Cobb names his price: Not money, but making the false charges against him go away so he can get home again.

This might sound so complicated (and it is) that you may not want to get involved in such a story. And, in fact, for the first hour of the film my wife was quite outspoken (in a whisper, of course) about how completely uninterested she was in the movie. She only stayed because our teenager and I were both enjoying it so much.

But then we got deep enough into the story that the deeply human aspects of it finally came to the fore, and my wife became a convert. In fact, she loved the movie.

These human depths could not have been introduced earlier because they don't even make sense until you've experienced the world and learned its rules. In fact, this is one of the rare cases where even though the story is told in a twisted, flashback-heavy way, I can't think of a single improvement in the way that it unfolds. Nolan handled the exposition in the only way possible.

Best of all, because of the mental exercise you go through merely trying to keep track of the story, let alone to understand the rules of passage through other people's dreams, you come out of this movie smarter than you went in.

That's what I said, and that's what I mean. With most sci-fi movies, you have to hold your nose at the nonsense science. But Inception pays close attention to the workings of the unconscious mind (you'll recognize a lot of things that really do happen in dreams) and in the end it makes perfect sense. The internal logic is excellent and unviolated.

My only complaint -- and it's not a trivial one -- is that Nolan can't resist playing one last trick on us at the end. He raises the possibility of an interpretation of the ending that basically undoes everything and, if it were what he forced us to experience, it would make us hate the movie and resent every moment we spent watching it. It's clever, but it's also pointless.

Unfortunately, the movie simply stops in the midst of a sequence -- the screen goes black and the credits roll -- while leaving that movie-wrecking possibility open. Not that it's not a possible ending within the rules of the story, just that if that's how it turns out, it makes us feel cheated, and that's not how you want the audience to feel.

We even waited through the entire credits just to see if Nolan repented of his self-indulgent, arty notion and finished the sequence.

He didn't. It's left unfinished.

But, evil as his impulse was, he does not actually deny the story; in fact, there is enough wobble before the cut that one can conclude that the story ends satisfyingly. (This sentence will make perfect sense to you after you see the movie.) However, on the other hand, if the story ends satisfyingly, then there is no point to stopping in mid-sequence except to jerk us around. So either the director wrecked his own story, or he's a jerk who violated our trust with a deliberately ambiguous ending when he didn't need to.

Naughty, naughty, Mr. Nolan. The responsibility of authorship is, with rare exceptions (and this is not one of them), to tell us the truth. That is, to let us know what "really" happens in the fictional story.

After all, we come into the theater not knowing the story. You spend hours getting us to care about fictional characters and to understand the rules of a fictional world. You have earned our trust. What do you gain by withholding the last yet most vital truth from us at the end? That's not art, that's a vulgar prank. A violation of trust. Like shaving someone's head in their sleep. Or canceling someone else's hotel reservations. Ha ha. Aren't you clever. But we are not friends after such a "prank."

Diatribe over. The movie is so good that while Nolan cannot be forgiven for his final cut, it can be overlooked or ignored.

If you hated Eternal Sunshine, you will find this movie similarly confusing; but you will find the characters far more likeable, and the rules of the world will, by the end, become much more clear. So it's possible that you will like Inception. And if you liked Eternal Sunshine, you will probably like Inception even more -- unless what you valued in Eternal Sunshine was its artiness and the unattractiveness of the people.

I have now done my very best to give you a reasonable guide to whether you should see this movie.

But to my friends and family I say: Come on, see it! The thing is brilliant! The ideas are so cool! It belongs in your memory!

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