Inception: the Idea trumps Character (movie review)

Help! My characters have no life. Oh wait, maybe they just need to wake up.

Inceptionis a solid movie, full of complications, a lot of thrill, and most importantly, some good ideas.  While it also has a couple of interesting characters in DiCaprio and Murphy, the rest of the cast fulfills their positions dutifully, easy to interchange and forget.   It’s a caper film–with the majority of the movie about the caper.  It uses a Matrix-like idea as a vehicle to achieve its goals.  The idea is central, the science fiction secondary; but like good science fiction–the idea is enough to carry the movie.

I liked the movie, enough to see it again if the time comes to rent it on DVD or if a friend wants to see it; but I found the inconsistencies in the premise took away from the caper.  How do they share freakin dreams!  Plug yourself in and something determines whose consciousness you’re going to share?  Doesn’t matter, the movie says— we’ll just tell you.  How do they determine who will dream and who will share?  Doesn’t matter, the movie says, watch what we can do with a special effect.

There’s enough infodump in the first twenty minutes to choke a horse, disguised as dialogue, interspersed with scenes of cities running amok and riots in the streets.  The riots are there to make sure the ideas go down easier.  “Just a spoonful of riot, makes the infodump go down…”  Take a note: this is NOT how to do an infodump.  We learn absolutely nothing about the characters in the first twenty minutes…only that a Molly means betrayal.   Nope, we need to explain the premise….

Now, once I got past that we were rushing through the “technical” issues to get to the action (I could almost hear the movie tell me–who cares about whether or not this makes sense? We’ve got a cool thing to show you), I enjoyed the movie.  But I didn’t really care about DiCaprio’s character– or empathize with his loss.  Normally Ellen Page is fantastic (LOVED JUNO!) but any actress could have pulled off that role, it required so little.  In some ways she, Michael Caine, and all the other actors are wasted to serve the idea….

Jeffery Overstreet has the same concerns in part one of his review of Inception.  And says them better.  It wasn’t so much a bad movie–as a rushed one, one that engaged your brain but not your heart–even when it was trying so desperately to do so.  And the ethics involved in changing someone’s mind so illegally made DiCaprio not a very sympathetic character.

Now, back to that idea.

The BEST thing about Inception, and why everyone should see it, is about how you put an idea into someone’s head.  The discussion about how you make someone believe that it was their original idea, as opposed to yours, is insightful–and will make everyone talk.  The whole work to get Cillian Murphy to think this is his own idea is downright fun.  And everyone in Marketing should see this.  Or maybe they shouldn’t!  (What might have been more interesting, but not as fun, would have been a philosophical film based on the premise–you know, in the same way that Sophie’s World merely used the least amount of plot to play with an idea.)

There is NO insight on dreaming in here.  Dreams, while they can be detailed, are murky and inconsistent.  They’re rarely realistic and may involve someone who looks like they are a walking shark carrying a tuba….  And as Overstreet admits too– other filmmakers have handled the surreality of dreaming SO much better.  That dreams can be invaded by someone–so casually–with no idea how to operate in someone else’s dream — is really lame.  As if the writer (and I like Christopher Nolan) just needed to get past some hurdles here…. to make a cool graphically conceived movie.  Also, the biggest clue that you’re in a dream is that you cannot read the same text twice.  It appears and changes as you’re reading it, rendering the opening premise illogical….

SPOILER:  And this is the third “dreamy” film–or film which contains reality based on your own thoughts–to include a suicidal woman.   What Dreams May Come, Solaris and this movie all have this as a premise…  that women can’t handle their own thoughts and will take their lives, causing their husbands, every one, to come rescue them.  And all three films end with that rescue leading to a kind of pseudo-paradise that the audience recognizes as delusion.  (What Dreams May Come is worthy of its own review.  A movie which ranks as one of my all time worst movies ever. But the ending delusion is supposed to be Heaven, so I can’t really argue with that.)

So, I found the movie a bit flat–even as the action was all revved up….  Caring about the characters, to me, was essential to enjoying the intensity of the film.  If I can’t care, then I can’t care about the intense situations you put the characters into.  Solaris made me care about the main two characters in their hyper-reality film; What Dreams May Come suffered from the same overblown concept with lack of character interest.   Inception forgets that narrative relies not just on amazingly cool logos, but on believable pathos too.

Morgan Whibley Shot Me in the Alley and All I Could Say Was This: An Essay on Writing Genre

Morgan Whibley, Alley Series #44Some stunning work by Morgan Whibley, a Whitehorse based photographer.  The Alley Series.  (Yes, it was stunning and fun even before I was a subject.)  His rules are simple:

One alley from sidewalk to sidewalk.
Ambient light only.
A different person everyday.
Seven days a week.

He’d been doing this for 43 days in a row when he ran into me.  Follow the link, get stunned by his work.  All Yukoners, all beautiful pictures, wonderful, fun people.  They are our stories.

______________________________

But my story got me to thinking about being a writer of genre.

Morgan tells me to come into his shop, Photovision, and when I get there he cuts a piece of cardboard from a box, slaps down two markers and says, Draw.  What do I draw?  He’s made a speech bubble.  “Whatever you want to.”  I have NO idea what to put there.  He wants the first things I think of.  I hem and haw a bit.  Suddenly, I just sketch out a design and draw Mr. Spock with a latte from Baked Cafe there.  We shoot the photo in the alley.

And then, it’s over, so I think.  And I’m halfway back to my truck and I think–“You fool!  You could have said something important about the value of words.  That words can be healing, or words can be explosive and destructive.  And what did you do?  You did something frivolous.  And stupid–and highly derivative.  Are you just a Trekkie? Is that all you are?”  These were the voices in my head.

So I ran back to Morgan, grabbed him by the shirt collar.  “We have to do it again!” I said.  Okay, maybe I didn’t grab his shirt collar, but I was insistent that we do it again because I’ve thought of something more important to “say.”  So he patiently carves out another speech bubble for me, and I draw out the symbol for Medicine (you know, the two snakes wrapped around the staff with wings–started by Moses, so long ago)–cause I’m going for “Healing Words”….

Yeah.

So, we go out into the alley so I can get shot again.  And we’re both thinking the same thing, and we’re talking…maybe we’re overanalyzing, we both say.

And we take the shots.  And they are highly thought out…  and they say the “right thing.”  But they seem orchestrated, forced.

I think, later, that THIS is the argument that every writer has with him/herself.  Especially writers of any genre: humor, science fiction, romance, fantasy, western, children’s, young adult, gay, hairy monster, etc.

We think that we must say something IMPORTANT with what we write.  That we have to use our considerable talent, and all writers have “considerable talent” with words, and say something like “WORLD PEACE, IDIOTS!”  or “Stop oppressing us!!” or “Global Warming is REAL!”  or “Whales don’t deserve to be SHOT!”  And who can argue with these messages?  Certainly they are important.  We all know that.  And certainly other people will consider you a much weightier writer, a writer with HEFT, if you can tackle Global Warming, or Teen Pregnancy, or something important, in your writing.  They often give awards in that direction (and they do it in film too….).

But who’s to say that the person who laughs at my first photograph won’t be healed?  Who’s to say that you can’t heal someone with words without broadcasting that you are HEALING them?  Who wants to be hit over the head with a message?  And why can’t REALLY good genre do everything that you need it to do–be a damn good story, with a subtle message and a lot of entertainment?

I think, as writers, we all balance between these two photos: the need to say something important, and the need to say something fun and frivolous.  And we see them as two different categories.  That we can’t be fun and important.  We see this in many other areas too (religion, politics, leadership), but for me it resonates as the battle I fight every day:  What value, I think, is Fantasy writing? How does it help the world?   Shouldn’t I turn my skills to Environmental Literature?

No.  You should only do that if you are called to do that.  If you try to write Environmental Literature and you were born to write Children’s Books about Rockets and Squid–then you will be a very frustrated Environmental Literary Writer.  Where is your passion?  If you find your passion, I think you get the package deal.  You will affect people in important ways by being yourself.

There is no real dichotomy between writings—there is only being true and not being true to yourself.  The truth is–we need comedy, romance, westerns, mysteries, radio dramas, children’s picture books with gorillas in them–we need to laugh to fight the absurdity, we need to feel hope in the face of injustice, and we need to fantasize about escape.  We need it All.

Write your part of the All.

Deadline Nov 30 for Tesseracts 14: Canadian Sci-fi and Fantasy Stories

from Woodleywonderworks on FlickrA reminder to all those thinking about submitting your short fiction (limit 7500 words) to Tesseracts 14, the latest in the series of anthologies featuring Canadian science fiction and fantasy.  It doesn’t have to be about Canada, or about the north.  Basically they are anthologies of Canadian writing.  (Okay, and a few stray Americans or other Nationalities who have immigrated to the fair shores of Canada)

Personally, Brian Hades, publisher of this series, would love to see greater representation of Canada in the anthology.  So, the Yukon needs to put out!  Haha.  Seriously, if you have fiction that strays just outside the everyday reality, consider submitting to Tesseracts 14.  Let’s wow Brian with Yukon writers!

More information at my previous post here:  Tesseracts 14 Open for Submissions

The Resonance of Flashforward for People of Faith

graph on the sidewalkThe ABC series, Flashforward, arguably one of the best written series in a long time, and the best using a science fiction concept, wrestles with a very old idea:  what if you knew the future?  The show expands it to ask: what if everyone knew the future? And by Episode 3:  What if everyone THOUGHT they knew the future?  This is not a new concept when you are dealing with people of faith.  Christians, specifically, have a vision of the future they hold on to.  Actually, they have two.

The first one is a concept of Heaven/Hell–that after they die, they will forever be installed in one of two polar extremes: a place of happiness vs. a place of sorrow–both eternal (also known as With God and Without God).  After that moment, there will only be a seamless future–one that never changes.  

This vision of the future does guide their/our actions to certain degree.  Some believe, still, that you have to hedge your bets.  Do a lot of good things to move your path towards Heaven, or ask forgiveness–quickly–and move yourself away from Hell.  This can also guide people’s actions towards you as they try to drag you to one path or the other–most often to Heaven by use of guilt, judgment or restriction.  Ah well, the path to Heaven, I guess is paved with good intentions too.

But really it’s the other vision of the future that is more worrisome for people of faith.  

Revelation was a book written based on John’s Flashforward.  In that vision he saw lots of stuff–lots of destruction, lots of wrath…it gets ugly.  And believers think they may have an escape route–the Rapture.  That miraculously they get to escape the major drama of the Earth’s end because they believed.  This is not unsubstantiated by the Bible, but it is questionable when it will happen. Trust me, I don’t want to argue pre-post-or mid-millenial tribulation/rapture.  And please–don’t discuss it in the comments!  

What I’d rather discuss is the idea that Christians may be creating the Tribulation themselves–or creating parts of it.

In Flashforward we are slowly beginning to believe that the main character, Agent Benford, is actually creating the bulletin-board he saw in his vision not because it has answers but because it was there.  In some ways, he may be creating his future, not actually solving the mystery of why everyone blacked out for two minutes.  We’ve already seen, in Episode 3, a man get hired to the position of airport security, not based on good qualifications, but because he saw himself in that future, and so did someone else.   

Many times I’ve watched Christians start to cringe if current events start to resemble events predicted in the Bible: the Anti-christ being a big icon to watch out for, as well as the Mark of the Beast, etc.  Credit cards, health cards, any kind of number that identifies you will no doubt bring a lot of fear–and have that implanted in a chip inside your hand or your forehead, and Christians will freak out.  (Hopefully lawmakers would NEVER pass an idea like that unless they want great opposition from Christians).  

I’ve lived through three people who were thought to be the Anti-Christ:  Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and now, Barack Obama, for various reasons.  Often each one of them had a mystical kabbalistic criteria (their names added up to three sixes as Reagan’s does, or Obama’s “name” was spoken about in the Bible as paired with Lucifer–a complete stretch of the imagination) and a few of them have been “assassinated” and come back to life (Reagan and the Pope).  Each time I hear that someone new is the anti-christ, I cringe, thinking that people are gonna start believing all us Christians are loony.  And some of them, those that seem to be magnets for the news, deserve that label, not the airtime.

But then I wonder how often I too look at events with Revelation in the back of my mind.  At what point will events start coinciding so well that there’s a tipping point in even the most casual reader of the Bible–where people start to say–Hey, I’ve seen that before?  How often do we reject good things based on a false premise that THIS moment is part of Revelation, when obviously time just keeps rolling on?  

 

In Christian circles, we often thank God we don’t know the future–because if we did, it might take away from “who holds the future” and make it Fate, not choice.  But maybe that fits more squarely in Christian mythos–that our fates, our destinies, are already written.  I don’t think so, myself.  Everyone has choices.  But if you see a glimpse of your future, you won’t know if it is meant to be, or if you are being given a warning. We ask all the time for God to guide our lives, for us to make good choices, but we fear getting on the road to the wrong destiny.  As if the roads are already there and once on them, we’ll go 90 miles an hour.  

From Cassandra’s ignored warnings to Oedipus fighting against his fate to modern day futurists who tell us what will happen based on world economic events…one of our eyes is always on the future.  But will we let our concepts of the future influence today’s actions?  Will we allow small evidence to convince us that we are living in  “the end times” and then make irrational decisions?  Or will we make good decisions based on evidence in front of us and walk knowingly into the future, brave, but watchful, not reacting to everyone who says—the anti-christ is here, the anti-christ is there, etc.

What’s probably most disturbing is the Christian concept that they will be persecuted in the End Times.  And certainly every time someone critiques a Christian we hear echoes of this “end times” fear resurface.  That the critique means that the critic must be an enemy, and that Christians are being targeted.  This most resembles “making the future happen.”  By letting ourselves be irrational, afraid of debate, sensitive to criticism, and dogmatically judgmental–I think we will create the discrimination and persecution that will probably come.  But it happens because we’re being a$holes.  I mean, spread negativity long enough, represent bigotry, discrimination and narrow-mindedness long enough and folks will be distrustful.  Eventually, yes, being a Christian will be bad publicity.  But NOT because the enemy is bad, but because Christians are unloving, paranoid judges.  We will create the future we don’t want to happen.  Just like Benford is creating in Flashforward.  

Flashforward is a great show, allowing us to be thankful we DON’T know the future.  What a burden.  Hopefully it will teach us to treasure the moments we have, without being afraid of what’s coming–and make us watch out not to create the fates we want to avoid.  Let’s be good to each other out there.  We’re in this world together.

Flashforward: the Excellence that “Knowing” could have been

flashforward Watch Flashforward, Episode One

Robert Sawyer’s Flashforward has been made into an ABC miniseries. It is a masterpiece. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how faithful the series is to the original book, but the book won an Aurora Award.

The premise is that everyone blacks out at the same moment for 2 min and 17 seconds. In that time, they glimpse their futures. When they return to the present, mass chaos has already happened. Planes fell from the sky, cars crashed, trains derailed. People died, lots of people died. Everyone had blacked out, so no one was in control of all those vehicles.

The main characters, and there are several, include two FBI agents, a surgeon, a man who lost a daughter in Afghanistan, a doctor about to commit suicide, and several others. The series will be about them either trying to avoid their futures, or trying to get to them, depending on what they saw.

Oddly enough, the date they jump to, April 29, 2010, will be the season finale of the show–and at that moment you get to see if they reenact their futures or not.

Obviously, I don’t know how they can carry this through after that episode…BUT, I’m thoroughly pleased with watching till they get there. After this first episode I know that we have a great team of writers involved.

Now, this is what “Knowing” should have been. In my original review of “Knowing” I talked about how the movie, though predicting disasters, left very few for the main characters to experience, and I was troubled by the fact that it seemed the directors had determined that no one could change anything, so why bother.  That movie dripped with errant theology and left no doubt that everything was predetermined.  I don’t mind that fate or God may be a part of my life, but free-will is a human trait,and makes movies much more palatable.  To see someone struggle against their fate, to see them try.  It is what makes those who are given two weeks to live all the more heroic for skydiving or organizing a political rally.  How we react to what seems to be inevitable–THAT is interesting.

Already, I can tell that the show has set up five or six different beliefs about pre-determinism.  Some believe God gave them a gift, others that He gave them a punishment.  Some want to avoid the future, some to run to it.  For some it predicted a horrible mistake they will make.  

“Knowing” passed up all opportunities for real drama with real people, skidded ahead with bad dialogue and coincidence, to an ending which tried to justify the movie.  

Flashforward is like Mozart taking hold of the Salieri “Knowing” and actually making a great movie out of it.  Yes, I know, Knowing only had two hours…but still, this series is good solid writing.

1.  The characters are individuals, who walk onto the scene with their own problems, their own pasts.  They are well drawn and WHAT they do will determine the plot, not what others do.  Now that the big blackout is done, the characters guide the series.  They will push things forward accidentally or on purpose to meet up to April 29th.  They will determine their plots!

2.  Great dialogue, great stuff that isn’t about “the plot”— that Dimitri has to dance at his wedding to “Islands in the Stream.”  That the chief of the FBI has to lie about his vision because he’s embarrassed.  

3.  The plot starts with the action.  I can imagine this series beginning without the crash first.  But who would have waited the whole episode to have the blackout?  Nope, have the crash first, back up, and then take it slow.  Maybe this is just the difference between TV and reading….but I think starting as fast as you can into the action gets people involved with you.  I noticed in Robert’s book, first chapter, that he has a description of each character first…but within a page, he gets to the blackout.  He knows the blackout is a great hook, and that everything of importance happens afterwards.  

4.  I like the music in this series, already, the building, the back and forth between plots so quickly so that you know they are happening simultaneously–the music and this choice to flash around gives you a sense that everything is tied together.  In some sense it is like a trailer—when the trailer starts shuffling between images so fast that you get excited: all trailers seem to end this way these days.  The director took the music and that shuffling sequence to build suspense.  

I hope Robert Sawyer makes a huge amount of cash from this.  This is brilliant stuff.  And I’m glad to see a Canadian Science Fiction Writer land such an opportunity.  I hope they do more interviews with Robert Sawyer in the States.  

Well, I will keep watching the series.  I’ve already become a HUGE fan.

PUSH is surprisingly good, an Indie film for Heroes watchers

3300601976_4c9f34aab4Imagine if Sophia Coppola, of Lost in Translation, had directed a sci-fi thriller and you can imagine the quirky,smart, place- layered PUSH, a movie now available on DVD.  

PUSH is set in Hong Kong, which is hugely in its favor, and allows the nature of Hong Kong to decide scene shots and plot development.  Hong Kong is more than a setting choice, though.  The director lets Hong Kong seep into this film, with a colorful multi-racial cast, while crowds crowd the scenes.  The movie is about people with psychic abilities running from the government, which wants to bottle and control them.  It’s like the X-Men without costumes or hero complexes.  They are truly ordinary people who are lost among the crowds of humans living in the cities.  Some can “push” a thought into your mind, some can move objects, some can see the future, some can sniff out the past, some can make you think one thing looks like another.  But there are only a limited number of things a psychic can be in this movie.  And having powers do not make them invincible.  

It’s a seek-and-find/chase movie, but the characters have strong motivations of their own.  I found the first three scenes a bit hard to follow at first.  Listen carefully to the opening credits of the film when Dakota Fanning narrates a huge info-dump.  This will set up the whole movie.  I usually HATE info-dumps, but in this case, you are hitting the ground running, and you need this info.  This is not an easy film to watch, but it is rewarding.  If you can make it past the first three or four scenes without turning it off because you have too many questions–then your questions will be answered as you go.

Characters who might have been cyphers in a bad movie, actually have pasts—which is nice.  I felt as if all the characters had met in a previous movie somewhere and so they knew each other, had past interactions.  They didn’t get scripted for this movie only…. and with any luck, there will be a PUSH 2.

There are clever moments in this movie, choices made by characters who are reacting to the choices of others.  It feels as if the characters are making up the plot as it happens instead of a heavy-handed writer.  The last third of the film is incredibly clever, one choice after the next, and it gave it a Heist-plot feel, where the Oceans Eleven crew are going to do a caper.  Yes, these are people who have superpowers but they are being followed and are in danger from other characters with better superpowers.  Superpowers in this film doesn’t equal wealth or control.  And that’s refreshing.  In Hong Kong there are no Reed Richards, super millionaires, who live off their powers, and these powered-people are not heroes, really.  They are trying to survive, and help each other.  

Now I want to get back to that directorial choice to set this in Hong Kong. In an online interview, McGuigan talks about Hong Kong, about heroes-genre films and what he wanted to do with that kind of film:

And then I thought about the whole genre aspect of it and, you know, we’re up against big movies because of The Dark Knights and I call it the Tin Man, but what’s it called? Iron Man? (laughs) You know, those were great movies and I thought to myself that the only reason I would do a film like this would be if I could do it the way I want to do it. An important part of my decision making was to have a strong point of view of how I was going to shoot it. Decision making, i.e., do I want to do this movie? And I said, this is the way I would want to do it which was all kind of handheld and use a place like Hong Kong to its full advantage. And, also, it’s the first time I’ve actually worked in a country or a city that I was actually in that country and that city. It’s like that film logic where you say, “Well, this looks like New York” and you’re in the middle of…it could be anywhere, in Scotland or something, just because it makes more sense financially, but it was actually great that they wanted to shoot it in Hong Kong.

…Usually what happens is that when you make a movie, you see a street scene and you walk and you see the street and you take a picture because you’re on location. And then you go, “Okay, we’ll put in our own people. We’ll take everybody off the street and we’ll populate it with our own people.” You can’t really do that inHong Kong. I mean, one, we can’t afford that amount of extras and two, it’s not as interesting. So, we basically had to let Hong Kong dictate how we worked which was nice and essentially how I like to work, but sometimes you don’t want people to muck with the camera, you don’t want people to look in the camera, so the idea was we had these hidden cameras and then what we would do is we would shoot a master shot and then we would punch in if we had to or felt we needed to, and then we would populate it with our people afterwards. So, it was a bit of both but for the big shots, and that’s why it looks quite an expensive movie because we were smart enough to use the location and we were fortunate enough to be able to use the location because we weren’t shooting Hong Kongfor New York. (laughs)

Doing it his way, he layers in slower scenes, develops character, layers it with music.  This film is visually beautiful, with fewer special-effects to carry the superpowers or carry the plot.  The plot, thank God, is carried by interesting characters.  Paul McGuigan is a smart director–creating an indie film out of the Heroes-genre.  While it’s been compared to Heroes and X-Men, Push limits itself to “reported” psychic phenomena, from a time before WW2 when there were experiments done with psychics, and follows a natural progression forward in governmental experimentation.  It also limits its story to the characters involved, though intimating a larger backdrop of plots and world organizations and other pushers, movers, shifters, etc.  But it was the crowded city streets, the alienness of Hong Kong for the American actors, the purposeful pitting of an Asian gang against the American government/ american powers, and the quirky indie film quality that kept pulling me back visually into this movie.  

It could have been Jumpers-rehash, or any number of bad government vs. heroes films, but McGuigan seemed to want to paint something different, something fresh.  I was surprised and pleased with Push and I think you will be too.  Go rent it.

Yukon 2058, the radio series, starts Dec. 8

Well, it’s official. Yukon 2058, my newest radio series premieres Dec. 8th on CBC. They’ll play it in the mornings, in the afternoons and have it available on their website for 24hrs. If you miss it, you can go to their CBC North website.

What is it? It’s a story about a man who is working for CBC in 2058. By then, CBC is small. Only a few employees. Our hero, Michael, is wondering if he’s making a difference in the north. And he’s tempted by the offer of a job to go down south. But to get the job at CBC in Toronto–he’ll need three big stories. Can he get them? In a world where everyone can interview anyone at any time by patching into their earbud, news stories travel faster than they can get finished happening. Reporters tumble over each other to get scoops. But CBC North doesn’t work in scoops–they play by other rules.

Come to 2058. You’ll find trade wars over the Northwest Passage, mammoth hunting in Vuntut National Park, the creation of West Canada, a growing population, Holland America trains everywhere on magnetic rails, and kids you know all grown up and become important in the Yukon. Come find out what may happen to you in 50 years, what may happen in the Yukon. It’s not all bad in the future–it’s just different, and the future starts Dec. 8th. Or at least my version. Hope you enjoy it!