Inception’s Sense of Wonder

One of the things that really differentiates science fiction from other genres is the emotional thrill derived from expanding your awareness of what’s possible. This doesn’t always constitute a complete understanding of the universe around you, just a dawning realization that there’s more to the story than you’ve thought (sometimes this can take the form of contemplating the incomprehensible or even just realizing what you don’t know). This feeling is referred to as a “Sense of Wonder” (often abbreviated as sensawunda) and while a large portion of science fiction literature manages to evoke such emotions, SF cinema rarely even approaches the same accomplishments. There are some exceptions, of course, but for the most part, SF movies settle for gigantic spaceships and thunderous explosions and whatnot.

The opening shots of the original Star Wars provides us with a typical cinematic example. The camera pans across a sea of stars. You see a spaceship move across the screen. This imparts a frame of reference for the universe of the movie. Then a much larger spaceship (indeed, it doesn’t seem like it will end) move across the screen in pursuit of the original. The frame of reference established by the original spaceship is thus immediately revised in light of this new data. Part of this revision is, no doubt, the expectation that the Star Destroyer will probably be dwarfed by something else (and later in the film it is, by the Death Star). This short sequence actually encapsulates a ton of information: the rebels are small and poorly equipped, the empire is large and powerful. The way the ships are framed on screen also underlines the empire’s power over the rebels. And so on.

The realization of the scale and size of the empire is a very small example of sensawunda. And most films don’t even contain that much (indeed, the really mind expanding things about Star Wars aren’t really SF so much as they are mystical, but that’s probably another discussion). There are analogs to this concept in other genres, most notably the horror genre, but the emotions are distinct (the emotion evoked in horror as you realize the scope of the conflict is fear, tension or suspense, rather than the awe or wonder of SF).

Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, is one of the few films in recent years to actually even attempt to impart a sensawunda, and for that alone, it should be applauded. The interesting thing about Inception is that it manages to impart that sensawunda feeling without relying too heavily on precise explanations of the technology involved. Indeed, I don’t think the movie would fare too well if judged solely on the basis of realism.

However, despite this lack of precise technological detail, the film does manage to evoke the sensawunda feeling by devising a set of rules and limitations, then playing around within that box to consistently expand possibilities and sometimes even surprise the viewer. The key catalyst for sensawunda here is that all of the various twists and turns in the story are all internally consistent and logical extensions of what has already been established.

I don’t want to go into too much detail right now simply because I don’t want to spoil the movie, but things do get pretty complicated and Nolan does manage to ratchet up the stakes considerably more than I had initially expected. There are some concepts or details that I must admit that I’m not entirely clear on, but even in those situations I have a gut feeling that everything does fit.

The critical reception seems to be very positive, though there have been a few high profile dissenters, notably David Edelstein and Jim Emerson. Edelstein writes:

Inception is full of brontosaurean effects, like the city that folds over on top of itself, but the tone is so solemn I felt out of line even cracking a smile. It lacks the nimbleness of Spielberg’s Minority Report or the Jungian-carnival bravado of Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape or the eerily clean lines and stylized black-suited baddies of The Matrix—or, for that matter, the off-kilter intensity of Nolan’s own Insomnia. The attackers in Inception are anonymous, the tone flat and impersonal. Nolan is too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.

(emphasis mine) I found that last line the most representative of complaints with the movie. Emerson’s main complaint, that the dreams in the movie don’t seem to be very dreamlike, is instructive, because from what appears on screen, Nolan is clearly not even attempting to make an “untethered dream movie”. I think it’s funny that Edelstein also throws out a number of other movies, none of which I like better than Inception. I do really enjoy Minority Report, but I don’t think it captures that mind expanding sensawunda feeling anywhere near as well as Inception does. If you have a lot of problems with Inception, I really have a hard time believing that you’d think that Dreamscape was a better movie. There is some similarity in basic premise, but I think “Jungian-carnival bravado” is far too much praise for that film (which is an enjoyable enough movie, but also kinda silly and overblown in the way a lot of 80s movies were). The Matrix is the only film on the list that I think gives Inception a run for its money. Both films are derivative in the extreme, though I got a fresher feeling from Inception than The Matrix. On the other hand, The Matrix clearly outclasses Inception when it comes to action. In any case, I don’t think any of those films should preclude anyone from seeing Inception.

Emerson also seems to hate Nolan’s visual style, but to my mind, Nolan is much more distinctive as a writer than he is as a director. It’s not the visual style of movies like Inception or Nolan’s true masterpiece, Memento, that strikes audiences – it’s the way Nolan plays with narrative and time that really differentiates him. This is more a function of the writing and editing than anything else, and even Edelstein admits that Nolan “thinks like a mechanical engineer” when it comes to his scripting (and this is a good thing). The editing in Inception is certainly worth praising here. Though perhaps not as extensive or bombastic as the eding in Memento, there’s a real challenge here and editor Lee Smith deserves a lot of credit for whatever degree of suspense you feel as the film reaches its climax.

Nolan also seems to do a great job combining various genres and then putting a new twist on them. For instance, Inception contains elements of action films, heist and con movies, and of course, science fiction. Elements from each genre are mixed and matched in a way that hasn’t really been done before (at least, not with respect to the layered “ticktock logistics” of the plot). This isn’t a straightforward version of any of those genres, nor is it a simple combination.

The performances are all pretty good, though I think the real standout is Tom Hardy (of Bronson fame), who just devours the screen. Longtime Kaedrin friend Sovawanea pointed out one of the refreshing aspects of the film: “I found it rather refreshing that they didn’t try to contrive a romance in the middle of the mission between Ellen Page and the rest of the guys.” There’s another element of the characters that I found really refreshing, but I don’t want to say it because it might spoil the movie.

This has been a slow year for movies, but between Inception and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, things are at least looking up a bit, and both will most likely find their way onto my top 10 list at the end of the year.

5 thoughts on “Inception’s Sense of Wonder”

  1. I was actually thinking specifically how annoying the too long, unnecessary sex scene in The Matrix Reloaded (set to incredibly annoying music to boot) when I was contrasting how nice it was that we didn’t get any romance action between the team members.

    I don’t really understand this complaint that it was too realistic. They pointed out more than once, I think, that to the dreamer nothing seems surreal, it’s only after you wake up that it seems strange. Lots of people have been complaining about the obvious symbolism in the names too, but I’m leaning towards that being a possible hint or clue to support a particular theory.

    Anyway, I feel like this needs a follow up post on other really elegant technologies that imbue a work with the Sense of Wonder. My vote for number one is the ansible.

  2. Was that the “Rave” scene in Matrix Reloaded? I hated that scene.

    I obviously don’t agree about the “too realistic” complaints either, but the dreams in Inception don’t really seem like dreams, so I can see why someone might have gone into it with different expectations. To your point, they did point out that to the dreamer, nothing seems realistic. They also often mention that the dreams were, more or less, designed by an architect and that if the architect took too many liberties, the dreamer would notice and try to expel the intruders…

    The ansible (and other ftl communication methods) are certainly pretty cool and I imagine the sense of wonder comes from the assumption that such communication isn’t possible. I recently read a series where the “villains” had a method of ftl communication method that the author exploited in the plot to interesting effect…

  3. I actually liked the dream sequences because they had just the right level of surreality in them, for me. But, then, when I remember my dreams, they’re very rarely the sort of wild impossible fantasy worlds that seem to be popularly portrayed as dreams. My dreams are usually in modern settings–I used to have a lot of dreams that took place in schools, malls, warehouses, and hospitals, for example. But there were usually, in retrospect, little things that didn’t quite jive with the setting–the weird lobby in the hotel, the “hospital” being a crazy bunker in the middle of nowhere, etc.

    At any rate, I was a fan. It’s been a slow movie summer, I think, but I’d have given this one positive marks even on a good year, I think. I’d love to hear what it was you liked that might spoil, though–feel free to email.

    There were a few things I liked–(possible spoiler?)

    the not tacking on a romance is definitely up there. Becky and I also really liked, although I can see why some people might not like, the fact that there’s not really an explicit “Bad guy”. There are several different people with different motivations for what they’re doing, and I couldn’t really say that any of them were explicitly bad. It was interesting that there wasn’t anyone who you could “root against” in the movie. It’s like a heist movie where the person they’re stealing from is better off without the loot, anyway.

  4. I was just listening to the Nolan interview on The Treatment (NPR) and he specifically talks about how he intentionally went for a more realistic feel to the dreams, because as Sov has mentioned, the subjective experience of a dream is that it is real, so the subjective experience of watching this movie should also be somewhat real (though to your point, some little things are just a bit off)…

    The other “refreshing” thing I didn’t want to spoil kinda goes along with your “no obvious villain” idea, which is that none of the team members betrayed the team – something you often see in this type of movie. I was half expecting Joseph Gordon Levitt or Tom Hardy (two charismatic and likeable guys) to stab Leo in the back or something, and I found it refreshing that the twists didn’t rely on such overused storytelling crutches. If the movie really was a ripoff of The Matrix, that would have happened (just like Joey Pants betraying the matrix crew at the end).

    It’s funny, the films detractors complain about the no obvious villain aspect, mentioning that all the gunfights are against unseen and nameless villains, etc…

    Ultimately, I suppose the real villain here is Leo’s internal struggles and how they manifest in dreams (usually as his wife, acting in a sorta femme fatale mode).

    I also really like the “heist” movie where they aren’t stealing anything so much as they’re implanting something. A neat twist, even if it is sorta corporate espionage, but it’s still not something we see all that often…

  5. A reverse heist, really. Heh.

    Good point about the (lack of) betrayer.

    What I was actually expecting, more than anything, was for someone to die. Like, for some kind of deus ex machina to pop up whereby one of them actually dies in the dream (especially once they mentioned the impact of the drugs on the process). I suppose that’s part of what the ambiguity of the ending is about, but I was really expecting either Levitt or Hardy to die or get trapped.

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