Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception


OK, before I start, let me say I'm fighting every emotional impulse to gush about this movie. I love Nolan as a director. I think he did some brave, interesting things in this flick. Some of the images are haunting. The issues he dealt with stuck with me. It's intelligent. Despite the fact it's on well-trodden ground, it managed to be original. When I actually watched the movie -- and that's always the most important thing -- it was gripping.

Yeah. But truth be told, Inception has elements of greatness, but it's not great. It's not an A+ science fiction movie. It's not 2001, not A Clockwork Orange, not Alien or Aliens, not Blade Runner not The Matrix. I hate to say it. But it fell short.

Here are the main problems:

He's a man on a mission. Who cares?

It's a men-on-a-mission movie. but we don't care about the mission. (The first rule of a man-on-a-mission movie? The mission matters. You care.)

Real world parallels: The Guns of Navarrone, Ocean's 11, The Italian Job, The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds. In each case, the mission matters.

This mission exists in a dream. Fine. But it can still matter. The obvious example is The Cell -- a movie in which a woman enters a serial killer's dreams to rescue a woman trapped in a drowning chamber in the real world. The mission takes place in a dream world. But we care whether the hero succeeds or not. There's something at stake.

In "Inception" one multinational corporation wants the heir to another multinational corporation to break up the company. Gee, I'm on the edge of my seat here. It turns out, this is actually good for the soul of the son who inherited the company. That's an accident, not a goal. It feels like a cheat. I'm not rooting for the dude to break up the company, the way I was rooting for the characters at risk in The Cell. In those movies, the dream quest actually MATTERED.

Here, Nolan is totally focused on the phantom of DeCaprio's dead wife haunting his dreams. She screws up the mission. Nolan focuses on that threat. And forgets to make us care about the mission.

Bad Science
From a Science Fiction perspective, I resented the throwaway explanation of the shared dream device. (Uh, it's some military training stuff.) No, I need a little more necessary bullshit than that. Beyond that, such technology would change EVERYTHING. There's a hint of this in the brief clip of dream addicts in Africa. But it's not enough. I want some solid explanation of the tech behind this stuff. I want some plausible extrapolation of what this tech would do to the culture.

And why on earth would you need a shared dream device within the dream itself?

The dreams aren't dreamy
Dreams are strictly "Alice in Wonderland." They're weird, illogical. We do things we wouldn't in waking life. We go to dangerous places. We passively stay in frustrating situations. Or, just for the hell of it, we fight monsters. We're not ourselves. We're not in our right senses.

OK. Because this is a caper movie, Nolan imposed waking logic on the dream world. So, the target's subconscious defends him with dudes with Uzis. Why not bears? Why not dragons?

The dreams are too damn realistic.

Too complicated.


Complexity is cool. But it's overworked.

This tends to happen when you sit on your material. The flash of inspiration turns into a pet project -- your baby that you fiercely defend. Plot threads multiply like kudzu. You lose objectivity.

Director Christopher Nolan (one of my favorite directors) has been sitting on this egg for nine years.

What hatched is brilliant, full of startling imagery and astonishing ideas. It's brilliant. But flawed.

Dreams within dreams within dreams is an interesting idea, intellectually. Storywise, Nolan could've killed one dream level and made it all flow much better. (Personally, I hated the snow fortress scene. Would've axed that one.)

"Dream Stealers" was Nolan's core idea. Essentially, hackers in the near future can hack your dreams. Usually, they just read them -- and steal secrets. The really good hackers write to your dreams. They put ideas in your head. They create inception.

Dom Cobb, the central character, is part of a team in somebody else's head. (He'd rather not be -- but joins the mission to get back to his family.) It's a man on a mission movie, dig? His dead ex-wife (who's still haunting his subconscious) keeps trying to screw up the mission.

Great idea. Not so great movie.

Here's an idea for a movie. See, history is a wheel. There's this Irish bar owner. He feels guilty because of incestuous feelings for his daughter. He goes to sleep and dreams all of human history in one night. His different family members play the different parts.

The idea isn't that complicated. But, if you overwork it, you wind up with Finnegans Wake.

Something like that seems to have happened to Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's simple, clever idea turned into a shaggy dream story.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

3D or not 3D

OK. Just saw "Despicable Me" with my son Andrew. Very funny movie, liked the character and environment design and the way everything moved. Coulda used a little more Addams Family-style dark despicability. A tad too sweet for me in spots. If I wanna cry, I'll cut a !@#$ onion. But that's just my inner bastard talking.

Now, onto the subject of 3D animation in general. Before the flick started, there was a Bataan death march from one trailer after another. They all look the !@# same.

Here, I see eye to eye with John Kricfalusi, the Ren & Stimpy guy. I'm not saying wipe 3D animation from the face of the earth. But carve out a little space for Tex Avery/Bob Clampett-style animation. Let cartoons be cartoons, damnit.

3D animation is not cartooning. It's a different animal. What it resembles, more than anything else, is puppetry. Essentially, 3D animators (usually an army of animators) create 3-dimensional puppets. These puppets have physical properties. They have mass and weight. They have skin that reflects light. They have skeletons and muscles. They even have hair.

OK, a 3D animated feature that treats its characters as puppets can be charming. Like, say, The Incredibles. Nothing against that.

When a 3D animated feature apes reality (Disney's eternal wet dream of "the imitation of life" finally realized) it's down right freaking creepy. Like, say, the latest installment of "Cats and Dogs." They look too much like REAL cats and dogs for the thing to be funny. If a cartoon dog gets his ass caught in a pneumatic chute, that's funny. If it happens to a real dog, it ain't.

Apply this to a few classic cartoon sequences.

Bugs Bunny, tormenting the bull in "Bully for Bugs" with a Rube Goldberg series of torture devices that ultimately light a large stick of dynamite and blow him up.

The waitress in the Flintstones putting an eight-foot section of dinosaur ribs on the family car and tipping it over.

Bugs Bunny tricking two hillbillies into beating the crap out of each other and jumping in a hay-baling machine in "Hillbilly Hare."

If you imagine this stuff happening to realistic, digital characters, it's acually pretty disgusting.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don't build killer robots


Lets assume there is such a thing as humanity's collective unconscious. Since 1818, humanity has had a collective nightmare about killer robots. (Arguably, Frankenstein's monster and the "robots" of R.U.R. were a reanimated corpse kludge and androids, respectively. But, for the sake of argument, let's stretch the definition of "robot" to mean "artificial human" and include any man-made, intelligent, autonomous humanoid, whether made of meat or metal.)

The thing that gets me is how long we've been afraid of this shit. Way before they were a remote technological possibility, killer robots gave us bad dreams. Why do you suppose that is? Hey ...

Maybe the Big Mind behind all our tiny little minds was trying to tell us something. Trying to warn us. Don't build killer robots. Klaatu, Finnegan, God, Cosmo, the phone company. Somebody Somewhere. Whatever name you call it, that entity was leaning on the alarm button. Don't build killer robots, you stupid naked apes. For the love of Me, don't build killer robots.

You'd think we'd get the message, right? Nah. Naked apes don't catch on that quick. But we do love our scary stories. By the 1930s, killer robots had become a science fiction cliche.

Killer robot stories pissed Isaac Asimov off. He responding to that cliche with the Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov reasoned that robots are machines created by humanity to serve humanity. We would never design autonomous machines that could kill people. The notion was idiotic! We wouldn't build killer robots any more than we'd build killer toasters. We'd design our robots so they couldn't kill people. We'd built the Three Laws in.

Nice try, Isaac. You and your logic. It's adorable.

But you can't stop the killer robot stories.

And in the year 2010 ...

Killer robots are still a science fiction cliche. The difference is, in spite of humanity's collective nightmare, we are now actually building killer robots. Nobody's even thinking about installing them with the Three Laws. Hell no! Various military subcontractors are just cranking these babies out. The spawn crawling out of Boston Dynamics is straight out of The Book of Revelations. And that's just the early stuff! The crystal radio stage of killer robots evolution! In the typical cycle of high-tech product development, the killer robots are getting smarter, stronger, faster and better. Why?

Because, in spite of all the bad dreams, well-paid naked apes with engineering degrees are designing them that way. 

I don't want to sound like a Luddite.

But that strikes me as a bad idea.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

BP Coffee Spill



The Upright Citizens Brigade does it again.

Saturday, July 3, 2010