Before Inception came The Lathe of Heaven….

*SPOILER ALERT* I had been looking forward to Inception because of all the positive reviews and I absolutely adore good SF films. Alas– they got my ten bucks, but not my satisfaction. If we set to the side (cough! cough!) the dearth of  autonomous female characters (there are only two female characters, one of them a manifestation created by DiCaprio’s character’s subconscious), on a story level, in my opinion, the exploration of dream states does not move beyond the platform of the idea of dreams as a device to create a more exciting setting. The dream within a dream concept is rich and lovely and has long been an idea that has teased and troubled humans over time. From Zhuangzi circa 300 BC!!! to the present, the notion that our perceived world might be a dream continues to intrigue us and, I think, is an expression of human self consciousness. So! Back to the film!

Basically, the story is propelled as a action-thriller-intrigue. DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, is a thief for hire that steals corporate secrets. Alongside this, we learn that his ‘wife’, Mal, pops up in the dream space while he is ‘working’ and it’s not really meant to happen. We also discover that she has died, and that there’s something suspicious about how it happened, thus introducing a mystery element. Cobb, also, is the father of two young children whom he cannot meet. The story ensues and his commitment to the project is ensured because of his desire to be able to return to his children. (This motivation is never really convincingly expressed in the film– it came across as a writerly rationale for why Cobb takes on the job.)

The second female character, Ariadne, is a convenient character in that she is a newbie, who is introduced to this world of dream espionage. Cobb wants to hire her to become a new architect of his team– the one who constructs the settings of the dream sequences. (9_9) ? She’s a convenient device because she is new to the workings of this dream works, so she asks a lot of questions and Cobb can tell her, thereby answering many of the audience’s questions of how this all works. For those who have read and watched a great deal of speculative work, the actual mechanics of the dream hack isn’t convincingly relayed. All I’m left with are the briefcase and the special drug. Really– how does it work? I’m actually more interested in how it works, than that they’re in a dream space where everything can be altered. I’m more interested in dream state, and the subconscious, then ‘setting’. This is where Inception falls flat for me.

All of the characters come across as type, and the rich symbology and the metaphysical of the subconscious and dream states are profoundly underexplored. Dream-state becomes just an exotic setting. I found it particularly odd that although there were numerous participants in the dream heist, only Cobb was the member who had a troubled subconscious. I don’t think so. How could any of the other characters NOT have something buried in their subconscious? Wouldn’t they, as dreamers dreaming, albeit in a constructed dream space, open up the portals to their own subconscious? Tarkovsky’s film, Solaris, is an amazing example of this kind of exploration. An American remake with George Clooney (doesn’t that sound like a parodic line???) wasn’t half bad, much to my surprise, but check out the 1972 original. Aside from the real-time sequence when the protagonist was driving in a car, I loved the entire thing. Note: this is not an action-sequence film. It’s thoughtful, very slow and haunting.

Ursula K. le Guin published the novel, The Lathe of Heaven, in 1971. This novel is another interesting take on the integration of dreams and alternate realities that moves well beyond the dream-as-setting platform and explore notions of humanity, responsibility, agency and hope. I also have a recollection that the film Dreamscape (from the 80’s!) really felt dream/nightmare-ish-like, rather than contrived, tho it’s been ages since I saw it. And Inception totally reminded me of Dark City, an sf film from the 90’s that’s a must-see for anyone interested in alternate realities.

Ultimately, I didn’t care about any one character in Inception– I understood that I was meant to feel suspense, but I didn’t actually feel it. The morphing backdrops were very pretty…. I think I might have been happier to have seen this film as anime– the flatness of the characters might have made a transition toward archetype in this medium.

At the end of the film I was left with the summary that: Money can buy anything (this was how Cobb was hired in the first place, and how Saito, the Japanese corporate billionaire can wipe clean Cobb’s slate), and, It might all be a dream.

Sigh…. I think I was hoping this film would be more rich with ideas around dreams and dream-theft, but it was not. I guess this was my expectation and desire. If one wasn’t looking for more expansion into the ideas of the dream-state and the workings of the subconscious, this film might have been exciting and entertaining?

I think it’s time for me  to reread The Lathe of Heaven, and take out the  Solaris dvd from the library. (Originally a novel by Stanislaw Lem.)