Periscope Depth

whether it’s two weeks, two years or just tonight

Inception: this past Friday, Overthinking It marked its thousandth post with a survey of why the writers read so deeply into pop culture. I talked about the need to treat pop culture seriously and with a literate eye – especially among geeks, who aren’t known for a lot of notches on the spectrum between “SQUEE!” and “worst movie ever.” I want to raise the bar for genre movies.

So that’s why I overthink. I want to give geek culture—video games, RPGs and sci-fi movies—the language of sober analysis. I want to turn the Coke-bottle lenses back in on themselves. I want to teach people that mere enthusiasm is not enough to make something Good Art. I want people to start thinking about their passions.

And then Chris Nolan comes along and proves me right.

Inception is the smartest action movie I’ve seen in years. The concept within – questioning layers of reality – won’t shock anyone who’s read some mid-tier science fiction. But I have never seen a big-budget action movie that treated that concept with as much honesty as Inception has. It’s baked it into the characterization, the plot, the cinematography, the editing, the soundtrack – all of it. This is an action movie that does not ask us to “turn off our brains” for a few hours, but demands that we give it our full attention through its running time and then for several hours afterward. As fellow Overthinker Pete Fenzel put it, you’ll profit more not from trying to figure out definitively What Did Happen, but by stretching your brain through the possibilities of What Could Have Happened.

And it’s a great movie, besides! While so many action movies struggle to build tension, Inception keeps the suspense at the edge of the throttle for essentially the last forty-five minutes*. The exposition, so necessary for a sci-fi movie, unfolds in a way that plays with the special effects and reveals bits of character. Leo DiCaprio plays big, as he is wont to do, and lets Joseph Gordon-Levitt be the grounded presence that keeps him honest. Ellen Page is the voice of the audience: curious about the process our heroes use, but not so skeptical as to plant her feet and keep from being dragged in. And the action scenes play with the conventions of reality – gravity-bending brawls, snowy mountain shootouts – without losing us in the melee.

I’ve said this before, but: I will never again accept a movie that asks me to stop thinking before I can enjoy it. That’s no longer an option. A genre which is capable of Inception, to quote Raymond Chandler, is not by definition incapable of anything. I want films about redemption and betrayal and ambition and dishonor and memory and reality and time and space. And I want them full of chases and gunfights. And I want them to star good actors who deliver good dialogue. Inception proves it’s possible. Christopher Nolan has planted the idea in my mind, and it’s never getting out.

* Immediately after seeing the movie, I described Christopher Nolan as “this generation’s Hitchcock.” It’s not a comparison I made by accident. I haven’t seen a big director who plays tension quite as well since Hitchcock died. Consider the “prisoner’s dilemma” scene in The Dark Knight. Or, well, the entire third act of this movie.

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