Inception – 2010 – dir. Christopher Nolan
It’s one of the cliches of film criticism for a critic unimpressed with a big action movie to compare it to a video game. It’s understandable, seeing as the movies at the receiving end of these complaints generally would be a lot more fun to play than to watch. It’s also unfair to the medium of video games, which has seen a fast-paced evolution in artistic creativity and experimentation. In the summer of 2010, two films were released that could be compared to video games without it being an insult. One was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a still underrated soon-to-be cult classic mash-up of video game-inspired style with manga, rock musical, and indie romcom influences. The other film didn’t show its influences as overtly; to those not familiar with games, their influence could completely be ignored while enjoying this particular film. But it occurs to me that the reason Inception was able to captivate so many audiences was because, in essence, the film was a game.
Think about it. The film begins on a tutorial stage, a test for the players before partaking in their main mission. Basic mechanics (totems, levels, kicks, subconscious projections) are introduced while a more complicated goal (inception) is set up. Players of different skill sets are gathered into a team before jumping into the big field, where old mechanics are put to more complicated use (more levels, more dangerous projections), new challenges are introduced (the warping of physics and time), power-ups are discovered (“dream a little bigger”), and greater dangers (limbo) put the players in peril.
One popular reading of the film is that it’s about moviemaking. I guess it could be read that way (Paprika, the anime film Christopher Nolan cites as a major inspiration, is centered on film as dreaming metaphors), but the job of designing shared dreams has much more in common with a game designer than a filmmaker. A film is the same basic experience for all, these dreams like game worlds are unpredictable and a different experience for every participant. We don’t see any scripts being written, and the only two-dimensional rectangular images we see produced are drawings of mazes, literally games. We do see a lot of models being made and architecture being studied. This fits with the stance of many game designers, most notably Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear series, that video games are less an art in the form of cinema but more in the form of architecture. Popular controversies surrounding video games, questions of addiction and desensitization to violence, are applied to dreaming in Inception, though in his typical fashion Nolan raises questions without committing to an answer either way.
How does the film’s emotional heart, the tragic love story of Cobb and Mal, fit into all this? It fits into the game of the film quite similarly to how the narrative elements of many of the better video games fit in with their play elements. Two examples I’m thinking of are Bioshock and the Portal series. Bioshock seems to be running as two parallel threads, bits of history in an Ayn Rand-themed dystopia revealed as you go about your way through a first-person shooter before the game turns to reveal the complicity of your own actions in the greater philosophical themes of the narrative. The Portal games partake in similar parallels of game and story; you could play it on mute as a puzzle game, but the dialogue places your puzzle-solving in the context of a hilariously twisted story of mad science. Again, the story and the gameplay end up relating to each other at a greater extent in the final stages. Inception plays a similar trick of having Mal haunt the background of the action before turning out to be the “boss” of the final stage. The much-debated ambiguous ending seems like a game twist in and of itself. Many games, including Bioshock as well as the works of BioWare Studios and Warren Spector to name a few notable examples, have varied endings depending on how you chose to play the game. Whether the top falls or not ultimately depends on how you have chosen to play Inception.
Of course, for all the ways Inception mirrors video games, it clearly stands as a cinematic work. Editing, that very essence of cinematic art, allows the film to alternate between levels and perspectives in a way no game could reasonably match. Common targets of “it’s like a video game” complaints from critics are films that use excessive CGI, but in terms of its effects, Inception is thankfully un-video game-like. The practical effects in the film, notably the water geysers and the zero-gravity hotel fight, are absolutely breathtaking, and the CGI that is used is rarely distracting from the tangibly real look of the film. Many actually consider it to the film’s detriment that its too real for a film about fantasies. I think it works fine as an attempt to recreate the experience of dreaming where little seems out of the ordinary, but wilder works such as Paprika and the Inception-by-way-of-Tim-Burton video game Psychonauts are better representations of how we end up remembering our dreams.
Not surprisingly, Nolan announced work on an Inception video game two years ago. No news has surfaced since, and I wonder where he’s going with that game or with his career in general. He only got the blank check to make Inception due to the promise of a Batman movie and now that he’s done with Batman I don’t know if he’ll be allowed to be this wild again. Whatever he does, let’s hope he keeps playing his games with us.