I don’t usually get all that excited about forthcoming films, but ever since seeing the first trailer for Inception I’ve been like a kid at Christmas time. Everything about it looked like it was going to press all my buttons.
I went to see it on its first day of release at the lovely Duke of York’s cinema. It didn’t disappoint. If anything, it exceeded my ludicrously high expectations.
The structure of the film is that of a heist movie, but if the film were to be slotted into a genre, that genre would have to be science fiction. Personally, I would say it’s cyberpunk. But it’s a strange kind of cyberpunk where the emphasis is less on technology and more on the film-noir mood and transcendental possibilities of the genre.
In fact, technology in Inception is notable by its absence. There is a piece of hardware to enable the central premise of the film, but it’s of no more importance than the hardware used in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—the last great science fiction film to cover similar territory.
Both films also avoid making any reference to specific dates. We assume that the narrative plays out in the very near future but we’re never explicitly told that. It strikes me that both films are attempting to place the action in a kind of continuous present.
Inception is particularly adept at avoiding anything that would date the film. Nothing dates a story quite like technology. William Gibson has remarked on numerous occasions that the glaring omission of cell phones in Neuromancer dates the book to the 1980s …although younger people assume that the omission is a deliberate plot point.
Computers make no appearance in Inception. The unstoppable momentum of Moore’s Law means that this year’s cutting edge laptop may appear laughably out of date by the time the film is available on DVD (and my reference to a specific storage medium like DVD dates these words).
Christopher Nolan goes further and avoids the use of digital input and output devices: the mouse, the keyboard, the screen (either LCD or cathode ray) …all of these things anchor a narrative to a specific period. Instead, there is almost a fetishisation of the analogue. When we see people planning and prototyping in Inception, it is with paper and cardboard rather than any computer-aided design tools.
It’s slightly jarring when the occasional piece of technology appears on the screen, such as an electronic key card for a hotel room door, or the electronic fingerprinting device used at American airports.
Analogue objects age too, of course, but the rate of ageing is slower. To borrow a term from architecture—and boy, is Inception a fun film from that perspective—the analogue and the digital are different shearing layers:
The Shearing layers concept views buildings as a set of components that evolve in different timescales.
Sound familiar? It’s a concept that’s at the heart of Inception’s dream logic: the idea that the passage of time slows down within a dream, allowing a far longer narrative to play out in a dream world than in the faster-moving “reality” of the dreamer.
Inception takes pains to use the medium- to long-term obsolescence of physical objects: trains, planes, cars, guns and—above all—buildings. The film neatly sidesteps the inevitable timestamp that electronic technology would impart on the narrative.
Inception is a film that will stand the test of time remarkably well. The phrase “timeless classic” is one that gets bandied about far too freely, but in this case it could well turn out to be the literal truth.
Update: Adrian Sevitz points out that Inception is also remarkably lacking in product placement, or branded products in general. It’s true: I can’t recall seeing a single logo in the film. That’s something that has dogged Blade Runner with its unfortunate choice of brand extrapolation: Pan-am, Atari, Bell…