Thursday, 6 January 2011

Science Fiction Illiteracy

There's been a bit of talk about Inception lately, on the film review show I regularly tune into, since it set out its "films of the year" list for 2010. Naturally Inception features highly on that list, and I think it would be hard to dispute that it was definitely one of the best films in a pretty forgettable year for cinema.

But what everybody - reviewers, fans calling in, and the film's participants - seems to talk about is something that I can't relate to at all; the supposed difficulty of following the plot. Now, I'll grant you that Inception has a more convoluted plot than most films. I guess if all you're used to watching is Marley and Me and Transformers 2, it might have been a minor shock to the system. But really, to anybody who has done any reading of Gibson, Zelazny, Wolfe or even Alastair Reynolds, it should present any sort of challenge at all - par for the course, really.

Though aye, there's the rub - ordinary cinema audiences and, perhaps more critically, supposedly well-educated intellectual film reviewers, are not science fiction literate. They aren't used to following a relatively complex plot while also keeping track of new information and concepts that require them to stretch their imagination in any way. When presented with something just a little bit mind-bending they find it very difficult to handle and they shut down into "Crikey, does not compute, pass the popcorn" mode.

It's at times like these that I find myself succumbing to the arrogance of the snobbish geek. Join me in wallowing in it.


  1. "They aren't used to following a relatively complex plot while also keeping track of new information and concepts that require them to stretch their imagination in any way."

    While I haven't seen Inception, what were these strange concepts that required stretching the imagination? As far as I could tell from the trailers, it was simply about a team of people that got information from dreams. Then again, I've read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy, so I guess that probably has something to do with it.

  2. I agree, and will also wallow in my own superiority over those heathens. I'm both sci-fi literate, and trained in the ways of screenplays. Watching Inception was in no way hard for me to follow, and I was thinking the whole time I was watching it I was analyzing it and came to the conclusion that it was the perfect sort of film to make audiences go "WTF" (as opposed to say, Avatar, which was made for people to look at all the pretty colors and not really need to stretch their brains any).

  3. Yes, while it had a lot going for it, Inception really wasn't as clever or innovative as pretty much everyone said it was.

    In fact, I found the scifi bit over-familiar and boring and would have preferred that Nolan had just made the James Bond pastiche he so clearly was desperate to make.

  4. Kelvin pretty much took the words out of my mouth. Although I'd give Inception 3 out of 4 stars on an objective level, the amount of hype it had been getting, even from some of my film geek friends, led to a huge disappointment for me in watching the film. At the end I was just left feeling sort of empty, like--that was it? It's led me to nitpick the movie much more than it probably deserves. It was kind of depressing how many people found it "mind melting." Part of me hopes they were just jumping on a bandwagon and weren't actually that blown away.

    (And for the record, I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, so I'll credit gaming and my study of dramatic structure instead.)

  5. I agree with SirLarkins -- I really enjoyed Inception while I was watching it, but walked out of the theater feeling fairly un-impacted by it. In the end, I would have to call it "forgettable." But I am certainly one of those snobbish geeks referred to above, with lots of Gibson, Zelazny, et. al. under my belt. Not to mention that my tastes in sci-fi cinema range more towards Tarkovsky's Solaris and Kubrick's 2001. So Inception did not even come remotely close to brain-meltage for me.

    I can only surmise that some of the hype around Inception is related to the hype around Nolan himself post-Dark Knight. Nolan seems to be the "mainstream genius" director de jour, at least in the perception of the un-snobbish masses.

  6. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the film's creators think the plot is complex.

    Uneducated buffoons. Or maybe all you smarty pantses are completely missing some deep subtext... ;) (haven't seen it, so I can't really comment).

  7. I didn't think that Inception was complex, but it was certainly the most intelligent film that I saw last year. It moves along at a breakneck pace for the most part, and you want to know what's coming next all the time. The multiple layers etc weren't complex (however much they might have been parodied - and those parodies are quite funny).

    Coincidentally, I was on the bus last night and heard some young tearaways talking about it: "Did you see that Inception? That film's boss, but it does your f*cking head in!"

  8. It's possible there's some social cachet in having experienced something extraordinary which your friends also experienced, and makes us feel more connected. If this is the case, Teen A might say the movie was mind-bending in order to connect himself with the larger society's opinion, while Teen B does the same AND tries to connect himself with Teen A. It's possible they're both lying, and if it's a mem at this point it's possible a LOT of people are lying.

    Then again it's also possible that a lot of people really were overwhelmed. I think it's legitimate to say they might not have been overwhelmed if they had a firmer grounding in sci-fi. To follow a complex plot, it's also worthwhile to experience complex mystery / detective stories. To keep up with a large cast of characters you may want to experience connected-vignette romance stories. I don't suppose Transformers 2 prepares you for more difficult material beyond making you jaded in your opinions of special effects.

  9. C'nor: It was mainly to do with getting information from dreams, yes, but it's a bit more complicated than that - layers of dreams and different peoples' subconsciousnesses and whatnot.

    Gwydion: I liked Avatar, even though it was just Dances with Wolves in spaaaaaaace. But it was nothing as good as Inception.

    Kelvin: I agree. I'm sure there's a Next Gen episode or 3 that are about essentially the same thing.

    But Nolan really knows how to make a watchable flick.

    sirlarkins: I thought it was emotionally satisfying and narratively satisfying. But these things are all subjective obviously.

    Carter: Well, yeah. Nolan's a very intelligent and talented film maker. But he's yet to match the heights of, say, David Fincher (except that truly execrable Benjamin Button affair) or Peter Weir if you're going for the thinking man's mainstream director crown.

    Ivan: I'm sure the actors were paid to say that. Or at least asked to. All feeds into the hype.

    zero_zero_one: Dat Leo di Caprio film was well boss like!

    1d30: I definitely hear you on the social cache. There's a lot of cache in being stupid (or, at least, unthinking) in our societies, I think.

  10. My take is that there's two things going on here.

    1) The material is presented as if it's deep and meaningful, so people tend to want to see it as deep and meaningful.

    2) It has huge plot holes, and since it is presented as mysterious, people fill in the gaps with their own assumptions.

    These two things make people confused about what they've seen, and eager to find their own deep meaning in the film.

  11. I haven't seen it either, but I haven't ecountered any concepts in movies or on TV that I didn't first read in Fantastic Four many years ago.

  12. Noisms: "I'm sure the actors were paid to say that. Or at least asked to. All feeds into the hype."

    Point taken.

    Also, I was very glad to see you've resumed posting (though my vote is for more posts in the vein of "Magical Cigarettes, Pipes, and Other Smoking Paraphernalia" and fewer that engender vigorous circle jerks by posters praising their own perceptive abilities).


  13. Fincher versus Nolan... Fincher has made some great films, but Nolan's recent run - The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception - is pretty awesome.

  14. Peter: Well put.

    E. G. Palmer: Also well put.

    Ivan: Point taken. ;)

    zero_zero_one: Dunno, The Prestige I haven't seen - never really appealed - and I thought The Dark Knight was only two thirds of a great film. Fincher's been pretty much on the money in every single instance I can think of except Benjamin Button, for longer and over more films than Nolan.

  15. to be fair, I think Inception is complicated, but told well. Comparing it to something like Primer for a moment, that film truly is a puzzle box. The complication in Inception involves defining reality. Its never terribly hard to follow whats going on, and the exposition mostly works well (except a clunky line about killing the subconcious on the ice level), but the film deliberately obscures reality, by showing you only Cobb's perspective. [for me one of the most amusing things about kermode and mayo is their obsession with the final shot. Its a con dear fellows, its a con.]