Top 20 Sci-Fi Defenses: Cassander (Dark City, Inception)

Cassander’s list can be found here. Yesterday, he discussed Jurassic Park, today he’ll hit Dark City, Inception, and, later today Gattaca.

Dark City & Inception

In the cyclical world of Hollywood, where virgin genres no longer exist and variety is pulped and reformed in a constant progression from enthusiasm to overexposure then self-parody, the Truly New Idea usually gets bought cheap and held like a stock in a risky upstart company. Maybe down the road they’ll surprise everyone with their bold claims, then skyrocket in value, but more than likely without any backing they’ll slowly get behind the times and disband, wondering what could have been. This has been exacerbated in more recent times as studios are keeping the lights on with a handful of sure bets versus a really varied portfolio, and sci-fi has become such a risky proposition that we are no longer treated to the full range of sub-genres we once had. Right now everything relies either on spectacle (Battle: Los Angeles) or action (Book of Eli, I am Number Four) to carry it through. That or a famous granddaddy (Tron: Legacy, Predators).

I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the first decade of this century, but poring over this list proves that even if Hollywood wasn’t cranking out real winners in the early 2000s, at least they were trying to reach a varied audience. I worry, sometimes, that hundreds of really daring spec scripts are collecting dust on the shelves in producers’ offices waiting for Hollywood to be awash in a flood of money again somehow: sci-fi family adventure scripts and sci-fi romance scripts! Sci-fi comedy scripts and sci-fi westerns scripts! Hell, we used to watch sci-fi movies about old people like Cocoon and Space Cowboys. But the sub-genre I really love and miss is a good, old-fashioned mind-fuck movie. Movies that leave you dazed when you leave the theater, the bright lights, thirty-foot-high posters, and arcade game music a jarring contrast with the fascinating portals that have just opened up in your mind. Movies you discuss with your friends on the way home, going what the hell did I just see? Forget turning our stomachs with visceral thrills or setting a golden bow across our heartstrings. Films like Altered States or Vanilla Sky or The Cell or The Jacket, films that reveal the limits of our mental perceptions or feature someone’s mind as setting try to hit us where it really hurts: the seat of our consciousness. Unfortunately, true mind-fuck movies are getting harder and harder to come by.

Challenged by Nacho to defend both Dark City (1998) and Inception (2010), I had to do some deep thinking about why I rated them so highly. Eventually I came to the conclusion that although they are wildly different in tone and aesthetics, hell, even in their use of science, both movies were probing the same ground. In Dark City, John Murdoch is a man with amnesia struggling through a mysterious city where the sun never shines. He chases after clues until he discovers that he, along with everyone else in the city, are involved in a massive experiment being undertaken by a group of collective-mind aliens called the Strangers, the goal of which is to derive the essence of human individuality to help their own race evolve. The city itself is a giant maze that can be manipulated and reorganized, and the Strangers attempt to do the same with human lives, implanting them with false memories and establishing them in varying situations to see if they will play to type. The Strangers, then, are attempting the same thing Dom Cobb is in Inception: the insertion of a pre-designed mental belief into an unknowing subject.

In the dream-sharing, heist thriller Inception, we get some of the same givens: the human mind, for all its reasoning, calculative, and creative power, is beholden to the physical senses. Therefore, if it’s possible to create a false but believable world around someone, it should be possible to guide their responses and reactions to your own end, whatever that may be. We know this to be true in an almost droll way with regards to marketing, branding, and persuasive political arguments, but we still feel we are in control of what we accept and deny because none these perceptions rarely challenge our strong sense of self. These two movies try to stir up some doubt about that. While Dark City ultimately plays out to a standard “human individuality will always triumph over imposed boundaries” conclusion, Inception doesn’t shy away from darker suggestions. Here we are told that not only can our thoughts be altered through the use of forged sensations and situations, but that we also might prefer an existence where our fantasies override our true choices (as Cillian Murphy’s Fischer does) or where we are trapped in a beautiful but limited framework (like the world Cobb and his wife make for themselves).

While the directors of both films obviously reveled in the freedom to create some really memorable visuals that a movie about malleable reality provides, the deeper issues come to the forefront by each movie’s end. The changeable, scalable Edward Hopper-esque city within Dark City reminds us of a maze for lab rats, a noir puzzle to be solved, but the same occurrence in Inception resembles the creation of a level in a contemporary video game. The parallels are plain but slightly sinister: playing a video game is essentially escapist, and in order to escape you must always submit to its rules and physics. The two heroes provide another interesting contrast. John Murdoch is a slightly messianic character in the vein of Paul Atreides in Dune: his latent powers come forward when they are needed to disrupt the status quo. Solving the maze and defeating the Strangers, however, leaves him in the role of the city’s possessor and manipulator. We are left without any clues as to how the citizens will cope knowing that they are left floating in space and subject to a telekinetic leader. Cobb, however, plays the role of guardian and guide the whole time; the team is dependent upon his skill, but also subject to the dark and unpredictable parts of his psyche. In this way Cobb is too intricately involved in the lies, and it is only at the end when he abandons his totem for his children that he finds personal freedom. No matter how you interpret the end of the movie, he has either abandoned his talents or succumbed to his own creation.

In both movies balance is restored when the manipulating forces withdraw, but we are left with a seed of doubt in our capability to discern our true desires from manufactured ones. After all, it was easy enough for these movies to force our minds to play by their rules for two hours…and again we return to my belief that any sci-fi movie worth its salt must have a cohesive, enthralling setting with all the right collaborating details in place. These two movies not only reinforce the importance of set design and atmosphere–Dark City’s expressionist, noir-y take on what is basically an amped-up Twilight Zone story and Inception’s sharp-suited, world-traveling heist mentality dove-tailed into a sci-fi psycho-drama—they partake in an examination of how far we are willing to suspend our disbelief and let our mind be beholden to our senses. Both movies do extremely well, in my opinion, and I think will be strong examples of mind-fuck cinema for a long time to come, and hopefully not just because they are left dangling at the end of a chronological list…