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The Great Inception, and the Movies that Made Us…

This week, the podcast I host, The 250, will be marking its one hundredth episode with a look at Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I’m very much looking forward to it. It’ll be available on Saturday from 6pm UTC. I also have a book coming out on Christopher Nolan, titled “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films.” This is a much more personal (and much less detailed) discussion of Inception than the one in the book. So, if you like this piece, it might be worth a look.

I’ve always been somewhat wary of Inception.

I mean, Inception is a fantastic movie. There is a reason that it is so beloved and so highly regarded. It is perhaps one of the four core Christopher Nolan films, along with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. It is the rare big budget blockbuster with no longstanding association to established intellectual property, and one of the few to succeed on that sort of level. Indeed, the only other comparable examples on a similar scale are Interstellar and Dunkirk, both directed by Christopher Nolan.

More than that, Inception has permeated the popular consciousness. It is a film that has become part of the broader conversation. It seems that barely a few months can go by without another hot take on that closing scene, with news coverage of commencement speeches or interviews with actors. More than that, the film itself has become something of a critical and popular shorthand. It is a stock comparison for any movie or television show with a vaguely similar concept. Maniac is the most recent example, even inviting the comparison with an elaborate hallway action scene in its penultimate episode.

And yet, in spite of that, Inception is a movie of which I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship. I still adore it, as I adore most of Nolan’s filmography. I think its reputation is well-earned, and I think it excels by every measure that it sets itself. It delivers on just about every front, showcasing Nolan as a director with incredible command of both the form itself and the audiences watching these films. Inception is a big and broad crowdpleaser that is also a surprisingly intimate and personal film, which works as both a story and as a showcase. It is thrilling, it is engaging, it is compelling.

However, there’s something underneath the surface that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. A large part of this is simply down to the fact that it’s a movie that is fundamentally about movies. This is nothing new of itself. All of Nolan’s movies are about stories, whether personal or cultural. In fact, it could be argued that the central trilogy of Nolan’s work is actually The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, a trilogy of films that seem to be about the challenges of constructing and maintaining spectacle, arriving at a point in the director’s career where Nolan was transitioning from smaller films to high-profile epics.

Inception is the most transparent of these films, exploring most directly the mechanics of how storytelling works within a cinematic framework. There are even scenes of characters discussing in relatively clinical terms the mechanics of catharsis and how best to emotional manipulate their target audience. Inception feels very much like Nolan is stopping and deconstructing his stopwatch storytelling for the benefit of the audience, revealing how the trick is done and how the pieces fit together. As with everything Nolan does, he does this with a great deal of skill and nuance. However, it can’t help but feel a little cynical.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (Review)

With Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Star Trek: Voyager is back to business as usual.

The first episode produced after the departure of Ronald D. Moore, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is in many ways an archetypal Voyager story. Equinox, Part II was the second part of a season-bridging two-parter; Survival Instinct was a dark fable about consequences and trauma that was the last script credited to on the franchise’s most beloved writers; Barge of the Dead was a surreal and ambiguous adventure into the Klingon afterlife. As such, it is strange that an episode that opens with a playful operatic number about Tuvok’s pon farr should mark a return to normality.

“My Delta Quadrant TripAdvisor review is going to be scathing!”

Nevertheless, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a very neat standalone episode with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is built around the character of the EMH, leaning into actor Robert Picardo’s comedic chops. It is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the notion of fractured reality as expressed in Projections or Deadlock or Retrospect, and also in using a technologically-derived character to literalise the process of a psychological breakdown as in Darkling, Infinite Regress or Latent Image.

Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy story has its own themes and ideas, and everything is neatly resolved by the closing credits. It is a reminder that the serialisation that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would remain the exception, rather than the rule, that it would not be inherited by its surviving sibling. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy could almost be watched at any point in the show’s run, although the involvement of Seven of Nine would suggest the final four seasons. Nevertheless, the episode never feels particularly tethered to this moment or this season.

Fantasy figure.

However, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is also an example of how this approach can work. Voyager received (and deserves) a lot of criticism for failing to evolve with the times, for allowing the Star Trek franchise to fall behind the curve of contemporary television science fiction. However, the series was occasionally capable of demonstrating the merits of standalone episodes, the appeal of being able to transition from one self-contained story to another twenty-six times in the course of a season.

Of course, the issue was that a lot of Voyager episodes were bland and forgettable. However, every once in a while the series would produce a self-contained episode that demonstrated the appeal of this narrative model; Remember, Distant Origin, Concerning Flight, Living WitnessSomeone to Watch Over Me. Appropriately enough, coming after another turbulent period in the history of the show, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is another fine example of this capacity to construct satisfying and engaging stand-alone narratives.

Painting a pretty picture.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Waking Moments (Review)

Waking Moments feels very much like a first or second season episode of Star Trek: Voyager that somehow entered production in the middle of the fourth season.

A lot of this is down to the simple texture of the episode. Waking Moments centres around a decidedly “weird” alien species, a touch that recalls the early mysteries of Delta Quadrant life suggested by episodes like Phage, The Cloud, Heroes and Demons, Cathexis and even Emanations. These are aliens that do not conform to standard Star Trek logic, stalking their prey through dreams rather than with advanced technology. In fact, the emphasis on dreams in Waking Moments harks back to the vague New Age sentiment of Michael Piller’s time on Voyager.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

In fact, Waking Moments returns to a very New Age cliché version of Chakotay. Following on directly from Mortal Coil, Chakotay is once again repeating “ah-koo-chee-moya” and talking about “vision quests.” He mentions his father as a connection to his Native American heritage for the first time since Basics, Part I, and even evoked Tattoo in discussing his rejection of shared activities in his youth. Waking Moments feels like an episode that was originally written while Michael Piller was overseeing the show, but has finally made it to air.

Of course, Waking Moments feels rather retrograde in other ways. It is a very clumsy ensemble piece that treats tired old plot twists as innovative and exciting, moving along at a leaden pace without any sense of what makes this story interesting or compelling in its own right. Waking Moments is a surprisingly tiring piece of television.

An artist's impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

An artist’s impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Persistence of Vision (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

In some respects, the second season of Star Trek: Voyager can be seen as a conflict over the future of the show.

On the one hand, Michael Piller had returned to the franchise following the failure of the television show Legend. With Ira Steven Behr overseeing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Piller returned to focus his attention on the second season of the younger Star Trek show. After all, the second season was a disorganised mess, with the production team struggling to get the necessary scripts together on time. Having a safe pair of hands on board to help guide the show might come in handy.

"It's a bridge AND a tanning salon, simultaneously..."

“It’s a bridge AND a tanning salon, simultaneously…”

On the other hand, Jeri Taylor had been around the show since Caretaker. She had taken over the reins after Piller’s departure and had supervised the tail end of the first season. Taylor had arrived on the Star Trek franchise just a year after Piller, and had been a vital part giving Star Trek: The Next Generation its unique voice and mood. Over the course of the second season, it became increasingly clear that Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor had very different visions for the future of Star Trek: Voyager, and those visions were coming into conflict.

History ultimately vindicated Jeri Taylor. The second season of Voyager was the last television season of Star Trek to be directly overseen by Piller, while Jeri Taylor become the guiding light of the third and fourth seasons of the show. Whatever problems might exist with those two seasons television, they are at least more stable and consistent than the first and second years of the show. It is, of course, arguable that Piller never got his own change to exercise his own vision of the show unimpeded – and so that is not a fair measure.

Cutting the Doctor down to size...

Cutting the Doctor down to size…

In a way, the conflict between Piller and Taylor’s versions of Voyager is quite clearly typified in this early run of episodes. The show had breezed through the four episodes left over from the first season production block, and desperately needed ideas to keep afloat. The senior producers rolled up their sleeves and got involved. Piller was largely responsible for Parturition and Tattoo, while Taylor oversaw Persistence of Vision. None of these episodes are perfect, but it is quite clear that Taylor is increasingly the show’s safest bet going forward.

Persistence of Vision is a very flawed episode of television, playing to some of Taylor’s more uncomfortable recurring motifs. However, it is much more interested in actually moving Voyager along than either of Piller’s contributions.

"The teacup that I shattered did come together."

“The teacup that I shattered did come together.”

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The X-Files – Paper Hearts (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Paper Hearts is one of the best scripts that Vince Gilligan would write for The X-Files, and one of the best episodes of the fourth season. This is enough to put it in the frontrunners of any possible “best episode ever” ranking.

The episode is spectacular. It works on just about every conceivable level. It has a great script from a great young staff writer. It has a great guest star in Tom Noonan. It features a great performance from David Duchovny. Rob Bowman does a spectacular job directing. Mark Snow is one of the most consistent composers working in nineties television, and his score for Paper Hearts manages to be simple, effective and memorable. It is thoughtful, atmospheric, emotional and compelling. It is the perfect storm.

The truth is buried...

The truth is buried…

However, the real cherry on Paper Hearts is just how easy it would be to mess up an episode like this. On paper, Paper Hearts seems like a disaster waiting to happen. It is an episode that teases the audience with a potentially massive reversal of one of the show’s core truths. It posits an alternative theory for the abduction of Samantha Mulder that would shake the show to its very core. If Paper Hearts followed through on that basic premise, everything would change. Much like Never Again, this is an episode with the potential to poison the show.

Which makes it inevitable that Paper Hearts will back away from its potentially game-changing premise, which brings its own challenges. It is one thing to up-end the apple cart; it is another to pretend to up-end the apple cart only to restore the status quo at the end of the hour. On paper, and from any synopsis, Paper Hearts seems like the biggest cheat imaginable. “Everything is different!” it seems to yell. “And then it’s not!” The real beauty of Paper Hearts is the way that the episode works almost perfectly even with these huge hurdles to clear.

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

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The X-Files (Topps) #10-12 – Feelings of Unreality (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Feelings of Unreality marks the end of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s first year on Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book.

It also marks the end of their extended arc. It became clear around six issue into their run that Petrucha and Adlard were really just telling one large and expansive story that could be broken down into small bite-sized chunks. From Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas through A Dismembrance of Things Past through Firebird and Silent Cities of the Mind, these were all separate pieces of a larger puzzle waiting to be fitted together. Feelings of Unreality marks a conclusion to this ambitious and expansive arc.

Slightly unreal...

Slightly unreal…

What has been fascinating about Petrucha and Adlard’s run on The X-Files comic book as been the way that the team has adapted the show’s format to fit within this distinct medium. Writing a tie-in like this, it would would be very tempting to do “a television episode, in comic book form!” There’s a very serious argument to be made that the comics would be pushed in that direction after Petrucha departed. However, there’s something much more compelling about a story that takes advantage of its own medium, rather than offering a flat imitation of another.

For all its flaws, Feelings of Unreality – like Petrucha and Adlard’s epic Firebird before it – feels like a comic book story. It’s pulpy, exciting, ambitious, expansive, silly. And just a little brilliant.

Lift me up...

Lift me up…

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Non-Review Review: Interstellar

Interestingly, Christopher Nolan seems to have generated a reputation as a rather detached director. Common wisdom around Nolan’s films suggest that the film-maker is perhaps too cold and clinical in his approach to the material; that his films lack warmth or humour. This reputation is probably a result of the director’s fascination with non-linear storytelling. After all, The Dark Knight is his only straight-arrow-from-beginning-to-end film.

Probably also due to the narrative contortions and distortions of films like Memento or The Prestige, Nolan is generally presented as a film-maker who constructs visual puzzle-boxes. His films are frequently treated as riddles to be solved. Consider the discussion of narrative “plot holes” in The Dark Knight Rises that fixates on how Bruce Wayne got around back to Gotham, or the discussion on the mechanics of the final shot of Inception. This approaches to his work tend to divorce the viewer from his films.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Interstellar will likely be Nolan’s most polarising film to date, replacing The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises. The film offers an extended two-and-a-half hour rebuttal to accusations that Nolan is detached or distant. Much has been made about the attention to detail on Interstellar. The physics on the movie were so exact and precise that physicist Kip Thorne actually made theoretical advances while working on the film.

However, at the same time, one character posits love as a force more powerful than gravity or time. Interstellar might be precise and meticulous, but it is not a film that lacks for an emotional core; it is not a movie that lacks for warmth. Interstellar feels like a conscious attempt to cast off the image of a cynical and cold film-maker.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

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