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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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The X-Files – Scary Monsters (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Scary Monsters is the episode that was in production when The X-Files was cancelled.

Due to the fact that news broke to the public at roughly the same time that it broke to the production team and that the ninth season was fond of shuffling episodes up and down the broadcast order, Scary Monsters aired almost three months after the cancellation was announced to the public. However, the production team were informed while they were working on the episode. Given the low ratings and muted reaction to the ninth season, the cancellation seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, it was quite a blow.

Doggett's burning down the house.

Doggett’s burning down the house.

That is perhaps the most notable fact about Scary Monsters, which is a disappointingly bland episode of television. As with Underneath before it, this is not an embarrassing episode by any measure. It just lacks any real energy or verve. Watching Scary Monsters, there is a sense that the production team were going through the motions, that the reserve of energy that drove the show through its finest seasons had been depleted. The show was running on empty, the production team’s imaginations all but empty.

It feels like the show should have something smart or ironic to say about a kid who can conjure monsters from his own limited imagination. Sadly, it is just a rote monster of the week.

"Now I know how Mulder felt during the season eight credits..."

“Now I know how Mulder felt during the season eight credits…”

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The Film Fan’s Curse: What Might Have Been…

The first photograph from the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges appeared on-line last week. It will star Will Sasso, Sean Hayes and Chris Diamantopoulos as the eponymous trio. Still, I can’t help wondering how many film fans looked at that picture and shared the exact same thought that popped into my head, mourning what might have been, rather than getting excited about what we had. Sure, most of the audience who see the film probably won’t know any better, but I can’t help be wonder what the original cast of the remake might have looked like.

Three of a kind of a letdown?

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