Wednesday, October 03, 2012

head games: reviews of "Inception," Ender's Game, "The Hunger Games," and "Oldboy"

Over the past two months, I've had some interesting cinematic and literary experiences, all of which share the theme of head games. Christopher Nolan's "Inception," starring that puny blond ninja turtle Leonardo DiCaprio, takes us through the deliriously funky layer-cake of human consciousness; Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is a 1970s sci-fi novel about the training of a boy genius who may be earth's last hope against an insectoid race, but the story contains a twist at the dénouement-- a massive head-fake for the reader; "The Hunger Games," starring the earnest-as-hell Jennifer Lawrence, is a movie (based on Suzanne Collins's novel) about mind control through the media; and finally, Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy," starring the hammer-and-scissors-wielding Choi Min-shik, is just a good old-fashioned twisted psychodrama, with great emphasis on the psycho.

1. "Inception"

Non ! Rien de rien ...
Non ! Je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal — tout ça m'est bien égal !

Non ! Rien de rien ...
Non ! Je ne regrette rien...
C'est payé, balayé, oublié
Je me fous du passé!

"Inception," Christopher Nolan's head-tripper of a film, came out in 2010. The basic premise isn't far removed from that of Dennis Quaid's 1984 "Dreamscape": clandestine dream infiltration. Of course, the rules of the game are different in those two movies: in "Dreamscape," if your dream-self dies, you die in real life (a theme picked up by 1999's "The Matrix"), but in "Inception," if your dream-self dies, you simply wake back up in actual reality (or do you?).

"Inception," like "The Matrix," is a movie for nerds. It's full of intellectual Easter eggs-- sly philosophical and intertextual allusions, as well as convoluted, ouroboros-like self-references. Some critics have complained that this is a movie about itself, a claim that has been interpreted to mean it's either a movie about moviemaking, or an extended metaphor about extended metaphors. Dr. David Kyle Johnson, editor and contributor to the compendium Inception and Philosophy ("The Matrix," loaded with its share of philosophical and religious Easter eggs, got its own scholarly ...and Philosophy treatment some years back), has pointed out that (see his video here), if you line up most of the main characters' names, they spell D-R-E-A-M-S. Johnson also notes that Hans Zimmer's music for the opening credits is a slow-motion reference to Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien"-- the tune that the dream-invaders hear when it's time to bug out of their mark's dream. The slo-mo is a nod to Nolan's idea that time flows differently in different layers of dreaming. These are only two examples of the Easter eggs available to the astute filmgoer.

The basic setup for "Inception" is that Cobb, played by DiCaprio, invades people's minds in the hunt for information. What he does is a form of corporate espionage, since his targets are primarily powerful businesspeople whose secrets he aims to uncover. The film's main plotline involves an ambitious project: inception, i.e., the implantation of an idea as opposed to the theft of one. This project is being backed by Saito, the Japanese rival of a large Western conglomerate headed by Maurice Fischer (Peter Postlethwaite), a dying man whose son Robert Michael (Cillian Murphy) resents Fischer the elder. The goal is to persuade the son, through subconscious means, to break up his father's conglomerate.

Most of the movie is devoted to the main characters' adventures in Robert Michael's headspace. We learn a lot about the ground rules of dream-invasion along the way. We learn, for instance, that dreamers can develop defense mechanisms in the form of subconscious "projections" that can focus on and attack the dream-invaders. Cobb has another worry, too: his dead wife Mallory (Marion Cotillard, who played Edith Piaf in "La môme"), sporting the sinister nickname "Mal" (in French, le mal = evil), keeps popping up during these heists, complicating every operation. Cobb feels guilt over his wife's suicide, because he may very well have carried out the first successful inception on her, by giving her the idea that she was still inside a dream when she killed herself in real life. We also learn about the pliable, plastic, multilayered nature of the dreaming mind; in one early scene, we witness several arrondissements of Paris folding in on themselves like a cosmic waffle being folded by God. In other scenes, we see Escher-like staircases, explosions that dream-characters take for granted, and wildly fluctuating gravity.

"Inception" is a mixture of heist, noir, and sci-fi. Overall, I found it watchable despite its convoluted plot, but I did feel frustrated about the rules of dream physics. You see, to my mind, dreams are far more flexible than how they're portrayed in Nolan's film. They're wild, often nonsensical-- and casually so. Shifts and transitions are simply matters of fact, not cause for drama. Spike Jonze's "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" comes closer to portraying this unbridled interiority than does Nolan's film. I suppose the strictness of the rules matters to Nolan because, in his zeal for combining film genres, he was also shoehorning in the action genre, and you can't make a decent action film without some sort of time pressure to motivate the characters. This fact was most evident in the third reel of "Inception" during the latter stages of the dream-invasion, when the van containing our heroes is slowly falling off the bridge, serving as a timer for what was happening in other levels of the dream.

A good analogy for Nolan's concept of the dreaming mind is not so much a labyrinth as a skyscraper: in Nolan's dreamworld, levels of consciousness are clearly demarcated and interpenetrating (think: elevator shafts transpiercing a building's floors), and are also lucid and coherent. This clarity and rigidity actually made it harder for me to suspend disbelief, probably because it ran fundamentally against the grain of my own notions of what dreams are. Nolan's landscape just isn't savage or protean enough.

All the same, dream-invasion is a team effort, and the ensemble cast-- consisting of practically everyone who appeared in the latest Batman movie (Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, et al.)-- did a fine job with their performances, although I still have trouble taking the diminutive DiCaprio seriously as a lead actor. In all, I'd say "Inception" was enjoyable, but it didn't push my nerd buttons in quite the way that "The Matrix" had done in 1999. Both "Inception" and "The Matrix" possess a sense of fun and adventure, but while "The Matrix" gleefully took the religious fork in the road, "Inception" grimly veered into the realm of the more self-seriously philosophical. I may have to watch "Inception" again just to get a better handle on all the crisscrossing plotlines, the details I know I missed after only a single viewing, and the deeper themes lurking in the background, patrolling the cinematic depths like sharks in the dark.

2. Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game is a 1970s-era sci-fi classic, originally published in serial form, then as a novel in 1985. Like William Gibson's Neuromancer, Card's opus anticipates, by several decades, communication technologies that we denizens of the twenty-first century take for granted. The story centers on Andrew Wiggin, whose nickname "Ender" is a cute mispronunciation of "Andrew." Six-year-old Ender is also a genius, like his older siblings Valentine and Peter. While most of the novel focuses on Ender, part of the story tracks Valentine, who adores Ender, and Peter, who is Ender's first, and possibly greatest, tormentor. A lot of the novel reminded me of the travails of Harry Potter, a much-abused child hero who exploded onto the literary scene two decades after Ender first took the stage.

In Ender's universe, it is a time of war. As in Robert Heinlein's magnificent Starship Troopers, the enemy is insectile: the hive-minded Formics, who are given the discomfiting moniker "Buggers" (cf. Heinlein's Bugs). The earth has battled the Buggers for years, and planetary extinction is a real possibility. In desperation, we Terrans recruit child-geniuses for training in an academy known simply as Battle School. Part of this training includes three-dimensional zero-gee combat in a chamber called the Battle Room: a place often filled with obstacles, in which teams of children essentially play a form of Laser Tag. Ender proves to be a tactical and strategic whiz, and he quickly garners an unbroken string of victories. At the same time, Ender's mentors ensure that Ender experiences social isolation and ostracism, all in an attempt to anneal him to the pressures of real battle.

One of the most delicious ironies of the book is that Ender doesn't see himself as an actual killer, but he personally-- and unknowingly-- kills at least two fellow students. In both cases, it was the other student who provoked the fight: Ender's opponents' own hubris did them in, and Ender is convinced that he has only seriously injured his assailants. These two deaths are a precursor to the book's central head fake (I hope you won't mind a spoiler about a book from the 1970s!): Ender's latter-stage combat "training" hasn't been training at all-- it's been the real thing. Without knowing it, Ender has actually been battling the Buggers, commanding genuine fleets in real space like a true admiral. Ender's improvisational ability and combat acumen prove too much for the Formics, who suffer defeat after ignominious defeat at Ender's hands. In the end, Ender effects a near-genocide, leaving only a single queen egg alive.

And this, to me, was the most disappointing part of Card's novel. Sci-fi authors often fall down when portraying aliens; I normally find that the aliens suffer from a failure of imagination. In Ender's Game, Ender encounters the last surviving queen, who is still housed in her egg and awaiting the proper time and place to hatch. The queen "speaks" to Ender through direct telepathy, thereby obviating the need for a linguistic medium like English. She expresses her surprise and sadness about the human/Formic war, claiming that the Formics didn't realize quickly enough that human beings were indeed a form of sentient life, despite our lack of a hive mind. That such a deep being-to-being entente is even possible is something of a disappointment for me; it would have been better had the Formics remained mysterious in their motives. Ender himself feels guilty at having nearly extinguished the Formic race-- something of a PC move on the author's part.

In fact, I tend to view Ender's Game as a critical leftist response to Heinlein's right-tilting manifesto, Starship Troopers. Ender experiences years of what is essentially child abuse at the hands of his military mentors; the reader is invited to view Ender's treatment negatively, and not as a necessary evil for the earth's survival. Whereas Heinlein shrugs and adopts an "us or them" mentality in the battle for cosmic Lebensraum, Card is obviously revolted by any notion of genocide.

Along with being an adventure story, Ender's Game is an exploration of human foibles: in one major subplot, we follow Peter and Valentine's escapades on the Internet as they inject radical political concepts into public discourse through online alter egos, stirring up the hornet's nest of competing global superpowers, all in an effort to maneuver Peter, the psychopathic bully with a utopian vision, into an eventual position of power.

Overall, I found the novel readable and fascinating, despite its disappointing ending. Ender's Game is ambitious in scope: it tackles many provocative themes and is a sometimes-unnerving exploration of human psychology. It works well as a critical response to Starship Troopers, and should probably be read in tandem with Heinlein's book.




Charles said...

Believe it or not, but I've never read Ender's Game, so I will limit my comments to Inception, which I have seen several times.

Two quick comments on your description of the film:

1) I think there might be some confusion about the role that projections (which I started thinking of as NPCs, to borrow an RPG term) play in dreams. When you say, "dreamers can develop defense mechanisms in the form of subconscious 'projections' that can focus on and attack the dream-invaders," it sounds like the projections are developed as a defense mechanism. This is not true: projections are simply what you populate the dream world with (just as in real life). In the Inception world, though, projections can act sort of like white blood cells as well--if they sense an invader, they will attack. They can also be "militarized" if a person receives training, as we saw with Robert Michael's dream.

2) A couple sentences later, you say, "Cobb feels guilt over his wife's suicide, because he may very well have carried out the first successful inception on her, by giving her the idea that she was still inside a dream when she killed herself in real life." This is a little off: Dom and Mal had spent something like fifty years in limbo, and it got to the point where Mal forgot that the life they were living wasn't real. Actually, she chose to forget--she locked her totem away so that she would never be reminded that her world wasn't real. Dom's inception involved finding the totem and setting it spinning. The plan backfired when Mal woke up from the dream but couldn't shake the idea that her world wasn't real. We aren't told, exactly, but I suspect that she did not trust her totem anymore because she knew or suspected that Dom had gotten hold of it. I'm a little fuzzy on that, to be honest, because it is never really explained. But the bottom line is that Cobb did not plant the idea that she was in a dream in real life. (Actually, reading your sentence again, I find that I am confused by the wording. Maybe that's not what you were saying? In fairness, I didn't really understand this part on my first viewing.)

Um, OK, so those weren't so quick. Anyway, I enjoyed Inception, and I didn't really have the problems that you seemed to have in terms of suspension of disbelief. If a world is convincing and consistent enough, even if it goes against my own notions of what it should be, I'm generally a pretty easy sell. Granted, I wouldn't say that Nolan's dream world is completely consistent--there are things I still don't quite get, and things I'm not sure really work--but it is consistent enough, at least for me.

I'm curious, though, because you didn't answer the one question that is on everyone's minds when the film ends: does it fall or doesn't it? I think it's deliberately left as a "Lady or Tiger" moment, and everyone has their own answer. What's yours?

(Also, is DiCaprio's size the reason why you can't take him seriously as a lead actor? I used to be a big DiCaprio hater myself, but you can't deny that the man has real acting chops. Or maybe you can. I've just seen him turn in good performances too many times to dismiss him any longer.)

Bratfink said...

Just wondering if you ever saw 'Soldier' with Kurt Russell. [] This is one of my favorite movies, ever!

Something you said about being trained to fight at a young age brought it to mind.

Carry on.

Kevin Kim said...


Regarding (1), I'm not sure my description of projections is technically incorrect, but I'll defer to your more detailed description since you've seen the film more times than I have. I think that, at worst, my description might be labeled incomplete.

As for (2), I'd need to see the film again, but am I misremembering to think that Cobb's first successful inception involved Mal, and that that inception involved her inability to convince herself that she was back in the real world? I thought that someone (maybe Saito) had made a big deal about the fact that an inception had been done before the attempt on Robert Michael, i.e., that it wasn't unprecedented.

As for the last moment of the film: I've read a few reviews and geek-analyses of the film that claim that whether the totem continues spinning or falls down is beside the point. The point is that Cobb accepts his situation and is content to reunite with his kids.

This is remarkably similar to the ethical/ontological situation for Thomas Covenant, the protag of Stephen R. Donaldson's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Covenant spends most of the series rejecting the reality of the alternate universe into which he's been thrust, but in the end he fights on its behalf not because he accepts that it's real, but because he cares about it. (Thomas = doubter; Covenant = promise/commitment)


Never saw "Soldier." Wasn't there also a movie titled "Soldier" starring Ken Wahl?

Ah-- here we go. He was in "The Soldier":

Kevin Kim said...


But to answer your totem question more directly: I'd like to think that the totem stops spinning and falls over, and that Cobb is really back with his kids, with no murder charges hanging over his head.

Kevin Kim said...

Oh, yeah-- I forgot to address my attitude toward DiCaprio. It's not merely that he's shrimpy. His boyish looks also detract from whatever gravitas he's attempting to conjure. It's a bit like trying to take Michael J. Fox seriously in a serious dramatic role. Yeah, I admit that Leo's a very good actor; I enjoyed his performance in "The Departed." But even in that film, he was surrounded by cinematic heavyweights, who compensated for his lack of "mass," dramatically speaking.

Kevin Kim said...

Geek explanation here.

The above link contains this link to an "explanation" of the movie's ending, here.

See also the video of Dr. Johnson, to which I link in my original "Inception" post, as he argues that "Inception" is itself an inception.

Elisson said...

If you liked The Matrix and Inception, then just wait three weeks: Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell, promises to blow both of them away.

Re Ender's Game, what you really need to do right now is getcha a copy of Speaker for the Dead, Card's first sequel to EG. It's a must-read. The others in the series are OK, as is the Ender's Shadow series... but really, SftD is essential.

Charles said...

"I think that, at worst, my description might be labeled incomplete."

Fair enough. That was my impression as well, for whatever my comments may have conveyed.

" I misremembering to think that Cobb's first successful inception involved Mal, and that that inception involved her inability to convince herself that she was back in the real world?"

Yes to the first, but no to the second, at least if I am understanding you correctly. But maybe I am mincing your words too finely? Cobb's inception did not involve Mal's inability to convince herself that she was back in the real world, if by this you mean that this was part of the inception. Cobb's inception was designed to convince Mal that limbo was not reality, but this idea led to her inability to convince herself that she was back in the real world. Essentially, limbo had so firmly become her reality that the waking world seemed like a dream, and the idea that Cobb had planted had so deeply taken root that she couldn't shake it.

Is that what you meant? Because when I read that line in your review--" giving her the idea that she was still inside a dream when she killed herself in real life"--I interpret it as meaning that Cobb somehow planted the idea in order to convince her that real life was a dream. I think my confusion stems from the use of "when" in this sentence. I would expect to see something like: " giving her the idea that she was still inside a dream when she was in limbo, an idea that led her to kill herself in real life."

So I'm still not sure if I'm just misinterpreting that sentence.

"I thought that someone (maybe Saito) had made a big deal about the fact that an inception had been done before the attempt on Robert Michael, i.e., that it wasn't unprecedented."

That was Cobb, actually. Saito wants it done, but he doesn't know if it's possible. Cobb is the only one who knows (Cobb's father might know, too). Cobb reveals the information to Arthur on the plane back from Tokyo.

Arthur: But this can't be done.
Cobb: It can. You just have to go deep enough.
Arthur: You don't know that!
Cobb: I've done it before.
Arthur: Did it work?
Cobb: Yes.
Arthur: Who did you do it to?
Cobb: (no answer)

Oh, one more thing that was niggling at the back of my mind but I just noticed consciously: it's Robert Fischer, not Robert Michael.

"As for the last moment of the film: I've read a few reviews and geek-analyses of the film that claim that whether the totem continues spinning or falls down is beside the point. The point is that Cobb accepts his situation and is content to reunite with his kids."

That's a good point. A very good point, actually. It kind of changes the way you look at the film completely.

But, like you, I have always thought that the top stopped spinning.

As for the boyishness of Leo Dicaprio: He still looks boyish to you? He was definitely boyish in Romeo and Juliet and The Beach, but in recent years he's hardened quite a bit. I think he's going the way of Al Pacino, to tell you the truth. Al Pacino was also a very handsome young man, but turned very "craggy" in his later years. I see DiCaprio going the same way, and I think he will continue to take on more dramatic roles. (Robert Downey, Jr. is another good example of this paradigm. He was very boyish in Weird Science, when he played a high school student at the age of 20. Even in Only You, nine years later, he still had that very boyish, mischievous charm.)

Also, great link to that treatment of the film. After watching Inception for the first time I scoured the internet for explanations, and somehow I managed to miss that one. I see now that I never really did understand limbo. To tell you the truth, I still get confused if I think about the film too much.

Kevin Kim said...


I can tell you're really bothered by that tantalizingly vague sentence of mine. I should've been clearer. I'll reply at greater length tomorrow; tonight, I'm too worn out after having taught those crap children at YB.

Charles said...

Heh. I wouldn't say really bothered. But Inception is tricky enough as it is, and yes, it does bug me when I can't get a handle on a sentence. Call it an occupational hazard.

Take you time, though. I'll survive.

(The word verification just showed me a word with a freaking umlaut in it--and then had a hissy fit when I didn't type it. Geez.)

Kevin Kim said...


Long-delayed reply to your comments. Apologies.

re: Robert Fischer/Robert Michael

Yeah, I was aware his last name was Fischer, but I referred to him by his two given names.

re: what I meant with that ambiguous sentence

I'm no longer sure what I meant, exactly, and too much time has passed for me to have retained le fil de l'argument. If anything, I need to take your comments into consideration, go back and re-watch the film (something I'm not in a hurry to do, truth be told), then perhaps write another blog entry about the movie's ideas.

Charles said...

Ah, see, I didn't even remember that his middle name was Michael.

As for the other question... I've since forgotten the sentence, so I guess all is settled.

I've seen the film a number of times since my first viewing, and I believe it rewards repeated viewings. I enjoy it, at any rate. But I still try not to think about it too hard.

And since we're on the subject of film again, I'm going to repeat my recommendation of Argo... the power of Ben Affleck compels you!