Sunday, 18 July 2010

On Christopher Nolan's "Inception"

Despite the glaring synopsis similarities, “Inception” was more like “Ocean's Eleven” than “Paprika” (2006 - recommended). The film has some promise, real world insight wise, and artistically: there are some small sparks of imagination, but they are doused as Christopher Nolan cements the plot into a simple, audience friendly concept.
+ First Thoughts (simulations, memes and strange loops):
It has rigid levels of dreams within dreams: 5 minutes of real world time dilates to an hour in dream, with the same factor applying to a dream within a dream, and so on down. This doesn't ring true: yes, I've dreamt I've woken up, while still asleep, but that is because any known concept can appear in dreams, it does not literally imply the existence of another level of (un)consciousness.

Nolan's rigid framework would have worked better in a computer simulation type setting. The Matrix is apparently attributable, in part, for his inspiration, according to some. "Feersum Endjinn" (I.M.Banks) features heavy time dilation within an unexpected computer substrate, with a protagonist spending years (decades) of subjective time roaming a virtual world, while mere hours/days pass outside. "Accelerando" (Charless Stross) has versions of people run at high speed, executing romanic compatibility tests that last subjective months. This is what came to my mind when the film had hustband and wife trapped in the deepest deeps of 'limbo' together for a one night lifetime.

The DiCaprio character has a spiel near the start (and end) saying something like:
What's the most successful parasite? *Ideas*, more so than bacteria, viruses, stomach worms; they have the power to totally change everything a person does.
I'm thinking: Hell yeah - memes! (Susan Blackmore)

Then the 'projection' of DiCaprio's dead wife (“Mal”) turns up to sabotages things during an 'extraction' (attempt to retrieve industrial secrets from a CEO using a forcibly shared dream).

I'm thinking: Hell yeah - “Strange Loops” (Douglas Hofstadter); we carry virtual, interactive dolls of people we know around in our heads, detailed enough to approximate their responses.

Amalgamating the two author's ideas: this free-willed apparition (or “projection”) would be a 'Selfplex' (Blackmore's Meme-plex of ideas that makes up our "I"/“me”/self) but of another person. If this 'Other-plex' (my contrivance) is of someone very well known (e.g. spouse), they could have as much depth of personality as one splinter of a person with multiple personality disorder.

This topic alone is enough for a movie; pseudo-immortality, brain/body hopping, identity questions, etc. This is explored only marginally, when DiCaprio laments to his wife's projection that she is not as detailed as the real thing. Well, at least the movie avoids religious conections altogether. Ironically, Hofstadter, while atheist, might argue that the imagined wife did have a sizable 'soul'. Particularly as the couple were supposed to have spent a subjective lifetime alone together (in deepest dream-land: 'limbo'). (IRL) Hofstadter's wife died, but he states that he makes an effort to continue her strange loop inside his brain, doing things she would have wanted, etc.

+ Second pass (summary, reality and lucid dreams):
The title, objective and revelation of the film is "Inception": the act of planting an idea in a person (through clever in dream trickery) that changes their very core, their raison d'etre even. In my language: re-writing their selfplex. His wife commits suicide because she remains convinced that her experiences are not real, even after waking from limbo, where DiCaprio planted the idea as a kindness.

Nolan has it that ideas can't be forcibly implanted, as the recipient naturally recognises (and rejects) foreign thoughts; they need to be coaxed towards original thought of their own...

Again, this seems ironically backwards; In reality, humans are meme machines, continuously, uncontrollably copying ideas, thoughts and behaviours off one another. One's entire selfplex is a pastiche of experiences from our environment, mostly from other selfplexes. There is no original thought, only conjunctions of memes (ideas) into new memes.

On the other hand, direct brain-to-brain interaction is nearly impossibly hard. Prudently, the functioning of the enabling technology is entirely glossed over in the film (reduced to a timer in a briefcase with a cord for each dreamer). I am pretty sure that fine-grained structure of each brain is quite different. Unlike computers, brains don't store and compare absolute representations of faces/buildings/etcetera as (digital) images. Each person's brain will likely have their own proprietary system of perception that has grown like a long established city; new conurbations adjoin existing ones, every city/brain is unnavigably unique to an outsider, yet provides all the same functions for it's residents.

Anyway, it's not my intention to pick out technical flaws here (trivially easy). The point is that detailed absolutes are hard to impart brain-to-brain. Video/film technology takes this kinda of brute-force approach, but are limited to 2 senses and require complete passivity. The words in a book take a minuscule fraction of the information to encode, but still impart complex experiences over the same kind of time frame. This is possible because words are a common interface between brains.

A receptive reader/listener can be coaxed to conjure up, in their heads, an endlessly convincing reality. A future brain-to-brain interface operating (covertly) at this high level, used to guide some form of lucid dreaming, could allow perfect deception. No mismatch between memory and dream experience would be possible, as the target would perceive only in terms of their own experiences/memories. Any level of detail they know would automatically be blended into perception; expectation = reality. So, for example, the texture of a rug's fibres would not trip up a thought thief, and a 'totem' would be useless.
Regular dreams tend to transition fluidly between disparate settings, people and any number of details. This could make observing a particular memory as hard as pulling a breath of air from a tornado, or as easy as getting a hypnotised subject to tell you their name. The lack of boring, predictable reality might be the 'tell' that one was dreaming. The lack of anything surprising might be a tip-off too (given that you can only perceive things your already know). Then again, surprise is just a subjective concept.

From my experience, dreaming looks to be a free-for all meme orgy; an explosion of ideas going off willy-nilly; random memes colliding in the night. The waking selfplex then tries desperately to force the chaos through it's clothes mangle of perception, flattening it, linearising it, to make sense. Of course all it ever gets out is a tie-dye of pseudo-gibberish, with the fading assurance that it felt real at the time...

Perhaps I'm biased because I've never had a lucid dream. This being so, I can't know for *certain* that reports of such things aren't just regular dreams themselves. After all, practitioners advise consciously training oneself to 'identify' dream states, repeatedly imagining what you're going to dream about, etc. i.e. the "lucid dream" meme is bound to end up partying with the rest eventually, and when it does, one's waking self would naturally assume that all the other memes that joined in where chosen deliberately. I think this is too sceptical, and I'd sorely love to spend some time in infinite fun space...

+ Conclusion:
Inception is easily an above average film, so take my criticisms with salt. The lack of creativity in the dream spaces is probably down to:

a) The context of a heist plot; the thought thieves are trying to create a plausibly realistic world to avoid the target realising it is a dream. More imagination might have been seen inside the old folks shared dream if we'd been allowed to look in. DiCaprio and wife's lifetime dream could plausibly have been limited to building and imagined cityscapes if they are indeed both obsessive architects.

b) Nolan's self proclaimed proclivity for analogue (real world) film technology over CGI.

c) The desire to create a palatable piece for mass consumption. Paprika was almost certainly intractably imaginative for most casual viewers. Although there is no apparent sex appeal in Inception, guns, special effects, ingenious gentlemen thieves and big name cast are all movie memes that are heavily selected for; bound to aid box office popularity.

+ Appendix Notes:
- Apparently the music score composer read Hofstadter for inspiration (“ Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”).

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