Sunday, May 1, 2011

Inception Lite

The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was a grand rush of a sci-fi movie, overflowing with eye-catching visuals, brimming with storytelling brio, and offering (for the many true believers) just enough emotional fission to mark it as a truly distinctive cinematic offering. Obviously, Hollywood (always know for it’s unabashedly and constant self-cannibalization), did more than just note the critical hosanna’s and major box office bugaloo of Inception, and we, the sturdy film going public—particularly those with a propensity towards the fabulist movie tale—must prepare ourselves to keep plunging down the movie-movie rabbit hole. In fact the last month, has seen not one, but two (almost three if you would like to stretch the boundaries a bit and include the Bradley Cooper vehicle, Limitless), variations of Inception Lite, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code.

Let’s examine the elements of the Inception Lite soup: mucho digital action, jigsaw puzzle plotting, godlike overseers, big themes swirling around matters of destiny and choices of free will, mind bending spatial or time travel, ever shifting narrative twists and shouts, artificial structural roles guided by the premise, intermittent gaping holes of logic, unintentionally preposterous leaps of movie going faith, and , always, a cool youngish (interchangeable) white male (Leo DiCaprio in Inception, Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau, Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code).

The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by The Bourne Ultimatum’s scribe George Nolfi, stars the aforementioned Damon, alongside John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Emily Blunt as, well, as pretty much par for the course in this breed of film, The Girl.Based (but largely altered) on a short story by sci-fi guru and visionary Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report), The Adjustment Bureau means to be part fabulist thriller and part Kafaesque nightmare, with Damon as an ambitious politician who manages to discover that there are bunch of officious government types running around in fedoras controlling and altering people’s fates. Of course, after running into The Girl in a public bathroom the hat guys emerge to inform him that his pursuit of the free-spirited woman is a definite no-no and, more importantly, a shake-it-up life changer that will forever imbalance some sort of pre-written destiny.

Matt’s politico doesn’t dig that noise, so the movie delineates his impulsive and determined dash away from the fates prescribed and towards the unfathomable possibility of true (and random) love. (And includes a whole lotta hanging out in the rain, where somehow the hat boys can’t see him.)

The ongoing discourse about choice and self-determination remains a wheezy center of the film, while the old school love story manages top generate a decent amount of classical movie romantic tension. Director Nolfi and his cinematographer John Toll craft some better-than-average sequences and a nice overall gray feel but the movie is never as provocative as it wants to be, nor does it succeed in laying out one of these suffocating blankets of paranoiac dread. Damon’s well-acted intensity is certainly a plus, but The Adjustment Bureau is merely palatable.

Source Code heads down yet another dark and deterministic alley as Gyllenhaal’s military man suddenly wakes up on a train with no conception of where is he and why he is there and gets blown into smithereens a mere eight minutes later. Once again, the hands of some mysterious bureaucrats (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) are holding onto the puppet strings and Gyllenhal’s gold soldier keeps getting sent back to the same time and place in a repeated loop, sweating and straining to solve the bombing before it goes boom-kaboom and, yup, falling under the spell of The Girl (Michelle Monaghan) he engages with on the train.

The young director behind Source Code is Duncan Jones, whose little seen 2009 effort, Moon, received much praise in certain circles and even gained a small but rabid post failed-release following. The earlier films showed that he was a burgeoning craftsman and perhaps even an original cinematic thinker, and Source Code demonstrates that he can confidently take on bigger material. To his everlasting credit he avoids the videogame stylistics that a movie of this sort could so easily fall into, and while the movie cruises along at an accelerated pace, replete with multiple jump starts, it doesn’t become another case of technical proficiency acing out filmmaking artistry.

Like Damon, Gyllenhall holds his own, as his slow transition from pure befuddlement to focused soothsayer is delivered with panache and his lone seeker figure gains resonance as he ping-pongs through some mind tripping editing and psychedelic explosions. The Source Code also deserves praise for framing it’s build-up of central figure anxiety with a slightly ironic, almost meta, tone.

As with Inception, both The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code are movies far too enraptured with their own too-cool-for-thou structures, and as much as they hint towards a big screen examination of some overwhelming existential morass they remain filtered through the vagaries of commercialism. (In the case of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s superior talents works towards making an audience forget all of that strained seriousness and eventually give in and jump on the glorious –but decidedly pseudo-intellectual—joy ride.) These films strive hard to elucidate and to pose significant philosophical conundrums, yet they ultimately work as entertainment baubles and remain extra sensory side trips with all too little emotional grounding. Presented with the unique opportunity to be given a chance to go backwards and change fate, or go sideways and forward to affect or bypass what supposedly has been determined will remain a lynchpin of both sci-fi and sci-fi cinema. It just ain’t that all-fired effective when the sounds of the whooshing coils and the clatter of the well-oiled machinery keeps unexpectedly protruding into the ever desired dream state.

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