The Facts of Life in Three Sci-Fi Millennial Fairy Tales

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was released to resounding praise, establishing the director as one of only a handful of cinematic artists whose name has become synonymous with critical plaudits and box office hoohah. Yet the difference between Nolan and other auteurs of populist embrace is the consistent intellectualism of his vision.

While the Spielbergs and Tarantinos wrench the viscera, Nolan tickles the cerebellum. His dialogue requires full attention, and he holds that attention by suspending threads of thought the way Hitchcock did emotions. Images of well-spoken men wearing dour expressions and designer suits have become to Nolan what terrycloth robes and light-sabers are to George Lucas or blood-spattered blades to Quentin Tarantino.

His ability to carve out brainy protagonists has become bankable even as applied to comic book heroes like Batman, the adventures of whom we can’t help but feel in our gut but which, under Nolan’s tutelage, we now consider with frontal lobes intact. Cinema is a felt medium; most directors would play to that strength. Others, like Nolan, let the constructed thematic intricacies of their images carry equal weight as the easier-elicited, felt aspects. Nolan has earned the trust of his audience by playing to the smartest version of it, by working within a tradition of genre-bent stories that depend most upon figuring out and thinking over.

Nolan’s most recent fantasy can be cast against two other highly successful millennial fairy tales of that particular “reality gone wacky” vein, where visual perception of what is real becomes part and parcel of characters’ story arc, the Michel Gondry-directed, Charlie Kaufman-penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Wachowski Brothers’ information-age adventure, The Matrix. These films are an espionage/”long con” story, a romantic comedy, and an adventure cum bildungsroman, respectively, movies marketed to different audiences, created for different effects, dressed in markedly different visual styles (can you imagine Carrie-Anne Moss’s gothed-out Trinity, Jim Carrey’s nerdified Joel Barish, and Leo DiCaprio’s Cobb showing up to the same party? Neither can I).

Yet there is a commonality between them besides that people’s brains get fiddled with, and stuff goes sideways. Information, or lack of information, figures heavily as a plot device in all three sci-fi films. While the true pleasures of each are mostly wrapped up in supposing how concepts of reality would be susceptible to alterations of human ability to understand them, this understanding revolves around missing bits of data and unknown facts that, once known, change everything.

Inception’s densely woven tapestry of shared dreams and co-opted subconscious minds would read like the Mapquest of a hairball were it not for its “long con” McGuffin. A team of mentalist spies cut straight from 007’s cloth are tasked with an impossible task, or so they inform us, the planting an original thought in their mark’s mind.

The film doles out heaping spoonfuls of exposition around the backdrop of mental espionage, but things pick up once the focus moves from extracting information to implanting it. Still more vital to Inception’s burgeon of the story is the DiCaprio character’s unresolved marital issues and their implications for the stability of his team’s shared dream world. Reality may be subject to the dreamer’s mind, but what that dreamer knows or does not know (apparently) determines the game’s rules.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind assigns equal importance to the dreamers’ knowledge, though this knowledge torments Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s characters. They are a lovably toxic couple driven by each other to the brink of paying for the service of forgetting one another. Much of the film traces this journey into imposed ignorance and finally suggests that knowledge, or lack thereof, does not necessarily determine whom one loves.

The Matrix boasts two vital secrets turned plot devices: The first one frames the Wachowski’s imagined world, mainly that life as we know it is a computer program from which only a chosen few may break free by freeing their minds (whatever that means.) The second is a trick played on the film’s hero by an all-knowing Oracle. The film’s story arc and the possibility of a Matrix sequel depend entirely on whether or not Neo is the One (whatever that means.) The Oracle tells him that he’s not, which somehow takes off the burden of “oneness”, enabling Neo to prove the prophecy and fulfill his potential.

A similar technique is practiced by soldiers who, facing battle, mentally count themselves as already dead. The idea is that as the pressure of survival is lifted, the possibilities of bravery increase. False information perpetuates the self-fulfilled prophecy of Neo’s becoming the One.

The appeal of Inception, as well as the long line of sci-fi fantasy stories stretching from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Matrix, is to make us believe that reality is as pliable as a bit of newsprint cast upon silly putty, stretched and bent into an elongated version: “There is no spoon,” and so forth.

And yet, if these three examples of sci-fi Millenial fairy tales tell us anything, it’s the importance of conventional knowledge even in undone worlds. As reality gone sideways plays out within the interests of genre, information becomes the true lynchpin of all three story arcs. As the missing pieces of the genre puzzle emerge and unknown facts become the Story’s driving force, these films become more ordinary against their mind-blowing backdrop and more effective.

Good fantasy stories always provide inroads (and off-ramps) between our world and those imagined. While cinematic reality can be bent to the whims of the CGI wizards, entertainment is always measured in terms of what works and what doesn’t.

What Christopher Nolan seems to get that many other modern storytellers don’t is that a story is essentially a mental exercise in suspended disbelief. Never mind the pitfalls of discriminating between fiction and non-fiction, abstract representation in the story is the suspension of “the real” or “what happens to be the case” in lieu of a “supposing”. Even stories most connected to realism require the framing device of removed perspective, the volunteerism of directing one’s attention to certain aspects of reality, certain pieces of the whole. Realism doesn’t claim to represent reality but rather couches itself within the ethos of “you were not there; you would not know without my telling” so that the telling becomes a “supposing” of real events.

Still, while realism serves as the baseline of seeing outside of oneself into abstraction, fantasy extends this “supposing” to impossible things and not just “things that happen not to be the case”. The fantasy world runs alongside the abstract one, and the process of “supposing” inherent to understanding any story extends even further into genre. The fantasy exercise is extremely aesthetically rewarding, which no doubt speaks to why fairy tales are so popular; they are like that famous description of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, “like most men [or stories] except moreso.”

Inception is a wonderfully dizzying example of the kind of story we work to understand that equally rewards our efforts in the currency of an imagined world.