So I saw Inception last night. One friend sent me an SMS describing it as “cream in your pants awesome”. A Facebook contact announced to her 457 friends: “Oh my god – AWESOME!!!!!!” That’s six exclamation marks. That means pretty fucking awesome, right?
Well, I dunno.
It was definitely a damn good film. The concept was brilliant. I also took a fancy to the Uni-student female character… very pretty & natural-looking; no fake blonde curls or balloon lips here.
But that’s beside the point. The point is, was it the next Matrix like some people claim?
The thing is, it’s hard to compare the two coz in my opinion, Inception’s strength is The Matrix’s weakness and vice versa. Basically it’s like this.
Critics & audiences alike called The Matrix the defining film of the 90s. At Uni I even read a text (how Media & Communications of me… a “text”) that divided cinema into two periods: pre-Matrix and post-Matrix. Hell, “post-Matrix” is pretty much a standard term nowadays, the next diner a few miles up past “postmodern”. In short, The Matrix was huge – even the soundtrack became a staple of teenage boys’ CD collections & ushered Rammstein into the mainstream – and its success can be attributed to the fact that it captured, vividly & artistically, the zeitgeist of the late 90s when it was released. In the space of two decades, our world had indeed become saturated with computers and permeated by interconnecting networks & cyberspace, leading to ever-greater media saturation and a blurring between the real and the virtual… and The Matrix, with its seemingly endless streams of green binary code, mirrored with unprecedented flair and conviction the uncertainties and implications arising from this civilizational change, encapsulated at the time by the growing fear and awe of the Y2K bug as the turn of the century loomed.
Inception, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a powerful aesthetic or atmosphere. It doesn’t encapsulate the spirit of the ‘Noughties’, doesn’t crackle with distinctive imagery, fashion or music from its era like The Matrix. It’s pretty generic. It could’ve been filmed anytime in the previous decade or even the 80s, although its “post-Matrix” direction still comes through quite blatantly at times… slow-motion raindrops, anyone?
However, this weakness is also a strength, because Inception’s concept is far more abstract and therefore far more universal, viable and enduring. The Matrix, ultimately a Messiah story steeped in the classic high-tech dystopic future scenario, creates its own fictional reality – a convincing one, but also very specific. Earth’s surface has been taken over by big black machines, and humans have fortified themselves in the planet’s core where they face invasion and extinction at the hands of said machines – with an anomaly in the form of a megalomanic ex-enforcer of the machines’ matrix. Not something I’d wager on happening anytime soon, or ever.
10 years later, this scenario of artificial intelligence gone bad – initially portrayed all the way back in the 1920s with Metropolis, and juiced for all it’s worth ever since (remember how big Terminator 2 was in the early 90s?) – is even starting to seem kind of dated. We can see technology isn’t mutating into armoured shells of simmering hatred for humanity… if anything, it’s getting smaller, cuter and ever more consumer-friendly. Instead of armed cyborgs hissing at us in vocoder English, the 21st century has given us kitten-light iPads, milk-white Wiis and adorable Pixar films.
Inception, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with technology but human psychology – something that’s always been there, always will be, and which is still pretty murky territory ripe for exploration and poetic license-taking. Science still doesn’t know exactly why we dream, how these movies in our mind’s eye are generated or what they mean, and what their effects are on the other reality we occupy – the waking world. In this sense, Inception’s “artificial reality” is far more believable and possible than The Matrix’s, and a lot more intimately familiar. While telephones have never teleported people and a random black dude in leather will probably never offer you insight-stimulating pills (then again…), we’ve all had the experience of Inception’s induced comas, lucid dreams and sudden ‘kicks’ back into reality – not to mention the subtle but immensely potent power of suggestion.
I guess in a nutshell, I’m saying Inception was the better concept, Matrix the better entertainment.
Inception’s characters, for example, aren’t as memorable. The Matrix had a brilliant villain in the smirking, crisp-suited Agent Smith, or the dreadlocked ghost twins of Reloaded. To be fair, Leo’s lead was more interesting than Reeves’ one-dimensional Neo, but even then, the psychological strain of wanting to reunite with the wife & kids has been done to death in Hollywood scripts.
And considering Leo’s character was thus afflicted, Nolan could’ve utilised Cobb’s wife to far more dramatic effect. In the first third of the film she manifests as a vicious and unpredictable figure, and I was convinced that as the film progressed she would loom ever larger into a menacing, eventually even terrifying “projection” (as they’re called in the film) as Leo loses his grip on his mind. Yet this never happens; the nightmarish Silence of the Lambs sequence that Pretty Female Sidekick might’ve found herself in, in the basement of Leo’s subconscious, never unfolds – Mrs Cobs never evolves into anything more than a slightly hostile, eventually just annoying tear generator who helps Leo play out his hackneyed internal conflict. There’s actually a lack of satisfying, nail-biting action right throughout the film; for all the gunfire, back-alley chases and explosions, the action always seems hurried, confusingly & hastily directed, like these were sequences that simply had to be got through to get to the next scene – Good Guy jumps out from behind corner into a hail of bullets, blindly fires his gun, two Villains miraculously fall dead, Good Guy keeps running, repeat… uninspired and not very believable stuff, all the more disappointing considering it’s from the director of Batman Begins/Dark Knight. This is where The Matrix, with its ingeniously choreographed martial arts duels/lobby shoot-out, is undeniably superior.
Ultimately, of course, it’s stupid to compare two excellent films as an A vs B contest. I’ll say outright that Inception didn’t thrill me as much as The Matrix did back in 1999, despite its “next Matrix” tag. The Matrix was the more intense and colourful experience for me, thanks to its much grander scale, its unique, in some cases larger-than-life characters and its characteristic “worn & torn future” aesthetic, perfectly reflecting the 90s penchant for both distressed grunge and sleek futurism. But precisely because it’s void of any caped superheroes or mechanical flying squid, Inception is probably the deeper, more realistic and ultimately more thought-provoking film – that, hopefully, will not sink into incomprehensible weirdness the way the Matrix trilogy did.