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John Scalzi – How Inception Is Not Dreamscape 2: The Quickening


I was talking with an old friend of mine about the summer releases this year and our general feeling of utter blah-ness about the whole summer season, when I said to him, “Well, look at it this way: at least you have Inception to look forward to,” naming the upcoming film in which Leonardo DiCaprio takes a stroll through other people’s dreams, directed by Christopher Nolan.

“Oh, that,” he said. “I don’t get that one at all. It’s the same basic concept as Dreamscape, and I already saw that. I don’t know why anyone would get excited about what’s basically yet another remake.”

One reason, of course, is that Dreamscape came out 25 years ago, i.e., at a time when a lot of Inception‘s opening-weekend audience was still in a haploid state. In that respect, it’s similar to asking why tween girls are excited about the Jonas Brothers when there’s already been the New Kids on the Block.


I have a tween-age daughter here at home. Every time I point out to
her that there’s an earlier analogue of every single piece of music she
likes, she looks at me as if to say, You poor, sad, balding little
man. You just don’t get it, do you? She does it with love, mind you.
But she still does it. Likewise, telling a 21-year-old guy that he can
get pretty much the same experience with a quarter-century-old flick
starring Dennis Quaid and directed by the guy who did The Stepfather
that he’ll get with a Leonardo DiCaprio movie directed by the guy who did The
Dark Knight
is likely to get you a similar result.

But
beyond that, I would take exception to the argument that Inception is
basically a remake. What the two films have in common is a central
conceit, or plot point — in this case, both films feature a man who can
enter other people’s dreams and, in doing so, learn things about them or
change the course of their lives. It’s a pretty specific plot point, to
be sure. But it’s also like saying that, because the film 9 features a
main character made out of bits of cloth that tries to rescue a fellow
living doll from the clutches of evil, it’s a remake of Toy Story.
Anyone who’s seen both films knows that’s not the case; despite certain
thematic elements, they’re different stories. Heck, Dark City and
The Matrix have so much in common — including production dates —
that the latter used the leftover sets of the former. And yet, for all
their similarities, they are two very different viewing experiences.

I’ve
been pretty consistent in my opinion that Hollywood goes a little too
often to the well of sequels and remakes, but, philosophically, I don’t
really have any problem with filmmakers dipping out of the same well of
inspiration or playing with the same basic ideas and running variations
of those themes, especially when the filmmakers themselves have wildly
divergent perspectives. As an example of this, I give you Michael Herr’s
Vietnam War memoir, Dispatches, which served as a partial
inspiration for at least two films. In the hands of Francis Ford
Coppola, it was transmuted into Apocalypse Now. In the hands of
Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket. That’s not a bad spread
there.

Inception doesn’t have similarities just to Dreamscape,
of course. You could spend a merry day name checking influences from a
number of cinematic predecessors, including the aforementioned Matrix and Dark City and, of course, director Christopher Nolan’s
own Batman movies. But for me, as a viewer, the question isn’t whether a
filmmaker uses the same basic ideas as one film or borrows other ideas
from another film and outright steals them from a third. The question
for me is what the filmmakers do once they start putting those ideas
together as a film. Do it poorly as a filmmaker, and you’ll be told
you’ve created a cheap knockoff. Do it well, and you’ll be told you’ve
breathtakingly reinvented the concept.

And this, to my mind, is a
fine reason for my friend to check out Inception, even if he’s
seen Dreamscape: to watch a filmmaker either master his
influences and predecessors or be swallowed up by them. In that
respect, my friend has access to a joy that the 21-year-old who’s never
seen Dreamscape does not: the excitement of watching something
that’s been done before get done again — possibly (and definitely, in
this case) even better.

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