A few weeks ago I was watching the recent sci-fi action flick "Surrogates," which is set in a future when everyone avoids the real world by plugging their minds into physical, robotic avatars that go out as better-looking representations of their lazy and apparently too self-conscious counterparts in even the most mundane of circumstances. During one of the movie's chase sequences I realized an extra benefit to the concept: it allowed the filmmakers to have characters that don't conform to the physics real humans are bound by. The surrogates could leap like superheroes. How exactly, I'm not certain, but it doesn't matter. All that matters is that the movie could open up to so much more than a normal action flick is capable of.
I thought of this realization before going into "Inception." I knew the exciting thing about the film would be the benefit of having the plot set primarily in the dream world. Forget surrogates and even superheroes. Dreams are really where filmmakers can get away with anything. After all, we'd seen the trailer. We'd seen one of the film's great spectacles, a Paris neighborhood folding in on itself. How else to do that, outside of the most fantastical magician tale (no, I haven't yet seen "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), than with dreams? Okay, but in a way movies are already dreams. "Inception" reflexively draws attention to this, though not too explicitly, in statements about how dream architects can make things that have never existed, that couldn't exist in the real world.
So what's the point of ever worrying about physics and plausibility when making films? Why not just have every movie end with someone waking up, revealing the whole thing to be a dream? Because for some reason, though we're fascinated by movies dealing partly with unconscious settings, we never ever tolerate, let alone appreciate, those movies that completely tell us nothing in the movie happened or was real. This, despite the fact that the majority of us understand that movies aren't reality. Still, what films other than versions of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland" do we forgive for being just a dream? For me it's a cheap and redundant reminder of what movies are already to me. Every time the lights go up at the end of a movie I recognize that it's the end to the dream.
Of course the obvious difference between dreams and movies is that we don't really take part in and experience movies the way we do with dreams. Dreams can be rather passive, but not that much. And the moviegoer can't alter what's on the screen like she can potentially alter what's happening in the dream, as long as it's lucid. Film characters in dreams typically seem to know they're dreaming, so I love when they understand that they can do anything. There's a moment in "Inception" where one person tells another to dream bigger, acknowledging the miraculous possibilities allotted to you in the dream world. That first character is better than most, though, with such conjuring. He can also become other people by way of some kind of deceptive trick (I have been other people in my dreams but I've never been able to control it).
The magical power of a person lucidly dreaming has been explored many times in past films about dreams, particularly those that like "Inception" involve a collective unconscious. Though not as expressly about dreaming, "The Matrix" is an obvious and admitted influence on "Inception." When the first trailers for the film hit, many people brought up the similarities to "Dreamscape." Plot-wise, sure, though with its clever special effects and luscious production design, the newer film bears little resemblance to that '80s conspiracy thriller and its spare sets and Georgia O'Keefe-like tunnels into the dream world. Other films with similar dream-invasion plots include the anime "Paprika," about a machine that allows therapists to enter the minds of patients, and of course the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" series, of which I most enjoy the third installment, "Dream Warriors," for its take on role-playing within the dream as well as this concept of magic.
However, with the exception of elements of "The Matrix" films, none of those predecessors fully capture the correlations between movies and dreams as far as special effects, design, editing and even extras are concerned. Not that we ever -- as far I know -- have other people in our dreams with us to upset those extras. But the way the film reminds us of the way dreams play with time and distance is a perfect allegory for the way movie stories are told through cutting. Finally, for those of us film lovers who will never enjoy real life as much as we enjoy the movies, there is a certain and very large wink at the escapism factor of cinema. There have been plenty of times when I'd wished I could just get trapped inside the limbo of the film world, as is possible in the dream infrastructure of "Inception."
Another thing it does seemingly well is the idea of placing dreams within dreams like a matryoshka doll, which in terms of the film analogy is like watching a film within a film within a film within a film. For "Inception" it's watching a Bond movie inside a heist movie inside "The Matrix" inside a grief drama. There's no literal filmmaking storyline, though, so it doesn't have quite the same level of reflexiveness as, say, Tom DiCillo's "Living in Oblivion" does with its constant awakenings from dream sequences. And probably there are other similar explicit blurrings of dreams and moviemaking that I'm not remembering at the moment. Anyway, trying to trace and mention all the significant films dealing with the fine line between dreams and cinema would require going back very far. Dream sequences in film are as old as film itself (have you ever seen George Albert Smith's "Santa Claus," from 1898, for instance? If not, here you go).
I would like to wrap this post with a look at one film that I think captures the association between dreams and movies best: Buster Keaton's "Sherlock, Jr." It does this so directly in fact that it's almost redundant to have Keaton's projectionist character first fall asleep and then, in an effect that must have been like the folding Paris of its time, climb up into a movie. Couldn't he have simply dreamed that he was a detective, or alternatively just fantastically entered a film screen (a la the reverse of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Last Action Hero"). No, he had to go through this double-layered trick, the opposite of what we all do when we go to see "Inception." First we let ourselves enter the world of the film and then we enter the world of the dream. I can't help but think it's a bit superfluous.