Seen Inception yet? No?
Seriously, I’ll wait.
I have been looking forward to Inception for some time. Christopher Nolan did an amazing job generating buzz on a property about which we knew essentially nothing almost a year before it’s release, and I admit that when it comes to sci-fi I geek out and totally fall for that kind of thing. As the release date neared and we got little tidbits of information fed to us, I got even more excited. Judging from early previews, there was a distinct Matrix flavor to the film, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, I hoped that the film would be more original and stand on its own, transcending such comparisons. It did so, with flying colors, and gave us some of the most interesting and original sci-fi in a long time. I could go on, but I don’t really want to talk about the film itself, but more what it may have spawned.
The night before I saw Inception, I was chatting online with some friends, and I said that I was hoping that the film could invigorate the cyberpunk genre, since it looked at the time like it had that type of feel. I could not have been more wrong. Inception does not breathe life back into cyberpunk, it created its own, brand-new genre, which I am calling psychopunk. I have had people tell me “mindpunk” or “dreampunk” would sound better, but I think “psychopunk” better captures the idea.
Cyberpunk, for the uninitiated, and its cousin, steampunk, are sci-fi genres where the primary basis of technology form the foundation of the world in which the stories take place. Cyberpunk features high-end computers-usually including artificial intelligence-cybernetic body modification, and lots of mind-machine interface. Steampunk, by contrast, deals with steam power, cogs, gears, vacuum tubes, and a lot of brass and rivets. Interestingly, stories in both genres tend to be about people that are outsiders. Usually the protagonists are some sort of everyman with maybe one exceptional skill, who is thrown in to some situation far outside his experience, usually dealing with forces far beyond his reckoning. The primary difference between the cyber and steam varieties tends to be that cyberpunk stories tend towards the dystopian, characters are often nihilistic, and the endings are at best neutral, whereas steampunk has a more optimistic world view and the protagonist is more often what would normally be considered heroic, and “happy” endings are normal.
What we get with Inception and psychopunk is something else entirely (I am going to try and avoid spoilers as much as possible, but if you are worried you might not want to read further). The dream sharing in Inception is not really technology, it is instead technique. This brings it closer almost to a martial arts epic than it does the cyber or steam punk genres. The only technology related to the dream sharing is a device that fits inside a hard shell briefcase. It has tubes that feed drugs and possibly connect each of the people sharing the dream and a button in the middle. That’s it. We are never told how it works, or why. There’s this thing in a briefcase, and it helps people share dreams, that’s it. Cyber and steam punk spend a lot of time discussing technology, Inception largely ignores it, other than a one line statement about how the military developed the technique. Instead of the tools, it is the abilities of the characters that make dream sharing work the way you want it to. In this way the film (and the genre I am imagining it has created) makes heavy use of the Competent Man, albeit a more specialist version, as each member of the “team” in Inception has one thing in the shared dream that they do better than the others, although every team member seems capable of picking up the slack if someone is disabled in some way. Inception borrows from the cyberpunk genres also in that the story itself is mostly a classic heist story, as are most-and indeed the best-cyberpunk tales. The dream sharing also takes a back seat in many ways to psychology itself (hence my preference of “psychopunk” instead of “dreampunk”). The main characters cannot accomplish their mission within the shared dream unless they first analyze their target, and understand him/her. They have to delve into motivations and tendencies in order to get inside someone’s head and get the result they want. They are basically profilers, albeit somewhat crude ones.
All of this is surface glitz to set Inception apart from what has come before, but the real genius, the real difference, comes only at the very end of the movie. The film is great all the way through, but becomes genius in the last 5 seconds. The ending is ambiguous. Again, trying not to spoil, but the last frame of the film completely fails to answer the major concerns of its main character at the end. This is not a “gotcha” ending where there is some surprise and you go back through the film in your head to find the clues, it is ambiguous in the truest sense of the word, it provides no answer at all. The reason I say this is genius is simply this: I mentioned before that a primary difference between cyber and steam punk is that one is pessimistic (or at least nihilistic) and the other tends to be more optimistic. Inception is neither. Or rather, it is whichever one you want it to be. The ending gives you, the viewer, the choice. What happened? You decide. There are basically two choices, and your own psyche makes the movie end the way you want. And that is genius, and that is what needs to characterize the psychopunk genre.
The psyche in psychopunk is not just in the story, it is in you.