I have been looking for the most-important science fiction feature film of the decade. It has not been easy, and time is running out. The final year is right around the corner. The time to make a decision is now. But which film is it? Or most likely to be? I'm certain the best science-fiction feature film of the previous decade is Sleep Dealer. Two is Children of Men. These I can see clearly. Now what about the past nine years? My best call: Christopher Nolan's Inception. Next would be Arrival (the link is correct). For sure, these are not groundbreaking films, like the top two in the previous decade. And they are basically a-political. (Sleep Dealer confronts neoliberal globalization; Children of Men, xenophobic immigration policies.) Arrival and Inception are about not much at all: grown-ups dealing with pretty standard family stuff.
Now, I understand that Nolan's personal position in politics is center left. But there is little to no politics in his films. There is courage, will-to-power, character flaws, despair, hope, and shattered memories. People are generically human from beginning to end. They are good, or bad, or hesitant. But they do not vote, march, join parties, or recognize themselves as class subjects. The absence of politics in Nolan's films, including Interstellar (which blames a world-wide environmental catastrophe on something that has nothing to do with the political economy of capitalism), is what makes him so popular with conservatives. They can easily fit the Platonic forms of their one-dimensional political imaginary into the motives and decisions and flaws of his generic humans.
Inception is no exception. We have no idea how the hero, or his sidekick, or his love interest, or his boss might vote. They are not even citizens. They are upper-class global inhabitants. But it's also fair to say that cyberpunk, as a movement represented by William Gibson, has been weakly political. Corporations, not states, are its key players. And this accords with the world constructed in Inception.
Now, the point of this post: What makes this film remarkable? It flawlessly captures or describes the futurism and noir elements of cyberpunk: the feel and mood (or stimmung) of giant urbanism, the overlapping of the very new with the very old (in standard sci-fi, the future is completely transformed—and the past erased—by the leading technologies), the metropolitan meshing of slum and gated spaces (Mike Davis's planet), and the absence of a middle-class and state (the invisible political).
The weird thing is this: Despite being cinematic literature, cyberpunk has failed to make a successful and lasting leap onto the live-action screen. True, many count Blade Runner as a classic cyberpunk film, but its appearance can be attributed, not to influence, but to correspondence, in the Benjaminian sense, with the times, the moment. Much the same can be said of Cybotron's 1982 album Enter. Here, the black American techno duo (Cybotron), as with the Canadian author (Gibson), and the British director (Ridley Scott) expressed, in the first half of the 1980s, a feeling that happened to be timely due to the profound economic transformations that occurred in the 1970s and effectively brought to an end a social democratic project that was defined by the Bretton Woods conference (1944), the Beveridge Report (1941), and the New Deal (1933). Inception came decades after the fact, and is one of the few live-action films to successfully translate the established codes and themes of cyberpunk literature.
It has Tokyo as a key city; it replaces state espionage with corporate espionage; its has a Japanese zaibatsu, whose head has the power to override American laws with one phone call. The hero of the film, Dominick "Dom" Cobb, is mentally unstable. He has difficulty separating reality from virtual worlds. His brain is a bit fried like many of Gibson's heroes. The film is global. After Tokyo, we are in Paris, then Nairobi, then flying across the Atlantic and the continent of North America.
However, the film breaks with cyberpunk's preoccupation of Cartesian dualism. Consciousness is not as excessively or exclusively personal/private. There is, in this film, the idea of intersubjectivity, and this is because what is hacked is not computers or websites, but dreams. And this leads me to my final point. Argentinian philosopher and short story writer Jorge Luis Borges once stated that a piece of fiction should only have one magical element, one thing that breaks with the real. Superhero films, of course, do not follow this wisdom, and nor do all fantasy films. But Inception does.
The one magical element, or non-existing technology, is a dream sharing device (PASIV) that was, we learn, developed by the military. It is not available to the public. Only those in the highest levels of society have access to it. In this future, the only dreams that matter, the ones worth hacking, flicker and flame in the slumber of the filthy rich. No one wants to visit the dreams of a homeless man, or a middle-class wife.