Extraction Mode: How “Inception” on Blu-Ray Delivers Its Kick

I am finally (but slowly) beginning to buy Blu-ray discs. As someone who spent over 10 years amassing a decent DVD collection, I have been loath to throw money down for a new set of discs. As the price of Blu-rays has dropped, however, and as more films have come out in the new format, I have started to pay attention to what these larger capacity discs have to offer.

Whereas a regular single-layer DVD holds 4.7gb worth of information, and a dual-layer DVD twice that much, a single-layer Blu-ray disc holds 25gb, and a dual-layer Blu-ray twice that much. If you’re confused about what that means, you can look at the FAQ (frequently asked questions) section of Blu-ray.com.

One thing I have most definitely  appreciated about Blu-ray players, from the beginning – which is why I bought one – is that they can play both DVDs and Blu-rays. This was a smart move on the part of manufacturers, as it allows both formats to exist side by side, as opposed to VHS tapes (remember those?) and DVDs, thereby limiting consumer backlash from people fed up from being forced to upgrade. Keep the movies you have – on DVD – but buy your new movies on Blu-ray. This goes some way to addressing the objection I raised in my first paragraph.

I will admit that I am not a resolution nut. While I appreciate nice looking images as much as the next person, I do not require the films I screen at home to be as crisp and clear as they can possibly be. I have a 1080p 42-inch TV and a Blu-ray player that up-converts standard-definition DVD discs to a respectable approximation of high definition, and I am perfectly happy with that. I do like high quality transfers of films to video, however, and thanks to the Criterion Collection – among others – there are many such transfers out in the world (on DVD and Blu-ray, both). But if the transfer is good, I don’t care if it’s on DVD or Blu-ray (for now – my eyes may get used to the higher resolution over time, just like they no longer like looking at 1980s-era TV shows shot on video). I’m even happy watching films streamed through Netflix, which play at 720p on my Roku box.

Where Blu-ray discs have started to pique my interest, though, are in the possibilities they offer for even more extras than we can currently find on DVDs. Now that is worth spending more money for. If you’re a cinephile, that is . . .

And if you are, then Blu-ray.com will help you  discover which discs come with the best special features (and the best transfers). I’m actually amazed at how much great info is available on that site (including detailed price variation graphs for individual titles). The reviews of the films are incredibly detailed! I mean, who has time to spend writing reviews of movies if it’s not your real job? Um, yeah, like, who does that . . .

Which brings me to . . . 

Inception Blu-Ray

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) – the Blu-Ray Release

I watched this film in a theater when it first came out, and liked it but didn’t love it. I found the dream-within-a-dream story quite compelling, but thought the movie was almost too clever by half. I was, however, intrigued by the special effects, and was curious to know how they were done. Not so curious as to make any effort to find out much about them, though.

Then, this past fall, I watched the documentary Side by Side, in which Christopher Nolan and his long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister discussed their preference for film over digital, and how they preferred to do as many of their effects in camera, rather than in post-production, and I began to think back to Inception. When I recently saw the Blu-ray for sale on Amazon for under $10, I figured, why not get it? That’s a good impulse-buy price for a disc with loads of extra features on it.

Of those special goodies, the one that has most sold me on not only this particular disc, but also on the potential awesomeness of the Blu-ray experience is “Extraction Mode:” a movie that plays within the feature (a dream within a dream?). With the juxtaposition of documentary and feature, we are offered glimpses into the construction of scenes right after (or before) we see them. Every time a scene with a lot of visual or special effects is about to start, the feature pauses and rolls over to the documentary, which explains the how-to of what you will soon see. Then the feature begins again, where it left off. [For a great explanation of what visual effects are vs. what special effects are, click here.]

The original movie, itself, is 148 minutes long. In “Extraction Mode,” it’s 190 minutes. If you’re not in the mood to devote that much time to Inception, you can just jump to the scenes about which you have questions. But for those of you willing to spend the 3+ hours, this is a terrific way to re-connect with the film. I wouldn’t want to watch it this way on a first viewing, but “Extraction Mode” definitely enriched my return adventure to the world of Nolan’s vivid imagination. For all I know, this might have happened to me anyway on a second viewing, even without this feature, but I have now begun to change my opinion of the film from, “Hey, that was pretty cool, but so what?,” to thinking it’s one of the most complex and well-constructed science fiction films of the past 20 years. Or maybe that idea was just implanted in my mind while I watched the film within a film, and I’m still within that film, as in a half-remembered dream . . .

Here are some of the things I discovered:

  • It’s remarkable how much Christopher Nola re-made Leonardo DiCaprio in his own image. Cobb’s hair and the suit are vintage Nolan. I would have missed this if we hadn’t been cutting back and forth from DiCaprio to Nolan.
  • As repeated time and time again by Nolan, Wally Pfister, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould and Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin, the mantra was to do as much as possible in camera so that the effects enhance what is already in the frame. That means that explosions happen with the actors in frame, and water actually falls on them. I understand now why everything feels so real and tactile!
  • The freight train (built around a truck so it could actually run in the street) is a great example of the need to do things in camera.
  • The tilting hotel bar had to be real (see above), so they built it as a giant see-saw that could go back and forth at 20/25 degree angles. They had to test the extras so they could behave normally in that environment and not get seasick.
  • For the hotel corridor scenes, Chris Corbould (the Special Effects Supervisor), designed and built a 100-ft horizontal rotating corridor. The engineering had to be precise, and the device was enormous. And this was all done so that the actors would actually be in that environment, and it would look and feel like it was happening. As actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt says, “There’s no substitute for real human energy in performance.”
  • I was gratified to hear that Nolan was thinking about 1970s Roger Moore-era Bond films when he designed the snow fortress sequence. He wanted (of course) real ski stunts. They even made real avalanches happen. None of this changes the fact that this is the least interesting set for me, but since my first thought when I saw the film was, “Ugh, Roger Moore Bond,” I laughed when I heard him describe his thought process.
  • For the “zero-g” corridor sequence, they built a set that was identical to the horizontal corridor, only vertical. Again – simply incredible!
  • The description of how they designed and built “Limbo City,” combining digital effects and actual streets and sets, is fascinating. Nolan says that the “line between visual effects and practical photography was as blurred as we could make it.”
  • As a result, when there is almost pure CGI (computer generated imagery), such as in the scene where  Cobb confronts Mal, and Ariadne jumps out of the window, it ends up looking very fake by comparison.
  • At the end, it really is even more striking how much DiCaprio really really really looks like Nolan in the scene with the very old Saito.
  • One of the final bits in the documentary features composer Hans Zimmer talking about the music. He initially generated electronic sounds, and then asked the orchestra to imitate. That’s a nice reversal of the way that synthesizers have long mimicked orchestras.

For those of you who have not seen the film, it centers around a man, Cobb (DiCaprio), who is a specialist in entering the dreams of others to “extract” information. It’s a form of very advanced corporate espionage. He works with a team that includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy) and Ariadne (Ellen Page), among others. They are hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to implant an idea (which they call “inception,” the opposite of “extraction”) in the mind of a corporate rival of his, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). In order to accomplish this, they must create dreams within dreams within dreams. Each layered dream presents new challenges and dangers, including the increasingly menacing apparition of Cobb’s dead ex-wife Mal (Marion Cotilard), who lives on in Cobb’s subconscious. If you think about the plot too much, the explanations of what is happening can sound like psycho-babble, but it somehow captures the imagination through its visual brilliance.

Once you watch it the first time, get ready to then get the Blu-ray and watch it in “Extraction Mode.” If all Blu-rays were like this, I’d be buying them all the time!

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