“Inside Out” is the best science fiction movie of the year.
Most people wouldn’t classify “Inside Out,” recently released on DVD, as sci-fi. “WALL-E” might be the only Pixar movie typically labeled as science fiction, but many Pixar films incorporate elements of the genre. “The Incredibles” has humans with superhuman abilities, and “Up” explores the world with a flying house. Of course, almost every Pixar movie could be considered sci-fi if you consider that animals, toys and cars don’t speak in real life, but “Inside Out” does more than just anthropomorphize.
“Inside Out” has all the key elements of a great science fiction movie. First of all, there’s a wacky premise involving a hidden world outside human awareness, like “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Source Code.” In “Inside Out,” the hidden world is a world of anthropomorphized feelings: The main characters are the five dominant emotions inside a young girl’s mind. When Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, “The Shifting”) moves to San Francisco and tries to settle into her new home, she has no idea that different emotions are literally fighting for dominance in her brain.
At its heart, science fiction exists to convey a human message by creating a scenario that wouldn’t happen in reality. “Inside Out” does this perfectly. By making each emotion into a character and giving Joy (Amy Poehler, “Parks & Recreation”) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith, “The Office”) equal weight in the story, the film makes the point that sadness is just as essential to living as happiness is. The film could easily be a good movie by emphasizing the worth of optimism and staying positive, but it becomes something great by moving past that notion by acknowledging that sadness is important, too. The brain has a delicate balance, the film argues, and forcing happiness isn’t healthy when sadness is the natural response.
Even beyond its refreshing message, “Inside Out” achieves poignancy that just wouldn’t be possible in a realistic movie. Riley’s long-term memories are represented as bright, multicolored bulbs that are hauled away by custodial staff and dumped into an abyss called the Memory Dump when they fade from her consciousness.
This enables the film to explore the nature of memory and growing up; montages of Riley’s memories provoke viewers to look back at their own childhoods, and watching it all pass by elicits the same indescribable feeling of catharsis that “Boyhood” did last year. The character Bing Bong (Richard Kind, “Red Oaks”), Riley’s imaginary friend who feels himself fading from her memory, perfectly encapsulates this theme. Watching Bing Bong fade away is significantly more emotional than most movie deaths, because it represents so much more than a normal character dying. It represents a permanent erasure from Riley’s mind; not only will Bing Bong cease to exist, but Riley will cease to remember him. Bing Bong’s disappearance represents a universal sacrifice: the ebbing away of childhood as we all grow into adulthood.
“Inside Out” also has a crucial element of science fiction: imaginative world-building. In the same way that the worlds of “Her” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” have complex technological systems that were well thought out and included countless fascinating details, “Inside Out” includes funny and cool touches that take advantage of its brilliant premise. Joy and Sadness stumble upon the apparent set of a movie, which represents Riley dreaming. One character strums a harp to signal the beginning of the dream sequence, making fun of cinema’s cliché signifiers of the dream world. Joy and Sadness need to wake Riley up, so they venture to her subconscious and lure out one of her fears, a massive clown, to invade the dream scene and turn it into a nightmare. These are the kind of inventive details that show how well-rendered the world of “Inside Out” truly is.
By meticulously building a hidden world and using these fantastical concepts to deliver a human message, “Inside Out” cements itself firmly in the sci-fi genre. It’s the ideal science fiction film, and the best of the year.