Let the Backlash Against Inception Begin

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

I keep waiting for the backlash against Inception to begin. The sheer volume of user comments on the IMDb proclaiming Inception to be the face of god filtered through celluloid has reached the stage of absurdity.

Full disclosure: I was inclined to be kindly disposed toward the film after exiting the theater–didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it. My official position was merely this: once you strip away the high-concept trappings and philosophical pretensions (which are clever, though feel like thoughts that have been regurgitated from a slew of other solipsist-inspired films), it felt like a mediocre heist film.

While sitting in the dark theater comparing it against the film I thought it would be, I felt at least vaguely disappointed that Christopher Nolan’s vision and stagings were far too pedestrian to elevate the film beyond its straightforward narrative and action–which is, mundanity notwithstanding, entertaining, if never very challenging. Inception showed promise when it explored its protagonist’s inner demon–or animus, if you’d prefer–but because this felt like a parallel plot essentially disconnected from the main action of the film (resolving his guilt over Mal wasn’t really necessary to the heist plot, nor was the heist plot necessary to his resolving his guilt over Mal), the emotional catharsis in the final act didn’t feel earned, despite a solid performance by DiCaprio.

So in short, judging Inception on its own merits, I felt as though it had a few issues that didn’t necessarily detract from its entertainment value, but existed nonetheless:

  • A paucity of surprises. It all pretty much falls into line the way you assume it will, save for some “you’ll have to take my word for this” changes to the rules along the way. A good example is the revelation that a heavily sedated mind that dies in a dream goes to limbo and can’t be brought out. For one thing–and maybe this is imposing an unfair burden for logic upon the film, but given how it supposedly took Nolan 10 years to write, I think this isn’t an unreasonable question–wouldn’t this mind invasion technology come along with some way of monitoring a user’s vital signs for potentially damaging mental activity? I mean, it was invented for military purposes, so you would think you would want some sort of fail-safe for the rough activity they’re rehearsing in their heads so they don’t all wake up with post-traumatic stress disorder. And if the dreamers can be monitored, and if the flight attendant is in on it, couldn’t she simply “kick” Saito awake? Then once he’s out and safe, he could re-enter. I mean, the guy is their employer and if he dies and gets stuck in limbo, that’s kind of a big deal, right? These guys are the best in the business, but they didn’t plan for such an obvious contingency? The movie is full of plot points like this that fall apart once they’re given a moment’s thought. Inception’s strength, in a way, is that the script keeps you so distracted by exposition and action that you can at least enjoy it while you’re watching it, but “twists” like this feel cheap since they’re never mentioned until they’re needed for the narrative to accrue some higher stakes;
  • Character development that feels dramatically removed from the major plot line. This is, by far, my biggest problem with Inception: at a dramatic level, there really isn’t any character development. Even if the movie is perceived as a sort of high-concept therapy session, it doesn’t work. It’s unclear why Cobb was unable to resolve his problem with Mal long before he actually does so. I understand the conceit that forgiving himself for his wife was the only way that he could be with his children, but the resolution of this conflict felt, in a way, tacked on, because there wasn’t sufficient set-up for the climactic epiphany moment. It all seemed curiously detached from anything else that was going on–he could have easily saved Fischer and not done away with Mal. Granted, this all coheres a little better if you’re willing to accept that Ariadne might be an aspect of Cobb’s psyche, but since you’re probably not even thinking that way until the final scene, the emotional catharsis felt false;
  • Plot holes that seem deeper and deeper as the questions pile up. E.g., why is Cobb’s subconscious able to intrude upon the dreamworld while the best anybody else can muster is pulling out a bigger gun? Fischer’s weaponized subconscious already has freight trains plowing through the middle of city streets (which blows the conceit that the dreamer can’t be alerted to the fact that he’s dreaming), so didn’t any of the dreamers have enough imagination to summon up some back-up? Even some Kevlar vests would have been nice! How about a first aid kid for Saito? This is especially true after the crew admit to Fischer that he’s in a dream. At that point, the restraints should be off, and the architect should be able to go hog wild doing whatever crazy stuff he or she wants. Moving on, how could Cobb be in a shared limbo with Saito when the various dreamers providing the headspace for the shared dreams have all woken up? For the matter of that, what the hell is limbo? Who’s the dreamer? Who’s the architect? And why is Saito even there apart from the fact that we’re told you go there when you die in a dream while sedated? It feels far too arbitrary, like the rationale of it all escaped even Christopher Nolan. Some of the rules are obeyed, while others aren’t;
  • An absence of engaging dramatic consequences. When you initially think that they might not pull off the Inception, the characters in the film basically shrug their shoulders, and so did I. Part of the trouble here is, I think, that the consequences of all plot threads seemed so remote. For example, I couldn’t find myself really caring what would happen to Cobb if he got back into the United States before Saito could make his phone call. The suspense might have been shored up with the introduction of a secondary villain of some sort, beyond Cobb’s own subconscious. On a side note, we’re not even sure that Cobb is that great of a guy that we should be rooting for him. I mean, who was Cobb before all of this? What do we really know about him? What do we know about any of these characters?;
  • A weak emotional pay-off made worse by a cheap trick of a groan-inducing ending that has you wondering if anything you just saw even happened. Unlike Total Recall, in Inception, it actually kind of matters to the audience whether or not it was real, because if it wasn’t, then it makes the preceding two and a half hours feel like a waste of time. The final scene, which elicited a chorus of “Argghs” from the viewers in the theater with me, feels like a preemptive tactic for Nolan to handwave the film’s logical inconsistencies;
  • And most damningly (for me), a dreamscape that lacked whimsy, metaphor, and volatility (the way real dreams work). The action set pieces could have been borrowed from any other generic summer blockbuster. This is something of a personal complaint.

Overall, I felt it was a missed opportunity–nearly a hit, but enough off the mark to make the viewer long for the film that might have been. In the long view, Inception should rightfully rank behind its better, spiritual predecessors, such as The Matrix and Total Recall. It’s a film that falls all to pieces the more you think about it.

But still…kindly disposed, if only because I like Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor and the film was ambitious–too ambitious, sadly, but ambitious nonetheless.

Yet now, after consuming reams and reams of hyperbolic rubbish from people who apparently never saw a movie that made them pay attention before (notice, I say “pay attention” and not “think”), I actually find myself disliking the movie in retrospect. And yes, I realize how laughably petty that sounds.

Honestly, if you have to see one Leonardo DiCaprio film in 2010, see Shutter Island instead. Scorsese is the real deal–a director who knows how to pull the strings on the audience–and Shutter Island is riveting to the point that I was still thinking about the craft of it days later.

Christopher Nolan is–without a doubt–capable of doing some very fine work (Memento is his personal benchmark from my perspective, though The Dark Knight was quite clever and well constructed), but Inception isn’t his magnum opus…no matter what roughly 95% of the IMDb users think. Despite having a reputation for being a visionary director, his vision here never inspired the awe it was meant to. It was all more concept than substance with all of the best bits being front-loaded, leaving very little of interest for the dramatically-weak climax.

Okay, okay. If I’m being fair, I’m still about where I was when the credits rolled last weekend: didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it. I just wish these user reviews weren’t around to piss me off. Get a little perspective, people.

Second Opinion

Exterior Links

  • Salon.com has one of my favorite reviews of the film. Andrew O’Hehir goes much further than I’m willing to go–again, I thought it was an okay film–but a lot of his criticisms are spot-on.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a story about the critical “backlash” that happened after the advanced reviews began surfacing and roundly declared Inception to be a cinematic masterpiece in the pantheon of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It only seemed like a backlash, I would say, because a few reviewers out there didn’t succumb to the hype, and wound up falling outside of the mainstream almost by accident.
  • A snarky, somewhat annoying post from EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum about the bickering between movie critics with regards to Inception.
  • This blogger–who like me was capable of enjoying Inception on some level–explains why it is the most overrated film of the year. He picks up on a brief point I made earlier, that the film merely demands you pay attention, not that you ever think about it, necessarily.

Quotes from Reviews

This is from one of the better reviews on the IMDb. I’m quoting it, since after a few days, nobody will ever see it again.

So for these reasons, the movie seemed to me a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing very much. The stress on mere mechanics to make the idea sensible to the audience simply overwhelmed its dramatic heart, leaving the story relatively empty, despite being at least a half-hour too long. This is really too bad, since all the fundamentals for an affecting story were there. They simply weren’t exploited well. It was a problem at the script level.

One of the many hallmarks of a good review is that it illuminates something that might have been troubling you while watching the film but you weren’t able to put into words. This IMDb user does just that:

In fact, Leo is so separated from the actual plot that you can literally put Levitt in his place and not even need the hero in the dream world at all! Hell, you can even put Page there, since all she does after designing the boring and lifeless dream worlds is hang out with the guys and tell Leo he’s crazy. I really wish she had something else to do besides play the part of the fifth wheel.

Leo’s lack of involvement in the main action of the story creates a ‘so what?’ moment when the problem is solved for him, and I can think of absolutely no reason why the hero should not be the one to conquer the main conflict. Brody kills the shark in Jaws. He doesn’t send Hooper and Quint out to do his dirty work while he stays behind to deal with his fear of water. It’s integrated. The hero is forced into dealing with the physical, and in turn, but learn to conquer his internal fears before he can conquer his external opponent. This is Screen writing 101, Lesson 1, and Nolan got that wrong. That’s why I don’t believe the reports that he spent 10 years writing the script since it only took me 148 minutes to figure out exactly what was wrong with it.

This IMDb user made me laugh. It’s sort of a jerky thing to say, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem to be the case:

Inception is one of those movies that “engaged” film-goers will mistake for genius. Let me explain my theory on people and movies. There are three types of movie-watchers: passive, engaged, and intelligently engaged. Passive people will watch Die Another Day and like it just as much as the Bourne Identity. They don’t go to the movies to think, they go to be entertained by cool effects and witty one-liners. Engaged people think they know what they’re talking about, and generally love movies that are edgy in plot and execution but conventional enough to understand, like Fight Club and the subject of this review. They believe themselves to be refined in cinema, but ,in reality, just don’t quite have the intellect, cinematically speaking, to pull it off. Intelligently engaged people will appreciate the complexity of Inception, but also recognize it’s a little sloppy, self-serious, over drawn, and empty. They recognize its audacity, but don’t pretend like it is Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Suffice it to say, most people who fall into the engaged category will try and pretend that Inception is a ‘masterpiece’ and that they know everything about movies. They don’t. Inception is clever, but it doesn’t rank anything above respectable.

This is probably one of my favorite reviews (though I’m only quoting it in part), because the reviewer articulates some things I’ve been trying to say, while conceding that the film can be a lot of fun, regardless. It’s the sort of review I would expect to see more of–and in fact, you ARE seeing more of these “good, but not a masterpiece” reviews a week later–because it’s so straight down the middle that it’s difficult to argue against.

It doesn’t surprise me that Nolan, the guilty party behind Memento, would come up with a movie where gratuitously Byzantine convolution is served up instead of anything resembling story. What does surprise me is that Nolan manages, eventually, to steer this vehicle to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. And it is for the sake of the marginally effective denouement alone that I am willing to forgive a movie for having a blatantly video game structure, complete with levels and avatars and an artificially aggressive ticking clock to manufacture urgency.

This basic story itself was done decades ago in Dreamscape with far more finesse and wit. In fact, the whole plot, if you can call it that, seemed more like a mash-up of better stories, including everything from Total Recall to American Werewolf in London, as if Nolan wanted to outdo all of them by forcing them into a single meta-story.

So why watch this movie? I guess it all comes down to this – the movie is fun to watch. Lots of fun.

What Nolan lacks as a writer, and the list is long, he more than makes up for as a director. Inception is taught and energetic from start to finish. Even though the characters are ridiculously flat, they move effortlessly through Nolan’s heightened reality. Inception may not be the best story literarily, but Nolan’s way of telling it cinematically is superb.

I’m quoting this one largely because the IMDb user said that nobody would ever read it (but also because I agree).

Finally, in spite of some good performances, I didn’t give a lickspittle about the characters. What they are doing (or attempting to do) is immoral and unethical. And what risks they face are basically virtual as well. Who gives a flip? There’s no redemption, no character development, no introspection (at any substantive level), and what you’re left with is a mixture of pop psychology and “the solar system itself may just be an atom.”