Wednesday, July 21, 2010


UPDATE: There are elements of the discussion in the comments section of this entry that may qualify as spoilers.

Christopher Nolan's Inception may be one of the best movies I found massively disappointing. Is it fun? Definitely. Is it inventive? It sure is. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. Is it the mind-blowing masterpiece that many critics and audience members are calling it? Not even close.

For a movie where people seem desperate to avoid any sort of spoilers, this is a doggedly linear film with very few—if any—twists (a la Memento or The Prestige). It's being touted as another puzzle or maze film (much like Memento), which I actually find misleading and inaccurate. For a movie that takes place in dreams within dreams within dreams, it's pretty damn straightforward.

Also, for a film dealing with going into the realm of dreams and the subconscious, it's pretty mundane. I kept thinking, "This isn't a dream landscape, this is the set of a James Bond film showdown," or, "The inner recesses of one's mind looks a great deal like downtown Chicago." And when you consider there are so many (better) films out there that deal with the realm of dreams and the subconscious—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Dr., Synecdoche, New York, even popcorn entertainments like The Matrix and Total Recall—I couldn't help but think that Inception's take on dream logic was strangely lacking.

But enough slapping Inception around. I don't want you to get the impression that I didn't enjoy this movie (I did) or that I don't recommend it (I do).

(I should also point out that Memento and The Dark Knight are two of my favorite films to come out in the past decade, so I will admit that my expectations for this film was pretty damn high.)

So let's talk about what Nolan & Co. get right with this movie (which is a great deal).

Without giving too much away, Inception is about a team of corporate thieves led by Leonardo DiCaprio that specializes in stealing ideas by infiltrating their dreams. Don't worry about how this works: the bulk of the first act is spent explaining the rules of this job and world. After a quasi-botched job, they're approached by a mysterious corporate bigwig played by Ken Watanabe who wants to hire them not to make an "extraction," (their term for stealing ideas), but an "Inception." In other words, he wants them to implant an idea in a competitor's mind and make him think it's his original thought.

DiCaprio's partner, a surprisingly dapper and badass Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says it's impossible, since the mind can always trace the origin of an idea, but DiCaprio begs to differ. We in the audience do, too; not for the same (deliberately untold) reasons DiCaprio knows, but just from simple common sense. (Studies have shown that the mind actually is notoriously bad at tracing the origin of ideas—but I guess never mind that.)

At first DiCaprio & Co. refuse due to the excessive risk and difficulty, but Watanabe makes DiCaprio an offer he can't refuse. I won't reveal what it is, but it has to do with Leo's deliberately elusive and troubled back-story. Then we get into the "getting the team together to organize the heist" portion of the movie, which is actually quite fun. This is where we meet Ellen Page, who's brought in to serve as the architect for the dream world they're creating for their target (Cillian Murphy).

The story is actually very fun and engaging. It's also one of the few movies where I didn't mind that it stopped for 45 minutes to simply explain the rules of this world to Page us. (This is, after all, how most heist films are done; after getting the team together, the team then plans out the heist in semi-meticulous fashion, a la Rififi). And, at two hours and 45 minutes, it flies by.

And my previous complaints about the mundane look and feel of the dreamscapes aside, the effects are quite nice and not aggressively in your face. The effects serve the story, not the other way around, and the action sequences are clear and coherent (although again, this may be a detriment for a movie like this). They also range from the spectacular (the anti-gravity fight in the hotel lobby; the opening sequence) to the disappointingly mundane (the previously-mentioned James Bon-esque setting).

The acting, as is the case with the acting in almost all of Nolan's films, is top-shelf. DiCaprio is breaking out of his pretty-boy routine and looks quite well, and looks downright haggard and downtrodden in this. (He actually also looks a bit pudgy and bulky in this movie, which works in his favor, oddly enough: it adds some metaphorical weight to his screen presence as well.)

As for the rest of the cast, Page works well as the audience's surrogate. Michael Caine obviously makes a nice cameo here, and is also obviously engaging. Again, I was really surprised and impressed with how...there's no other hyphenated word for it...kick-ass Gordon-Levitt is in this as well (though having seen and liked Brick, I really shouldn't have been so surprised). Watanabe and Murphy are also solid and spot-on, as are Tom Berenger, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao and Marion Cotillard.

Inception is ultimately a very fun and inventive heist film. Just don't go in expecting something more than that.

Still quite impressed with Gordon-Levitt's badassery,

James "Nolan + Cast of 10 Things I Hate About You = Acting Magic" Comtois

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Blogger joshcon80 said...

I found it soooooo boring.

4:04 PM  
Blogger isaac butler said...

I don't buy this argument about the dream worlds being too mundane. And here's why... The whole point of the dream thieving is that the mark never can know that they are dreaming. it has to feel as normal and real as possible. In Limbo, we're told that all that remains are the decaying remnants of DiCaprio's time there, when he was purposefully rebuilding things from his real life experience.

I actually think that it's admirable that Nolan makes the film serve the character, plot and conceptual rules he's laid out rather than going for spectacle for its own sake.

I should also note that I very rarely have surreal dreams, tho. Which is part of what makes the nightmares even more nightmarish.

I don't think the movieis liek ZOMG THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME or anything. I think it's a truly excellent popcorn film, really well acted, excellently well directed and very well written. It reduces you to the awe-inspired twelve year old place repeatedly without making you feel dirty about it.

Also, THe Dark Knight is overwritten and overrated, but still a good movie.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Alas, I'm going to have to stick with this argument, because I genuinely believe it. But this may be because it seems as though you and I experience dreams quite differently.

My dreams are not mundane like this at all; they really are more like the way they're portrayed in Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE (probably why I'm such a huge Lynch fan; I find his use of dream logic often eerily pitch-perfect, Red Room silliness a la Living In Oblivion aside).

And although the mark needs to make sure he's not dreaming, then why have the line, "dreams always feel real when they're happening?" Shouldn't he have no problem going with the flow?

(And again, this is kind of petty of me, but I really never bought the line, "The mind can trace an idea back to its original source." That's completely untrue, and I had a tough time just accepting that statement for the sake of suspension of disbelief.)

However, our personal differences in how we experience dreams aside, you really didn't find the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream taking place in a snowy villain's hideout a (to be charitable)?

And of course, there I go again with bitch-slapping this movie, which I actually did have a great deal of fun with.

12:24 PM  
Blogger isaac butler said...

No! the Ice Station Zero segment was awesome. And nolan manages to solve a major problem of most action films by creating a conceptual framework that sidesteps the whole "how is this justified?" question. Compare that to, for example, Quantum of Solace's several meaningless, unjustified, tissue thin action sequences or, to pick ona movie you like, the preposterous prison ship bombing in Dark Knight, which is not set up at all by anything that happens in the movie, even after Nolan goes to great lengths int he screen play to explain how every other action sequence works.

1:59 PM  
Blogger isaac butler said...

PS: The argument i was making is that-- regardless of how one individually dreams, the film creates a justification within itself for the dreams looking the way they do. The same way that The Matrix in the first reel of "The Matrix" looks like Sydney. No one ever complains that the city in the matrix looks like sydney, australia, becaue there's the same narrative justification... it has to look real to trick us.

Actually, in The Matrix, it's even more weakly justified because as we've never actually experienced 21st century urban life, the machines could feed us whatever they wanted and get us to accept it.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

The ironic thing is that there was some leeway for lapses in logic like the Quantum of Solace action sequences in Inception, since we are, after all, going into the ultra-deep recesses of the character's mind. In fact, not only did it have the ability/justification to do more with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, but it should have done more.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Again, I should point out that I thought the movie was a tight and engaging heist movie, but that it could have - and really should have - done more with the levels of the dreams. (There could've even been something about how the deeper you get into the dream world(s), the more complicated the mazes have to be.)

I mean, we're going into deeper levels of the subconscious here, after all. Why does each one have to look and feel like little more than the next level of a video game?

2:45 PM  
Blogger isaac butler said...

That's an interesting point, I'll grant you that one. I think for me the way it could've worked while also remaining within the conceptual framework of how the heists work would be for physics to be increasinbly distorted, the way time is distended. You have the roots of that with the zero-G sequences, but it would make sense that way.

The other thing that they could've done-- although it would've made the film too long and unwieldy-- would be for Ciillian Murphy to add more things from his subconscious than just Tom Berenger. I mean, if he's populating it, there could be a Dreamscape cobra monster as the bartender for just like one shot...

2:49 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Exactly on both accounts (weirder rules of physics, more done with the projections of his subconscious). This actually may be getting to the root of my reluctance to rave about this movie without reservations.

2:56 PM  
Blogger RVCBard said...

In fact, not only did it have the ability/justification to do more with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, but it should have done more.


For a movie about dreams, Nolan's idea of the subconscious is surprisingly . . . tidy.

If I'm delving into the deepest recesses of someone's psyche, I wanna see some shit! I wanna open up a hidden chamber and find the protagonist fucking his mom as she turns into a praying mantis then devours him or something like that.

"The subconscious Does Not Make Sense!"

3:03 PM  
Blogger RVCBard said...

However, in the movie's defense, they were rooting around in the minds of corporate types, so maybe their imaginations would be, shall we say, more limited?

3:10 PM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

Either way, it was super fucking boring.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Freeman said...


I didn't think it was boring. I totally liked it. I didn't think it was perfect either. It was like Nolan put Memento and The Dark Knight in a blender and pressed "puree." With all the good and bad of that. I thought a lot of it worked really well, and I'd love to see Inception 2 where they don't have to explain how it all works for half the movie.

I also just thought the leads didn't do much for me. Except Tom Hardy, who rocked.

But that part when they're falling out of a van/fist-fighting in the spinning hotel/brainwashing Cillian Murphy/battling the subconscious guilt of their leader/having a gunfight in the mountains all-at-once?

Yeah. That worked for me.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

I really loved it, and thought that it also might be one of those movies I'll either like a lot more or less on second or third viewing ... like The Prestige, which I only "liked" the first time I saw it, only to come to really appreciate it more the next time ...

And my dreams are pretty realistic, too, but that could be just me. I found myself agreeing much with Don (and Key Reidel, who I linked to yesterday) in their reviews of the film ... it's one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

I guess I don't understand, on one level, how you can honestly state that a movie you enjoyed and recommend is a disappointment.

I mean, I get your reasoning (expecting something else) but for me, if I like a movie and recommend it, it's not disappointing, y'know?

I should add, during the crush of publicity before the film came out, one thing I do recall is that Nolan was up front about was that this was in essence a heist movie. I remember that a few times ...

11:24 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I was disappointed in that I was expecting to love it and wound up just really liking it, if that makes sense.

Perhaps this is due to getting caught up in the hype, although I should point out that I was irrationally jazzed for The Dark Knight, and my high expectations actually paid off for me with that movie.

(I should also point out that it wasn't the ad campaign for Inception that got me excessively excited for this movie as hearing that this is a script Nolan's been working on for the better part of a decade.)

11:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Honestly, I've heard this a couple times and I guess I don't get it ... I was jazzed, too, and had high expectations, but I don't see how else it could have been amped up to satisfy (and we must stipulate that there certainly seem to be a lot of people who ARE pretty amped about it) ... like Freeman said, that multiple finale? Yeah, that worked for me.

I get that people only liked it, I certainly have had that reaction to some films (which will go unremarked) and been disappointed, but ... I just can't see what else he could have done to jack shit up, then ... does that make sense?

1:31 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I really found this to be a well-made heist movie. And I talked about this a little bit with Isaac earlier in the thread, but I wasn't wild about the lower-level being a generic James Bond villain lair. (Or that Cillian Murphy's subconscious only has two people from his life in there.)

And at the risk of sounding snooty, I also guess I was constantly reminded throughout of all of Nolan's (very open) influences, and thinking of how I preferred most of them.

What could he have done to jack things up? (As if Nolan needs the suggestions of some jagoff playwright like Yours Truly.) For me, like I mentioned earlier, he could have played with dream logic a little more, and made the script a little less linear. It's actually a very tight script, and in some ways, oddly enough, I find that works against the movie (it doesn't have a lot of room to breathe).

1:45 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Ah, there you have it ... had he done that, I would have liked it a lot less than I did ... I loved how tight it was, actually. P

3:24 PM  

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