Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reido's Long-Awaited (or, Drawn-Out) Review of INCEPTION


In writing about a film like Inception, I have to temper two thoughts: 1). it's only a movie, and 2). it is a movie. What I mean by the first thought is the tendency to ask simple questions such as Were you entertained? or Didn't you think that was fun/cool? This kind of thinking seems to accompany most "summer films" (a phrase I'm not really fond of). And to some extent these are legitimate questions, reflective of your experience of a given movie. They are questions worth discussing. However, my second thought wants to push further. Even if Inception is a summer movie, it is still a movie, and movies are inherently pieces of art. And as art, they are subject to a variety of criticisms, because art criticism is an extremely important aspect of art appreciation. That being said, I also think that summer movies are in need of more thoughtful analysis than your standard art house movies. So it's with these two guiding ideas that I'm going to attempt to explain why Inception is a movie worth seeing but is also ultimately mediocre.


{I'm probably going to have some of those dreaded SPOILERS here, so avert your gaze if you see fit.}

If you don't know the plot of the movie, here's a brief rundown: it's a heist movie that takes place in your dreams! I'll give you a minute to wipe your brains off the screen (and I'll try to wipe the sarcasm off of mine).....
Leo DiCaprio is an "extractor" - someone who can enter a person's mind via their dreams and steal information. He's offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to rejoin his estranged children's lives, if he can do ONE LAST JOB. This job, however, will not involve the standard extraction, but will be one of "inception" - instead of stealing information from a person, he'll have to implant some information. Leo enlists the help of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, and Ken Watanabe (who is also the one offering the opportunity to Leo, and cash monies to the rest of the gang). The mark is played by Cillian Murphy, the heir of a soon-to-be monopoly, which would put Watanabe out of business. The thought of inception would cause Cillian to break up his father's company instead of allowing the monopolization to occur. The process of inception is supposedly impossible, but Leo believes it's doable but extremely difficult. Making the process more complicated is the continual ghost-like appearance of Leo's former wife who is constantly trying to mess things up. She appears via Leo's mind almost as the incarnation of his guilt for her suicide, which he believes to be his fault. Oh, will they succeed? Will Leo ever find rest?

Before getting to my main problems with the movie, I'll briefly go through what I liked about it and also give some nit-picky problems, too. First the positives...

The easiest thing for me to appreciate about the film was the casting. Everyone more or less gets their roles down. I mean Leo (or D-Cap, as I now call him) can sleepwalk through most any angsty, guilt-ridden character. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (or Jo-Go, as I just decided to start calling him) can do pretty much do no wrong these days. Everyone down to the cameo-length scenes of Michael Caine was great. Also, the movie does look pretty slick. And overall, Nolan does a pretty good job of navigating what may be a somewhat convoluted screenplay (which would be his own fault, though - I mean, a dream within a dream within a dream...yeah, good one). And finally, there were definitely some entertaining scenes, like Jo-Go's Matrix-esque fight scene in a hotel hallway. (BTW, I don't buy that Nolan was stealing from The Matrix. That being said, why oh why would he want to include an homage to The Matrix of all movies?) These were just some of the nicer things of the film. It's probably not the sum total of everything I liked, but that's all I could think of right away.

I have a slightly larger list of minor problems. I say "minor" because I would be somewhat willing to forgive them on a given day. I think these are problems but any of them taken on their own would not severely harm the movie (per se). First of all, there is the insufferable score from Hans Zimmer. There is some of his work that I do like a lot (cf. The Thin Red Line). Here however, there is no subtlety. He pounds the mood into your head. He doesn't give the acting or direction the space to do their own work. Instead, Hans drags you around and pumps the intensity into your brain. Come on Hansy, help the images, don't overshadow them. Second, mirroring thoughts of critics like AO Scott, why were the dreams so bland? I mean I guess a lot of people dream that they are just walking around in cities, but I do kind of wish Nolan had pushed at least a few more surreal elements into some scenes. Third, what was with that wrap-around scene with Watanabe's character? There appeared to be no narrative purpose for starting that scene, then going back in time to start the actual movie, then going back to that scene to conclude it, and then concluding the actual movie. No reason, except to try to be "cool," I guess. If you're going to do those kinds of hi-jinx, have some reason for it. Otherwise you're just jerking the audience around. Speaking of jerk around, how about that tense, cliffhanger ending? There were probably a few possible reasons for Nolan deciding to end the movie that way. 1). To allow the story to continue on in our hearts and minds forever. 2). To again do something cool for no apparent reason (piggybacking off the vibes of cynicism and postmodernism that all the kids are into these days). 3). To aid the possibility of a sequel. Sorry #1, but you don't belong here. #s 2 and 3, you win! I think I would have enjoyed the movie a fair amount more if Nolan would have just had the guts to give the movie a damn ending.

One other issue I had was with the characters. Again, this is not a huge deal, especially since it is somewhat common with both heist and ensemble movies, but none of the people really seemed like people to me. Most of the effort to build a whole person onscreen is spent on D-Cap. That's understandable to some extent. I mean, you only have so much time in a movie, and it's not like I would have wished the movie to be any longer than it was. And not everyone needed main protagonist treatment. Still, there seemed to be a lot of unused potential for exploring various relationships and histories. (I guess that's what sequels are for...). And while D-Cap's Cobb was more a person than the others, I still got a bit sick of him. At some point in spending 2.5 hours watching this depressed and depressing man, I stopped caring about him (except for maybe pity). By the time he actually does something remotely selfless towards the end of the movie, all I could muster was a Church Lady-esque "Isn't that special?" Cobb is Nolan's shtick, though: dark, emotionally "complex" men facing all kinds of adversity...both from within AND without. So I suppose in that respect, Inception was par for the course.

Alright, on to some weightier stuff. Broadly speaking, it would seem that this movie is aiming to be a summer movie that "makes you think," which is perhaps both an admirable and misguided goal. I can appreciate directors trying to do something different and to push genres in different directions, whether or not I like those directions. However, in this case, the result is a movie that is too serious for its own good. Nolan's goals may have been a bit too high. First of all, by trying to be so cerebral, Nolan sucked a lot of the fun out of the movie for me. The mood is always so dank and serious that I just wasn't having the kind of fun I should have been, which relates to the heavy-handed score and measly characters. There is a lot of visual style, though. The costumes, set design, and so on is all very workable. Also, the hallway fight scene and the city-folding-onto-itself scene were standouts. They were both interestingly designed and well executed. I wish there had been more scenes like them. Instead, we spend a large chunk of the movie working up to some reveal of D-Cap's past and the emotionally cathartic redemption that accompanies it. Again, by this point, I didn't particularly care. It is just another case of what appears to be Nolan's MO: style over substance.

But isn't it great that Nolan has created a blockbuster movie that also gives you a lot to think about? I'll put it this way: walking out of the theater, I felt like I had swallowed a rock. I could try for a long time to digest this thing, but I would not get very far and little would benefit me (and as Agust pointed out, there may be some unfortunate pain down the road because of this...). First, I'd like to point out that action movies don't need to "make you think" in order to be good. Die Hard and Raiders of the Lost Ark don't try this (or at least do it with subtlety), and are two of the best movies ever made. I won't presume that Nolan feels all movies have to try to be so cerebral, even though it seems like he is trying it in all of his movies. But does he succeed here? Well, my response is a tempered "maybe". Inception is basically some kind of riddle or paradox. It's the kind of thing that may be fun to think about, but it will only benefit you in the sense of being a thought exercise, which I suppose is not a bad thing. However, there are so many movies out there that can give you something actually important to think about - something to keep you awake at night and possibly help you to grow as a person. But I guess if you're in the mood to watch a movie that will make you think, just not about anything relatively important, then Inception might suffice. The kicker, though, and this leads me to perhaps my main beef, is that I don't think people are really thinking that closely about the movie.

In approaching art in general, I think asking simple questions is most often the best way to begin. Those questions can reveal a lot. For Inception, I ask two questions: who are the characters and what are they doing? The answer to the first question, I believe, is that these are a bunch of greedy, self-serving people who are willing to do terrible things if the price is right. With D-Cap's crew, we are not given any indication of their motivations, except that they are acting in order to get money. Now, I do realize this is a common motivator in heist movies (of course). However, it becomes particularly telling related to the second question. Cobb is motivated by the opportunity to return to his family. But it often feels like he's just lonely rather than wanting his children to grow up with a father (just my impression, though). And Watanabe's Saito, the instigator.... He comes up with this whole plan because his business cannot compete on its own. He's going to take down this potential monopoly (who's to really say how good of a businessman Cillian's Fischer would have been) not because it might be bad for the world economy or because this company is experimenting on orphans. He's doing this as a business tactic. How noble.

OK, so what are they doing? They are going to cause the inception of an idea in Fischer's mind, with the presumption that this idea will cause a desired effect - i.e., the breaking up of his newly inherited company. There is never really any serious doubt as to whether or not the inception would work. Apparently a single idea results in a single action, and this process is very controllable. I'm willing to overlook these absurd notions (for now). Assuming this whole process is as reliable and effective as we're led to believe, then we have a fuller picture of what these guys are trying to do. Namely, they are trying to control both the thoughts and actions of Fischer. They have taken it upon themselves to presume they know Fischer, the kind of man he is, and the kind of actions he takes. And they have decided that in this situation that they have the right to take control of his life (again, assuming that "inception" isn't bullshit to begin with). And here is perhaps my main problem - Nolan is taking for granted the moral rightness of his "good guys." Nobody has any issues with what they are doing, even though it is tantamount to indoctrination. Apparently, it is alright to 1). enter someone's dreams/mind, 2). steal their thoughts, and/or 3). insert your own thought, thereby controlling their actions, or so it would seem. They have circumvented what I believe to be an extremely important part of humanity: choice. In the end, Fischer breaks up the company. Did he make a good choice? Ah, well, it wasn't his choice at all. And there is no telling what the effects of his action will be. Maybe things will turn out for the better, but they could just as easily mess things up. And for what end? As I previously said, it appears to be their own monetary gain. However, even if the goal was something more admirable, that doesn't justify the means by default. I happen to think that what these guys are doing is pretty close to being intrinsically immoral. But I'm not even looking for a knockdown justification of their actions. Rather, all I really wanted was some indication of the moral complexities of their actions. Put another way, I wish Nolan had not just skipped past what would have been such a rich topic for discussion, in order to give us some drivel about dreams in dreams...IN DREAMS. Given that this is supposed to be a "thinking" movie, I really don't believe this is too much to ask. I guess I just expected too much.

After all this, I'll be honest: I kind of liked the movie. I would probably watch it again. I mean everything I've written, but I write here as an attempt to temper what appears to be the general consensus of audiences and critics -- that Inception is brilliant. I think it's decent. Even though I haven't seen Transformers 2, I assume it's much much worse than Inception. But, if Christopher Nolan is to walk with the big dogs, then these are the kinds of criticisms his films have to be able to withstand. I mean, I'm just a schmuck with a blog.

One other piece of honesty is that I tend to get very skeptical toward movies whose goal seems to be to "blow your mind." They often have this sense of superiority that I cannot stand. Unfortunately, Nolan has made at least a few of these movies. If he can settle down and tell a real story with genuine characters, then he could be pretty great. I think he achieves this with Insomnia and comes pretty close with The Prestige. Given that I've written this much about Inception, I do believe it is worth seeing. However, it is too self-serious without being able to back up that seriousness.

[EDIT (8/19/10): Apparently, Saito does claim that Fischer's monopoly would cause problems for more companies than just his own - and that obviously does make sense. However, I feel that fact is downplayed in the movie to its detriment. But it does bring up another point: the self-interest of the main characters is only reflective of reality - that is how people really are. Even if one were willing to grant that point, it would still not change my position on the characters. Realism in movies can be used well, and, more often, it can be used very poorly. But that's a whole other conversation. Thanks for the dialogue, KWag.]

8 comments:

Haukur said...

The main problem with this film is the overwhelmingly obvious lack of boobs.

R Logan L said...

well certainly

e said...

ha ha... boobs are the solution to so many things. ---- I agree though Reid. Overall the movie was fun to watch minus the teenage "what if?" ending. The rest of the movie was, yes fun, but seemed to get stuck in some limbo (no longer a girl, not quite a woman). That is, The Prestige was consistent with itself (magically thoughtful-ish/playful), the Dark Knight, also consistent (dark-ish, slightly thoughtful but overtly a comic book movie). Inception could have chosen to actually be thoughtful, or decide to just be a fun movie, but it's thoughtfulness was overly cheap and the fun was never fully released. Thumbs. Yeah, I got em.

LBR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LBR said...

I was expecting something more philosophical/mind-blowing movie rather than a movie that was made based on the idea that sometimes dreams are more real than reality. Isn't there a Beatles song like that, "I'm Only Sleeping"? And I agree, there is some pretentious air about films that are made to "make you think", and it is annoying. I also agree that Inception had some really great scenes (floating fight scene, moving Pairs street, etc). I disagree, however, that Inception had a heavy moody to it the whole time. I thought there were some clever cutesy quips between Jo-Go and Tom Hardy, and Jo-Go and Juno. I lolz a few times during the movie. I thought those scenes/times were what made the movie bareable. I only wanted D-Cap to get back with his kids so he could shut up about wanting to see his kids again, and the movie could focus on more interesting characters like Jo-Go, et all. And what was up with Tom Hardy and his shape shifting, why couldn't anyone else do it? And can we address the lame allusion to the Greek myth and Juno's character's name? Ariadne, really? The woman who helps Theseus navigate the labyrinth, get it? Juno helps the team navigate the dreamscapes she built, get it? In the end I couldn't give a crap if Cobb's totem fell or not and I thought the ending was trite.

agust symeon said...

Your review was a wonderful read for someone who hasn't seen the film. It made me interested to see the film and raised some wonderful questions about filmmaking, Nolan's in particular.

Haukur's comment makes me think how cool it would have been had DePalma directed this.

Haukur said...

Oh yes!

Inception from 1982 starring John Lithgow, Dennis Franz and Nancy Allen.......with a rediculously over-the-top score by Pino Donaggio...

Without a doubt in my mind I can say that it would be my favorite film!

ross charles said...

I finally saw this the other day. While I feel my expectations may have been overly prepared, I would say the film still matched them almost exactly, if coming a bit short. That is, I found it less enjoyable than I expected, and otherwise underwhelming. I would say aspects were "cool," but the side of it that was supposed to be a thinking movie I found from the start to be the equivalent of trying to lick your elbow with your tongue. Even if you could do it, who cares? I had very few thoughts during the film that I actually cared to follow. The only real questions it poses have to do with where Nolan came up with these bogus ideas about dreams. For the most part, I could have cared less about the after thoughts posing as the characters' moral dilemmas.

And what was up with the boring dreams? Basically, dreaming = real life, but it explodes or deconstructs at the end. Sort of cool to watch at first, but boring after it happens a time or two. There were some very cool, and very impressive scenes from a film making standpoint, but as far as dreams go I would say most people have had more interesting ones at some point.

However, I'm glad Nolan figured out how to equate real time to dream time and dream within a dream time etc etc etc. Now that he has that down to a science I'll be able to understand my dreams so much more....