This will probably be one of the most negative reviews I’ll ever write for a film I actually enjoyed. Maybe that sounds like an absurd statement, but when you’re dealing with a film that’s been hyped as much as Inception has, anything less than a film genuinely deserving of masterpiece status (as its current 9.0/10 rating on IMDb would suggest) is bound to be disappointing. I can’t say I was exactly surprised that Inception didn’t blow me away given my reactions to Christopher Nolan’s other films (of which I feel Memento is still the best if only because it’s a perfect distillation of what he does best). In that sense, Inception hit better than par for the course. But, masterpiece? Greatest film ever (or should that be: “EVAH!!!!!111”)? I don’t think so. No, what Inception is, is an ingeniously original, thrillingly plotted, occasionally provocative action film with too many glaring flaws to be deserving of its reputation.
As for that bewildering maze of a plot, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a highly skilled “extractor” who has been trained to go into people’s dreams to steal important secrets hidden in their unconscious. When he and his team fails to get what they came for while inside the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb becomes a hunted man, doubly so since he can’t even return home to his two children in America. But Saito offers Cobb an opportunity; if he and his team can go inside the mind of a business rival named Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and implant the idea to break up his father’s business after the latter’s death, then Saito will pull some strings to make Cobb a free man. Cobb eventually accepts, hiring Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the architect, or the person who designs the dream, his long-time partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy) to be the forger, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as the chemist to put them under with a sedative that will be strong enough and work long enough to take them three levels deep into Fischer’s mind (a dream within a dream within a dream). Just to complicate matters more, Cobb is suffering over the loss of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) who has begun manifesting herself as a projection in Cobb’s dreams and even the dreams that Cobb enters.
Oh, sure, it’s an ingenious premise alright! Ebert said of it: “The movies often seem to come from the recycling bin these days… Inception does a difficult thing. It is wholly original, cut from new cloth… Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman. This time he isn’t reinventing anything. Yet few directors will attempt to recycle Inception. I think when Nolan left the labyrinth, he threw away the map.” I’ll allow Ebert this point about Inception; it is incredibly original, though attentive viewers will also note that the entirety of the actual plot (breaking into Fischer’s mind) is little more than a giant, honking MacGuffin to propel the plot forward. However, Nolan’s reimagining of dreams as (basically) computer levels that can be designed and inhabited by those on the outside world, replete with an imaginative set of rules about death (it usually just wakes you up), physics, awakening techniques (like “the kick”), etc. is, in itself, spellbinding enough to keep the viewer riveted through most of the runtime. The biggest problem with the film, however, and to start right in with the censuring, out of the film’s 150 minute runtime it easily spends 1/3 of that time in exposition, explaining all of the intricacies of just how Nolan’s dream world works.
Now, I’m not a stickler for the “show, don’t tell” principle of filmmaking, but by any reasonable standard this is ridiculous. When the premise of your film is so convoluted that you spend nearly as much time explaining how everything works as you do on characters and ACTUAL plot (actual plot defined as when something is actually happening as opposed to when people are just talking about what’s happening or can happen or will happen or has happened), then something’s disturbingly wrong. Leave it to Trey Parker and South Park to hit the point on the head when they parodied it in their episode titled Insheeption (ep. 10 from season 14) where Stan, Mr. Mackey and a sheep herder go into regression therapy for obsessive hoarding (get it? herding/hoarding?) only to find themselves being pulled into Mackey’s dream. A team of experts are called in and start explaining how they can go into the dream and create another dream (while another “expert” stands off to the side providing sound effects), which leads Stan’s mom to finally burst out with “just because an idea is complicated and convoluted doesn’t make it cool!” Compounding the failure is that, in spite of all the exposition, the rules of the dream world still remain about as clear as mud.
But if the over-reliance on exposition is the film’s Achilles’ Heel, then the paper-thin characters are the arrow shot by Christopher “Paris” Nolan that kills the film’s chance at truly reaching greatness. To make a comparison, Neon Genesis Evangelion is my favorite work of visual fiction ever (a work I truly believe to be one of the pinnacles of 20th century art). It contains a premise nearly as complex as Inception, one that literally rewrites the origins and biology of humanity inside a world where the metaphysics can tie your brain into knots. But where Evangelion succeeds is in its cast of characters whose richness and complexity matches that of the premise that makes the audience care about everything else. That’s where Inception fails. DiCaprio is essentially playing a shallower version of the character he played in Shutter Island, and in a film where the entirety of the emotion is played out through his character’s tragic past, Nolan (more so than DiCaprio) fails to make him three-dimensional or believable in the least.
Making matters worse is that the rest of the cast feels like missed opportunities. Ken Watanabe’s Saito and Tom Hardy’s Eames are infinitely more interesting characters than Cobb and Ariadne, yet both are underexploited. Ellen Page is pretty bland in the role, but it’s hard to make such a dull character interesting. One gets the sense throughout the entire film that when Nolan finally slows down to focus on characters he can’t help but rush through those sections as fast as possible to get back to the plot (or back to explaining how the plot works). Even the music seems to suggest this: one incredibly awkward scene switches from the pounding, mounting tension of the techno beat in a planning montage back to the real world when Ariadne is sneaking into Cobb’s office to talk to him. The music from the last scene carries over, bizarrely dissipating in the middle of the next scene, almost as if the film was shot live and someone is reminding Nolan that “hey, now’s the time when we turn the music off to make things quiet and character driven!” It doesn’t help that the music is so annoyingly obvious and manipulative to begin with.
Oh, but, yeah, I said I actually enjoyed this film, didn’t I? Well, yeah, I did. In spite of these crucial flaws that would cripple most any other film, the sheer originality of the concept and the breathless energy of its execution is hard to deny or escape. Nolan’s ability to manipulate time in the dream levels (in which time travels 20x slower each level down you go (10 hours in the real world turns into 200 hours in the first level of the dream, etc.) allows for some pyrotechnic cross-editing as the action in each level is balanced with and affects the other. On a second viewing, I was especially struck by how the time spent on the deeper levels dwarfs those of each previous levels, allowing Nolan to use editing to visually and temporally suggest the temporal discontinuity between them. This makes for some of the most intense action scenes filmed in the last ten years, as the ripple effects of each world compound into the others, creating multiple levels of high-strung drama. Beyond the montage’s prowess, Nolan’s frames are frequently stunning in their geometric perfection and visual trickery (at least, for the few seconds he typically manages to hold them).
If the editing between the dream levels is prodigious, Nolan’s standard continuity editing is still lacking. He’s still thoroughly rooted in the modern shaky-cam, fast cutting school of dramatic action (what Bordwell calls “intensified continuity”), but he’s not one of the best at that technique. I first noticed his general sloppiness in his editing of action scenes on The Dark Knight, and it surprised me that so few commented on this. Unlike Greengrass, whose fast-cutting inevitably seems to crystallize the action, Nolan’s just obscures it, with intercuts frequently coming at random with arbitrary changes of camera positions. This is especially noticeable in Cobb’s first chase scene on foot that completely disorients the viewer as to his and his pursuers’ position in the space. One might say that this spatial disorientation was intentional, but it would seem to me that in a film dealing with the already temporal and spatially complex dream worlds that Nolan would at least keep the real world more relatable.
Allow me to proleptically address the complaints to the above: I understand well enough that the grand theme of Inception is the ambiguous relationship and difference between reality and dreams. The film poses the idea that, if we could be consciously aware of our existence in dreams while controlling that dream space like gods, then dreams could easily become as real as reality. It’s Plato’s Cave for the 21st Century. But how original is it, really? Didn’t The Matrix pose the same question? If we’re living in The Matrix/The Dream and can’t tell the difference between either and reality, then what makes them different from reality? The simple answer to both seems to be that, unlike in dreams, we can’t control reality simply by thinking about it. To make matters worse, I anticipated that Nolan would end the film precisely how he did as soon as the “totem” device was introduced (basically, a device that only the dreamer has access to which allows them to tell the difference between a dream and reality). I won’t spoil it, but it’s a damn-near rip-off of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest problem with Inception isn’t in its overly complicated plot, mountains of exposition, the predictably equivocal ending, or characters, but in the fact that in a film that deals with humans and their relationship with dreams, reality and their own mind, that Nolan shows a disappointing lack of insight into any of these things. There’s absolutely none of the profundity of Bergman, Kubrick, Scott, Fellini, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Lynch, et al, not to mention that of the great novelists and playwrights. Instead, Nolan uses the human mind like a playground, a stage, or even a computer on which he can program his video game. There’s no denying that the game he orchestrates is immensely fun, thrilling and original, but it’s as equally shallow as it is entertaining. It’s a film full of humans who don’t act humanly, dreams that don’t feel like dreams and a reality that doesn’t feel realistic. Unfortunately for Nolan, unlike Picasso, he can’t seem to find the truth in the film’s lies.