dir: Christopher Nolan
I don’t know what to tell you, people. On the one hand, there are parts or elements of Inception that are brilliant. On the other hand, there are whole parts and sections that seem arbitrary and cliché. And on the third hand, pretending for the moment that you’re some kind of three-handed mutant, it has an ending that I’m not sure whether it justifies the two-and-a-half hours spent watching it.
From a spectacle perspective, it’s pretty extraordinary. The sight of a Parisian arrondisement being folded over; the impact of waking someone with water from their induced dreams; weightlessness; dream perspective cityscapes; all of that stuff looks mighty purty. It’s a big budget movie where every element, every frame has been fussed over extraordinarily. Christopher Nolan, who probably can do whatever he wants as far as the studio is concerned after the tremendous success of The Dark Knight, made exactly the flick that he wanted to make. And in terms of coherence and meaning, this is a stronger film than Dark Knight, mostly because it’s not as painfully over-edited.
But then why didn’t I like the film that much?
Were my expectations too high going in? Did my keyed-up anticipation basically fuck up my capacity for enjoying it for what it was, rather than some unrealistic idea of what it should have been?
I liked it well enough until the end. I walked out shaking my head, not because it was a bad ending, but because the ending made me feel that it was all for nothing. And two and a half hours spent in the cinema, when I rarely if ever have the spare time to justify such an extravagance, needs to be worthwhile.
I’m not going to know for a while, and it’s possible that my feelings will change over time and with subsequent viewings. I saw it at a regular cinema, and I’m tempted to spring for the extra cash to see it again at the IMAX cinema, just to be awed by some of the visual and aural magic on display.
I don’t hold much hope for my feelings about the plot, and its resolution, changing, however.
The film is essentially structured, as every fucking ad and review will tell you for free anyway, like a multi-layered heist movie, and Nolan, who wrote the script as well, tries painstakingly to make the heist elements seem important and even dangerous, despite the fact that we’re just dealing with dreams. The heist premise, mixed with this dream sharing technology, is 90 per cent of the film. The core of the flick, however, is the lead character’s problems dealing with guilt.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a highly competent information extractor, we are told, despite the fact that we’ve never seen him succeed at it. His clients hire him and his cohorts for their espionage skills used on titans of industry in order to steal pieces of corporate information. The difference here is that they do it by invading people’s minds.
When the film opens we see Cobb washed up on a beach. He is dragged before an ancient Japanese man. Both are bedraggled. Though the location remains the same, they change appearance, as people are wont to do in dreams, after only a few moments.
Cobb is no longer shabby, but is all neatly dressed and coiffured. He is also joined by a loyal henchman, being Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The old Japanese guy is now a slightly younger version of himself, called Saito (Ken Watanabe). Even though the setting is the same, the significance of the shift is only obvious at the end of the film, during the dispiriting climax.
From here, though, what occurs is that we are introduced to the mechanics of what Cobb & Co. do through the requirement by Saito for Cobb to perform One Last Job. The one last job involves implanting an idea in the head of a business rival. What the idea is, is pretty much irrelevant. For all that it matters, it could have been the desire to implant the idea that the guy should come up with a new flavour for Coke.
Cobb’s team all have particular skills, and, since the retrenchment of his previous dream architect, he is obligated to train up a new girl in the position. Since Ariadne (Ellen Page) is new to the game, Cobb and the others get to explain to us what’s going on and what’s going to happen by explaining it to her. Handy, that.
I think few if any parents have been cruel enough to call their daughters Ariadne since mythological times, so the fact that the last person called Ariadne was in the myth of Theseus slaying the minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth, and that her job was to give the hero the ball of string with which to find his way out of the maze, I wonder what her purpose is here, huh?
Being a decent architect in the real world means, apparently, that she will have the skills to construct elaborate dreamscapes during their shared dreaming. Her job is to construct them in such a way that the thieves can operate without tipping off their victim’s subconscious too quickly, which, when it intuits what’s going on, manifests defences in the form of armed henchmen or torch-carrying mobs.
What this is really supposed to do is ensure that mass audiences aren’t getting too bored. The film is complicated enough (though not too complicated, since Nolan goes to painstaking lengths to help us understand ‘where’ we are at any given moment with musical and visual cues) that it didn’t really need even half the gunplay on display, but it definitely is positioned to assure us that things never get too cerebral.
And, if the audience gets lost along the way, at least they can be sufficiently distracted by shitloads of gunfire.
It saddens me to admit that I have reached the age where lots of guns shooting at people no longer captures my interest in and of itself. Whilst I bought it somewhat for much of the film’s length, by the time the ‘third’ level of dreamscape is reached, and it turns into a snowbound James Bond film, I really felt like it was all a bit noisy for the sake of being noisy. I wonder how much it would have detracted from the flick if a lot of that gun action had been excised.
The complexity of the job means that Ariadne is expected to create three labyrinth dreamscapes in which the team will have to operate, once they enter the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). The first level has generic warehouses and such, the second looks like a hotel, and the third is a hospital/fortress on top of a mountain. All of this is intricate enough, with differing time frames occurring simultaneously at different speeds, with different dangers and objectives all occurring at the same time, but into it also comes the vengeful apparition of Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s wife.
As elaborate as all of this is, they establish rules for how everything works when you’re inside someone’s head. All these rules seem to fly out the window when Mal hits the scene, with all sorts of murderous shenanigans transpiring and freight trains crashing through shit coming out of nowhere. She might seem like just another additional problem meant to raise the ante and jeopardy and such, but she’s a more integral part of the story than that.
Cobb dealing with his subconscious, in-between trying to pull-off the most complicated temporal heist of all time, is the real crux of the film. Ignoring, if we can, the other, shall I say, dopier sequences of the film (like the snowbound army), it’s the elements relating to what they call limbo that resonate the most. Beyond that, Cobb’s desire to get back to his kids is meant to be the real lynchpin that is universally relatable (for the audience), but for me it’s the stuff happening at what they refer to as the deepest level (beyond the other three) which is where the film shone. Impossible towers, dropping straight into the ocean, all constructed by Cobb and Mal when they were exploring this shared realm of the subconscious, where 50 years can pass in the blink of an eye, sending the dreamer saner or madder, depending on what they get up to, is really where the flick needed to spend more time.
Other reviewers have criticised the flick for a) being a technical marvel but emotionally cold and b) not being very dreamlike at all. I disagree strongly with both ideas, only because I’d argue that much of the technical stuff is showing off, the action is mostly superfluous, but the emotional stuff makes a bit more sense, discounting what the ending may or may not be saying. It seemed to me like there was something important that Cobb could be trying to achieve with Mal, and his guilt with Mal’s fate, and the very concept of committing an inception, are well earned.
On the second point, regarding the dreamlikeness or lack thereof, it’s not a criticism that sticks, in that most of the stuff that happens is happening as part of a constructed experience, not some random dream where you are carrying a fish through a church during your first communion, and your dress is just perfect, and then Steve Buscemi comes up and angrily asks you to explain what happened to his llama before you fly up through the roof and chase a snowman with a can of hairspray and a purple crayon: It makes ‘sense’ when you’re dreaming it, but not when you’re trying to explain it to someone else.
Except, with this plot conceit of adventurous dreamsharing, at least Nolan makes it more coherent and less boring than when anyone ever, and I mean EVER, tries to tell you about their dreams.
The acting’s pretty solid all the way around (in a story almost too big to depend on the performances), though my personal favourite was Tom Hardy as Eames, a forger with abilities in the dream world that are a match for his very dry and very louche persona. His line of dialogue which ran something like “You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling” gave me one of the two laughs available in the whole flick.
The other line involves someone saying “So whose subconscious are we going into now?” The audience I saw this with laughed, possibly ruefully. Nolan doesn’t stint on explanations, in fact the flick is overflowing with them, but in some ways it doesn’t equate to meaning, or at least a level of meaning that means anything to me.
These people sitting in front of me, past a certain point (I’m not sure, maybe the eight-hour mark), kept turning to each other every few minutes, not to speak, but as if to express their appreciation of each other’s what-the-fuck?-ness, and I can’t really blame them.
Sure, I get the film references, the auditory cues (like the pounding theme actually being a slowed-down version/analogue of the trumpet bit from Edith Piaf’s No, Je Ne Regrette Rien), the logic behind the set-up, the need for the fabricated emotional catharsis (and its resolution) for the target, being Fischer, and a whole bunch of other stuff, including the recursive nature of the story, beginning and ending as it does at the same place. The problem is that once I saw the ending, which isn’t anywhere near as ambiguous as some people, including Nolan, are saying it is, I felt deflated instead of elated.
There is much cleverness on display, of that I have no doubt, but I’m left cold by it all, even as I can admire the skill and time Nolan has clearly devoted to putting the whole thing together. That it has succeeded tremendously as a summer blockbuster, of all things, bodes well rather than ill, because it means, from Nolan’s perspective and the studio’s, that they’re not being punished by the box office for going out onto a cerebral limb with a big budget.
My argument, ultimately, is that it’s not really as cerebral as they’re arguing, considering how the persistent gunfights are just pandering and arbitrary (couldn’t Nolan, the genius that he is, figure out a more intelligent way of rendering the ‘threat’ that the projections of the dreamer’s subconscious could come up with, rather than gunfight after gunfight?), though they are almost made up for with the brilliant zero-gravity fight in the hotel hallway between Arthur and Fischer’s henchmen. That sequence alone (and yes, I’m aware of the Fred Astaire movie it comes from, or even Lionel Ritchie’s Dancing on the Ceiling) justifies the price of admission.
It’s probably an almost great film. There’s just something I can’t quite grasp about it, something that is eluding me that is clicking for other people. It’s a shame.
I will admit, though, in a rare moment of honesty, that since watching it, entire sequences from Inception have been appearing in my dreams. Make of that what you will.
7 times my ingratitude in the face of such manifest genius is so churlish out of 10
“You remind me of someone... a man I met in a half-remembered dream. He was possessed of some radical notions.” - Inception