Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Christopher Nolan's Inception is a purposefully twisty film, a film that prides itself on its elaborate structure — a structure that exists on the meta-level of the narrative as well as constantly asserting itself within the film itself. Mirroring the film's plot about sci-fi thieves who enter people's dreams to steal (or plant) crucial bits of information, Nolan weaves through one layer of dreams/narrative after another, constantly sending his characters leaping from one false reality to another, and thrusting the audience through similarly discombobulating shifts. And yet, for all these dreams and dreams within dreams, and maybe dreams within dreams within dreams, the film telegraphs its supposedly most important revelations well ahead of time, and in the end all of its intricate structures and flashy surfaces seem designed to disguise the rather conventional story being told at its center.

Early on, after the dizzying, action-packed opening sequence, it becomes clear that Inception is at heart a heist picture. The ace dream "extractor" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are hired to do a seemingly impossible job for the businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe): to plant an idea in the head of Saito's corporate rival, Fischer (Cillian Murphy). To do so, of course, Cobb and Arthur will need to gather a team, which triggers the obligatory extended sequence in which the pair goes around gathering together their fellow conspirators, including the "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will build the dreams, and the forger Eames (Tom Hardy), who will pose in other identities within the dreams. Once this team is assembled, the dream extractors enter the mind of Fischer, enacting an elaborate plan that involves putting the businessman to "sleep" multiple times, moving from one dream to another within his sleeping mind, constructing multiple layers of reality where the various characters are sleeping, dreaming within a dream, all while their "real" bodies are sleeping on a 747 bound for Los Angeles.

The bulk of the film is taken up by this complex web of dreams within dreams, and Nolan stages it all as an unrelenting action race against time. You see, Fischer had had training to protect against extraction, which means that his subconscious is "militarized," and that means that people are constantly shooting at the heroes. And if they die in the dream, they'll go into limbo, even though under normal circumstances they'd just wake up when "killed" in a dream. And... well, there's a lot more, but that's a big part of the problem. The film is awash in complex concepts and reversals, in intricate rules and exceptions to those rules. Mostly, though, it all just plays out as a big, thudding, deafening action extravaganza, like the wildest physics-defying action sequences from The Matrix stretched out to feature-length (kind of like The Matrix's sequels, come to think of it). When the extractors arrive in a dream layer that is, for some inexplicable reason, set in a snowy wilderness with a heavily defended fortress at the center, it seems less like a movie than a video game, maybe a level of a Call of Duty shoot-em-up. That's what the various dream layers start to feel like after a while, like levels in a game — and when you get right down to it, while it's lots of fun to play a video game, no one really likes watching someone else play a video game. Nolan is playing a very big, very expensive, very complicated video game here, and it's exhausting to watch him play it through to the last level.

All of Nolan's blaring action set pieces and dream levels would perhaps be more bearable if one sensed there was something of substance to be found by navigating this maze. But, much as in The Prestige, Nolan's last attempt at a "personal" interlude in between Batman films, all of the film's narrative shenanigans don't really add up to anything in the end. It seems like a superficial attempt to dazzle with complexity for its own sake, despite a conceit that's tailor-made for such narrative pyrotechnics. Comparing Inception or The Prestige to Nolan's breakthrough second film, Memento, it's obvious that what's really missing is a deeper emotional connection to the film's structural gimmicks. The reverse-time structure of Memento, so often wrongly derided as a shallow gimmick, was actually a clever and substantial way of reflecting not only the character's short-term memory loss, but the resulting disconnect between his morality, his actions, and his reasons for those actions. Cause and effect were reversed and disassociated for that film's protagonist, and the film's structure reflected that.

Inception is lacking in that kind of depth. Nolan's love of structural puzzles seems to have consumed him, to the extent that the gimmicks now drive the film, rather than allowing the narrative structure to be defined by the story's themes and characters. Cobb is driven by his relationship with his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and their children, who he's been estranged from. His fixation on Mal and his desperation to get back to his children are his major motivating forces and, more or less, his only character traits. But there's no depth to these emotional foundations. The film slowly metes out pieces of information about Cobb's past with Mal, using this relationship as material for "twists" that are so broadly telegraphed they're never even the least bit surprising. What should be the film's emotional core winds up being used for shallow suspense, and it fails even at that. Mal is never fleshed out enough as a character to make her anything more than a plot device, despite Cotillard's best efforts to make the character interesting. That's typical of the film as a whole: the performances are fine and even effective, but the characters are largely non-entities, hurtling through the film's claptrap constructions without pausing to take a break. The characterization is so thin that it's refreshing when the actors do even something small to enliven their generally functional parts, like Ariadne's little satisfied smirk after Arthur uses a tired movie trick to steal a kiss. Any little scrap of emotion, anything that feels the least bit real, is to be cherished in a movie this empty.

Within this oft-dazzling but ultimately insubstantial film, there are powerful moments, most of them early on, when the film's grandiose dream imagery still feels relatively fresh. Too often, Nolan signifies the unlimited imaginative potential of dreams by, well, blowing lots of things up, but there's no denying that certain sequences are viscerally thrilling, like the scene where Ariadne first explores the dream world, changing its architecture around her, creating steps to walk up and using mirrors to craft whole new landscapes. Nolan doesn't move much beyond this visually, though. His film's vision of dreams is surprisingly staid and unimaginative, rooted more in other movies — the weightless kickboxing cribbed from The Matrix, the crumbling dystopian cities of countless sci-fi movies, the frenetic action movie chase scenes of James Bond or Jason Bourne — than in a real feel for dream logic or the surreal imagery of our minds. For a film about dreaming and reality, Nolan is dreaming surprisingly small, content to deliver predictable heist movie beats dressed up in a flashy surface that he presumably hopes will be mistaken for the substance missing from the film.


Vidal said...

You are really turning out these reviews, Ed! I love it!

I must confess, I was thrilled by Inception the first time I saw it, but each time I reflect back on it, I realize how ultimately shallow it is. There are still things that I think are rather clever, like the lack of opening credits evincing a dream, though I can't elucidate (ha!) how. Back in my early apologist days, I used to respond to the criticisms about thin character development as being similar to a dream as well, but that must have been sheer desperation of some sort! I also like how you point out how much of the film's turns are decidedly signaled ahead of time. In retrospect, I suppose that was rather true. We probably shouldn't have met Mal in that first scene, for instance. Nolan should have considered some way of making her more mysterious.

All the same, I must admit I love the concept, and I think the film does succeed in being very ethereal in some way. I also disagree about watching others play video games. I was actually pretty riveted watching my significantly more skilled friend go through Resident Evil 4 back when we were in high school, but that's neither here nor there. At any rate, I agree that if he had devoted more time to his characters, this film would have been a lot better. As it stands, though, I can't say it's a terrible movie, just unfulfilled.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Vidal! Keep 'em coming!

Sam Brooks said...

Great review, I agree with all of your points, except you articulate them better than I can! I really like that you namecheck Marion Cotillard, because I think she gives the best performance in the film, which isn't necessarily a compliment. Like in her other American projects, Nine and Public Enemies, she's the best thing about it.

The character of Mal is a cipher and a narrative device, like most of Nolan's female characters and the characters in this film, but Cotillard makes her a believable device. She gives the film a quite stark darkness, more than the idea of brainwashing, in fact. Though I think the film is a success in terms of craft, the emotional side owes a lot to her.

But, it's a near three hour film and one supporting performance can't carry it all. A performance I feel similarly about is Michelle Williams in Shutter Island. Both films owe a lot to these small, sly performances.

SpeckledWood said...

Thanks, I've been waiting for someone to write a review of this film that articulated my dissatisfaction with it. And you've just nailed it.

One thing that really struck me was how banal and lacking in detail the dream city was that Cobb and Mal supposedly spent years building in their mind. This dream city was a golden opportunity to suggest some kind of interesting inner life. But what the film makers offered just seemed to be another subtraction to the already threadbare characters.

Like Sam above I thought Cotillard was the best thing here. She wasn't given much to work with and I can't say there any great depth to her performance but she did bring quite a presence to the movie.

Steven Santos said...

My main problem with "Inception" was that it was a dream world created by someone who thinks like a mathematician. It works far too logically. Everything is explained by the laborious exposition. Even Cobb's relationship with Mal is spelled out inside the dream world, as if it were another puzzle piece rather than the emotional core.

Nolan approaching Batman this way worked better for me, applying a real world logic and ethical dilemmas to something that I would otherwise not relate to as much. But, Nolan's not a fantasist. He felt the need to tie every loose end in "Inception", thus robbing the film of ever truly taking advantage of his own concept.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Vidal, I can see how the film could initially thrill only to disappoint on subsequent viewings or thinking back. There are some exciting moments, to be sure, and like you I do love the concept: I think there's real promise in a film that could be summed up with the same plot as this one, a man whose subconscious, embodied in the form of his dead wife, corrupts the fabricated dream worlds that he works in. It's a great idea, but Nolan just doesn't do a great job of realizing it. It needed not just more time devoted to character, but more visual imagination.

Sam, you're totally right that Marion Cotillard is the bright spot of the film, despite the underdeveloped character. She's basically used as a plot device, but she brings way more to the part than it really required. She brought real soul to Public Enemies, here the best she can do is add a little energy and light around the edges.

SpeckledWood and Steven, you guys have my main complaint nailed: for a film about dreams, it's surprisingly staid in its visuals, surprisingly lacking in real imagination.

Carson said...

Maybe this is a stubborn critical position to take, but I love seeing more and more intelligent essays deconstructing why this is such a shallow disappointment. It's probably my most unpleasant viewing experience from this past year, as it offers up so much potential with its premise and spoils it in the most bombastic, empty-headed way. The fundamental complaint here is why Nolan would bother taking on a fruitful subject like the human subconscious and render it with none of the surreal beauty that it possesses, instead making it as good as action/video game stages. I take that as ultimately disingenuous to the material; it's as if Nolan knew from the beginning he just wanted to make an explosive heist movie regardless of the substance. Great review!

Ed Howard said...

Very true, Carson, it really does feel like Nolan betrayed his own good ideas, smothering them in the torturous dialogue and exposition, obscuring everything that could've been interesting or original about the film with endless, headache-inducing action sequences that (mostly) aren't even compelling as action set pieces. That's why it's so much more disappointing than if it had been just another mindless action flick: why tease us with those hints of deeper ideas if you're just going to mash them into brain-dead fluff?

Anonymous said...

To those who were unimpressed by the film, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this review: http://www.chud.com/24477/NEVER-WAKE-UP-THE-MEANING-AND-SECRET-OF-INCEPTION. With this interpretation in mind, I found that a second viewing was even more enjoyable (though I admit that I already loved it the first time around). Granted, the whole "film about filmmaking" concept is not exactly original, but it does add a layer to Inception that goes beyond its basic plot and pyrotechnics.

Hokahey said...

It should not take 4 viewings of a movie in the theater, and 7 viewings on DVD, (as I did with Inception) to come to a full understanding of all the plot twists in this movie - to finally see that actually all the plot's seeming confusions are ironed out by meticulous editing. On the other hand, it is a credit to the film that I have enjoyed each of those 11 viewings and have found each viewing engrossing and, yes, touching. (What's touching? The wonderful scene that follows Dom through customs, past all the characters, to Michael Caine, to his children, to escalating strains of Zimmer's score.)

I see how some of the action might seem excessive and too much like a video game, but that action has become part of the well-constructed whole, in my opinion. Watchability is a big factor in my estimation of a film and, actually, reading your fine review, Ed, has piqued me to want to watch the movie again tonight. I can easily watch this movie many more times. I love sci-fi; I love films with different levels of reality; I love DiCaprio's performance here; and I love this movie, which takes the #2 place on my list of the top films of 2010.

Ed Howard said...

Anon, I'm willing to buy the film-as-filmmaking-metaphor interpretation of Inception, but I'm afraid it doesn't add too much, if anything, to my appreciation for the film. I think even less of that article's "the whole movie is a dream" suggestion, and neither interpretation does anything to counteract the film's major problems, which are its flat characterization and its disappointingly generic dream visuals.

Hokahey, you've seen this film 11 times? Ouch. I had a tough enough time sitting through it once, and I doubt I'll be revisiting it. I actually didn't find it very confusing at all: all of its concepts are laid out pretty clearly in the dialogue, and then every time something changes there'll be another big info dump stretch of exposition to explain the new status quo. And so on. The movie explains things to a fault, so I was certainly never lost. Just bored. It conveys the impression of complexity rather than actual complexity: Nolan seems to think that simply providing endless technical discourses on the logic of his dream extraction concept is a substitute for storytelling and character. The film is full of things that should have remained technical background notes before writing the real script that utilized those concepts.

Starlight said...

Excellent criticism. I will not relinquish my love of Inception, but you really hit the nail on the head and pointed out exactly the flaw that everyone has been missing in the film's praise. Perhaps there are some limitations that explain the flaw, like how much Nolan was attempting to do in this movie and how much screen-time and detail needed to go into the "gimmick" in order to make it work. Did he really have an opportunity to add more life to the characters? Probably - there's probably no excuse for it, but I feel like Nolan achieved quite a bit with Inception. You're right to point out what he failed at.

Jason Bellamy said...

Comparing Inception or The Prestige to Nolan's breakthrough second film, Memento, it's obvious that what's really missing is a deeper emotional connection to the film's structural gimmicks.

Yes ...

The reverse-time structure of Memento, so often wrongly derided as a shallow gimmick, was actually a clever and substantial way of reflecting not only the character's short-term memory loss, but the resulting disconnect between his morality, his actions, and his reasons for those actions. Cause and effect were reversed and disassociated for that film's protagonist, and the film's structure reflected that.

... and no. Or at least not quite.

In both Inception and Memento, I believe Nolan is first driven by structure (he plays with structure too much to believe otherwise) and then tries to use that structure to develop emotional themes. I think what separates the films is that Memento requires little explanation. Once the concept is explained to us (which is to say justified within the plot) and we watch one or two backward leaps, we "get it." (The accomplishment of Memento is that Nolan was able to work 'backward' while still creating a rather typical dramatic arc.) With Inception, as many of the film's detractors have noted, everything needs to be explained -- constantly and in detail. Almost nothing is self-evident. Scenes are so dominated by what's happening on the textual level that there's very little room for subtext -- for Nolan to develop it, or for audiences to observe it, if and when it's there.

In a sense, you could compare Nolan to a shock-based comedian. Memento is him delivering filthy punchlines. Inception is him dropping the f-bomb every other word to the point that the words in between become lost.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Starlight, I'm glad you appreciated the review even though we have different opinions of the movie.

Jason, good points. Whether Nolan thinks of a story first and then develops the structure to support it, or starts with the structure and then fits a story into it — and you're probably right that it's more of the latter for him — the fact is that Memento works by developing a clear, logical thematic and emotional connection between story and structure that's just totally lost in Inception. Even if Nolan started with the backwards structure of Memento, it is a clever way of exploring the moral issues of the story. And you're right, of course, that it's also much easier to grasp than the constant technobabble of Inception, so we can focus on the ways in which the "gimmick" is used to tell the story, rather than listening to endless exposition and explanation just to figure out what new wrinkle has been added to the dream concept now.