What’s Good: Nolan is one of the few masters the cinema has left. His films are beautiful puzzles. Flaws are secondary to the ambition, clarity and intense, German-like origination of his vision. However one chooses to look at this movie it is a landmark science fiction film that we will be talking about for years.
What’s Not: However garishly constructed, when you dissected or deconstruct some Nolan films you often are left feeling empty handed and betrayed. “Memento” was that kind of film and in a lot of ways so is “Inception.” The screenplay is one of the biggest assets and flaws. DiCaprio is miscast as usual. The action is unnecessary and illogical (can’t believe I said that). And while I have a lot more bad things to say about it than good, I like the movie, I’m just not going to pretend it’s an all around masterpiece.
Note: Given the nature of “Inception” I thought it best to write about it with my gut and heart more than my head. The second after watching I was moved to get whatever I had to say down as quickly as possible but not to over think it’s “meanings” because doing so might lead to levels of madness of DiCaprian proportions. My reaction is obviously going to change for the better or worse after have some time to sleep on it (though I wish I could sleep in it as well) but know that I’m writing all this immediately after seeing the movie. I’m posting this three and a half to four hours after STARTING, not finishing, the movie and that’s give or take the time it took for all those IMAX trailers, driving home and feeding my hungry dogs that were waiting for me in the dark when I got home. Whatever the following response is, it may be more unrefined and impulsive than usual but, really, not much more than my usual crap I’m capable of. Given that at this moment the film is ranked on the IMDB as the third best film ever made there’s (you gotta love IMDB users) a lot of knee jerk(off) reactions are around even though none of us really know how it will hold up. The drive to talk about this film is just that powerful and just that’s welcome given the sad dearth of thought (un)provoking summer movies.
I have a feeling that the more someone likes “Inception,” the more in denial they are about how much they like “Inception.” It’s as great and technical and expertly crafted as a film can be. It is also as hollow and empty –but beautifully so– as one of Esher’s stair cases leading to nowhere. That it looks hypnotically fabulous on its way there counts for something or, in this film’s case, everything. Like one of Esher’s playful works, this film is aware of itself and made to be looked at as such. There is a scene where the mark/dreamer is told by the protagonist that he’s in a dream. His dream in fact and that he is being told this so that he can be taken further and deeper down into various levels of this overarching dream. Noland is doing to us what he has in the previous films of what I would call his head-trip trilogy. In “Memento” his character broke all sorts of fourth walls to guide us into his fractured and, as it turns out, literally fleeting attention span. As he ran from his reality, we were brought closer and closer to it and while it seemed to signify so much at the beginning, it all evaporated after we revisited it and applied the film’s own logic to its plot. The entirety of “The Prestige,” Nolan’s best film to date, was built as a cinematic magic trick that the audience was brought in to participate in because a magic trick cannot exist without someone there to be (willingly) tricked. That film worked perfectly because when you take the pieces apart you get something substantial–a timeless parable about human obsession and the thin line between magic and science in our world. And with “Inception” Christopher Nolan takes our hands once again, using his firmest and most aggressively forceful grip to date, and plunges us in a very mediated journey into the world of dream espionage (which is a lot cooler than calling it dream stealing). It’s a bit “Matrix,” a bit “Open Your Eyes”/”Vanilla Sky” a bit of a Joss Whedon dream episode and a whole heap of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Also substantial is the amount of in-dream shooting and clunky metaphors pertaining to our unconscious mind where people literally lock up their secrets. The film is strangely lacking in surrealism but, given the plot and even tagline “the dream is real,” it’s very refreshing that the director didn’t resort to any nonsensical dream related Dali-esq “randomness.” The dreams of “Inception” have weight and a consistent internal reality that the film, whatever its flaws are, benefits from sticking to all the way to the end. The final, open to interpretation shot existing as a fun little existential joke that only Nolan is capable of ending his film with.
What I admire is all the work that went into it. And who wouldn’t? To watch it unfold is to enjoy the power of any well thought out and choreographed cinematic achievements. It’s as if the impossible has happened, Kubrick merged with Fellini! What I do not admire is also very clear cut. While the craft is there and at the top of its form, this movie’s basic plot is just not very interesting and it spends a lot of time masking that with fantastic sights and constantly juggled Rube Goldbergian machinations. It’s a flashy and well made hurricane of a movie, but to what end? What are we left with? When the layers are taken apart we are stuck with a very thin story that has almost no reason for existing on its own terms. It’s about a man who is not very interesting that has lost something that was not very interesting or original to begin with! He does everything he can to get “it” back and I kept waiting to get to the heart of what that is exactly and once I did was not impressed. The thinness of the story brings with it of course very thin character motivations as well and, worst of all, a very thin excuse to have people shooting guns at well dressed cyphers, existing as a built in security measure (an dream defense army whose job is to protect their host’s mind). The action scenes where characters shoot at each other feels off. Pondering “what is real” is of course nothing new and feels even more shallow in a college philosophy class kind of way this time around then it did when “Matrix” came out. The plot I will not waste my time describing because, first, this is not the kind of film you get people to see by explaining it and second, well, as I said: what plot? There’s lots of talk of getting “information” and beyond lazy MacGuffins featuring hard to crack safes with hard to locate combinations and hard to care about documents within these mind-lockers. Such heavy handed icons never break free to signify anything other than themselves and I was never once pleased to find out what “vital information” any given characters was hiding. Perhaps that’s a deliberate way to impress upon us how, in real dreams, feelings are always more profound and lingering than the minute details. But that would assume that the film has much feeling or emotion. As is, the details are unclear and the emotions lack even definition.
I could talk about the beautiful, near non-stop music soundscape that Han Zimmer has created. This is amazing work by a seasoned composer that is able to lull us in with dreamy orchestral synths that guide without ever bringing us to the surface as, say, John William’s did with “A.I.” The editing is also first rate. It has that elliptical, metronome like construction that “The Prestige” used so well to its advantage. All the cuts are in service of the story’s vision rather than providing us with visual indulgences and I think that’s an important distinction to make. Same goes for the special effects. When characters float around and buildings topple into themselves, there’s a reason for it. Not a reason that is particularly engaging but a reason none the less. The way the film is put together, first in Nolan’s mind, second in the always brilliant Wally Pfister’s visual mapping and finally in Lee Smith’s cluttered but somehow coherent cutting room. These combine to form a effect worth treasuring and a big reason to come back again and again to this special world. The cast, in true human fashion, introduce flaws to Nolan’s otherwise perfect technical construct. He’s like Kubrick in the sense that humans always taint the notion of film in its pure form.
The film is has a pair of great actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an underused Michael Caine. There are also competent but sometimes overrated performers such as Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard. There are even WTF casting choices that rival Eric Roberts in “Dark Knight;” Tom “where have you been” Berenger and Levitt’s “Brick” co-star Lukas Haas appear. Oh and, yeah, Leonardo DiCaprio. Except for Leo, nobody really does a bad job. The characters, however, are all as distant and faceless and as mechanically driven as all those unconscious/subconscious Mr. Smiths running around people’s dream worlds trying to seek out the foreign body. Nothing about these characters except for that persistent dream stalker played by Cotillard, the beautiful Freddy Kruger of this dream worlds (she acts as a much needed wild card that comes in and disrupts the dream team’s “plan” in very cool ways) stand out in any way that inspires or evokes much feeling or depth. I didn’t not really like these characters but that’s only because I did not know them! Or their highly specialized jobs for that matter. They may be the “best” at what they do but I was always are left having to take the film’s word for it because what each character’s job is, such as a “dream architect” that could learn her job and be the best in the world at it after about a half day of unconscious training, makes no sense but at least the film doesn’t dwell because what good would come out of that? Even after spending two and a half hours with these people I didn’t come close to having any sort of organic connection with them or what they do. When Levitt pecks Page on the lips it was the only moment of genuine human involvement and while I liked it a lot it also seemed like an after thought, and a tease of one at that.
Also integrated awkwardly is a pivotal snow-set section of the film which is not only narratively bland and unclear but represents the only instance where the technical aspects let the film down (stark but dull visuals and hurried editing make it hard to get a fix on anything that’s going on in the snow–it was like a level out of “Moder Warfare 2”). The actors are given very simple performance tools and very challenging physical demands to play with and while few bring much to their characters beyond exactly what is required of them, at least they don’t take away from them either. Except for DiCaprio. As usual he is out of league and unable to draw me in to his reality. He is unconvincing and uninteresting. Another actor, Christian Bale for example (I know, I know, you don’t have to say it, I’m too much of a Bale fan), could have finessed the part up a bit, adding perhaps small touches of humanity and some wry humor to go along with all that overwrought intensity. DiCaprio, who is always so wound up in his movies (and always so damn obvious about his turmoil), fails to hold the dream at large together because he is always so glacially sober which, again, is ironic given the fluid subject we’re dealing with. The character is just a drab fellow that is never fun or energetic on screen. He’s a total drag. To his credit, Leo was having a good year after a somewhat similar turn in a far more (as performances, and perhaps films, go) successful mind bending “Shutter Island.” Both movies exist to takes us into the corridors of this actor’s crumbling psyche, failing to realize of course that there’s just not that much in there to get lost in.
Has any of this made any sense?