July 22, 2010

Not since Christopher Nolan’s own Dark Knight have I seen as much internet brew-ha-ha over a film.  It’s enough to make me want to pull what’s left of my hair out.  Ultra-fanboys and reactionary haters have drawn their lines, almost forcing the large quantity of folk in the middle to choose a side based on which one is less annoying.  I have to admit that I have had little time for this kind of debate, and while drinking up the plethora of reviews and post-mortems and meta-discussions, I have now forced myself to ignore comment sections completely.  Those reviews and articles have brought to the surface of a number of questions about fan-based opinion, the credibility of the remaining professional critics, what kind of standards are applied to what type of movie, and of course the degree to which backlash plays a role in influencing opinion.  There’s a lot to unpack, but I think the best way to deal with Inception right now is to attempt to recount my first impressions upon leaving the cinema.  This is, despite a lot of people’s desire to defend it and attack it as such, not an art film.  It is a $200 million summer thriller whose purpose is, first and foremost, to entertain.  As with virtually every other review posted around the web, it should be noted that spoilers will abound, so if you’ve not seen it, do not read on.

For all its narrative trickery and complicated rules, Inception is fairly simple when it comes to the basic story structure, character goals, and character arc.  Roughly speaking, the first hour establishes the universe and its rules as well as the basics of the team, there’s a brief transition where everything is prepared and comes into place for the big inception, and then the final hour shows said inception.  The goal is to successfully plant an idea into the mark’s head thus winning Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) the freedom to return the US and see his children again.  His arc (and it should be said that, aside from a little of the mark, Robert Fischer, he’s the only character in the film that has any real arc to speak of) is to let go of the grief and guilt he feels over the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), thus freeing his subconscious to both complete the mission and prepare himself for the rest of his life as a father.  It is, on the surface (and some have argued it is nothing but) a heist film, in which the plan is laid out, the plan goes awry, and then the protagonists must improvise.  And in the end, it succeeds very well on these points.  There’s a lot of information thrown at the audience throughout the film, and if I were to have stepped out for the wrong few minutes, I can imagine I would have a hell of a time trying to work out just what was going on and why.  Even after reflecting on it I wasn’t terribly sure about a few details, though it says something about the pace that at the time it all made perfect sense (yes, yes, just like a dream…).  Compared to a vast majority of major blockbusters in recent years, it asks an awful lot of the audience just to keep up with the logistics of what’s on screen.  In my opinion, it pulls that difficult trick of brilliantly, for even a minor misjudgment would mean any sense of peril or what the stakes are would fly out the window, thus defeating the entire purpose of a thriller.

The film looks beautiful, photographed in a variety of palettes and tones by Wally Pfister, and it functions well to tell spaces and, most importantly, dreams apart, especially when they’re crosscutting between four levels.  One of the strengths of Nolan’s approach was not to go for full-on dream surrealism.  There’s a degree of that, to be sure, but always weighted down in somewhat realistic setting, allowing the world he’s set up to be not only sensible in a traditional fashion that the genre requires but also stopping the audience from being too overwhelmed to care.  He can be a cold director, but that’s not always a bad thing.  It is, after all, more about memory than dreams.  The action is, for the most part, exciting.  Nolan may still be feeling his way around an action scene (his ability to build dread and excitement is still better than his dealing with straight-forward visceral thrills), but the opening and especially the gravity-less hotel sequences stand out.  The snow fortress is somewhat shoddy, but that level is less about the action and more about the task at hand anyway.  It’s background action, and while he might have considered filming it in a more exciting and sensible manner, it’s hardly a film-killer.  Special recognition should go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, who play one-dimensional coolness with infectious verve.  While I’m not sure Dicaprio or Ellen Page hold their own, they are handicapped by an over-explanatory screenplay that is intent on telling rather than showing (as is often the case in Nolan’s writing).  The standout of the cast is Cillian Murphy, as Fischer.  It’s a difficult position to be in, as he’s basically a secondary character designed to be the mark (or really, the MacGuffin).  To achieve a feeling of real emotion when we know he’s the one being duped into those emotions is an impressive achievement.

The major problem (and while it is by no means damning, it is major) is the lack of emotional attachment.  Nolan has never consistently excelled in this area (though he has before, and I’ll get to that), and while it is thrilling and enjoyable, the slight feeling of emptiness afterwards is telling of how little involved I was in the characters and the story beyond the most superficial level.  Being such a difficult world to navigate and process, however, I can’t say for certain that there is no real emotion here.  There’s every possibility that in attempting to keep up with the rules and the plot I didn’t have any time to process the significant of the events, and if the film demands a second viewing, it is for this reason and not to better understand the plot mechanics or to look for clues to solve the ambiguous final shot.  It is definitely a failure on Nolan’s part, as a good director would ensure some degree of investment from the audience into Cobb’s inner feelings and traumas, but I’m willing to give it a pass (although many aren’t) because everything else works so well.  Again, it says something that the film is so rich that I wouldn’t be surprised if I were moved by the grief and psychic trauma if I were to see it a second time.  Actor Dileep Rao makes an excellent point in an interview for New York magazine  when he says whether the top falls or not at the end doesn’t matter because the real significance of the shot is Cobb walking away towards his children, unconcerned about his totem.  I’ll admit to not picking up on that, and in that instance I blame myself as much as Nolan, for in a film so concerned with the simple surface level of trickery and sleight of hand I was not mentally geared to look beyond that.

Now it feels lazy to bring up Dicaprio’s other twist-filled, dream-state grief thriller from this year, but Shutter Island actually feels like an interesting corollary to Inception. That film’s plot was so obvious and creaky that it was easy enough to work out from the first few minutes, so much so that I had forgotten he was technically looking for a missing patient.  I just didn’t care about the plot at all, and that allowed me to take in the visuals and the score, and finally let me in to the character on an emotional level.  There’s something almost profound about the insanity of grief depicted there, and had the plot been interesting in the slightest I feel I may have missed out on that.  Inception is the flipside of that coin, where the plot is so densely laid out that I don’t have the time to process the emotional journey (also, of course, about the loss of a wife and to a certain extent the children).  It’s interesting to note that Nolan’s best film, The Prestige, which was attacked by some camps as copping out on its mystery-trickery premise by moving into the realm of science fiction, is his most emotionally engaging work.  By jettisoning its grounding in reality, it allows the viewer to really appreciate the tragic lengths to which Hugh Jackman’s character will go to achieve his Ahabesque determination to beat his rival.

The emotional void is one of the most common complaints leveled at Inception, and it is certainly valid.  However, it’s a failing that doesn’t deserve the near hyperbolic criticism that the film has been met with.  We have to look at our expectations when it comes to viewing any film, for they never exist in a void.  This is, as mentioned earlier, a big-budget blockbuster, and as such it should be afforded the same leniency so often given to the likes of Iron Man 2, which was a passable mess of a film which boasts three good central performances and nothing much else, and yet was treated quite kindly by critics.  Many took it for what it was, thought it could have been a lot worse, but was enjoyable enough and let it go.  While Inception has had mostly good reviews (some even overdoing the praise), the naysayers have tended to be on the extremely negative side of the spectrum.  Yes, the film explains too much, but it’s a complicated business inventing a science fiction technology and creating the rules that give the action meaning.  The amount of money put into it demands some kind of return, and if he doesn’t have the guts of a Michael Mann when it comes to playing with studio money, Nolan does a pretty good job of delivering a solid thriller that is in some ways considerably more intelligent than anything else we get from the majors at this time of year.  The problem will always be that of expectation, and while the film could never match the early reviews calling it a masterpiece or its slick and intriguing marketing campaign, it shouldn’t be judged on anything other than what it is.

On the other hand, one shouldn’t go overboard.  Like The Dark Knight, it is not without its flaws, and shouldn’t be treated as some sort of cinematic ideal that naysayers are absolutely not allowed to touch.  I can see reasoned arguments for and against, and while I imagine there’s a certain fanboy attachment because it is an intelligent, high concept action thriller (and the gods know the world is lacking in those), opposing views can be as interesting and relevant as those the viewer might agree with.  At the end of the day it, it is a film that is definitely worth seeing.  If you find it to be a failure, I hope you’ll appreciate that it is a noble failure.  In these bleak days of 80s TV revivals, endless sequels, and Marmaduke, I think we can all appreciate that even an attempt at something more is worth recognition.


2 Responses to “Inception”

  1. WULU Says:

    If you find it to be a failure, I hope you’ll appreciate that it is a noble failure.


    I like this line a lot. When critiquing a film I feel people often forget to do this.

    But as about not going overboard, I feel like many negative reviews that I’ve read recently seem to be tryin to find fault in the film just for the sake of going against the grain. But when you strip away their critiques their kinda baseless.

    Roger Ebert had a pretty good write up on it here:

  2. coz Says:

    nice review 🙂

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