16 July 2010

PAST THE WIT OF MAN TO SAY WHAT DREAM IT WAS

Be sure to check out the Christopher Nolan Blog-A-Thon over at Bryce Wilson's Things That Don't Suck.

It's pretty rare for a movie that fails to live up to its hype as uniformly as Inception does (though Jesus, is it any surprise, with that kind of hype?) to still function as an enormously entertaining summer movie, but if writer-director Christopher Nolan's latest manages to do just that, it's mostly because what it is (an action-heavy heist movie with several mind-blowing setpieces) is an entirely pleasant substitute for what it isn't (a psychologically complex investigation into dream logic, and the relationship of the conscious and subconscious minds). The worst thing about it, I think, is the financial success of The Dark Knight: Nolan earned a free pass when that film clocked north of $500 million, and so he has taken the Peter Jackson route of post-blockbuster clout in making a film that's a damn sight too long and a goodly bit too certain of its own cleverness and profundity. But even if 148 minutes of Inception is easily a half-hour more than the story can bear, it's a pretty great ride nonetheless.

The film's story - OH MY GOD NOT THE STORY, cries the received wisdom about the film, for this is a story that makes babies weep blood and will explode the skulls of lesser mortals. Only a team of MIT engineering students could possibly lay the story out in anything less than the time it takes to tell. Bullshit, says I. Here's the story: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master thief with a shady past, given an opportunity by mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to redeem everything he's ever done, and in the process reunite with the children he left in the U.S. when he was forced for shady reasons to flee the country. Saito's offer includes completing an impossible mission, for which Cobb must assemble the best team ever compiled for such a mission. Everything else is just details.

And devilish details they be. For Cobb - as you've noted from the ubiquitous advertising - specialises in breaking into people's dreams and stealing their ideas. Saito's particular offer involves planting an idea in the head of the heir (Cillian Murphy) of his greatest rival (Pete Postelthwaite), a process called "inception" (hey, that's the name of the movie!). How this dream-invading works, and whether the film takes place in the future, or is set in a fantastic version of the present, is left for the viewer to ponder after the credits start to roll.

What some critics have praise/assailed as "confusing" in Inception is really just a sign that you need to pay attention. There's not one moment in the film - not even in its bravura third act, which cross-cuts between three time periods all taking place simultaneously over three different durations (it makes perfect sense while you're watching) - that Nolan is deliberately obfuscating the narrative. In fact, I tend to agree with James Berardinelli, who made the single most insightful observation about the movie I have yet read: "one could make an argument that the straightforward nature of Nolan's approach to such potentially mind-bending material is one of Inception's weaknesses." The story is blissfully straightforward: first, the rules are clearly laid out, then we see examples proving rules, then we are given a test run of the rules at their most absurdly convoluted. But if you don't leave the theater to pee or buy fresh popcorn, it's unimaginable that you can't follow along, if you're willing to try.

So: we get a whole lot of character fulfilling functions plainly laid out: the "architect", Ariadne (Ellen Page) - and by the way, fuck you Chris Nolan for the ham-handedness of that character name - creates the dreamspace; the "point-man" Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does all the background research and makes sure everything in the dream proceeds according to plan; the "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy) fakes whatever details are necessary to make certain the mark believes the dream-reality. All the while, Cobb's personal history, in the form of his projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) - hey, there's another ham-handed character name! - keeps threatening to ruin everything, if Cobb can't get his demons in check, which Ariadne helpfully reminds him of, in dialogue along the lines of "Cobb, you better get your demons in check before everything is ruined."

Depth is not the strong suit here, despite the film's apparent misapprehension that it's tapping into something deep and profound. I might call it Nolan's shallowest film since his debut, Following - beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's thinner soup than his Batman films, with their obsession over the nature of personal identity, or The Prestige, which covers procedural ground in an infinitely more satisfying way while adding some real observations about rivalry and... personal identity. It's a pet theme, what can you say? At least he's a genuine auteur, in a summer that desperately needs some auteurist heft.

Depth, though, really doesn't matter; not when you've got a story that proceeds from A to B to C with such clarity of purpose. The Sting won a Best Picture Oscar on no more grounds than being an elegant con job against the audience; why shouldn't Inception reign as one of Summer 2010's few genuinely good movies (though not its best; Toy Story 3 will be moving audiences to tears generations from now). Every right-thinking person loves a good caper movie; from at least Rififi onward, they've consistently been among the most sheerly delightful movies you could hope to see. Inception isn't one of the genre's greats; it's not even, to my tastes, as good as last year's Duplicity, which had the added value of some gleeful kinkiness.

But it is still very good; and there's always a certain joy that comes from the "here is an intractable problem to be solved, here is the superstar team that can solve it, here it is being solved just like we diagrammed" plot structure. Since I keep mentioning that, I should probably answer the theoretical question, Is that all? No, of course not: being a Christopher Nolan film means that it's handsome as all get-out, from Wally Pfister's dumbfoundingly perfect cinematography (if it's not his best work ever, that's only because The Prestige is is fucking beautiful), to Guy Hendrix Dyas's reality-based, but hauntingly otherworldly production design, to, yes, Lee Smith's editing - so many people are so hopped-up about his work in Nolan's films, but that's an argument that I simply don't fathom, even when the critic involved is a genius like Jim Emerson, and he's careful to show all of his work. Me, I find these criticisms to be unduly concerned with the idea that editing is only supposed to ever contribute to the spacial integrity of a given film; what Smith and Nolan are doing is a lot more unusual and only sometimes effective, cutting according to rhythmic beats that aren't driven by the story, by space, or by emotion, but by a flow that seems "outside" the movie somehow. It reminds me of the 1920s French conceit that cinema is the most musical of all artforms, which I've always took to be a reference to the durational element added to cinema by editing; but it's not a question to be resolved in just one review, except to say: I loves me some Lee Smith.

Anyhow, issues of craftsmanship or no, the question stands: does Inception have anything else going on? It certainly doesn't have complex characterisations (Cobb's emotional arc is facile at best, and like all Nolan films, the writing is too baldly functional to suggest genuine human beings are involved), and the emphasis is on using dream-physics as the excuse for some hugely spectacular action sequences, and not at all imaginative flights of fancy. The Cell this is not: Nolan is obviously more concerned with telling a twisty, but largely coherent story, than in developing rich alternative universes. Frankly, I'm alright with that: sometimes you just need some cinematic candy, and Inception is the very best kind of candy: it's entertaining as hell even as it demands that you keep your brain switched on. It's just what the moribund, overly 3-D enhanced summer season needed.

8/10

20 comments:

Simon said...

Sure, the script leaves something to be desired--the secondary characters are designed to explain the plot and give the whole thing more of a heist feel--but the performances, in my humble opinion, were pretty fantastic enough so you, or at least I, don't notice until you think about it later. And the action scenes, the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream ones, do take someone who paid attention very closely to explain coherently, but they're the best action scenes (collectively) I've seen since The Matrix.

I forgot what my point was. Glad you liked it, also glad you could keep a level head about it (I was far too busy geeking out to notice any flaws, except: if you can't touch someone else's totum, why does Cobb use his wife's?)

Tim said...

Because she was dead, is how I read it.

I have so much that I could say which would sound so fanboyish about that tri-layer dream action sequence, if I weren't trying to make sure my review was spoiler-free...

Tim said...

And since I forgot to mention it: fucking cheesy last shot, though based on the collective gasp in my packed theater, I bet a lot of people will love it.

Stephen said...

It's not that you can't touch someone's totem, it's that you shouldn't. Or rather, you shouldn't let someone examine yours because then they'll know about it and could recreate it if they're the dreamer. Which would defeat the purpose of it acting as something that only you know well enough to be able to tell if it's acting properly.

I knew exactly what the last shot would be as soon as I saw Cobb's totem. I liked it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't cheesy and completely predictable.

Bryce Wilson said...

I agree with you to a lesser extent. Inception might not transcend the Action Summer Block Buster genre. But its in the top percentile tier.

I like to think that De Palma and Gilliam left the theater weeping bitter tears of frustration (Well I don't. I like both those guys, but still I can't see another outcome).

De Palma for all his slow motion motherfuckery never suspended a moment in time so audaciously as that truck falling from the bridge.

Gilliam for all his love of dreaming never got stuck so far in. Or rather, he never was able to take everyone else so far in with him.

As for the last shot. I don't know the majority might rule with you yet Tim. A groan went up in the theater I was in. But it was a satisfied groan.

Thanks for participating. It really meant a lot.

Ellen said...

The theater I was in (10am cheapskate show in LA) didn't really react much to the actual last shot, but gave a wry laugh when it cut to black in a fit of AMBIGUITY!.

Really good overall, though.

Simon said...

I didn't like the ending. As if there wasn't enough ambiguity going down. And now I've got to watch the whole thing again.

sa said...

I think the ending tries to temper those who would criticize the film for ending too neatly, and those who would hate to see Cobb victim to his own illusions. However, couldn't Cobb spin the top at any point to test his reality? Then wouldn't he again fight to return to his true reality - as he had before? The ending seems unnecessary, yes? Yet, rather nice to look at.

jax said...

The last scene reads sequel to me.

KingKubrick said...

Spot on Tim. I loved the film as an entertainment but I was expecting a emotional wallop a la solaris (the 70's version not that clooney bull) which I didn't get. I think another reviewer put it best "I didn't have my mind blown..I mean it wasn't total recall"
ps. that would make a great blockbuster history entry as a precursor to inception

dwr said...

SPOILERY Comment:

She was dead, Tim? I took it as quite the opposite. My take: She wasn't dead. She woke herself up from the dream when she hopped out the window. He stayed in their shared dream after she left. The rest of the movie is his projection of things, people, etc., as he worked through the guilt of losing her. Note also that the children had not aged a day when he came back to them.

James said...

Why is no one else concerned about that ridiculous "limbo" device? If it really was indicative of some manifestation of universal consciousness (as it undoubtedly was so) then how could they so casually address it as some minor plot detail?

Auggey said...

Thank you so much for summing up exactly how I felt about this movie. The friends I went with all loved it, though I remained dumbfounded, not by the plot, but by it's "non-complexity".

Jake said...

Regarding Lee Smith, I think he works amazingly in this format (and The Prestige is one of the best-edited works of the decade), but there are some mistakes in The Dark Knight that must have been planned because they're so immediately noticeable yet they still seem amateurish. I think there's room for abstraction even in a superhero crime movie, but it needed a bit more spatial and temporal integrity in a film that otherwise did not mess with such things (save for the double, or triple, action of racing to rescue Rachel/Two-Face and the Joker's escape).

I am glad, however, that I watched this and The Prestige back-to-back because they show how great the two can be together. Plus, The Prestige actually makes a case for Nolan as a gifted visual artist where elsewhere his main aesthetic strength is economy. Well, The Prestige is economic too, but Jesus is it beautiful.

Sadako said...

I loved the Prestige, too, Jake. Can't wait to see Inception for myself.

Zev Valancy said...

I'm impressed by the extent to which this movie transcended its flaws. They were pretty clear, and mostly in the screenplay--ham-handed dialogue, minimal emotional heft, thin characterizations--But also didn't matter at all. I was still sitting there open-mouthed in joy and wonder.

But my personal favorite cliche of the film: it was yet another "One Last Job" movie. Cobb even referred to it as such at least once. Awesome.

Stephen said...

SPOILERY response to dwr:

My first thought was "No, that's ridiculous, he was just dreaming at the end," but the more I think about it the more I think you're right. Another example, though maybe it's just my poor memory: we don't see Cobb's totem work properly. It toppled, but always because it gets knocked over.

okinawaassault said...

I should have watched The Prestige again before watching this movie. Skimmed through parts of it afterwards and drool.

Lucas said...

@James
"Why is no one else concerned about that ridiculous "limbo" device? If it really was indicative of some manifestation of universal consciousness (as it undoubtedly was so) then how could they so casually address it as some minor plot detail?"

The 'limbo' was NOT some universal shared consciousness. You're misunderstanding that. The reason that Cobb, Saito, and Fischer were in the same limbo state is because all their dream states were linked. They were all hooked up to the same machine on the airplane, remember.

Jason said...

Lucas and James,

Plus, the reason the limbo state was so structured, unlike some void/netherworld as described, is because it was essentially Cobb's and he developed it previously. Rather, due to their linked states, Cobb's limbo superseded the others.

So it makes sense in the universe, but I might agree that having it at all was disappointing. I know they had to add some gravity to the proceedings and make those bullets REAL, but I think much coulda been done with looking at it like a video game. When you die you wake up unscathed, but you had go through the whole thing AGAIN. Like an old-school nintendo game with no save points. So dying wouldn't in the dream wouldn't kill you but it could easily screw up the whole heist.