Skip to content

No Further Questions

July 23, 2010

So I finally saw Inception. I’ll warn you beforehand: I’ve enjoyed every Christopher Nolan movie I’ve ever watched save Insomnia (I was physically unable to get through that’n).  He is by no means my favorite director — The Dark Knight, for all its merits as the best action movie ever made, is still an action movie with poorly written dialogue and little thematic depth; The Prestige is interesting but over-plotted and damaged by its M. Night Shyamalan ending; Batman Begins is actually fairly thematically deep, if restricted by genre; and Memento’s plot gets in the way of what could have otherwise been an even more thoughtful and insightful movie than it was.  Indeed, that last clause is indicative of how I’ve always felt about Nolan.  He takes compelling ideas, applies them to interesting situations, and then crowds out the depth of the idea with over-plotting.  And, with that in mind, Inception is the most Nolan of any Nolan movie.

In the vast realm of science fiction, dream scenarios are nothing new, as John Derbyshire explains.  In fairness, the film is pretty original in terms of other $100+ million blockbusters, especially for a summer picture.  Originality can only take you so far, though, as I’m sure Nolan would acknowledge — simply introducing the concept of dreams-within-dreams and “extracting” ideas from the subconscious is not enough to carry a film.  Unfortunately for those moviegoers looking for something profound (and fortunately for those seeking a bit of summer adventure), Nolan takes these stimulating ideas and wraps an action thriller around them.

Visually speaking, the movie is certainly a spectacle — a majority of the film’s two hours and a half are spent inside dreams inside dreams, where those who share dreamscapes are capable of manipulating their surroundings, i.e. folding cities in half and walking vertically up walls.  In this environment, Nolan inserts a heist story: heist-esque in that the story entails an intricately-weaved plan to accomplish a certain task which is the realization of an afterthought of an overall plot.  In a world in which the technology exists to allow several people to share a host’s dream (you just have to accept that this is possible, which is fine with me; it’s similar to the idea in Memento that somebody can suffer from a condition where he can only remember things for five minutes but nevertheless is able to remember the first thirty years of his life), protagonist Leonard DiCaprio is a so-called “extractor” — somebody who inserts himself into subjects’ dreams to explore their ideas and, presumably, to steal things from them — who intends to perform something called inception for a corporate mogul (Ken Watanabe) so that his competitor (Cillian Murphy) won’t run him out of business once his father dies.  That is, Leo is wanted for the murder of his wife in the United States, where his children are, and Watanabe promises to facilitate his return stateside if he can plant the idea — inception — in Murphy’s mind to break up his father’s energy empire and keep it from becoming a global monopoly (even though this runs afoul of everything that are anti-trust legalities developed during the last century, but no matter, you just have to move past that).

The problem is that in order for an idea to be appear to be truly original, and not to have simply been picked up from somebody else, it has to be planted very deeply into a subject’s mind.  Thus, Leo and his team must delve deeply into dreams-within-dreams; all in all, they progress through three levels (they’re dreaming that they’re dreaming that they’re dreaming).  This progression is obviously too regimented to really capture the nature of dreams — things are far too logical, too strictly realistic, and too ordinary to be dreams.  But again, that’s not what the director was going for.

As Derbyshire notes, Nolan forgoes really imaginative material in favor of cool action scenes, using “the little [he’s] grasped as a peg on which to hang [his] special-effects alien worlds or dreamscapes.”  And it’s true: the bulk of the time spent in the second dreamscape is spent following Joseph-Gordon Levitt around a hotel while he combats Murphy’s subconscious mercenaries in constantly-changing gravitational conditions, culminating in a zero-G affair, caused by the team’s van falling from a bridge in the first dreamscape, where he floats around — pulling off a mid-air arm triangle in the process, presumably taught by Brock Lesnar’s trainer — getting the team in position for a “kick” that will wake them up from that particular dream.  (For some reason, the van’s falling in the first dreamscape doesn’t contribute a’tall to the gravitational effects of the third; as Will Wilkinson points out, the first can affect the second, but the second cannot affect the third?  How convenient.)  It’s a remarkable sequence as far as action goes — at one point, Levitt is literally running clockwise around a hallway — but the excitement comes at the expense of the really interesting part of that particular dreamscape: the fact that Leo tells the host of that particular dream that he is in fact dreaming.

There is in fact an emotional component to the film, but it largely fails to resonate.  Leo’s subconscious projects his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) into basically every dream that he enters (even though his is the only subconscious that projects anything a’tall besides the host’s), and she becomes the François Toulour to his Danny Ocean; she is his foil due to his guilt-stained projection of her as a result of the responsibility he feels for her suicide.  This protagonist-overcoming-his-guilt-for-the-sake-of-the-children thing is fairly hollow, however, as the movie is too caught up in its heist to explore this aspect sufficiently.

But it could have!  Which is, I guess, my main quibble with the film, and with Nolan’s work in general.  His films have opportunities to be insightful, which they abandon, seemingly due to having to get in all of the twists and turns of the action.  It’s like Nolan only has X amount of time and Y amount of money, and there’s some coefficient of action that has to fit into that equation in order for the film to truly accomplish what it’s financiers hoped that it would.   Or maybe Nolan is just having fun (a truth I would certainly prefer).

It’s been said that Nolan waited ten years to make this film.  Apparently, he wanted to have some credibility thrown his way before he made this one so he could do it sans budgetary constraints.  Well, he figured all that out, but I think he would have made a much better movie if he had made it back before he did all the Batman stuff, like when he did Memento.  The movie probably still would have been over-plotted, but it may have had its moments, as in “How can I heal if I don’t feel time?” and “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.  I’m no different.”

But I’m of the mind that good directors are to be indulged.  I’m rather fond of Inglorious Basterds even though the whole thing smacks of Tarantino “taking his talents to South Beach”, I laughed at Burn After Reading, and I even enjoyed Ocean’s Thirteen even though it seemed like everyone involved, including Steven Soderbergh, was having way too much fun making it.  Maybe Christopher Nolan will never make movies that we can talk about for days and weeks after we’ve seen them, but he’s okay with that, then that’s okay with me.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: