Friday, July 23, 2010


I know it's lazy of me, but this really won't make any sense unless you've seen Inception. Sorry!

There are two ways to read Christopher Nolan's Inception. One is to take the characters on their somewhat-confusing, often-garbled literal word. In this case, the film is the story of a band of extractors carrying off an elegant reverse-heist and winning their leader's passage back onto his homeland.

The other examination of the film, one suggested at several points throughout the runtime (most obviously by the not-really-ambiguous-at-all ambiguous ending) is that the entire film is a dream, orchestrated for the benefit and/or deception of Leonardo DiCaprio's bereaved Dominick Cobb.

With each of these possibilities comes a devastating array of flaws. For as cool as the movie can be in sporadic spurts, it doesn't hold up to any serious investigation.

If the movie is to be taken literally, it is so full of plot-holes, garrulous exposition and spatial incoherence from the micro- to the macro- that it can be described as nothing less than a mess. For example: if a van plowing off a bridge can upset a twice-removed dreamworld with an avalanche (which, by the way, hurts nothing and nobody and in no way sets back our heroes' plot), why does it not distort the gravity of that dream-level in any other continuous way as the van continues its plummet? This can be called nitpicking, but the film is rife with such gaps in logic.

Here is a two-and-a-half-hour movie in which approximately forty-five minutes (a generous estimation) is dedicated to the supremely nifty set-pieces promised by the trailer and by Nolan's previous work1. The remaining 1:45 is entirely backstory and set-up. Probably the entire first hour of the movie is mired in exposition2, which only makes the eventual descent into the dreamworld an ultimately relieving incident. You can hear Millhouse asking: "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

But even with all this set-up, for every tidbit of diegetic logic underlined and set forth as a 'rule', there is a lazy smudge of hokum we are asked to swallow simply because in two-and-a-half-hours Nolan couldn't come up with anything better. If extraction is a profession with so many fascinating rules and how-to's, couldn't we be supplied with a reason or method behind Eames' ability to seamlessly transform into other people within the dreamworld (and he can do this for the sake of both the aware and the unaware). Oh, and Yusuf concocted a sedative that doesn't affect the inner ear? That's all you've got? But it doesn't wake you up if you're rolling down a hill in a big clunky van? Give me a break.

Finally, from a narrative point of view3, the rules that the film does go to such lengths setting up are all instantly expendable. We are presented with several exciting ticking clocks and increasingly dire stakes, but they are all reset at the behest of a poorly-plotted third act. Initially, they have to complete the inception before the van goes off the bridge, otherwise they'll miss the "kick" and they won't wake up. But when they miss this opportunity, Cobb announces that they now have until the van hits the water a good 30 dreamworld-minutes later.

After Saito is shot in level one, we are told that they have to finish the job before he dies or he'll be irretrievably lost in sub-conscious limbo that will destroy his conscious self when they wake up in Los Angeles; later, after Saito 'dies', Cobb simply finds him and rescues him.

We are told over and over how the feeling of falling will wrest you from the next level down, but only in the sub-subconscious dystopia of Cobb's failed marriage will a fall from within the dream wake you up from the level you're in.

Now, in the course of the film, five characters are seen descending into that messy fourth-level state: Cobb and Mal in their flashback, Saito and Fischer when they die in the third level, and Ariadne, with Cobb again, going down to rescue Saito and Fischer. Of these five, only Mal is unable to recover from the shock of regained youth after forty years in the soup. Cobb tells us this is due to his own inception rather than her mind turning to mush.

Saito and Fischer have been sent here by death one level up, and we might fear that to rescue them will only result in that hypothesized insanity once they wake up to reality. Ariadne is, of course an amateur (on the surface) and handles the improvised descent into a stranger's deep subconscious like a professional4, hopping right back out once her task is done.

If we are to accept any stakes at all from the meat of the film's story (that is: the carrying-out of the eponymous inception), we have to dread that death in the dream will result in a vegetative coma once woken. Yet we see time and again that this was an idle threat.

And why, by the way, do all five end up in Cobb's limbo world? This is where we come to the second reading of the film:

Every frame of Inception, with the possible exception of the Mal flashbacks5, takes place within the head of a character we never see awake6. The clues all point to this, from Cobb's refusal to look at his children's faces to the wise old (ethnic!) sage in Yusuf's basement suggesting that the dream-sharers partake in their addiction not to sleep but to be woken up. Who is Cobb to suggest a difference between reality and dreams?

From the repeated suggestions of a dream-sharer's inevitably tenuous grasp on reality to the explicit inability of Cobb to ever actually spin his top (he's always dropping it or pocketing it because he doesn't want to get caught losing his grasp), Inception consistently points to the idea that this whole thing is a dream. If we decide we want to view the film this way, what actually works is that all these plot-holes and all this illogic can be instantly forgiven: it's all a dream, and there are no rules in dreams, no matter how often it might be suggested that there are.

The problem becomes that the film is about something entirely different than the 'first level' story of corporate inception with which we're presented. And lest I sound as though I'm against subtext, let me underline that what sucks is that [one] Nolan is entirely obvious and heavy-handed in regards to this being a story about Cobb losing his wife and, subsequently, his mind, and [two] that story, as it's told here, is derivative and shallow.

Nolan has proved his abilities as a plotter and storyteller, and no matter how much a misstep we might deem Inception to be, I simply can't write it off as the mediocre heist drama it is on the surface. We have to give Nolan at least a little credit: there has to be something more to this movie than meets the eye, and that's why I'm positive that Nolan's 'prestige' here is the not-quite-explicit idea that the entire thing takes place in Cobb's head.

I think Inception is about a man (Cobb) who has lost his mind for one reason or another (probably 40-odd dream-years inside his own subconscious) and who has become—we are never shown this—the vegetable we're warned might be the fate for Saito or Fischer or anybody else. In his comatose nightmare, Cobb longs to be reunited with his family, but because he blames himself for his predicament, he won't let it happen on any level of his reality.

We see this in Cobb's refusal to look at his children, even as they pop up around corners as often as the projection of his demonic wife. And by the way, they do make an appearance once in the film's purported reality: early in the film, Cobb's children call him in his hotel room in Kyoto. How on earth could they find him there but through the twisted logic of a dream?

So Cobb is a sad tomato7, and this is where Michael Caine comes in. It's not coincidental that the last human expression seen in the film is Caine's knowing smirk as the camera tilts downward to a cut-to-black off Cobb's spinning totem. Caine's Miles is the man behind the actual inception of this story's title. He partners with Ariadne (and the rest of the ensemble may be projections of Cobb's subconscious or members of Miles' team) to bring the vegetative Cobb some happiness within his eternal dream state. This is why every character, four levels down, shares the dreamworld Cobb created.

You know what? This is kind of a nice idea. Unfortunately, Nolan bogs himself down in endless retellings of Mal's fate and a lot of sci-fi gobbledy-gook that serves only to clash with any actual pathos at the heart of the thing. It reminds me of another big-budget project from a director that didn’t really know where to go after the biggest success of his career.

My prediction is that Inception will go down as Christopher Nolan's Vanilla Sky: a star-filled oddity of premise that goes over or under most heads and runs on a difficult-to-swallow mixture of sentiment and hardcore sci-fi world-building. Despite its flaws, it will earn a devoted following for whom either the emotions or the ideas (occasionally both) work on a personal level, and that cult will hold it up as one of their favorite movies. Ever.

See, I suppose I don't have a problem with liking Inception so much as I have a problem with the idea that it's anywhere near as mindlessly fun or exciting as it purports to be. I like Vanilla Sky and would be like a bully lashing out if I mocked anyone for it. But what I can admit about Vanilla Sky is this: it's hokey and it's over-the-top, it's a good half-hour too long and I can understand why you might end up chuckling at it.

Inception, which is essentially the same story (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses mind, boy goes on dramatic twist-ending nightmare-bender to convince his sleeping mind that he still has her), is easily (from the score alone) twice as self-important as Vanilla Sky, as over-long as Shutter Island, as convoluted as Mullholland Drive, as knowingly-slick as anything Nolan has ever done. For many it's going to strike a chord.

Everyone else will chuckle.

1) And by the way, for as cool as these forty-five cumulative minutes can be, they really only leave more to be desired in-and-of-themselves. Nolan's team constructed an entire rotating hallway in order to depict Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping from wall to ceiling amidst fisticuffs with subconscious henchmen, and he uses this practical effect in exactly one uncut shot that lasts long enough to register. Mere seconds. Unforgivable. Anybody who ever wants to show a hero doing battle with henchmen in an enclosed space needs to go watch Oldboy. [back]

2) Ellen Page's performance is awful enough to deserve more than a footnote, but I don't really want to bother. It's bad enough that Ariadne is so clumsily-written and contrived an audience surrogate, all "What does this do?" and "How does that work?". But to give this flimsy, hollow role to an actress of Page's meager caliber is just infuriating, especially when she's next to powerhouses like Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. [back]

3.) If A.A. Dowd is reading this he might as well give up here and post his comment about how I am a "slave to narrative". [back]

4.) Or rather, she handles it like a bemused starlet confronted with a series of wildly ridiculous interactions and paper-thin 'wow' moments: a "human network", if you will? [back]

5.) The flashbacks, now; not Cobb's memory-based reconstructions or subconscious projections. Obviously, in a film like this it isn't always possible to tell the difference. [back]

6.) This is DiCaprio's Cobb, but since we never see him and the world takes place in his dream, it would be pointless to label him as the same character, with the same appearance and personality. [back]

7.) In New York Magazine, David Edelstein derisively mocked the character's name, referring to Dom Cobb as "dummkopf", which, incidentally, means "stupidhead." Several characters here have winkingly relevant namesakes, the most cloying of which has to be Ariadne, the girl who bestowed Theseus with a ball of yarn to help him navigate the minotaur's labyrinth. Despite being played by the unparalleled Cillian Murphy, Fischer might as well have been called "Cipher". [back]


  1. You're a slave to narrative, Todd!

    I did finish your review, which is almost as long as INCEPTION itself. Was that a crafty structural decision to bog the middle of your piece down in endless exposition, just like Nolan's movie? And the jumping back and forth between the main piece and the footnotes evokes the layers-upon-layers, the multiple planes of engagement, in INCEPTION. You sneaky meta bastard.

    All kidding aside, I can't really refute your objections to this convoluted picture. Actually, it's funny. I've only seen the movie once. If your hypothesis about Caine's role in the narrative holds water then this a much more complicated and (potentially) a much more endearing con job than I initially took it for. That's a profoundly moving notion, and I'd have to watch the film again before I could make a case for/against it.

    I will say this for INCEPTION: it might not be half as smart as its ardent defenders have claimed it is-- in fact, it surely isn't-- but there is a structural, clockwork complexity to the thing that's difficult to shrug off. As a screenwriter, he remains peerlessly inventive, playing with layers of narrative in ways that most of his contemporaries can only (har har) dream of. If the whole thing's a meaningless exercise, it bodes well for what Nolan will do when he stumbles upon something, well, MEANINGFUL to explore again.

    Final thought: whether INCEPTION works or not--on one viewing, I haven't settled--isn't there still something fundamentally exciting about a $200 million blockbuster this rife for discussion and analysis and debate? I mean, there any other summer tent poles you're cooking up a 2000 word novella on?

  2. Agreed on all counts.

    Probably the biggest problem with INCEPTION is the matter of disappointment. I wanted something bigger and better than THE DARK KNIGHT and those are difficult expectations to live up to. It feels like filler.

    As for 2000-word write-ups, maybe I'll have something extra to say about CHARLIE ST. CLOUD.

  3. Oh, and I forgot:

    "Here is a two-and-a-half-hour movie in which approximately forty-five minutes (a generous estimation) is dedicated to the supremely nifty set-pieces promised by the trailer and by Nolan's previous work."

    Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I remain unconvinced that Nolan is actually a particularly good "set-piece" filmmaker. DARK KNIGHT has one or two corkers, but this guy is still mastering the logistics of action filmmaking. The strength of his work is usually in the *ideas* that they run with-- again, one of the reasons that INCEPTION isn't exactly his strongest show--and in the sinuous ways he cuts and splices narrative.

  4. If that snow-covered shoot-out on the third level is any indication, Nolan is, in fact, a pretty lousy action director.

  5. Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but I don't see what about his performance in this movie qualifies him as a "powerhouse."

  6. Perhaps that is a little strong. But I'd say he handles the clunky material with a graceful effortlessness unseen in anyone else in the film. (Though maybe it only appears this way since he has so many scenes with Ellen Page.)

    Also, Gordon-Levitt gets every one of the film's few moments of comic relief.

  7. Gordon-Levitt also gets saddled with a lot of the 'splaining. It's not a very good part, but he comes off better than DiCaprio, in my opinion. (I thought Tom Hardy was great, by the way.)

  8. I think low expectations served this movie brilliantly. It was surprisingly engaging the entire time, despite the quite obvious flaws you've pointed out here. Unlike Vanilla Sky, which is a remake, it's based on an original idea which makes me a lot more patient with it than I otherwise would be. More importantly, its failed ambition doesn't wreck the movie-- or at least it didn't ruin it for me, or the other people at the Somerville Theatre last night. Everyone laughed at the final shot of the still-spinning top, but in a tickled way, like they were excited to figure out what it meant-- rather than in a bitter way.

    That said, everything you've said here is absolutely correct-- only the best parallel for the story isn't Vanilla Sky, failed in a similar way, but in fact Nolan's own Memento, which actually does what this movie fails at. It creates a completely credible, high-concept genre movie that, in the last five minutes, is revealed to be an elaborate self-delusion constructed to insulate the lead character's from his guilt over his wife's death. It's when I compare Inception to Memento, rather than the Dark Knight, that I feel just how lacking it really is. At every point of shared story DNA, Memento is more entertaining, more elegant, funnier, and more emotionally affecting than Inception. Even worse, Memento demonstrates greater insight and more emotional nuance on the specific subject of grief over the loss of a loved one. If Nolan felt the need to tell another story with the same emotional heart as his first hit, he needed at least to make that emotional heart more true-- but he didn't one bit. He just sat back and counted on Marion Cotillard's lovely tears to make us feel something. And that is genuinely disappointing in a way that's hard for me to forgive.

  9. I tentatively agree with you, Cassandra. It's been several years since I got together with MEMENTO. Now's probably the time.

  10. I COMPLETELY agree with you, Cassandra.

  11. I'm with Cassandra too, on both her points. I found "Inception" entertaining, having gone to see it after Todd told me the night before how bad it was. Expecting disaster, I came out with a better impression of it than I may have otherwise.

    I like Todd's reading of Michael Caine doing the inception. My problem with the literal reading (other than the mentioned lapses in logic) is the lack of weight granted to the reason for the inception. We get a few seconds on why Saito wants it to happen and a glance at the faceless Cobb children (and it seems if Cobb had his choice, he'd get Mal back instead of his children), but the necessary weight or emotional resonance wasn't there.

    That, and the Edith Piaf bugged me.