I probably seem a long way behind the curve on this one, seeing as how Inception came out three months ago and every other critic, blogger, and fanboy on the internet weighed in in the first two weeks, but I think there’s still room for more discussion here. After all, the movie is still in theaters where I live, and I’ve just been biding my time and coming up with fascinating insights for three months (or procrastinating, take your pick). Anyway, this will be less of a review and more of a loose defense of the film from its critics mixed with a semi-organized list of interesting things I noticed about the film and the ideas it brings up. So if my paragraphs lack a thesis statement, don’t worry about it.
I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan’s since The Prestige. I consider that film an underrated masterpiece, and it introduced me quickly to the rest of his work. Memento, I believe, is his greatest film thus far, but The Dark Knight is not far behind, and he has yet to make a bad film. HIs record is unbroken, perhaps the finest record of any English-language director of the last decade--only Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, and the Coen Brothers can compete, and they each had their respective flops. (I would note here, in defense of my hyperbole, that are plenty of other great directors out there, many of whom have done things greater than Nolan has ever done, I just feel their films this decade were either too uneven or too few to include in this little group.)
If we define an auteur as a director with ultimate artistic control over the story, look and content of his films, a director with a recognizable style who returns to certain themes and ideas repeatedly, then Nolan clearly qualifies as one. He has at least a partial scriptwriting credit on all of his movies except Insomnia, which was a remake. Influenced by Michael Mann, Alfred Hitchock, and possibly David Fincher (plus numerous others I can’t identify--Jean-Pierre Melville perhaps?), each of his films has a similar look and style. He prefers a rather bleached color palette, especially blues, grays, and blacks, often using brighter colors to signify important details and thematic elements. Many images are repeated again and again in his films, gradually taking on new meaning and import each time. The Dark Knight remains his only film to be told entirely chronologically--even Insomnia had brief flashbacks. Nolan’s protagonists are all defined by traumas in their pasts which drive their actions in the present, and often have symbiotic relationships with their antagonists. He continually returns to themes of identity, memory, and perhaps most importantly, the nature of truth and the various natures of lies, especially the lies we tell ourselves.
Inception, as has been pointed out elsewhere, was initially met with deafening acclaim from the critics attending pre-release screenings, but was then criticized more heavily by the weekend critics. The pre-release screenings included numerous online and more movie-news oriented critics, while the later reviews tended to skew more toward established, print-based critics. There were exceptions to both rules, but this didn’t stop the eruption of a mini-battle/argument/flamewar between the perceived elitism of the print critics and the populism of the online community, playing out on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and the comments sections of blogs. Nolan has a great deal of street-cred among fanboys and young movie-fans in general, especially after directing the most popular superhero movie ever. Eventually, the more high-brow amateur bloggers started weighing in, and while no agreement was ever really reached, the controversy eventually died down, as mini-controversies will. I myself greatly enjoyed the movie, and can sympathize with the movie’s defenders (my previous comments might even place me among the Nolan fanboys), but I can appreciate some of the arguments made against the film as well. At the very least, they ought to be met with a reasoned response, not insults.
Critical opinions of Inception can be found here, here, and here. The major points of criticism seem to be these: The movie is too talky and concerned with explaining, it’s cold and humorless, the characters are not well-developed, Nolan doesn’t know how to shoot action, and the dreams in the film are not like the dreams we experience in real life. I think all of these are legitimate points, but I also think they can all be addressed, and none of them ruin the film.
The first two accusations are somewhat subjective. I found myself fascinated with the constant flow of information being given to the audience: instead of simply setting up an interesting concept and letting it play out, we were continually asked to process new data and reinterpret the events on screen as they were happening. This style of storytelling has its downsides, and there’s something to be said for simplicity, but how often do we get a film this ambitious and confusing that can connect with a mass audience? It is unquestionably the most ambitious summer blockbuster since The Dark Knight, far more ambitious even than Avatar, which merely wanted to impress with its technology. Inception wants to immerse us in a new world, engage with us on both intellectual and emotional levels, and leave us thinking. I am not sure if it is completely successful on the intellectual front (I’ll get to that in a minute), but for me at least, it’s narrative thrust was completely engaging and exhilarating. I also find it incredible that a film with so many rules apparently abides by them so strictly and logically. As to humorless, I think it could have used another joke or two. There were two or three LOL moments, but that was it, and the rest was very serious and plot-focused. This seems to be a Nolan trademark/curse: He is extremely focused and driven, but not particularly funny. He does not have a light touch, but he does have a strong, talented, authorial touch, and this can make up for it. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind seeing some more humor and jauntiness to Nolan in the future. His funniest film by far has been The Dark Knight, and that was entirely because of the violent black comedy of Ledger’s Joker. Hitchcock new how to make things funny and intense at the same time, and it’s an ability too many filmmakers today lack.
As for character development: I think the actors all did excellent jobs, conveying a sense of cool and magnetism that only real stars can pull off. Joseph-Gordon Levitt has been excellent for ages, but now he should finally start getting the attention he deserves. Ellen Page is more than Juno, and she can show it if she gets the chance. Tom Hardy is still an unknown to most people, but he could be one of the most exciting men in Hollywood if he gets a couple big roles. And DiCaprio always brings the intensity, but he was completely convincing here when he often isn’t. But I agree that aside from DiCaprio as Cobb, most of the other characters were only sketched lightly. Their inner lives were not explored at all. The actors’ performances were all exciting and intriguing, but they left me wanting more. This could be because the entire movie takes place in Cobb’s mind--they are all figments of his imagination, and therefore incomplete as people. I do not completely endorse this interpretation, but if you choose to accept it, the problem is solved. If you do not, you are still left with a compelling central character and plotline, and several subsidiary characters who are interesting enough that you want to know more--not so weakly drawn that they feel unnecessary and distracting.
As far as Nolan’s shooting of action goes, I think he’s getting better. His first two movies had no real action scenes, just some scuffling and gunshots, and he had no chance to practice the techniques needed to create intelligible, believable, exciting action. Insomnia had an excellent chase through the mist, filled with slick rocks, stumbling, and confusion. You couldn’t tell where everyone was, but then that was the point. The final shoot-out was spatially intelligible and logically played out, but I’ve never found it that compelling. Batman Begins was the worst offender as far as action sequences go. Early scenes involving the League of Shadows are admirably mysterious and visceral, but the central sequence--when Bruce Wayne finally defeats Ducard at his own game, in the middle of ranks of ninjas--is again meant to confuse and disorient. When Bruce gets back to Gotham and begins fighting as Batman, things get more confused. His escape in the Batmobile is wild and unintelligible, when it should be light, exciting, and funny. The Batmobile is seen leaping off buildings, smashing police cars out of the way, and generally causing havoc while policemen radio back and forth, trying to understand what’s going on. The problem is, the audience can’t understand what’s going on either, and the sequence loses its thrill. The climax is also problematic--cluttered, dark, and filled with too many cuts and overly-specific explanations. I had to watch it a couple times before I really understood what was going on, and even then, all Batman’s punches seem obscured and confused. The Prestige doesn’t have any action to speak of, but The Dark Knight has multiple scenes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The opening bank heist is brilliantly conceived, one of the most thrilling opening scenes ever, right up there with the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Batman’s first scene, where he takes out drug traffickers and leaps onto a van in a parking garage is confused and over too quickly to care much. His trip to Hong Kong is exciting and intense, including the thrilling shot of Batman leaping off a skyscraper and having the camera plunge after him. The fighting is over quickly enough that we never feel things are getting confused. Then there’s the central armored car attack, filmed (at least partially) on Chicago’s Lower Wacker. This sequence strikes me as being about as exciting and well-staged as car chases get these days, and I have nothing to fault it for. The doctors-as-hostages climax, on the other hand is extremely choppy, snapping back and forth between Batman, Gordon, the Joker, and the two ferries so quickly that it requires multiple viewings to figure out how each little snatch of action in the building is actually related to the others. Everything seems shot so closely to the fighting, in such poor light, and chopped up so fast, that it’s difficult to feel part of the action, and instead I’m left trying to catch up or just going along for the ride, confident that it’ll eventually end up at a place that makes sense. And it does. To Nolan’s credit, he resists making the action the substance of the climax. Instead, the real climactic moments take place between Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent in the burned-out warehouse, and they focus on emotions and character instead of explosions.
So Nolan has a mixed record when it comes to action. He needs to learn to step back and film several seconds of a fight at a time, then learn to match cut it to other angles, so it looks like the fight is playing out clearly and logically. This is not the trend nowadays--things are supposed to look like they makes sense, but directors and editors feel they have to cut fast to keep the energy of the scene up. Faster cutting can help, but spatial and movement coherence are essential as well, and if you can’t accomplish both of these at once, your action scenes will be second-rate, even if your pounding music keeps people’s adrenaline up. I think Nolan accomplishes this better in Inception than he did before, though not entirely. Gordon-Levitt’s null-g fight in the hallway is absolutely spectacular, and is entirely spatially coherent. The car chase scenes are remarkably tense and exciting considering how brief and cut-off they are. The only place I feel the ball really gets dropped is in the final snow-fortress assault. Virtually none of the action here seems connected to anything else. It is supposed to be a maze, but we never get a sense of the process of getting through it. Mostly, we are focused on the overall progress of the plan and what is happening on the other levels of the dream, and the shots fired and punches thrown seem to be merely a distraction. I find it a little remarkable that he can keep four to five separate layers of dreams completely coherent, but all the action within one layer seems to be confused and unclear. Oh well. I would still contend that this sequence didn’t ruin the movie, merely hampered it’s thrills a bit. Hopefully Nolan can improve on his action scenes in the future.
By far the most serious accusation against the film is the contention that it’s dreams do not resemble real dreams and the film is therefore irrelevant. This criticism is more serious than it might appear, because it does address centrally what the film is about. If, as it’s defenders claim, the movie is so ambitious and so masterfully successful, surely it has some point? Some larger themes it is exploring? What does the movie really reveal about our subconscious, unconscious, and the nature of dreams? My answer to the latter question: Not much. The movie isn’t really about dreams and how they affect us; it simply wants to use the dreamscape as an environment, not unlike a video game, to stage an elaborate caper movie. This is not to say the dreams in the movie have nothing to do with real dreams. There are many details here which harken back to our most common dreams and the sensations we feel within them: You can never remember how you got anywhere, outside sensations--like the need to pee or movement--can be manifested inside the dream, repeated attempts to make something different happen (like see your kids’ faces) never succeed, paradoxes occur that could never happen in real life, walls close in on you, everyone stares at you, people are after you for reasons never explained, dreams reoccur that indicate psychological preoccupations, time in dreams can seem to pass much faster than while awake, and the sensation of falling or impending death can suddenly wake you up. All these characteristics of dreams are represented in the movie, but the movie isn’t really about how dreams work. It just borrows the familiar environment and architecture of dreams in order to construct a narrative, making up new rules as it goes. Some argue that this just makes things unrealistic and difficult to relate to, but I disagree. More tellingly, they suggest that a more imaginative and talented director would have more compelling and surreal dream-imagery, and that Nolan’s lack of imagination hampers, and--considering its clear ambition--ultimately dooms the movie.
It is true that Nolan’s dreams have rules and structure that are far more solid and complex than the bizarre storylines and lunatic imagery of my dreams, calling to mind the computer world of The Matrix rather than the surrealism of David Lynch. This has logical, story-based reasons, however. Nolan is far more comfortable exploring the mind as a maze than the Freudian mysteries of the subconscious. These dreams are not a single individual’s nightmare, but rather carefully constructed shared dreams that must seem completely real to the subject or the dream invaders will be discovered. This necessitates as little randomness as possible, with the dreamers going so far as to design whole dreams and environments while awake which they then draw upon instantly once asleep. The film is not filled with bizarre dream imagery because it is not “an unfettered dream movie” attempting to map the subconscious, but rather a sci-fi heist thriller set within the boundaries of the mind, which the subconscious occasionally infringes upon. Random imagery, if indulged, could have taken away from the plot; witness the similar idea but incomprehensibility of Paprika, an anime film which ends up reduced to several striking and wacky/creepy images, but lacks interesting characters or plot to carry it along. If you want movies that attempt to examine the subconscious more thoroughly and creatively, watch the films of David Lynch and Luis Bunuel, or Charlie Kaufmann’s Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York, or other surreal movies like Brazil or Spirited Away or even Coraline. All these movies have great virtues, but they are different virtues than Inception possesses, or was even trying for. Nolan probably could not make them if he tried, but then, he hasn’t tried.
Three other accusations that I saw against Nolan: (1) he doesn’t know how to tell a story in images, (2) he only makes movies for people who like plots, which makes him rather uninteresting, and (3) he isn’t a poet. To the first, I say you don’t know what you’re talking about. You are blind to the incredible imagery Nolan creates here, but you also haven’t seen The Prestige, where images explain everything. To the second, I concede the point that many great directors disregard plots in order to study people, map emotions, and elaborate on themes. But I also contend that most classical directors would emphasize plot above all else for making a good movie, and Alfred Hitchcock is worshipped even today for his control of plot. Plot should not be dismissed with a sniff, for nearly everyone who watches movies enjoys them for their plots. Plot is not necessary for art, but it generally is for popular entertainment, and no director has been popularly successful without it. And to the third, I answer, No, he’s not. Unfortunately, Nolan is not John Ford, Terrence Malick, or Wong Kar-Wai. But few directors are. Hitchock and Hawks generally weren’t either. They could achieve poetry at times, but more often they were concerned with other things. And this is all right.
- There are no opening credits, viewers are just plunged into a mystifying opening sequence that actually occurs at the end of the story (a trick I believe started with Citizen Kane).
- I am not a good judge of such things, but I thought Hans Zimmer's pulsing. heart-attack inducing score was terrific, and often gorgeous. It also, apparently hides a secret of its own.
- The most powerful performance in the film is that of Marion Cotillard. She is beautifully, mysteriously, achingly sinister. Other than the hallway fight, her heartbreaking tearstained face and sultry walk are the clearest images of the movie in my mind.
- Early suggestions by critics of the Kubrickian character of the movie were exaggerated. Several shots clearly show Kubrick’s influence--Saito’s orange meeting room, the hotel hallway, the vault at the end staged as a clear reference to 2001--but the film’s rhythms and characters and overall perspective are nothing like Kubrick, and the film should not be held to that standard. It owes as much to M.C. Escher as to Kubrick.
- Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister has worked his way up from straight-to-video flops and crap like A Kid in Aladdin’s Palace, to become one of the best in the business, in the process being nominated for three Oscars.
- Nolan’s and Pfister’s visuals here are among the most striking I have ever seen in a big event movie, certainly as stunning as anything I’ve seen in a theater (which admittedly isn’t all that huge a group). Instead of attempting surrealistic symbols and clutter, they instead opt for bold lines and hi-def clarity, creating, very literally, an architecture of the mind, where every shot is defined by geometric shapes. Taking their cue from M.C. Escher, Stanley Kubrick, and perhaps Charles and Ray Eames, this is a film obsessed with squares and rectangles, and how they can be fited together to form buildings or mazes. Objects that aren’t straight--like the top or water droplets--are perfectly smooth, flowing in cool, clear, geometric purity. Mombassa and the crumbling remnants of Cobb’s city in limbo are the only places that rough edges are allowed to appear. As to striking images, of course there is Ariadne’s first dream, where Paris folds over on itself (in perfect right angles) and everything on the street starts to blow up (even those explosions happen in regular, star-burst patterns). But the more striking to me were those images which did not rely on computer generated effects--Saito’s palatial Japanese compound, which reminded me of the bathhouse in Spirited Away, lit with hundreds of spherical lamps arranged in straight lines; Joseph Gordon-Levitt walking on the walls of the rotating hotel hallway, still dapper in suit and suspenders; the sleeping team suspended in zero gravity, their limbs and the cables of the machine splayed out like spider-webs between tree-branches; Marion Cotillard’s face; and the slow-motion.
- Nolan and Pfister use slow-motion in a way I’ve never seen before, to achieve an effect as beautiful as anything done by Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, or Wong Kar-Wai (though perhaps not with quite the emotional impact). They slow time down to an extant probably never done in a mainstream movie before, not even in The Matrix, drawing out a couple of seconds into a quarter of an hour. Virtually every use of slow motion involves falling and how it affects other layers of the dream, meaning it is important plot-wise, not just a cool effect. It is speed-ramping done right, and ought to show Zack Snyder a thing or two. The effect is usually paired with water, whether splashing into character’s faces or engulfing them as they plunge backward into it. The sequences where Cobb’s chair rolls backward into the bathtub, or the van slowly hurtles off the bridge, or everyone’s legs and arms kick up at once as if part of a dance, are mesmerizing, especially with individual drops of water, like liquid glass, blooming outward through the air. Considering all this, I find it rather mystifying that anyone could complain about the lack of visual imagination evidenced in the film.
I have not yet endorsed an interpretation of the ending, and I don’t really intend to, mostly because I’m not really sure what I think myself. Some friends have suggested that it doesn’t matter whether he was dreaming or not, only that he was happy, but I reject this. If he was still dreaming he might have been happy, but he would have been lying to himself. This is a theme Nolan has explored repeatedly, in Memento, Insomnia,The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, and it is central to Cobb’s character throughout the film. Why should they have left limbo if they were happy there? Why would the person in Plato's cave want to crawl out to the sunlight? Because reality is much better/fuller than any dream our minds can construct, and any lie is eventually going to come crashing down or end in disappointment; it's only a matter of time. Then again, Plato also proposed the concept of a Noble Lie in order to achieve just ends, something that seems to be endorsed at the end of The Dark Knight. But the Noble Lie was something the enlightened elite would tell the masses to create harmony and agreement, it was not something you could tell yourself. Self-deception is never justified. Is it?
Perhaps more importantly, though, I believe the film ought to be seen as a metaphor for cinema itself. Nolan intentionally brandished his cinematic influences here as never before. The Dark Knight clearly took part of the bank heist from Michael Mann’s Heat, and Insomnia seems to me to be modeled after Welles’s Touch of Evil, but other than a bit or piece here or there, his other films are much more circumspect about their influences. Inception, however, is suffused with other movies: There are several shots borrowed from Kubrick, especially the room in the vault; a training sequence out of The Matrix, as well as null-g fights; the mirror scene with an infinite number of Ariadnes, recalling the infinite Kanes in Citizen Kane; a gathering of specialist thieves out of Rififi, Ocean’s Eleven, and practically every heist movie ever; the chase in Mombassa reminiscent of The Bourne Supremacy; another Michael Mann-style gunfight; the final snow level, with fights on skis out of From Russia With Love and a fortress out of The Heroes of Telemark; and many more that I haven’t noticed. DiCaprio modeled his character after Christopher Nolan himself, wearing a similar hairstyle and clothes, but also copying his intensity, focus, and drive. The dreamscapes are constructible like movies, and anything can happen within them. Inception imagines cinema as a shared, communal dream; a dream from which we don’t want to wake up; a dream which gives free reign to our imaginations; a dream which can indeed bring catharsis and real emotional release; but also, perhaps, a dream with dark potential consequences, which can suck us in and never let us go.
A "Far-Flung Correspondent" of Roger Ebert gives a nice little look at how architecture is used and depicted in the movie here.
And one of the more compelling interpretations (it's all a dream) of the movie can be found here.