WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS FRAUGHT WITH SPOILERS! ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Every once in a while there’s a movie that everybody but me loves. Or at least it feels that way. Which is why I’m a proud member of clubs such as The People Who Didn’t Like “Slumdog Millionaire” Club, or The People Who Don’t like “Gone With the Wind” Club. I can now add a new club to the list: The People Didn’t Like “Inception” Club.
“Inception” is the latest dark and mind-bending film from Christopher Nolan, last seen helming “The Dark Knight.” Nolan also made “Batman Begins,” the magician-rivalry film “The Prestige,” and the crime-thriller “Insomnia,” and although these are normally the types of films I like, I don’t really like any of them. In fact, I haven’t really liked a Christopher Nolan movie since his 2000 psychological thriller “Memento,” about a man without a memory trying to solve the murder of his wife. His budgets have gotten bigger with every film, but his filmmaking hasn’t improved. It just gets noisier and murkier, steeped in the sort of psuedo-philosophical psychobabble that would get you laughed out of an undergraduate philosophy course.
“Inception” centers around Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is an extractor — someone who can enter the dreams of others and obtain sensitive information. A businessman (Ken Watanabe) comes to him with a proposition: He wants Cobb to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival. The character of Cobb comes with a tragic back story: He is an exile, forbidden to see his children or re-enter the United States because of a crime he may or may not have committed. The businessman promises him that he will be able to return home if he successfully completes the job. This is an offer Cobb can’t refuse, and he then assembles his team in the manner of an old-fashioned heist movie, and develops a plan for breaking into the subject’s mind. Along the way, he recruits a bright young college student (Ellen Page) to serve as the team’s architect — builder of dreams.
This is all great stuff, and I was eager to see where Nolan would take it. And he does take it to some nifty places, although I think what I really mean to say is that he creates some nifty special effects — shifting streetscapes, impossible staircases, vertiginous depths — that help disguise what a conventional thriller/action movie “Inception” is.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with thrillers/action movies. At their best, they move swiftly and seamlessly from set piece to set piece, building in momentum and energy and leaving the viewer positively exhilarated.
But “Inception” lurches from set piece to set piece, pausing every 10 to 15 minutes so the characters can stand around and explain what’s going on. This is a movie that doesn’t know when to stop explicating and just unfold, which results in increasingly tiresome dialogue, such as: “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange” and “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious.” A little of this sort of chatter goes a long way.
“Inception” has a lot of rules, and that’s part of the problem. Nolan suggests that everything in a dream can be explained, that manipulating and interpreting another person’s subconscious is a matter of learning the rules and exploiting them. His vision is hermetic and prosaic; he’s unwilling to entertain the idea that there are parts of the subconscious that can’t be understood, which might explain why the dreams in “Inception” are largely absent of passion and desire or any other manifestation of the id in all its messiness and irrational longing, its lapses of logic and reason.
Nolan is a gifted technical filmmaker, clever and ingenious, but there’s little magic or mystery in “Inception.” He doesn’t want to show us things that can’t be readily understood, the way David Lynch did in “Mulholland Drive,” and instead presents the human mind as a puzzle that can be solved. Which is a pretty limited vision. And it’s made all the more limited by some pretty obvious metaphors, such as an elevator that descends to the basement. The basement — where our most painful thoughts and memories are locked away! Duh.
I also had problems with Cobb’s character. Are we supposed to be happy for him at the end, when he’s reunited with his children? (Unless he’s still dreaming — a question I don’t care to invest a lot of time thinking about.) In executing his mission, Cobb withheld crucial information from his crew, putting them all at risk of getting trapped in a dream limbo state, and I found it difficult to sympathize with him. And I think we are supposed to sympathize with him. But I was too troubled by his underlying lack of morality to be overjoyed about his little family reunion.
Nolan has cast his film well, and his actors help make some of the more ponderous dialogue palatable. But “Inception,” at two hours and 44 minutes, runs long, and I could feel my patience wearing thin even before the disappointing climatic scene set at an impregnable fortress in an arctic landscape.
“Really?” I thought. “An impregnable arctic fortress?” At this point I became distracted — I couldn’t stop thinking about The X-Files movie. Other critics have suggested that the impregnable arctic fortress seems like something out of a James Bond movie. Whatever. All I can say is that the appearance of an impregnable arctic fortress marked the moment when I stopped taking this movie seriously. If you’re going to present yourself as some sort of visionary filmer of dreams, you cannot include an impregnable arctic fortress in your movie. I’m sorry. You just can’t.
I appreciate Nolan’s ambition, but in some ways he needs to scale back. His dream states contain far too many chase scenes, explosions and gunfights. But the human mind is much more complex and interesting that.
Here are some good films that toy with dreams and dream-states.
1. Mulholland Drive
2. The Matrix — What is reality? Would a film like “Inception” even exist if the Wachowiski brothers hadn’t made this mind-bending science-fiction film?
3. Pan’s Labyrinth — During “Inception,” I kept wondering what Guillermo Del Toro would do with the same material. “Pan’s Labyrinth” provides a clue.
4. Paperhouse — A sick little girl draws a house and falls asleep; in her dreams she visits the house. Imperfect, but occasionally dazzling.
5. The Fall and The Cell —These films are both directed by Tarsem. They have narrative shortcomings, but contain scenes and imagery that are intense, vivid and beautiful.
6. Waking Life — Richard Linklater’s cutting-edge animated film explores philosophical questions about consciousness, free will and the meaning of life.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street — This horror classic imagines that we really can die in our dreams.
8. eXistenZ — This David Cronenberg film is similar to “The Matrix” in its depiction of a futuristic world where people can plug into virtual reality games.
9. Vanilla Sky and Open Your Eyes — I don’t like either of these films (“Open Your Eyes” was remade as “Vanilla Sky”), but their interest in lucid dreaming makes them seem like a pre-cursor to “Inception.”
10. “Dreamscape” — A cheesy '80s film, but mildly entertaining.
OUT ON DVD THIS WEEK
Kick Ass, reviewed here.
The Ghost Writer, reviewed here.
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