Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Inception Review

Here's hoping we're far enough removed from Inception's hype for a clear-eyed (and not overwhelmingly positive) review to not be met with anger.

Look serious and people will take you seriously.

I first saw Inception on its opening weekend in San Francisco. The experience was largely ruined for me by Nolan fan-boys who loudly let it be known that their minds were being blown throughout the movie. I'm more than willing to acknowledge that I can be something of an elitist hipster: embarrassed for, and repulsed by, my fellow man. But something about the oohs and ahhs, the 'holy fucks' and 'whoas' sounding around me made the content eliciting these reactions seem hackneyed and childish. How can a clip that's been in every trailer for the movie (post-pregnancy Juno bending the streets in half overhead) be mind blowing? You've seen it 30 times already!

But a great many people like this movie and a handful of them generally hold opinions I respect, so I figured the time was right to give Inception another try. Alone in the comfort of my own apartment, safe from the orgasms of fans who, like The Matrix zealots before them, found communal refuge in the 'intellectual' action, I was actually anticipating good things. I love the cast (though Leo of the Perpetually Knitted Brow needs to work on his range), I love the director, and I love the popcorn I was munching on. What could go wrong?

A lot, it seems. Perhaps the echoes of 'whoa' still rang in my ears but Inception, to my tastes, barely keeps afloat. There are, as I see them, three different ways to cut down this movie: it falls apart under its own internal logic, it is one of the least aesthetically inspired dream movies I've ever seen, and it doesn't have a single character to care about. It lacks heart, it lacks vision, and it lacks fun, making the forced excitement of its rabid supporters feel all the more phony as a result, and raising some serious concerns about the psychological state of my fellow man.

Internally Illogical:
When dealing with a movie about dreams (and dreams within dreams yadda yadda yadda), trying to attack various logical inconsistencies is a slippery slope. Nolan clearly left the possibility of the whole thing being a dream up in the air with his now-famous cut to black on the spinning top. If that is the case, any attempts to pick apart Inception's numerous plot holes come up against the smug retort of "it's all a dream." Unbelievable character motivations? They're just Cobb's projections. One deus ex machina after another? It's all in Cobb's head.

Click to view large version.
The problem with this response is, while it effectively forestalls any logical criticisms of the story, it cheapens the only emotional core of the narrative. We're meant to care about Cobb's desperate gambit to be reunited with his children. But if Inception's entirety is within a dream of Cobb's, we have nothing to care about. The story's Macguffin is rendered moot. One could argue that, even within his dream, Cobb's character finds an emotional resolution by film's end, and this journey justifies its lack of a plot. But, if it truly all a dream, where is he left? He has effectively traded one memory of a loved one for another: his children. While the wannabe philosophers will twiddle their fake mustaches and claim its all a rumination on the unknowable nature of reality, I find it hard to believe that Nolan would stoop to such sophomoric themes.

But then again, maybe he would. Memento was a tour-de-force in large part thanks to Nolan's firm grip on the movie's internal logic. While bewildering, Memento was at least penetrable. Indeed, unpacking the sequence of what we had seen was a large part of Memento's appeal. If Inception is not all a dream, its gaping plot holes seem irreconcilable with the Nolan who directed Memento. Memento-era Nolan would never let inconsistencies in what filters down through the dream levels pass. Music goes three levels but weightlessness only goes through two? Escaping limbo is as easy as killing yourself? And yet, a mortal wound while under the sedative is fatal? The rules by which tension is created are malleable and, in so being, the movie loses any dramatic punch. For all the blown minds, Inception feels more like a high-schooler's action movie: a plot whose only purpose is to string together various action sequences.

Aesthetically Boring:
But if a fun action movie is all Inception strives to be, you'd think the dream-scape setting would afford more imaginative sets than a vaguely Prohibition Era sense of style. The majority of dream scenes (indeed, the entire movie, lending more credence to the theory that it is all just a dream) share a desaturated palette and are populated by faceless extras hustling directionlessly through the cities. If these are the characters' dreams, and their denizens naught more than projections of their subconsciousness, these are some of the most drab psyches ever put to film.

Indeed, much of Inception feels like it came from the imagination of an accountant. (No offense to the accountants out there.) If The Matrix was criticized for its superficial, look-really-cool-in-black-with-sunglasses vibe that all of its protagonists opted to go for when plugged in, Inception must also be called out for its lack of imagination when presented with the human subconscious. But surprisingly, comparisons to the Matrix trilogy are few and far between in the reviews I've read thus far. Self-important mumbo-jumbo about the true nature of reality? Check. Attractive protagonists looking perpetually concerned and overly serious? Check. A weightless fight scene? Come ON guys! Even Zimmer's famous horns so effectively parodied on South Park owe more than a tip of the hat to the music of The Matrix. And yet rare is the reviewer who mentions that orgy of superficial style from which Inception does more than just borrow.

Perhaps its because The Matrix was a little too overtly dorky. A little too much sunglasses at night and leather pants. But you lighten the color a little, replace the black leather with brown, and bam! You've got high art! Never mind that the action sequences range from mildly interesting (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's float-fight) to snore-inducing (the laughable snow sequence). Never mind that, despite taking place in our subconscious, Inception is as sexless as a soccer mom. It's Nolan! It's deep!

In terms of atmosphere, Inception doesn't feel like a dream. Perhaps the personal nature of dreams are difficult to translate to the screen (lord knows there's nothing more boring than listening to someone recount their subconscious adventures), but dreams do share a certain bizarre quality that Inception doesn't even bother to take stab at. Limbo is the only setting that feels genuinely ethereal with the endless sea lapping against its crumbling ruins. But how boring must two people be to create a concrete jungle when offered the limitless possibilities of their imagination? And how lazy to duplicate their city's grid endlessly like some urban master plan gone horribly wrong? Cobb and Mal must have been, at best, architectural drop-outs.

Not the most imaginative pair.
Soulless Characters:
The uninspired settings are complimented by incredibly uninteresting characters. The only hero with any sort of dimension written into the script is Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb and, as mentioned above, Leo doesn't exactly have the biggest range these days. Cobb swings from uncertain anxiety to grave concern and manages to hit every iteration of furrowed brow in between. The only two actors with even the smallest spark of life are Ken Watanabe's Saito and Tom Hardy's Eames but they are quickly overpowered by the booming horns and lifeless sets. (Though, it must be said, Cillian Murphy's spoiled tycoon heir is fun to watch up until he starts shooting a machine gun in the James Bond portion of the film.)

If this was my dream, we'd be doing it right now.
Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both non-starters despite having some genuine indie cred (say what you want: I loved both 500 Days of Summer and Juno) which begs the question, what exactly is going wrong in this movie? Let's, again, go with the assumption that the whole thing is a dream. The blank characters are therefore forgiven as manifestations of Cobb's subconscious. But doesn't that make you wonder what kind of person our protagonist is? His dream world has not a touch of fantasy beyond the curvaceous but utterly sterile Marion Cotillard. And even she is never sexualized, just fretted over.

Or, if we're going with the other theory that it is not all a dream, then what sort of amoral heroes are we rooting for? What is Arthur's motivation for taking this job despite protesting that it's impossible? Ellen Page gets stabbed my Mal, quits the team, and 4 seconds later returns. Leo barely had time to deliver his line "She'll be back" before she is. It is action movie drivel through and through. The first twenty minutes of Inception following the opening sequence in Saito's mind is an extended introduction montage no different from a thousand other forgettable flicks. Play some tense chords, jump cut between the outline of the plan and the execution of it, and hope the audience isn't interested in pesky things like character development. In most movies this sequence doesn't extend beyond a few minutes but in Inception it drags on for an eternity.

More of this would be nice.
Inception is a movie about the most boring man ever sprung from the loins of his mother. And it's attempts at depth ring all the more hollow for it. It is a movie about psychology written by people who have never stepped foot in a shrink's office. People who are so afraid of what might actually lie below our conscious minds that they sterilize everything in sight. It is a movie for avoidance-prone, neurotic men who desperately hope psychological catharsis can be achieved simply by looking stylish and knitting their brows as appropriate.

This, in the end, could well be where my excess (some would say) anger comes from. Inception is fundamentally irresponsible because it presents itself as a serious movie but deals with the subconscious in such a juvenile, unrealistic way. And legions of its fans (I'm assuming mostly sexually repressed men) herald it as a piece of art. It is a movie by the unimaginative, for the unimaginative, presented as a work of imagination. And it is in this fact that it's popularity becomes more than simply annoying. Inception is a tribute to the neutered modern man from whose repressed emotions so much evil is brought to bear on the world.


  1. i'm sorry, you are just not fit to write review for movies like inception!

    why don't you give it a shot, writing reviews for 70's classic like 'grease'? hope you'll enjoy watching it over 40 times & dance for the songs..