I have to really apologize to Mitch here, who I treated very shabbily. He asked if he could review the film, and I had not seen it yet, but I said yes, and then I saw it before he got his review to me and I hammered all this stuff out, stealing a bit of his thunder. That was not nice of me, but I don't blog that much anymore and I got very excited that I actually had a strong opinion on this one. He fit his commentary into mine, and the result is uneven maybe, but the unevenness is my fault, and it is also my fault that Mitch comes off as too negative -- because he did not want to repeat the compliments I gave the movie. I am sorry Mitch.
Here is the conversation:
Though fanboys are going to claim all three, Inception is not a good sci-fi movie, and it is not a smart or original movie -- and yet somehow it is a good movie. I think like Blade Runner it is a very good movie, but not for the reason people say. Spoilers.
(For all of Nolan’s movies, actually. Sorry.)
When the credits for Inception rolled, my immediate thought was that it suffered from the exact opposite problem you hear screenwriting guru guys like Robert McKee talking about all the time. Here is an imaginatively structured, certainly well made movie that doesn’t suffer from a saggy middle, but a flawed opening and ending, with an absolutely satisfying middle.
A list of precursors is very important here: City of Lost Children (stealing dreams), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (rewriting memory, especially the memory of a lover), Dark City (the ability to manipulate a cityscape with godlike power), the Matrix (invading a dream-world with big guns), ExistenZ (getting lost in a series of artificial worlds within in artificial worlds), Soderbergh's Solaris (the guilty confrontation with a mental reconstruction of a dead lover, one our hero may be responsible for killing).
Looking at this list you get a very quick picture of what Inception is NOT: although it is about dreams quirky images are kept to a minimum, unlike City of Lost Children and the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The zero gravity hallway is good, but it has little on its competitors' best images.
Humor is weak. There is a bit where Levitt kisses Page that is almost funny. There is a moment where Evans tells Levitt "you have to dream bigger" and comes out with a bigger gun -- this points to a possibly Looney Toons kind of battle, where if you can think it you can have it, but that kind of confrontation never emerges. This is not that bit in the Matrix where Neo asks for "Guns. Lots of Guns." Exposition can be clunky (DiCapprio's talk with Page goes on for a while, though everything he teaches her pays off really well later down the line).
Images can be cliched (you visit his subconscious with an elevator, and the less said of Ellen Page's character's name the better).
On the clunky exposition, I also felt that the “world” of the movie wasn’t exactly clear. Many of the people I saw the movie with got the impression that this was a world where everyone knew about dream entering and dream theft, as evidenced by the security forces in the mark’s mind. Some of them even suggested that Michael Caine is teaching “dream architecture” rather than regular architecture, which is something that would explain it, but is something I absolutely did not get from the movie. Maybe I missed something?
Because once architecture student Ellen Page is brought in as a newcomer to design dream landscapes, she never once questions the “world” of the movie or that this group of people can enter dreams and steal ideas. This doesn’t even faze her. (No Kitty Pryde pun intended.) Instead she flips cities over and makes bridges out of mirrors—skills we never see her use practically, because after being chided by DiCaprio for messing with the dream environment too much in these scenes, she primarily designs the dream landscapes using traditional means like drafting paper and paper models. If that’s the route you want to go, okay, but certainly you have to have a scenario where she uses her world-bending mojo later to solve a plot point. Right? Otherwise why introduce that she can do that? My point is that the exposition felt a little misleading here as well, like with the Looney Tunes gun.
That is a good point about Ellen Page's lack of reaction to the job. Does it suggest the whole film is one big dream and no one is real but Dicapprio? Or just that it would be inconvenient for the writer if she has a reaction, because the scene is skirting the edges of too long?
It is occasionally stylish -- again that hallway especially, hotel generally, and some of the suits -- but no where near the stylishness of Dark City or even The Matrix -- the action sequences are not up to par with the choreography of the Matrix either, though again, that hallway scene is awfully good. It lacks the scope of Dark City and the Matrix, which are about huge numbers of people in trouble -- Inception, depending on how you read it, may be primarily be about a super-company trying make more money than another super-company, something to do with energy: that ill-defined aspect of the story is hard to get excited about (though that may be the point -- it is just a McGuffin, and you are supposed to care about DiCapprio only). When you find out what is behind the door in the ice-station, you expect something pretty amazing, but the old man in the hospital bed in what looks like an inactive holodeck -- and also a lot like the dying Dave Bowman of 2001 -- was a little underwhelming.
And unintentionally hilarious. Just to fully spell out the ridiculousness of this reveal, I’d like to point out that this is FATHER LAURENCE FROM ROMEO AND JULIET we are talking about.
My friend Brady commented at this point in the movie -- "You know how he got in that bed. Kaiser Soze fuckin killed him."
Anchoring a complex story to a simple emotional relationship -- a kid reconciling with his father on his death-bed, a man dealing with his guilt over his wife -- is good, but the acting range, or the way the characters are scripted, put Solaris way ahead of Inception on this point. You feel the emotion in Solaris. Nolan kind of gestures toward it in Inception. It is not serviceable, but it is not great either. I respect him for remembering to have that kind of emotional center, without getting excited about it.
Inception is a much less ambitious movie than these movies. It is not trying to say something about the human condition as Dark City is (what is the relationship between self and soul), and it has no philosophy, as the Matrix attempts with its "free your mind" thing -- it does not even have anything to say about love (Eternal Sunshine, which I thought was overrated because it too often left its emotional core in Winslett and Carey, ended wonderfully with this moment where they decided to try again even though they basically have proof it will go bad -- a conscious and informed decision that is is better to love and lose than never to love at all, where you really feel the force of the cliche as if it were fresh).
Something that I will add later is that Inception doesn’t add anything to the trajectory of Nolan’s previous movies, all of which I have seen, though I don’t remember a thing about Following. If someone wanted the definitive “Nolan Experience,” I would probably say something like Memento or The Prestige, before I said this. Also, I am not sure if this sort of macro-level observation belongs in a single movie’s review (a review within a review?). Since this is mostly tied into the ending, I will talk about it there.
What Inception does that is pretty great, is pretty great because it is pretty simple. Basically it revives the action movie. It places action movies within action movies within actions movies and suddenly I am gripped again by simple things like the placement of explosives, and gunfights in the rain. It revives a genre, a genre I wanted revived. Notice, for example, how it gets the dream within a dream idea out of the way in the opening scene. You expect the twist to be the dream within a dream thing, as it is in The Thirteenth Floor, but we START with the twist you would expect at the end of a lesser movie -- and then build upwards by having at least 5 distinct realties at the end of this one (The airplane, the van, the hotel, the ice station, and the world of Moll). The sci-fi aspects (how that briefcase of wires and buttons actually works is not explained and I could not be happier with the lack of explanation there) are really just there to provide a more interesting set of rules, like the Zero Gravity Hotel, or the time distortion -- my favorite part of the movie may have been the frequent returns to the shot of the van falling in the water, an absolutely gripping version of a countdown clock or hourglass. The whole thing has to be done before that van hits the water, and the closer it gets the closer you know you are to the end.
(Dark Knight, I thought, was really bloated, but Inception is not bloated once it gets past the necessary exposition of the rules). The fight at the ice station would not necessarily been out of place in a Steven Segal movie -- but here I was on the edge of my seat, not for anything in the scene, but because of the way it was related to the other levels the characters were on. Inception is ultimately great not for its ideas, or images, or acting, or emotion. It is great because we are looking at a great piece of engineering. Everything else is secondary. This might make it a lesser movie than the ones I listed, but this is a summer blockbuster that is going to make a ton of money and the engineering feat it sets out to do it accomplishes. As I said about the Bourne Identity, you have to respect that. You can complain that too much is cliched or simple, as I have a bit, but when you have such an complex structure with so many rules to keep track of, simple content may be best. Inception's accomplishment is not one of content but of form.
And yet for all this rule defining, some of the “rules” that govern all the levels of dreaming still seem ill defined. First off, that DiCaprio and his guys use a plug-and-play dream machine to enter a dream that takes place in a hotel, choose a quiet room in that dream hotel, and pull out the exact same dream machine and plug in AGAIN to enter a dream within the dream is monumentally dumb to me. Not because I don’t know exactly how it works, but because we are never told why they must obey the rules of the real world so rigidly once in the dream world.
Well, we are told -- if you do something weird you get attacked, but I take your point. Why that should be so seems silly, and also very limiting for the film, just on a visual level. Plus -- isn't a James Bond ice station attack with your dying father inside pretty "unrealistic"?
Surely an aware, trained dream thief could be, as Page demonstrates, like a god once inside a dream realm. There’s not a lot of narrative sense behind why they are left so helpless and vulnerable. Sure, it is a dream movie that uses the language of heist movies—guns, chases, and safes. Fine. I guess I just wanted a little of acknowledgement of how preposterous that is. The line that Ken Watanabe has about why it had to be an ice world was close. (If Hurley from Lost where there, he would have surely given me the Ice Planet Hoth joke I was dying for. Boy do I miss Hurley.)
Also, the events in the next dream level up only sometimes affect the level below, like when Levitt’s hotel is flipping around in zero gravity because the van he is sleeping in the dream level above is flipping (admittedly, awesome). But why isn’t Level 3, the Battle of Hoth, also flipping? I don’t know why I’m so annoyed, as everyone else seems to have been able to just swallow this, but I don’t think it would have killed Nolan to put in a line that says the deeper you go in dream levels the more deeply asleep you are or something. Maybe Nolan wanted to leave rules like that and the public knowledge of dream shenanigans implicit, or let us deduce these things for ourselves, but come on. That’s like Lisa Simpson telling the guy in the jazz club to listen to the notes the musician isn’t playing—we all could have done that from home.
Which is not to say there is NO message or philosophy. The message of Inception might be a bit like Solaris and a bit like ExistenZ -- and maybe even a bit like Mullholland Drive actually: illusion is seductive. Filmmakers love this theme -- and Nolan already dealt with it in the Prestige -- because they create worlds you would want to live in, but can't. The key moment of Inception is when Levett shows Page his loaded die, but won't let her touch it: he has to be the only one who knows its weight and feel -- that way he will always know if he is awake, because no one can fake a dream world with the specifics of that one object, because he is the only one who knows. But DiCapprio unburdens quite a bit and quite quickly to Page about his wife and their time in the dream-world, and he straight up tells her that in dreams the top spins forever, but in the real world it runs out of steam. He empowers her to create a dream for him that he will be unable to distinguish from reality. When Dicapprio confronts Moll in the dream world she offers him the chance to see his children's faces but he quickly turns away from the chance. I thought we were leading to a horror scene where he looks to see their faces and they are blank -- because he has not seen them in so long he does not know what they look like, and in a dream cannot imagine them -- but in the end he does get to see their faces, just after he spins his top. The camera watches the top spin, and the audience waits to see if this is real or fake -- but the camera cuts before we know. But the emotional weight is there in either case -- the crucial thing is he is not going to go back and check. He does not care anymore. This is why he would not look at their faces with Moll -- because to look would mean he could not leave. The illusion would be too much to let go of.
Solaris puts Clooney firmly in a kind of dream world at the end; ExistenZ leaves its characters in the lurch, with no idea if they are in a dream world or not anymore, and no way to find out. Inception leaves the audience in the lurch in the same way, but DiCapprio's character is past caring, and THAT is the point. We don't get to know if it is a dream or a reality because he does not want to know. I am not sure that is a great philosophical or intellectual point, but it is a great ending -- because it is the ONLY ending, inevitable and surprising --and I would leave it at that.
But I would not, unfortunately.
Geoff, you have made a persuasive case for the ending that makes it sound a lot more interesting than I felt like it was. I can appreciate that in the writing process Nolan and his team would naturally brush up against the cliché ending of “it was all a dream.” That said; it aggravates me because I feel like it is—for whatever emotional payoff it offers—the Film School 101 answer to a movie about dreams. But I also agree that it would have been utterly disappointing intellectually (though satisfying emotionally) if we had seen the top fall over. I guess I wanted from Nolan is what you said Eternal Sunshine did—I wanted him to revitalize or reinvent the “it was all a dream” cliché somehow. I wanted him to approach it and then leap over it. I did not feel like him walking away without out checking the top leapt over it. The thing you said about Ellen Page having the ammunition to create a dream world for him that he could not recognize would have been perfect to me, and the fact that you were able to think of that after living with the movie for two days and Nolan couldn’t (or could and preferred this one) after living with it for a decade (as the press for it asserts) only strengthens my dislike of the ending.
Whereas you are a forgiving of this for being an innovative, well-engineered action movie, I am immensely forgiving of The Dark Knight, which is admittedly full of holes (for instance: what keeps the Joker from killing all those people at the party after Batman leaps out the window after Maggie Gyllenhaal?), partly because it is a movie about a piece of intellectual property I love dearly, and partly because it is highly ambivalent for a huge cooperate studio movie. The Dark Knight seems to be modeled on The Killing Joke comic, where Joker unsuccessfully tries to convince Batman that anyone can be corrupted into madness, but the movie adventurously rules in favor of the Joker’s position. At the end, everyone in the movie, including Batman and Gordan, compromise their ethics somehow because of the Joker. This is a movie that was used to sell lunch boxes and action figures, and yet it shows real bravery in the nihilistic place it ends up. Maybe you can argue that him walking away without checking the top is ambivalent, but I feel like it is merely ambiguous. This is probably a silly distinction to make, but I guess I think of it like Agnosticism and Atheism—the one only proposes or acknowledges a non-answer, while the other asserts that the absence of an answer is the answer.
I feel like Nolan’s previous movies showed more strength in this regard. The Prestige says, “Yes, I am going to kill a copy of myself every night because I am obsessed and because I hate you, Christian Bale.” Memento says, “Yes, I am going to trick myself into killing you, Joe Pantoliano, because I am obsessed and I can use you to deal with my mental disorder/emotional baggage.” Even the not-as-good Insomnia says, “Yes, I am willing to put blood on a kid’s underpants to prove that this guy did something, because I am obsessed and because through my superior detective skills I alone know that he did it.” Each ending is a clear victory of the character’s narcissism and obsession over the character. I suppose my frustration is that the ending of Inception hints at such a victory, but refuses declare it as strongly as Nolan’s other movies did. Measure those against the ending of Inception, which says, “Maybe I have created a fantasy world for myself and chosen it over the real world, because I am obsessed with my wife and cannot overcome my guilt. Or then again, maybe everything’s fine.”
I will admit that this probably should be Movie Reviewing 101—to never come down on a movie because it didn’t end how I wanted it too. I will cop to that. I guess what it got me thinking about is if it is fair to judge the success of what a filmmaker’s movie is trying to do by measuring it against his typical modus operandi. My feeling is that the ending of Inception doesn't contribute to or live up to the way similar ground is covered in Nolan's previous movies.
Blade Runner is overrated I think, because a lot of people treat it like a puzzle, looking for information on whether Deckard is a replicant or a person, which is silly because the whole point is that the distinction is blurred to the point where it just does not matter anymore. This is what happens in Inception. It is not meant to be puzzled over. It is meant to be a machine that does a kind of job, and does it well.
But you are dead right about what you said, of course. I suppose the ending upset me because I saw—in Nolan’s earlier stuff and in the components of this movie—the potential for something worth puzzling over.
I will end on this note: as long is Christopher Nolan is making movies, Hans Zimmer will never go hungry because there will always be a need for low, brooding scores that go “digga-digga-digga-digga-digga-digga-digga.”
I think you are right about your criticisms, and you have actually convinced me if the big flaw, which is not the ending so much as the cold moralizing of the "Hey you can do anything in dreams!" "NO NO You can't, you will get in trouble, don't do wacky stuff -- keep it much closer to Steven Segal movies" And you are right to compare this to Nolan's other movies. Someone on Slate suggested this lack of imagination is a theme, and the movie is about how corporate culture has invaded and destroyed our dreams -- Dicapprio and Moll have 50 years to build their world, and all they come up with is a repetitive city of brutal unpleasant architecture, rather than say magic rainbow happiness. I don't know what I think about that. It seems like too nice an excuse for the fact that Nolan just does not want to be Michel Gondry, because he is more an engineer here than an artist.
Also -- several people more sensitive than I notice that the kids are in the same clothes at the end that they were in in the dream world, and obviously I should have noticed that the fact that they are also in the same position is pretty suspicious. Once you see that the ending is a lot less ambiguous, though I am not sure it is supposed to be less ambiguous. Like Nolan wants to end on this note questioning the reality of the scene, but pretty clearly it cannot be real if these two moments are exactly alike. I feel like this weakens the ending. Hm.