Inception (US-UK, 2010)

Seems not what it is

Christopher Nolan managed to make The Dark Knight (2008) an exciting roller coaster ride for both mind and body; the moral mazes adding heft to the visceral action. He’s clearly attempting the same with Inception, which he wrote, produced and directed. Imdb suggests the budget was $200m and with that sort of money on the line, the film has to be a crowd-pleaser. Pleasing it seems to be with a $63m opening weekend and – as I write – a 9.3 rating on imdb putting it in at the coveted ‘3rd greatest movie of all time’ slot.

I shall probably have to see it again as not only are the rules of the ‘dream worlds’ confusing, but the helter skelter action – of Bondian proportions and exoticism – also makes the film difficult to follow. I hope that it stands up to the second viewing as there are moments of pure bravura (Paris folding up on itself) and mind tingling ideas (reality or fantasy anyone?).

My first impression is the action gets in the way of the really interesting stuff and I don’t think it’s particularly well done – unlike The Dark Knight – as I was often unsure who were the ‘bad guys’. The ‘heist’ narrative, a brilliant concept of placing an idea in someone’s mind via their dreams, is fascinating.

That said, even if it is a failure, in terms of its coherence, Nolan is still to be celebrated in attempting cerebral fare in Hollywood. That’s not say all films should be cerebral, but monolithic Hollywood does not have a good track record of delivering films with interesting ideas.

DiCaprio is okay, which is as good as he gets for me, and the supporting cast… support well. Ellen Page is wasted as the token female and it’s good see one of the hero’s helpers called Yusuf. Great cinematography (Wally Pfister) and even Hans Zimmer’s bombastic music worked.

Bechdel test: Fail.

15 Responses

  1. Just saw the film today felt that it managed to achieve a good blend of typical hollywood action as well as a complex narrative. One thing that did surprise me is that i didn’t find it that confusing by the end, you didn’t know quite what to expect throughout the film but i felt that it left enough explanation in there to make it understandable but not too much that the audience is practically force fed it, like many other hollywood blockbusters .

    In terms of Narrative villain i believe that it was intentional that there was no traditional narrative villain. It is very stereotypical that a film must have a clear villain and its a credit to Nolan for attempting to write a film in which the problems people face are not about the actions of certain individuals but instead of the inner horrors that the characters have to face.

    The only problem with the film i can really find is that for some it will confuse them from the start, as its something we dont offen see. Complex storylines and characters packaged in a popcorn crunching, adrenalin filled thrill ride. If you go in with any pre-conceptions about the film then that could be a problem.

    I’d recommend that you do see it again to see if you can gain any more understanding a second time, for me i understood it on first viewing so would be intresting to see what difference that could make.

    • Why did they need a kick out of dream level number one at the climax but not in the dream at the beginning?

      • I think we were supposed to assume the complexities of the kick were necessary because of the ‘depth’/four levels of the final dream – earlier they were only two levels in and getting killed or a tip into the bath were sufficient. My suspicion is that a second, third and fourth viewing will not repay the time spent – unless you watch it in dream time.

        Like you, I thought it was an opportunity (for exploring an interesting idea) wasted. I assumed the action was meant to be a sort of clunky, stylised rehashing of bondesque sequences because it was ‘dream’ – all the same I found it curiously uninvovling. Again maybe this was intentional but I doubt it… and suspect there were insufficient emotional clues in the music to support the disperate plots (heist/perfect crime, race against time, rescue from the underworld/limbo, coming to terms with loss and journeying home) Paradoxically, given all the story types in the mix, it felt to me like the action/activity was a substitute for anything happening!

        But for the scenes you mention the other dreamscapes also disappointed me. There was little of the inventiveness to which such a premise ought to give free rein. Messrs Dali, DeChirico and Magritte were far more inventive and penetrating (and could have been plundered for buffs to spot!) For the most part cinematography was little more than correct focus and expossure.

        It also occurs to me that a film which fails the Bechdel test and purports to portray male characters’ subconsciouses was strangely sexless on all levels!

        I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, only that its much vaunted narrative complexities don’t add up to anything more than the sum of their parts.

  2. You’re right about the explanation re the kick and dream levels. I’ve now seen it twice and, other than being clear whose dream we’re meant to be seeing, the film is consistent narratively. There’s no more depth the second time though it is clearer that Cobb is in a dream state at the end making the finale more poignant.

    I guess if we were really looking at male dreams it wouldn’t have taken $200m+ at the N.American box office.

    • No, you’re right. A more insightful look at male dreams (or even male dreams within female dreams) would have spent a lot of time with cars not starting, or becoming buses with the whole family onboard rolling backwards down hill because the handbrake won’t hold.

      A man I know spends night after night looking for the scooter he rode as a student and felts he’d made a psychological breakthrough when one night it’s the car he now owns that he can’t find! (mentioning no names…)

      • Sorry for being so flippant.

        I do think the film lends itself to a ‘look’ at gender. There is perhaps a suggestion that the domestic and romantic dreams of women cannot provide lasting fulfilment for men. He would rather die than stay in her territory (and it is her dream, her childhood house, not his.) Their shared dream cannot last forever. The cut from their heads and the oncoming train to her head on the pillow suggests heterosexual relationships are as inevitably doomed as heads on a track.

        She attempts to pull him back and trap him… They are not ‘really’ his children (that old chestnut/ nut clench!) – he does and doesn’t want to look at them and acknowledge them.

        A feminist might also get around to writing about his wife’s chosen means of destruction. She is associated with (phallic) knives and broken glass. (Is there something to be said about the whole castration thing?) Certainly her jump from the window ledge whilst necessary to provide that dream-falling-feeling -kick to wake… has nothing to do with representing the ways that women in the western world actually kill themselves.

  3. I have now seen it twice and I still loved it as much the first time if not more. What I admire more than anything is that Nolan has created a film which aimed at the blockbuster audience, who have been treated to the likes of Michael Bay, McG or even Cameron etc. over the past summers, and treats them more intelligently than any in recent memory.

    They are asked to deal with some quite complex ideas and narrative developments which don’t usually appear in the July spot, and the fact it’s done brilliantly at the box office demonstrates that filmmakers like Bay don’t have to resort to dull, franchise based action cash machines. It shows money can be made from films which challenge an ordinary cinema going audience. I admit it didn’t confuse me, I kept up with it both times.

    Most people criticise the dreamscapes as just being conventional action setpieces which aren’t weird enough. I like how it unconventionally goes against expectations of dreams. For this film if it had warped, acid induced visuals with large monsters crashing through the streets or bursting out of the mountain, it wouldn’t work. It would have been a more absurd and detract from what I think is a very human story at the centre. I would also argue that no one has the dreams that we see in something like Science of Sleep, where the dreams are just bizarre. I think we all dream inside the real world, and relating that to the characters is what makes the dream sequences, for me, very powerful. E.g. Cobb’s limbo and dreams being the places he lived with his life. I guess it’s closer to something like The Matrix in that regard? (Except without all the ham fisted religious symbolism). Even the best dream landscapes such as those which appear in David Lynch films are not too far away from reality.

    The action sequences excited me and impressed me because of the practicality of them. I like how Nolan refuses to use CGI and push the production value higher so he can create a more durable and physical weight. Roland Emmerich can show buildings falling into the earth as much as he wants but nothing in something like 2012 or Independence Day reaches the same impact as the zero gravity corridor sequence in Inception, nor the mountain set piece. Which were all done as far as I could tell in camera, which is so impressive considering he could have filmed it on a giant green screen and ‘added it in’ later. Nolan has said that this is his Bond film but with more intelligence and with more dramatic weight.

    I’m also not sure why many other critics are complaining about the lack of emotional involvement and that Nolan is a cold filmmaker. With which I entirely disagree, the sub plot with Cobb’s wife is perhaps the strongest aspect of the narrative, which maybe because of Cotillard’s heartbreaking performance.

    We would also have to agree to disagree about the ending with the Blade Runner-style ambiguous ending (spinning top similar to Gaff’s unicorn?). I think for the film to work he has to be in the real world at the end, because if he isn’t the film has kind of pulled the rug out from under you. While that perhaps would have made for a more dark ending it. undermines Cobb’s ‘journey’ on an emotional level.

    If you want to read more into on a thematic level, there’s a link below to an article which argues Inception is an allegory for filmmaking.

    Apologies for the long reply.

    • Where to start?!

      First, you say we all dream ‘within the real world’ but the ‘real world’ within this, or any other film is a construct and it is not one I recognise as reflecting either my waking life or dreamlife. It is familiar because it is a generic world and for the most part does not stretch, subvert or break the familiar formulas. (K. Birrane clearly finds those rollercoaster tracks thrilling and the box office suggests he’s not alone. I’ve no problems with crowd pleasers so long as the critics don’t start suggesting the film is something more. I won’t be seeing it a second time ’til it’s on the telly and I’m too tired to watch a genuinely intelligent film and want to hit the popcorn.)

      Secondly, as a metaphor the film also disappoints. If this is an ‘ideas’ film it lacks ambition. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Is not a new idea. Being in love requires that we lock the reality-checker in the safe – is not a new idea. The film industry provides the dreamscapes into which we escape and project ourselves is not a new idea, and if this is the one unifying principal of the the film it is too narrowly and shallowly explored. Really we are not looking at the film industry we are looking at the Hollywood action genre. Whilst I wouldn’t expect an action film to do a full damning indictment of the personal and sociological implications of its own ideologies it might at least have more thoroughly explored some of them or even light-touch critiqued through postmodern intertextual referencing or even celebrated them! An approach which might have suited the mainstream cinema going public.

      As for the spinning totem pulling the rug from under our feet at the end. I found it just the reverse. From the moment I was told the thing used to keep on spinning in his wife’s dreams I was waiting for it to keep spinning… In that respect (alone) the film delivered!

  4. No apologies required! Your points are well made.

    I think he is in a dream at the end because his arrival is ‘a dream come true for him’. It’s unlikely his father in law would great him, as he lives in France, and the children are no older than they are in his dream visions. When he meets Saito he clearly has forgotten what he’s doing. And if he has woken up, how did he ride the kicks back to consciousness?

    $250m in North America alone and currently No.3 in the imdb’s all time user ratings so, as you say, it’s certainly a hit with audiences. Do you think Michael Bay will take note?

    • I don’t know, time will tell whether it takes an impact or not on how blockbusters are made. I think there is room to argue this is perhaps a one off and won’t be repeated again.

  5. I promise this will be my last input on this one…

    Don’t we know the grandfather is going to see the kids again soon because their dad gives him a bag of toys to take to them. So where he lives maybe neither ‘here nor there’ and haven’t the kids not aged because of that whole dream-time (sub-bullet time!) motif. Hasn’t he only been gone a few months?

    You ask how he rode the kick back to consciousness and I think that one is covered by the curiously under deliniated nature of the ‘limbo’ that Saito is stuck in. It is a sort of collective unconscious (not one Jung might have recognised) but rather a no-man’s (or woman’s land) There is a suggestion that it is a condition from which one might spontaneously awake and that there is an unpredictablity to it (like waking from coma rather than sleep perhaps) So the ‘pipe has been laid’ for an ‘unexplained’ return to wakefulness.

    None of which really matters though because her dream or his reality, sleep or waking it owes more to the levels of a computer game than it does to the levels of human experience. And that might be its mainstream appeal but it hardly makes it anything exceptional.

  6. No excuse, I think it’s a film worth talking about….

    but possibly boredom.

  7. When I first came out of the cinema after seeing this film with another former Bentoner, we commented to each other about how it was among the greatest films we’d seen. The first few people I spoke to about it afterwards thought the same, but I have recently found others who have noticed flaws or think parts of it are unrealistic. I now feel I need to see it a second time, but then a second viewing may prove frustrating and turn something I thought was brilliant into something confusing I want to constantly question.

    I still believe it is a fantastic clever film and something a bit different even if some confusing or unrealistic bits cause debate, but then if it’s caused high levels of social interaction surely that makes it a good film on some level.

    When I saw it I deliberately just let it unravel rather than questioning things as I often do with films as I thought it would make it less confusing. I believed it had worked and thought I understood a large chunk of it and found it relatively easy to follow….or so I thought, now I’m not as sure haha!

    I have enjoyed reading all the comments and can see where people are coming from. But no matter how good a film is once the analysis begins and things are looked at deeply it can be easy to find the bad points.
    While there may be bits that seem odd or unrealistic, I think the film as a whole is excellent!

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