A team of corporate spies who infiltrate the dreams of various business executives to steal their secrets are hired to implant a critical thought in the mind of a CEO so as to manipulate his company’s future. But, as their elaborate preparations begin, things start to go wrong with reflexive consequences.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with a mess of a movie such as this. Okay, firstly, fans say the film takes us into a world unlike anything we’ve seen before. Well it doesn’t really. Anyone even remotely familiar with Star Trek or Stargate SG1 will know that the ‘dreamscape’ episode is a tired staple of the sci-fi genre and, what’s more, they all fall at the same hurdle: a lack of jeopardy – though we’ll get back to that issue later.
(By the way, this is necessarily a long review so for those who think while reading the first few paragraphs, that it has missed the point of what Nolan implies with his final shot, please make sure to read the third final paragraph)
Let’s get the small stuff out of the way first. There are all sorts of forgivable (forgivable if there was one or two of them) movie-making errors littered throughout Inception. The “surprise” ending was so heavily flagged (albeit in one place quite cleverly), and was in fact so obvious, that one was fully expecting it from early in the second act. Worse still, was the lack of bravery in fully committing to it. Instead, we have a final shot that includes a rather cowardly escape clause cloaked in the artificially profound (if it’s obvious, it’s just not profound, no matter how much one wants it to be). The action was pedestrian at best and granted, while it wasn’t helped by the protracted and tediously premised story, the choreography of the climactic battle sequence was truly uninspired and formulaic. This last issue has been a recurrent problem for director Christopher Nolan as even the excellent The Dark Knight was hampered by lazily conceived ‘token’ fight sequences (e.g., the nightclub sequence).
Furthermore, there’s no overt villain in Inception, whom the audience can use to counterpoint the good guys with. Just a series of faceless henchmen. Not that it mattered much as the secondary “good guy” characters were so one-dimensional, it would’ve been difficult to identify with and care for them even if they were facing a visible enemy (and while one may argue that that ties in with the ending, it makes the film less appealing). And then there is the pretentious, bombastic, inaccessible, and just plain artificial dialogue. The script felt like it was written by an adolescent who has just discovered the joy of putting big words together to describe what s/he thinks are profound philosophical quandaries that nobody but her/him has stumbled upon before. Expressive? Yes. Original and disciplined? Absolutely Not!
But these are minor quibbles compared to the major problems that lie at the very center of Inception as a film:
The most unforgivable problem with Inception is without doubt, its appalling story construction. When you’re interested in telling a good story, you set your stall out early on (i.e., establish your universe) and then you get on with telling your story within that universe. Take Star Wars (Episodes IV-VI) for example. 50% of that universe is explained in the opening credits and the remaining 50% is explained within the first 20 minutes. Everything that happens from then on, right throughout Episodes IV-VI, happens within the boundaries of that universe (no further explanations are required). That doesn’t happen in Inception because the writers continue to add new rules throughout the course of the first two acts and even through the final act! Therefore, instead of representing the one unmovable touchstone which the audience can reference at any time to get their bearings, Inception’s universe is constantly in flux. The result is utter confusion and prevents the audience from connecting with the world so that they can get on with enjoying the story.
However, what’s truly unforgivable about this breakdown in structuring is the motive behind it. Rather than serving some deeper profound and even reflexive purpose, each of these aforementioned rules seems to be included for no other reason than to serve some visual flourish the director/writers had in mind. For example, in Nolan’s world, things explode when the characters become aware that they are dreaming. Ever have a lucid dream? Did anything explode? No, more likely you said “hey, I’m in a dream, time for some flying – or something else!” There’s no logic to this rule, it doesn’t make any conspicuous sense in either relation to the film’s premise or to any of the other rules. In such circumstances, it’s clear the writers don’t have a story to tell, just a bunch of ideas they think are cool which they proceed to tie together in the loosest of fashion. Worse still, because these rules have no logical bearing on each other, the characters are forced into explaining the rules to one another in one contrived instance after another – contrived because they’re really explaining it to the audience.
Everything in Inception either just about makes sense or just about doesn’t make sense. The world Nolan creates is so fragile that you daren’t go about pulling on any loose threads lest the whole thing come apart. For example, remember when Ariadne tells Cobb: “Tell your subconscious to take it easy”, Cobb says: “it’s my subconscious, remember I can’t control it”. Well, Saito had no trouble getting his men to do his bidding – and they were projections in someone else’s subconscious! And while we’re on the subject, why weren’t Cobb’s subconscious projections attacking Ariadne from the beginning? After all Cobb knew it was a dream from the beginning and so, therefore, did his subconscious.
A director must be committed to telling a story of substance or else he’s just Michael Bay. When story is paramount, all rules are drawn from the same logical universe. When not, you have a bunch of independent rules all doing different things. But Nolan wanted to saturate his film with flashy special effects so he created a series of rules that defied logic and, in betraying the “idea” of a grounded story for the superficial, he alienated the audience – and this is not even to mention the tiring effort that the audience has to invest in keeping all these rules together which only results in yet further alienation.
The subject of alienating the audience leads us nicely to the other central problem with Inception: the lack of jeopardy that comes with all dreamscape stories. When we heard Nolan was to write/direct such a film, one might have assumed that the writer/director of the clever Memento had come up with a nifty and original way of instilling jeopardy into the story but alas, he didn’t. He merely fell back on the same old clumsy device: you croak in a dreamscape, you croak in real life (Yawn!!!). Okay, so you don’t actually croak, you fall into some nether world described by Cobb as “the shores of our unconscious” (yes, he used those exact words – it doesn’t matter that Jung said them, they’re literal barf!). The result is of course the same pseudo-jeopardy or “I can’t believe it’s not Jeopardy”. This is the reason that all the dreamscape episodes of Star Trek were so awfully tedious – because none of it was real. It was all the loose imaginings of a character that gave us nothing to grab a hold off. Inception is just as tedious but, with the sprawling attempt to contrive an original sense of jeopardy, their nonsensical and endless descriptions of the ‘dream purgatory’ makes it truly excruciating as well.
But surely it can’t be that bad. After all, why do so many people love the film? Now, that’s the most important question. One could argue that people like to feel intelligent and Inception makes a wider band of people feel that way than most films. Inception bases its premise on simplistic, windy, pseudo-psychological ideas but it does so in a garbled, muddled, and nonsensical manner. Essentially, therefore, Inception is neither intelligent in premise nor in writing but because of the aforementioned problem with a universe of disconnected rules, it is convoluted. So in order to figure out what the film is about, one must sit down and pay attention. But this in itself, does not make it clever. After all, one could sit down and spend an hour untangling a series of long ropes. One doesn’t need intelligence to do this but one does need to concentrate and follow every frustratingly random turn the ropes take. In other words, perhaps the fans of Inception merely mistook the convoluted for the complex – and that the half-baked windy verbose dialogue made it easier (or more tempting) to make that mistake. After all, humans are egotistical creatures and we like to process all the ambiguous things we do (those which are open to interpretation) into something self-praising – especially if the information we are processing is crying out for such superficial reformulation. So why not assume that the untangling of what Nolan passed off for a story is something that takes intelligence on our behalf and not simply effort? Just move on and whatever we do, don’t look back at the now untangled mess and begin scrutinising it – lest we see it for what it is.
The other explanation is that Inception works like the fabled naked emperor. With all the effort it takes to keep the various rules in mind, surely many would choose to let them go and just watch the film. They might suspect that it’s crap but hey, maybe they missed something when they stopped paying attention. So rather than coming across as someone who didn’t understand the film, they simply say “yeah, it was great”. Maybe they even convinced themselves it was, rather than admitting to themselves the possibility that they couldn’t understand it. In other words, perhaps people may have mistaken the convoluted dialogue and plot for complexity and intelligence because it was too exhausting to follow the dialogue and plot all the way through and confirm it was all just smoke in a bottle.
Of course, a third explanation might argue that the absence of a logical story is in fact the ultimate confirmation of the ending which Nolan alludes to (attempting to avoid spoilers here!). But wait! We must remember that Nolan left that one open for interpretation which means, in essence, both possibilities *must* be plausible. This is why one can say for certain that the nonsensical universe they created was the result of failure on the part of the writers to write a coherent story and not some devious plan from the beginning. By leaving the ending open, one can only assume they are hoping that the section of the audience who didn’t have the energy to follow all the ridiculous twists and turns through to the end, will fool themselves into thinking it all made sense. Moreover, this is also why we can call the ending a cowardly escape clause. One suspects that Nolan and co. realised they had a bottle of smoke on their hands and so someone had the bright idea to include the “get out of jail free” card, namely, “if the audience *do* realise it doesn’t make sense, then we can claim we never meant it to!” Well maybe *this* is in fact Nolan’s biggest crime of all! – the creation of a context that excuses gross indiscipline on behalf of the writer/director.
Rule No.1 in good creative writing classes has been and always will be: “DO NOT MAKE THE STORY A DREAM. You are cheating the audience of the time they invested in the story if you reveal it at the end *or*, if you reveal it from early on, you are removing any reason for the audience to invest in the story because none of it has to make sense.” To make the mistake of ignoring that rule from the outset and to proceed to *attempt* to tell a coherent dreamscape story is bad. However, to then fall back upon the dreamscape scenario to acquit yourself of your failure in telling a coherent story is entirely worse.
Okay, there are of course some positives that must be acknowledged. Hans Zimmer’s music is good if not a bit overdone and it does its best to carry you through the seemingly endless tedium that is the third act. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is flawless and even astounding in places. Nolan captures some of the movie’s gravity bending scenes well and his pacing in the final part of the hotel room sequence (room sequence not the corridor sequence!) is superb. There is also a healthy array of acting talent with Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Cillian Murphy being somewhat watchable despite playing severely limited roles.
However, none of these small positives come close to remedying the awfully conceived, pretentious, and grossly undisciplined story-telling, not to mention, the totally flawed premise. Cut through all the fluff, and this film is built around the notion that a group of meticulous professionals can craft, manipulate, and exploit a world that defies all such ambitions due to the intangible whimsy that constitutes it. Maybe that’s what forced the writers into a proliferation of disconnected rules (though let’s face it, the lure of shiny effects is strong) but, if true, that was just compounding one failure with another. The big words and convoluted sentences are just a smokescreen designed to stop you discovering that the writers didn’t find a way around that inherent problem.
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