Brimming with nifty dreamscape set pieces, Inception is a complicated and occasionally thrilling psychic roller coaster built around the idea that a person’s dreams can be invaded and manipulated and that the thoughts, memories and ideas contained within can be extracted. Despite all its intricately layered puzzle box trappings however, it is at its heart the simple story of a grieving man who wants to go home. Had writer/director Christopher Nolan put as much care into that emotional core as he did the complex dreaming architecture that encompasses it, Inception could’ve been a great film instead of merely a very good one. As it is, it’s a smarter than average, visually inventive adult thriller and in a summer landscape where any one of those things is hard to come by, it is wholly welcome.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a top dream extractor approached by a mysterious industrialist (Ken Watanabe) who, instead of wanting information, asks him to plant an idea into a competitor’s brain that will potentially alter the course of events. It’s a difficult proposition complicated further by the fact that, unbeknownst to his team, DiCaprio’s skills are literally and figuratively compromised by his own dreams and memories [which I’ve excised here because it occurs to me they enter spoiler territory]. From this edgy, peril-fraught landscape springs an engrossing espionage tale that trots the globe with James Bondian panache while simultaneously plunging into the murky depths of multiple levels of human consciousness.

It’s a ballsy move on Nolan’s part to set an adventure story in a pliable world where anything is possible, but unfortunately he doesn’t take full advantage of the idea palate that he’s opened up for himself. There are a number of grin-inducing, brain-bending set pieces that make unusually excellent use of seamless special effects, but these are separated by long dry stretches of expository dialogue as one character explains to another (and thereby the audience) what just happened, what is happening or what is about to happen. Nolan’s conception of dreams within dreams is so complex that he has to hold the audience’s hand the whole way. The result is more guided tour than immersive world at times and this proves deadly especially in such a long film.

More than the fancy thematic footwork, Inception’s trump card is the core emotionality that ultimately provides its faint but steady pulse. Such as it is, it elevates the story beyond the usual visually interesting but ultimately empty summer extravaganza, yet it could and should have been even stronger. It flares up in the end when it’s ultimately needed, but there were plenty of missed opportunities to develop it along the way. Flawed though it was, Martin Scorsese seemed to understand this with his own (similar in many ways) DiCaprio film Shutter Island. That character’s sense of wrenching loss and longing was palpable and it helped drive the film around the other pot holes that might have sunk it entirely. With Inception, Nolan seems more concerned with the cleverness of his story than its heart and it falls short of greatness because of it.

Having said all that, Nolan is on to something here. The acting is terrific all around – DiCaprio especially turns in another strong performance and he gets solid support from Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy (who injects a few notes of humor and pizzazz into a film that is otherwise a little too self serious), Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page. The visual invention on display may not become as iconic as some of the sequences in something like The Matrix, but it’s still something to see. Finally, Hans Zimmer’s darkly urgent score goes a long way to keeping the dry stretches interesting.

Is Inception a $200 million art movie with genre leanings or is it a summer tent pole with artistic pretensions? I’m not sure it matters and frankly I welcome either one. Though it isn’t as smart as it seems to think it is, it’s the rare (these days) spectacular that aims for big, bright ideas and, while it borrows liberally from other sci-fi films on similar themes, it manages to feel wholly original. Despite a story that begs to have been more deeply felt, Inception remains a unique and frequently awe inspiring thrill ride. Maybe future viewings will reveal unexpected depths, but for now it is enough.

Inception. USA 2010. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Music score composed by Hans Zimmer. Edited by Lee Smith. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwait, Michael Caine and Lucas Haas. 2 hours 28 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout. 4 stars (out of 5).

49 Responses to “Inception (2010)”

  1. “Despite all its intricately layered puzzle box trappings however, it is at its heart the simple story of a grieving man who wants to go home. Had writer/director Christopher Nolan put as much care into that emotional core as he did the complex dreaming architecture that encompasses it, Inception could’ve been a great film instead of merely a very good one.”

    OK, let’s just say that I completely agree with this summary judgement, even with the **** rating (which I will be assessing the film with). and like you feel that it could have been a masterpiece. Also like you, I think we must consider repeat viewings as a possibility for elevation. Hans Zimmer wrote a stupendous score, the set design was stunning, and Di Caprio and company delivered arresting performances. Not every idea worked, but the ones that did were brilliant. Indeed the entire concept was ingenius.

    Let’s see what happens on the second viewing.

    Superb review, I must say!

  2. what frustrated me about “Inception” was that the concept IS interesting and original, a perfect set-up for all sorts of fascinating thematic questions, but instead of thematic exploration Nolan uses it as a simple narrative device in order to execute what amounts to nothing more than a huge, extended action sequence (the last half of the film).

    There is a much more interesting movie behind this idea when you consider the interest of how time works within the dream state. Hours become weeks, weeks become years….imagine this world for a moment, where this technology actually exists, and a narrative that really develops this concept. How it could be used for various purposes and the political, ethical, philosophical questions it raises could have made a far more interesting storyline. In this film it’s just “corporate espionage”, and there’s a brief mention of the purpose behind its creation, a vague piece of exposition regarding military use that one character throws out to the audience and then we quickly move on.

    In the end we’re treated to a videogame-like narrative between three levels of escalating danger for the characters. A chase sequence on one level, a zero-g fight sequence in another, an assault on a huge compound as we go deeper. It’s videogame logic to me (and light-weight in comparison to Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ”), and it took away from everything interesting and original about the concept Nolan created. Don’t get me wrong, the set-pieces are well-constructed and impressively edited (and as Sam pointed out, the set design is superb, as is the cinematography), but that’s it? That’s Inception? Perhaps I expected more from Nolan, because he is such a smart and capable filmmaker.

    I also thought the last shot was telegraphed from the outset, and during the movie I really hoped he wouldn’t end it like that. It represents exactly why the film disappointed me; Nolan couldn’t resist the temptation to play with the narrative as if it was a game regardless of whether it makes sense or not, or whether it renders the entire story as completely meaningless.

    I’ll take his other puzzle film, “The Prestige”, any day.

  3. I’ll be brief for once: I’m somewhere between Craig/Sam and Ari.

    On one hand, I’d be surprised if Nolan didn’t utilize this thrilling concept to be the framework for what is essentially just one huge caper exercise. That makes sense to me, and I found the Mission: Impossible-like teamwork refreshingly conducive (they were all distinctive personalities and characters, even if Ellen Page’s introduction is to create an audience surrogate and provide the basis for a whole ton of exposition from DiCaprio). At the same time, I understand Ari’s frustration; Inception in its first half seems so promising, not at a “this is a promising film” level but the intimated notion is so tantalizing and brimming with ostenisbly limitless possibilities, so when the film comports with practically all sci-fi action genre expectations and conventions, there is at least marginal disappointment.

    More troubling to me, however, is not the “corporate espionage” yarn, because I found it fairly engaging from beginning to ending. (Though it opens up some worthwhile questions, such as, why not merely blackmail/extort/terrorize/threaten Cillian Murphy’s character into doing what Watanabe wants? Even a brief rationale for taking this route would have probably sufficed.) My most piquant issue is that–and I say this as a Christopher Nolan fan–the man’s pictures are simply coldhearted, callous, obdurate at their most deterministic, and the tale of a man attempting to restore his once-comparatively idyllic domestic life with the wife who left him just doesn’t resonate as soundly as it should.

    Neverthless, I enjoyed Inception as an epic sci-fi crime noir and Nolan’s grasp of filming action sequences has most definitely waxed in dramatic fashion from the Batman films. The cinematography, set design and performances (Tom Hardy contributes some true humanity, Gordon-Levitt is commendably wry, Ellen Page is solid all the way around and Marion Cotillard was as captivating in her role as possible) are all outstanding, but, in a comment to Ari’s final point, I find myself actually seeing more genuine “depth” of thematic concern in Nolan’s Batman films over his “puzzle” pictures, which, for my tastes, sometimes lean too far over into being eye-catching, mind-benders for their own sake rather than completely formed cinematic essays. However, the fun to be had in watching the puzzle unspool overcomes some of these concerns with regards to Inception. Looking forward to seeing it again. So much for being brief.

  4. For the sake of argument, Alexander, I wouldn’t call Cobb’s life idyllic, even compared to the chaos and turmoil that it has become. He and his wife — if Cobb’s descriptions are reliable — essentially abandoned their earthbound children to live 50 years in a dream world of their own design. Even before they returned to their youth, he suggested Mal was starting to become unhinged. That was the whole reason for their return, assuming they actually returned to reality, something which is complicated by the spinning top at the end of the film.

    And, as I understood it, had the crew simply kidnapped Fischer outright, they would’ve been imposing their own ideas on him. Keep in mind, there is no safe, it’s just a device–a McGuffin of sorts–that is the springboard that leads to Fischer’s false realization that his dad loved him and didn’t want him to follow the same lonely, self-destructive path.

    I think I’m in general agreement with Craig and Sam. The most emotionally resonant thread for me was the relationship between Fischer and his father. It was a compact narrative arc, but I felt it was better developed than Cobb and Mal’s.

    The idea that Cobb’s version of his wife is a shade and that, in his mind, she’s a violent, vindictive women bent on sabotaging his plans is a fascinating one. The idea that Cobb has turned to his profession as part of his grieving process, like a lot of people do after a loss, is also interesting. If he was an accountant, he’d probably stay in the office all night. But because he’s an extractor, he stays in his dreams all night.

    There’s a lot of emotional depth there, but Nolan doesn’t explore any of it as effectively or succinctly as he did in Memento.

    I also felt that Inception suffered from the same action-bloat that The Dark Knight did. Make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoyed both films, but it felt like I was trapped in a non-stop video game (esp. given the structure of the dreams) for an hour or more.

    Regardless of its faults, Inception is in my top five of the year so far, so my criticism stems partially from high expectations. I hope Nolan gets more $200 million budgets so he can continue making these types of films. Maybe next time he’ll spend a little more time crafting the emotional resonance to match the stunning visuals and stimulating ideas.

  5. I’m trying to put together my own review of this movie, but I’ll concur with a lot of what Ari is saying. Nolan really tends to go overboard as far as editing is concerned, trimming all the pauses and quiet moments until all you have are action-beats and exposition. You lose any sense of pacing, any possibility of atmosphere building. He’d have been better off finding an unnecessary scene here or there to jettison in full– perhaps that dream-opium den where nothing happens, or some of the more redundant parts of the Cob & Mal storyline.

    There’s a lot of reasons this movie doesn’t really work for me as science fiction– for all the interesting possibilities they raise for how the mind builds imagined spaces or how fluidly time can work as a subjective experience inside these fabricated worlds, Nolan pretty much ignores any and all of the actual science of how dreams work, both physically and psychologically. Granted, things don’t have to gel perfectly, as with all sci-fi– in “Star Wars” you can get away with sound in space– but are these dreams the product of late-stage REM sleep, or something else? What would Jung or Freud make of all these rather logical dream-scenarios, where surrealism only takes hold by concerted effort?

    There’s been a lot of comparison being made– unfavorably– to video games here and there, and as a game designer, I can certainly see where it’s coming from. In a lot of ways, I think Nolan was using the wrong metaphor with dreams, when so much of what the characters are talking about– architects building “levels”, dodging enemies and fabricating whole stories out of scratch themselves– belongs more to the medium of video-games than anything else. The point about Cronenberg’s underrated “eXistenZ” is a good one, which is odd because that’s a movie which really feels like a better representation of the non-sequitor experience of dreaming, anyway.

    I think my chief complaint about the movie is, despite all the trippy visuals, the entire hypernarrative is communicated almost entirely by expository dialogue, making it mostly a verbal experience, rather than a cinematic one. And that’s rather disappointing. Hopefully I’ll be able to write this up without repeating myself too much.

  6. Very interesting.

    I half assumed that like with the Dark Knight everyone was going to love it and I was going to take a ration of shit for not liking it quite enough! Yet here we are in varying levels of agreement. Ari’s on one end with larger disappointment, but even the bigger fans have some serious issues.

    I’m giving Inception part of the benefit of a doubt simply because it’s an original and interesting Big Budget Blockbuster. That sword cuts both ways though because, like Ari, in the end I felt like it left a lot on the table.

    The thing is, for now I’m willing to hope that it gets richer on repeated viewings so I’m withholding a little judgement about how deep it may or may not be.

    I fear in the end that it may have staked out this uneasy and ultimately not all that satisfying middle ground where it delivers neither the popcorn thrills you want nor the more resonant textures you’d expect from a smaller art film.

    Like Bob, I think the biggest liability besides the coldness Alexander felt is the massive exposition. The movie is drawing a lot of (kind of silly) comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that film has almost NO exposition. There’s some fleeting explanation at the end of the nature of Discovery’s mission but it does little to tell you the what and the why of the monoliths or anything else.

    Predictably, people raised on comic book movies are mostly going ape shit for Inception, but really I don’t think it’s quite as complicated as people are giving it credit for.


    One more thing. The ending. It made me smile, but it feels like kind of a cop out. What does it add to the story to leave us not knowing whether his reunion was real or a dream? It was a gotcha and entertaining in that way, but I think it would’ve been more powerful to conclusively say he was still dreaming. I don’t know though. I didn’t mention it in the review because it’s not a hard and fast opinion. The truth is, I saw this at a midnight screening Thursday night after 3 consecutive nights of hardly sleeping at all so by the time it was over I was feeling pretty fuzzy.

  7. Ari: “what frustrated me about “Inception” was that the concept IS interesting and original, a perfect set-up for all sorts of fascinating thematic questions, but instead of thematic exploration Nolan uses it as a simple narrative device in order to execute what amounts to nothing more than a huge, extended action sequence (the last half of the film). ”

    This wouldn’t really bother me so much, except that Nolan STILL doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing while shooting or writing action sequences. The car chase was rote and dull, the hotel-hallway was almost interesting but sloppily chroeographed and shot, and the “Shadow Moses” sequence (for you Metal Gear Solid fans out there) looked like something out of one a Bond movie from the Roger Moore era. Nolan shows ambition occasionally, but he still hasn’t grasped the basics of covering action beats. Lucas, Campbell, the Wachowskis– these guys know their stuff. Even Michael Mann, whom Nolan routinely draws from, has been able to update his slick action style to DV with panache. Nolan can be a lot of things, including a great fantasist, but at the end of the day he just can’t handle scenes that are that much more complicated than conversations.

  8. Nolan’s jerky command of action actually kind of worked for me here in a way that it didn’t with TDK. It fits a certain dream logic.

    Still, it’s a liability because I’m old school.

  9. Yeah, I just plain don’t like jerky cinematography myself, but primarily because it adds another, unnecessary layer of obscurity to the mix. I spend less time wondering why something is happening, and more time wondering what the hell happened in the first place. Stuff like balanced shots, coverage and compositions are what earn you the right to play mind-games, because otherwise you’re too busy trying to figure out the geography of a shoot-out to even bother with anything more significant.

    It also didn’t help that often Nolan isn’t anywhere near as imaginative with the subject of his action-beats as he is with the ideas behind the whole dream-realities. These are characters can fold cities and make M.C. Escher illustrations come to life with their minds, but most of the time we’re watching gunfights in the street or spies on skis. Seriously? Skis?

  10. With me, I don’t even try to figure out the geography because it makes me mad..

    I like knowing the layout, knowing where everyone is and who they are and I like seeing complete actions that haven’t been shredded down to Michael Bay sized fragments.

    Hahah…the James Bond Piz Gloria battle kind of made me laugh, but not in a bad way.

  11. “The thing is, for now I’m willing to hope that it gets richer on repeated viewings so I’m withholding a little judgement about how deep it may or may not be..”

    Perfectly understandable position, or assumption, Craig, but–not to sound like a neg-head–I’m actually willing to bet that the film becomes more laborious with each viewing. I just don’t think Inception is built to last as a thoroughly fulfilling experience. I don’t want to blast it because it was a fun matinee on a hot summer afternoon, but the ontological potential versus what Nolan actually did with his oneiric and hypnagogic narrative leaves me with the creeping feeling that the picture may not age terribly well. I can just see myself six, twelve, eighteen months from now giving it another spin and finding myself fatigued by the hyper-editing about which Bob so rightly speaks: Nolan overdoes it here, and the whole “video game logic” to quote Ari does alienate me at least a little as far as this film’s probable rewatchability goes for me.

    I don’t know, but while I’m still looking forward to viewing it again, I’m not dying to partake in it again, either. I suppose my most considerable issue with it–the coldness and at least slightly mechanical feel of its “hook” for the Hero’s Journey–is what opened up the doors through which I see identifiable flaws. If the film had strengthened its emotional viscera quotient to the cogntively-detailed expository and overarching sense of conventionality, such as the Roger Moore 007ian sequence, Matrixian anti-gravity fight and cops-and-robbers car chase, to paraphrase Bob’s second to last post, I believe I would have been more receptive to it, cop-out ending or not.

  12. God, I’ve missed this place! Craig, I don’t know if you know, but there were two additions to my family two months ago (I had two little girls), so I haven’t been around in a while and I haven’t even gotten to see movies, but I was able to make an exception for this one this afternoon (and now that the twins are a bit more under control).

    Enough about me: I really enjoyed “Inception” and agree with your assessment. I don’t know if it was because of sleep deprivation or what, but I found the world of dreams Nolan crafted so fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed the concepts of having a dream architect, multiple realities, time continuum, and the so-called “kicks.” Just wonderful, terrifically original story-telling.

    The collection of actors is equally fantastic, from Ellen Page to the great Cotillard and, of course, Di Caprio. It was an absolute treat to see folks at the top of the class playing together and kicking butt all over the place.

    Now to the disappointing part — has there ever been a longer climax in recent film history? I mean, jeez. I felt like I was in some other dream state where every minute felt like 10 (ok, ok, bad joke!). Don’t get me wrong, it was ultimately satisfying, but it took so damn long to get there. Especially since I was so into the “workshop” sequences (but I always love the young padawan moments in films), the actual execution felt like a chore. Again, this is not an indictment on the film as a whole, but as you keenly observed, it took away from what was on its way to being a great film.

    For all “Inception” has going for it, in the end, “The Prestige” remains by far my favorite Nolan picture to date.

  13. Re: Young Padawan moments in films– Did I just read a Prequel Trilogy reference that wasn’t written by me? Very refreshing, Dorothy.

  14. Congratulations on your new arrivals Dorothy!

  15. I guess I’m the only person that didn’t like the score, but it felt bloated, overplayed, and often melodramatic to me, The Dark Knight score worked for that picture, partially because it was so heavy-handed that it countered Nolan’s heavy-handed themes and Ledger’s over-the-top bravura performance nicely. Here, Zimmer’s score is constantly trying to outdo Nolan’s insane video-game storytelling. It just felt as though between the two of them, they were trying to win some sort of audio-visual roshambo with the audience’s attention. Fuck, I GET IT GUYS. Give me a break.

    I enjoyed the movie for being a Summer spectacle and lord knows we need more films where spectacle serves to tell the story rather than act as the story. Inception does an excellent job of making spectacle serve the narrative, in a way that we really haven’t seen since The Matrix. At the same time, the film sort of goes on and on. I felt as though the entire third act was hanging in that damn van (down by the river no less) and after that long while, I wanted the James Bondian snow sequence to end and the kicks to ensue.

    For those that complained about TDK’s too many endings, Inception has too many climaxes.

    Anyway, I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it. Better Summer fare than any of last year’s blockbusters but I don’t feel as though any portion of me was really engaged other than my eyes and my patience.

  16. Joel– Zimmer’s score sounded very similar to Howard Shore’s synth-music for Cronenberg’s “Scanners”. Which was appropriate, with the corporate espionage themes and the brutalist architecture of the Bond base sequence. Still, it just makes me wish that Cronenberg were doing big studio art sci-fi projects like this.

  17. Thanks, sartre!

    And Bob, that was indeed a prequel reference! But was it written by me or by one of your dream projections? Are you even awake right now, Bob? Dam-dam-dam!!!

  18. More in a sec, but I just had to say: DOROTHY!!!!!

  19. Alexander: “I’m actually willing to bet that the film becomes more laborious with each viewing. I just don’t think Inception is built to last as a thoroughly fulfilling experience.” As I said elsewhere, or above or in an email to someone, I’m increasingly starting to fear that Inception is going to slip into an uneasy middle ground where it neither satisfies as a mind puzzle nor totally delivers as popcorn entertainment. I love the idea of a smart summer movie, but this one just isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, nor as fun.

    Dorothy, yes you’d mentioned there were a couple of Porker Buns in the oven and I was anxious to hear how it turned out. Really really happy to have you back and congratulations on the new additions to your family. I hope everyone is happy and healthy and I hope you’re already training them with movies :)

    Joel, yeah I dug the score. Like I said in the Watercooler and probably elsewhere, it added some much needed juice to the movie for me. A little overwrought maybe but it fit.

  20. Dorothy, not really knowing you too well before our very polite debate on “The Lovely Bones”, I didn’t really know the protocol on acknowledging your recent additions, but congratulations. Hope they’re not too much of a handful.

    Some continuing thoughts on “Young Padawan” moments– if Nolan had embraced this idea a little further, the notion of Leo training Ellen Page as his dreambender apprentice, and she’d then gotten to show off more of her skills throughout the movie, I think alot of the exposition might’ve paid off more. Having a young apprentice to teach for a wizened old master to teach everything they’ve learned to makes for a very nice audience-surrogate situation, but it only really works if that surrogate is then allowed to surpass the teacher and stand up for themselves (and, by extension, us). It’s the whole hero’s journey thing, and while it’s probably best encapsulated in the “Star Wars” movies as you pointed out, it’s there in so many other places, too– particularly apt for “Inception” I’d say is the Redford/Newman relationship in “The Sting”.

    The problem with Nolan’s characters is that in the end they’re really all there just to serve as projections of the only fully realized one there is. Except, strangely, for Ken Watanabe. Yeah, his accent was terrible, but I actually found him to be an oddly moving performance. When Leo meets up with him and talks about “being young men together again”, I half thought that the moment belonged in some other movie where the two of them were gay lovers or something, and frankly, it would’ve been one of the most touching dream/VR movie moments I’d ever seen. Perhaps that underlines one of the problems with pairing your highbrow intellectual sci-fi with soapy emotional undercurrents, because if you let the intensity channel elsewhere in the performances (as they are wont to do) it’s easy to make it seem like everybody’s deeply in love with everybody else, by accident.

  21. Congratulations Dorothy, if you don’t mind me saying. That is lovely news.

  22. Just for shits and giggles, here’s a quick list of how I’d rank Nolan’s films, not having seen Following:

    1. Memento
    2. Insomnia
    3. Inception
    4. The Dark Knight
    5. Prestige
    6. Batman Begins

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Insomnia, but Memento is easily #1, and yes, I like Inception ultimately better than TDK in retrospect. TDK has the Ledger thing going for it, but Inception is more interesting and imaginative all around.

  23. The fact that an iffy remake of a modern noir masterpiece rates higher than any of his most recent fare says pretty much everything. “Memento” is a terrific movie, but it seems as though he’s suffered some memory loss of his own since, forgetting all the important lessons of editing, pacing and structure that made that movie so strong. It’s also the only film where he lived within his means, visually speaking.

  24. I’d say “The Prestige” is my favorite. It has a twisty structure, interesting characters and feels like a fully realized narrative. Maybe this is because it’s an adaptation of a novel, where the basis for a great story is already there. I was never into “Memento” and both “Batman” films ultimately crumble for me once I see them on dvd. “The Dark Knight” still has things I enjoy – mostly Ledger’s performance, Zimmer’s score and the chase sequence was well orchestrated compared to set-pieces in his other films. It’s a bit too self-important for my taste though, especially as things reach the final act. Both films are very well made for what they are, and certainly much higher quality than most summer films….but I think I’m becoming less and less interested in this stuff each year.

    I think Nolan is one of those extremely talented filmmakers that just doesn’t appeal to me all that much. That said, I’m glad someone in Hollywood (of talent) has the ability to produce original work.

  25. I should add that to varying degrees I’ve enjoyed all 6 films.

    Here’s an interesting attempt at finding deeper meaning in Inception:

    Not perfect but much better than this one:

  26. “It’s a bit too self-important for my taste though” I have that problem with both TDK and Inception. They take themselves awfully seriously and they’re borderline humorless, not in the “funny ha ha” sense exactly, but there’s a stifling, overbearing quality. TDK was leavened a lot by Ledger’s unpredictable performance. Inception didn’t have that wild card.

  27. Congrats, Dorothy! I’ve missed a bunch of movies and content here this year, too, but I think we can agree that we haven’t “missed” much (at least not at the theaters). Inception was the right movie to get everybody back out of the woodwork.

    Fav comments:
    “Action bloat” – WJ. I like that term!
    “Seriously? Skis?” – Bob. Now that you mention it, that was idiotic.

    Re: Nolan & action. I know everyone had the same level of complaints about the action in The Dark Knight. My question is, which director DOES have a great handle on action? If you ask me, just about every action movie has transitioned into the incomprehensible over the last few years. Bourne’s hand-to-hand fights are an exception, and something like The Hurt Locker doesn’t really count. Otherwise, who’s considered the bar setter for effectively filming chaotic shootouts?

    Back to the movie, I enjoyed it in the moment and am encouraged by all the debate today (if only because movies so infrequently produce real debates or discussions these days that aren’t rooted in subjectivity, like whether or not something was “funny”), but the weak emotional heart of the story/lack of character development is a problem for me. Not because I wanted a tear-jerker, but because I think it would have made me care more about what was real and what happened at the end. But I didn’t know anything about these people (even DiCaprio, outside of his marriage), so in the end I can just throw up my hands and say, “that was fun, was it real? Eh, anyway it was still fun.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Fischer relationship is what others connected to – those were by far the most well developed characters.

    Maybe it’s just me, but if Cobb were a more flushed-out character (What was HIS relationship like with his dad? What’s his moral center? How did he meet Mal?), would you care more about figuring all of this out?

  28. Daniel– The directors whose action sequences I’ve enjoyed in the past decade are guys like Martin Campbell, George Lucas, the Wachowski Brothers, Tom Tykwer and Michael Mann. These are guys who know how to stage imaginative and ambitious kinds of action of many different types while still keeping a focus on a moment-to-moment precision and craftsmanship. You can admire both the gusto of their choreography and the beauty of their cinematography while still keeping a firm grasp of the layout of the geography and the sequence of actions (the only exception is Mann, occasionally, who lets his fetishistic love for DV get in the way of clarity sometimes). These are set-piece artists, and I’ll take them any day over Nolan.

  29. Ooh, Tom Tykwer. Any mention of his name and you’ve got me. The International was one of the worst movies I saw last year or whatever year it came out (which was a massive disappointment), but the shootout in the Guggenheim was very impressive. I considered Michael Mann, too, crossed him out because of the digicam that you mention. I know others think it looks great, but that log cabin shootout in Public Enemies was a real low point, I thought.

    Anyway you’ve brought up some names that are legitimate, if not anyone that really blows me away, no pun intended.

  30. I’d add Steven Spielberg to the above list because if War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich prove anything, it’s that Steven Speilberg has afterthoughts more well-constructed, tense, original, and exciting than most “set piece sequences” in today’s films.

  31. I’d also add Fincher. He hasn’t done much action/adventure work in the last five years, but Alien3, Seven, Fight Club, The Game, and even Panic Room show a deft control of geography, pacing, and suspense (even though Alien3 and Panic Room are very flawed films).

  32. Joel– I honestly think that Spielberg has been ruined by too many years working with Janusz Kaminski. “Minority Report” has promise at times, as does “War of the Worlds”, but they’re both done in by the dreadfully overlit cinematography. Also, I frankly don’t think that Spielberg is as good at balancing the digital and the real as Lucas was in the Prequels– WotW is just too damn bright, colorful and showy to work for me in any real way.

    I’m with you on Fincher, though, and think that a good, straight action movie could be just the ticket to get him out of this rotten self-serious rut where stuff like Facebook gets turned into faux-Ellis movies. “Panic Room” is a better Hitchcock movie than anything Hitchcock ever did.

    And Daniel– I honestly think Tykwer should be the next Bond director. I was looking forward to Sam Mendes’ take (“Road to Perdition” also has some classy shootouts) but “The International” showed Tykwer is perfect for the job. And not a ski in sight.

    Anyway, I’d put Campbell and Lucas at the top, personally. My preference for the latter is well known, obviously, but I think he deserves credit in the age of guys like Jackson & Abrams for actually keeping his fucking camera STILL long enough to see what’s happening. And Campbell might be the best director who ever helmed a Bond feature. “GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale” are tops for me, and easily contain the best concieved, shot and cut action of the franchise.

  33. I thought I was all Inception-ed out, but this is a really elegant review, Craig.

  34. Seriously awesome critique, Craig.

    Obviously I have nothing further to contribute at this point in time. But I just wanted to say something to Dorothy.

    Wow. If you thought you were busy before, my goddess, this is when the rubber truly hits the road.

    Heartfelt congratulations, Mom.

    You’ll always be the sweet, wondrous Melanie to my fiery Scarlett…

  35. Thanks Suzanne. I’m about ready to move on myself, though I have to say this movie, like it or no, inspired one of the better conversation threads around these parts in a while.

  36. I enjoyed Inception. Need to see it again to better discern the strengths from the weaknesses. I wasn’t in love with it, but was fairly consistently entertained. I was most frustrated by the facile and internally inconsistent device of using Page’s character as the audience stand in, and the lack of surreal art design acrobatics in the final act–I was sure that even if it was unwise to manipulate the dreamscape that much, it would be narratively necessary to mindblowing artistic effect leading up to the climax. As far as dream imagery goes, these were much less interesting than mine are, as if they were designed by a subconscious that only watched Bond films.

    Also: Dorothy! That’s tremendous! I’m floored. Hope you and the two lovely little porker-pines are doing swell. Very very happy for you!

  37. Jennybee– yeah, that’s a really good point. As soon as Leo said “Never manipulate the dream this much!” I figured it meant Juno would HAVE to manipulate the dream that much, and I looked forward to it. Instead, what we got as a big anticlimactic Bond battle. Excellent observation with the limited subconscious there.

  38. The thing with Page’s character–the less-than-subtly-named Ariadne–that bugged me is that she was whatever the script required to relay exposition, without having a credible and consistent personality unto herself. OK, so she’s a brilliant student of some unnamed field and gets puzzles quickly. Got that. She’s okay with doing something illegal if it tickles her imagination like this dream world does. But then she picks the whole thing up a little too easily, too conveniently. And then without any apparent reason, she’s mad curious and involved in the deeply personal and buried heartbreak of this team member she just met, and has an instant, clear, and discerning judgment of the complex and convoluted ethical issues involved in his psychological subconscious blockages. He’s essentially her boss and mentor and she’s all up in his personal heartbreak and grief, with an expert understanding of what’s needed, whereas only a short time before she was brand spanking new to the entire concept. Facile. A creaky script crutch.

  39. But what if Page, and the others, are just projections in Leo’s mind as he is dreaming up the entire heist while in limbo? An extreme theory, but one that I’ve heard that makes some sense as to why the team he assembles are so lightly developed, as they would be in any of our dreams. They don’t seem fully human (Page isn’t the only one) because they’re not – they’re only projections created subconsciously to move the action forward.

    Not saying I subscribe to it, but just throwing it out there as a possibility.

  40. “Had writer/director Christopher Nolan put as much care into that emotional core as he did the complex dreaming architecture that encompasses it, Inception could’ve been a great film instead of merely a very good one.”

    About to leave to see Enter the Void. Haven’t had a chance yet to read all the above comments, so sorry if I’m simply repeating one or more.

    Lucky for me I was moved and engaged by the emotional core Craig identified and the film worked brilliantly as a result. I understand the videogame parallels as the film has that surface structural architecture but that wasn’t where my own focus was. That architecture was a useful and entertaining device for introducing the internal logic of this fictional universe and increasing the sense of jeopardy and forward narrative momentum. Where I was most firmly focused was on Cobb’s psychological space and his journey to emotional catharsis. So much so that the power for me of even some of the best executed action sequences didn’t come in the usual visceral way but from their metaphorical/symbolic meaning – intellectualizing/psychologizing action made for a more cerebral, multi-layered, and satisfying experience.

    The playful ending didn’t bother me (to my mind we should have at least a faint lingering question mark about whether Cobb is finally in a real place). And, besides, I took in the sound effect accompanying the spinning device that it was losing momentum.

  41. “Nolan pretty much ignores any and all of the actual science of how dreams work, both physically and psychologically.”

    As a psychologist I’m curious to hear what you’re referring to. You go on to mention Freud and Jung. You do realize that these guys were born in the 19th century :-) God help my profession if such early figures (and the 90% mumbo-jumbo they promoted) remained somehow cutting edge and relevant. Psychoanalysis’ contribution to underscoring that there was a subconscious was valuable and Freud’s talking therapy had some success alleviating symptoms with shellshocked soldiers but has been long since improved upon with other treatment models. The legacy of these early giants of psychology has been most strongly represented in artistic exploration – literature, film, fine art etc. – rather than the profession as a science.

    I know that in the States and some European countries the therapies that evolved out of their theories are still practised by some. Despite plenty of research we actually know very little about sleep and dreams that could be readily or successfully incorporated into a work of fiction. The problem with dream therapy is that there is a futile attempt to apply some universal symbolic symbol to analyzing them – there is no scientific rigor to such work.

  42. Jennybee “she was whatever the script required to relay exposition, without having a credible and consistent personality unto herself” That was a problem with pretty much all of the characters. They all played a part in the team, but none of them really had compelling emotional lives. Not even Leo who received most of the focus.

    Daniel. I’ve heard that theory and many others. The funny thing about all of them is that each one adds another layer of “aha!” to the puzzle box, but there still isn’t anything inside when you finally get to the middle and that’s ultimately what keeps me from being over the moon about Inception. It’s a fun mental ride in the way an action movie is a fun adrenaline ride, but it’s just as empty.

    Sartre, Cobb’s psychological space and his journey all seemed mechanical and contrived, like pages in a psychology text book illustrated. I understood the intention, but I didn’t feel it.

    Maybe that’s for the better. A movie like The Fountain wore its emotions on its sleeve and it is widely reviled. For me, I bought into the emotion of The Fountain and it allowed me to completely overlook some of the other plotty contrivances. Inception only barely engaged me on that level. I could see all the emotional beats and I wanted to feel them, but they were unearned.

    As for the ending, I feel it was just more smoke and mirrors to disguise the film’s essential emptiness. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the top fell or it didn’t. We are to assume Leo believes it didn’t and from his perspective, that’s all that matters. The movie has little concern with reality.

    Personally, I prefer the ending of Brazil where at first we’re led to believe it’s a happy Hollywood ending, only to get the slap in the face of the “reality”. You could still argue that it doesn’t matter, Sam still believes he’s in Paradise with his best girl, but the way it was handled delivered a much more satisfying jolt.

    I hardly sound like someone who liked the movie, do I?

  43. Also, kind of appropriate that Ariadne’s totem was a pawn since that’s what she was in Nolan’s screenplay chessboard.

  44. “I hardly sound like someone who liked the movie, do I?”

    Haha. Very true.

  45. But I did! I swear.

    As I was writing the review (and even as I was watching the movie), I tried really really really hard not to even acknowledge the first rush of gushy overreaction or the subsequent re-evaluation or the super boring conversation about “backlash” that ensued all before most people had seen the movie.

    But still. I admit it’s hard for me to even think about this movie without thinking “Masterpiece? Really?” and that in part colors some of my subsequent commentary.

    That and the sense that the raw material for true greatness was there but left unfulfilled.

  46. I don’t know about masterpiece (I experienced some forgivable flaws) but it was exceptionally successful for me. As I mentioned earlier the difference between our degree of enthusiasm for the film seems to be tied to Cobb’s emotional journey. It worked well for me and not so well for you. The psychology and how it was metaphorically represented wasn’t complex but vibed as reasonably truthful to me. I don’t generally find Nolan’s work cold like many seem to do.

  47. A few more thoughts ->

    The notions for dream inception are completely consistent with regular behavior change. It is useful to think of the subconscious as motivated by emotion, not reason (this doesn’t mean emotional truth is unreasonable). A higher ratio of positive reinforcement to punishment results in more enduring change. We’re more likely to get someone emotionally committed to an idea that supports behavior change if they judge it as their own. Hence, we do our best to prompt/facilitate people to make connections or gain insights that are supportive of change rather than simply instruct them (though sometimes that is necessary too).

    Thanks for that MY Mag link Craig.

    “So, is Cobb being pulled back to reality by this thought, or is he being prodded further into his dream? That depends, perhaps, on how you view the very end of the film: At this point, Cobb seems to be finally freed of his regret and of his memory of Mal, and has been reunited with his children. The final shot seems to indicate that he may be still dreaming (because his totem keeps spinning). If so, then he has either lost himself in Limbo entirely, or Mal was right all along, and his world was always a dream.”

    I said earlier that my cue from the spinning top hinted more heavily at reality. But now I recall him seeing in this final scene his children at the same age and in the same or similar position of crouching down together in play as he had repeatedly done so in flashbacks. This more strongly cues me to see the final scene as another dream context. Irrespective, I’m happy with the question mark because as the NY Mag piece noted his catharsis is real either way.

  48. “As I mentioned earlier the difference between our degree of enthusiasm for the film seems to be tied to Cobb’s emotional journey.” Yes I think so too. I’m eager to see if it plays a little different for me a second time around.

    I prefer the NY Mag piece to the relatively facile Faraci theory.

    I choose to believe that Leo is dreaming anyway. It was just too convenient that he was able to get back into the country so easily after supposedly being wanted for murder. Alas, we’ll never really know. It is a puzzle without a solution, but it inspires further pondering.

    Not sure if I pointed this out above, but Inception wins bonus points if for no other reason than the interesting conversations it has inspired here and elsewhere.

  49. Yep, the re-entry was a tad too easy and convenient as you say. Even Polanski, with his many influential friends and supporters, couldn’t pull that one off :-)

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