In the lead up to Inception a lot of the advance press wondered if the movie would prove too complicated for modern audiences, something we should’ve all dismissed as “bullshit.” Then the advance critics started crowing about it being the BEST MOVIE EVAHR, which I dismissed out of hand because advance critics are bullshit artists. Then the print critics who actually matter found out it was something other than the BEST MOVIE EVAHR. So it became “[t]he emperor’s new bed-clothes.”
Such is what this film’s had to deal with, over and above all the ten years of Hell its creator supposedly endured just to get it written in the first place. Either Christopher Nolan wrote the thing right after Momento and needed the Dark Knight‘s billion dollar profit to get a green light or it just took him ten years to write. Either way, I’ll believe it. Paradox, right?
Modern movies are caught in a terrible paradox of their own. Either they’re the BEST MOVIE EVARH or they’re the latest grand scam of Hollywood hacks. It’s a terrible state of affairs, particularly for just-straight-up-good movies that deserve to be appreciated for more than one weekend in July. Just because so many directors are artless assholes who only know how to make commercials doesn’t mean Christopher Nolan is too. It just means he has to compete with them all. So his films are inevitably less than the masterworks they probably should be.
I’ll go on and admit I completely ignored Nolan until 2005. I’m not ashamed. Further confessions? Sure. I had to see The Dark Knight in order to fully appreciate Batman Begins. There. Now that I’ve sabotaged both my Movie Critic and my Batman Nerd Street Cred, we can talk about Inception.
For the two or three people who don’t know by now, Inception takes place in a universe where the chemically-induced psychic powers, originally developed for military training, allow white collar criminals to steal information out of people’s heads through the medium of shared dreaming. We meed Cobb in one such dream (or Dream – it certainly sounds like they use a capital), and quickly discover he’s attempting to pick the brain of a Japanese mega-corporation CEO named Saito (Japanese mega-actor Ken Watanabe).
A subconscious projection of Cobb’s now-dead wife almost immediately fucks things up, forcing Cobb and his long-time partner-in-crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to go to ground before their corporate clients get wind of their failure. Saito rescues them from running by offering another job. Ah, but, the Inevitable Twist: instead of stealing an idea, Saito wants Cobb to implant one. This is “inception,” “birth,” the “bringing forth” of an idea. It’s also (according to Arthur – and he’s quite obviously supposed to be The Smart One – why else is he played by Third Rock from the Sun‘s Tommy Solomon?) impossible.
Cobb has deeply personal reason to believe that it is possible, and I’ve got no compunctions about spoiling a film that’s already been over-analyzed to the point of catatonia. If you’ve somehow managed to navigating that rhetorical minefield and find yourself here, completely unaware of this film’s plot, stop now. Go watch the movie. Everything you’ve heard is true. Yes, it’s good. No, it’s not that good, but it is good, something that, these days, is so damn rare I’m amazed I can still recognize it.
Turns out Cobb and his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), were experimenting with the Dream, and managed to spend at least fifty-years of experiential time down in the deepest recesses of their own, private Limbo. Mal “locked something – some truth” down there, deep inside her mind, and when she and Cobb at last woke up (after less than an afternoon of “real” time) she woke convinced her “real” world was, in fact, the Dream. And since the only sure-fire way to wake up from the Dream is suicide…preferably by falling, since the inner ear’s so tough to trick…
To make things worse, in life, Mal was as much of a tactical planner as Cobb (probably what the two saw in each other). He refused to play into her reality dysfunction or join her in a suicide pact, so Mal tried her best to paint him into a corner. With all the right paperwork filed in all the right places, Mal took her sidewalk swan dive secure in the knowledge that, if Cobb refused to follow her, he’d be implicated in her death, become an international fugitive, and never see their children again…unless he joined her in the Dream that, for her, became reality.
Saito offers to make all that go away with one phone call. So, over Arthur’s protests, Cobb accepts the job and goes about- in the grad tradition of all caper movies – building a team. For this part of the review, the only important one is Mal’s father (Michael Caine). From him, Cobb recruits the young Ariadne (Ellen “Kitty Pryde Mark III/Juno/Super“ Page) a promising architecture student with a natural knack for designing Dream worlds.
She’s also a handy example of everything people hate about Christopher Nolan’s movies. As both the Token Young Person and Token Girl of the group, Ariadne’s forced to prompt exposition storms whenever the plot gains steam. Which is a snide way of saying, “she functions as the Audience Identification Character,” that great, transparent sign that exists only so someone can ask all the annoying questions of real characters. Ariadne’s also a very thin (and reedy) shield, standing between our director and his well-deserved reputation as a ‘fridge stuffer of Ron Marz proportions. I mean…Jesus fucking Christ, look at her name. “Ariadne,” the woman who guided Theseus through the Labyrinth. Really, Chris (can I call you Chris)? I mean, really-really? There’s “being on the nose” and then there’s “slamming your audience’s nose through their fucking forehead, Ninja Scroll style.”
Had all the characters drawn their names drawn from Greek mythology, I wouldn’t mind so much, but the rest are named after famous architects, like Arthur Erickson, or the Eames brothers. Either way, that’s beside the point and the point is this: Christopher Nolan doesn’t care about telling stories.
Oh, he cares about making films, but, as his detractors will tell you (at great length), those two ends are, on occasion, mutually exclusive. After all, this is the man who gained fame from Momento, a story that’s intentionally told ass-backwards. Because the story itself is immaterial to Nolan. They, like the Dreamscapes Ariadne creates, are delivery systems for what Cobb (the latest in a long line of Christopher Nolan Identification Characters) correctly identifies as that most dangerous and insidious of parasites: the Idea.
An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.
The idea that her Dream world was more real than “reality” eventually destroyed Mal’s mind and now the idea that she might’ve been right is slowly but steadily eroding what passes for Cobb’s. Obviously, this causes no end of complications to what’s already a complicated, delicate and dangerous mission.
Saito wants Cobb’s Four Man, One Girl Band to implant an idea in the head of a corporate rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian “Scarecrow” Murphy). Heir to an international energy empire, Fischer sits poised atop a virtual monopoly now that his father (Pete Postlethwaite) has kicked the bucket. Sure would be nice if he suddenly got the hot idea to break up his father’s company, strike out for himself, become his own man…
Maybe. But an inception’s not so easy. The mind senses foreign objects (including other minds) and responds the only way it can in a big budget, Hollywood blockbuster: with armies of armed thugs.
Here’s what really got to the press critics – not just “curbing” their enthusiasm so much as “curb-stomping” it. They saw Inception as a movie about movie-making, made from parts of other movies. Cobb shares a name and a profession (thief/architect) with the hero of Nolan’s first film, Following. The snow-capped, mountaintop stronghold, which provides Our Heroes with an appropriate set for their Climactic Action Sequence, is right out of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (along with most of the action in said Sequence). No longer confined by the physical possibilities of a Batman suit, Nolan’s free to let his directorial talents all hang out. French impressionism, German expressionism…look at Nolan’s films long enough and you’ll eventually find every -ism in the cinematographer’s text book. This allows film critics to get off the bus at Meta Avenue, where they meet at least once a week to bitch and moan about stuff only professional movie critics really care about. Like Nolan’s film’s nearly-psychotic paranoia about sex and the whole host of psychological concepts arbitrarily labeled “feminine” about a hundred years before Nolan’s “inception” in his mother’s womb.
Can we get that out of the way? Good, because it’s a crappy interpretation of this film that sells it far too short, thanks in part to movie critic myopia. We forget sometimes that not everyone watches films for a living (if you can call this “living”) and fewer still possess the time and training to analyze them as we do. In the universe of all Abysses, film most definitely Gazes Also. Stare at it for too long and it can become your whole world. Like any idea, it can grow to define you and your opinions of other people’s films.
Among the “amateur” (a word I hate but must use regardless, in order to make a half-sensible distinction) critics, we find a better analysis: the Psychological one. Nolan’s films lend themselves to this thanks to his own (well-documented) fascination with psychology. Cobb’s team even deploys psychological knowledge to the same effect as Nolan’s team in the so-called “real” world. It’s all about knowing how to effect your “target” (audience); how to disguise your Idea in the most appealing Labyrinth you can dream up.
In order to illustrate the psychological reading of this film, and to keep this from becoming a review of other people’s reviews of Inception, I’m going to disobey Persuasive Writing Rule #1 and lean heavily on a single source: the good people at OverThinkingIt.com, who knocked out several excellent articles about this film, one of which I’ll quote for you now:
For this perfect pocket illustration of the Psychological Inception, I am indebted to Matthew Belinkie, who quite-rightly states:
If you use a dream machine to put an idea in someone’s head and it sticks with them, it’s a successful inception. If you use a camera, it’s a successful movie.
So, from a psychological standpoint, we can see Inception as a movie about its writer/director’s creative process. As interpretations go, this is a little better. We’re gettin’ there. It’s still too specific, though. If this were a novel I might buy the psychological reading, but film’s not nearly as personal a medium as auteurs (and their publicists) make it out to be.
That’s why Cobb has to assembly a team, and that’s why the movie makes such a big deal out of them. As Belinkie innumerates, Arthur’s the producer, doing the research, gathering the resources. Ariadne’s the production designer, building the sets and dressing them up with an appropriate amount of (not “truth” – remember, it’s all a dream – but) verisimilitude. Saito’s the corporate suit who insists on hanging around, getting in the way (and, in the end, he pays for it in blood – good bit of projection there). Eames (Tom Hardy) is quite obviously an actor, playing a Dramatic or Action Hero role, depending on what the Dream calls for (and in this case that means, “assume the form of Tom Berringer.”) Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is Cobb’s special effects department (after all, he’s a “chemist”), so of course he gets to drive during the inevitable, Matrix Reloaded-lite car chase…and deliver the obligatory moment of Odious Comic Relief once the danger’s passed.
If Inception’s a movie about its maker’s movie-making process, then the Heist Movie Formula provides a perfectly stable foundation…until you put some weight on it. If Nolan really meant to personify, and then lionize, the small armies who work behind the scenes to really make a movie (by making them all bad-ass Dream Thieves), his supporting characters should’ve boasted a few more dimensions to them. Like, say, “more than one, each.” That would’ve been a good start.
But you know how it is with supporting characters in Nolan’s films. He puts all the emphasis on the “supporting,” and fuck the “characters.” Because he’s so obsessed with exploring psychology through his medium of choice, he can only really focus on one Christopher Nolan Identification Character (or “psychological subject”) per film. This warps his films, forcing them to swirl around the intelligent, isolated, artistically-inclined protagonists. So the characters who, in other films, might rate a story arch of their own become debris caught up in the CNIC’s storm.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind but – damnit, Chris – you keep casting these great actors in your supporting roles and giving them nothing to do except Script Service. Either they’re prompting exposition – like Ellen Page or Michael Caine, here – or they’re carving out The Message in big, bold, brassy letters…like Michael Caine’s Alfred in either of Nolan’s Bat-films.
It always strikes me as a waste…until I remind myself that that’s a Critic’s Thought if every their was one. Only a critic would complain about a cast of decent actors this large exiting the film without individualized character arcs. Critics who looked for that were looking for something to complain about, ignoring all the soft targets right under their nose. The movie isn’t about these people: it’s about Dom Cobb, the internal conflicts he must face, and the things he represents.
See, Inception probably began life as an analysis of movie-making. But, like so much else, it went on a harsh journey through Development Hell and became is a movie about one man’s creative process. First you get an idea, then you strip it down to its bare essence until it’s the cleanest, shiniest, simplest idea it can possibly be. You don’t want to confuse people now, do you? No. So you distill your idea down and then construct a world where it can exist, carefully and completely, until you know the world backwards and forwards. Then, once you’ve finally got your idea going, your subconscious pulls up in two black SUVs full of thugs and starts shooting your idea to pieces with an M4.
Setting half the film inside a matryoshka doll of nested Dream Worlds allows Nolan to personify interior conflicts to a degree we haven’t see (on a big screen, in the middle of the summer) since The Matrix…that last mysteriously-marketed BEST MOVIE EVAHR that suffered a massive loss of cultural cache once it showed up on video. And, because we live in a post-Matrix world, I’m going to put the next bit in italics, just to make sure it hits home: This is what speculative fiction should be. Especially in an age where big budget, blockbuster movies are made (almost) exclusively for mouth-breathing troglodytes who waste their time telling me to “stop complaining! Just turn your brain off and have fun. You think too much and thinking gives you wrinkles!”
Fuck those people. Fuck every last Michael Bay-lovin’ one of them. I love thinking, and I love films that make me think. I also love movies where Joseph Gordon-Levitt fistfights people in zero-gravity; action-oriented sci-fi heist films that reward me for paying attention and stand up to repeat viewings with their attention to detail. Films that reform the reputations of actors I once despised.
Yes, Leo, whom I haven’t officially addressed. Sufficient to say my hatred for Titanic is nigh-on Brobdingnagian, and I think you can all guess my favorite scene in The Quick and the Dead. His sudden maturity into an actual actor has surprised me to no end, and I was even more surprised to find I believed in Dom Cobb…which, evil subconscious shade of his dead wife or not, is still safer than believing in Harvey Dent. His performance reminded me of a late-90s Terry O’Quinn, hiding his inner turmoil behind a professional con-artist’s facade.
The rest of the cast does so well, I feel bad about wasting so much verbiage on Leo, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Particular props to Gordon-Levitt, who, along with DiCaprio, managed to imbue Arthur and Cobb’s relationship with just the right amount of long-suffering camaraderie. It’s Arthur’s only non-operational character trait, but without it (and the friendship that compels these two to keep working together, despite Cobb’s creeping madness) this film would lack what little heart it has.
As for the rest, Cillian Murphy once again conjures a memorable character out of absolutely nothing, Ken Watanabe shows up so we can all go, “Damn, it’s good to see Ken Watanabe in another American-made film.” Marion Cotillard shows up to announce she was the last one cast (and, really, only cast for her looks). And all those critics who complained about the films lack of sex obviously don’t share my “thing” for undergraduate nerd girls. Or Ellen Page. Actually, I didn’t have a “thing” for Ellen Page until this film gave it to me. So that should tell you something.
And now I’m supposed to tell you I’ve got All the Answers. But I don’t. Was it all a dream or wasn’t it? Who cares? That’s not the point. Besides, the biggest complaint you can make about Chris Nolan’s films is that they’re all to eager to patiently explain themselves to morons. Including those who take the “It’s a movie about movie-making” line of thought to its apparently-logical conclusion:
“Actually, It’s About Movie-Making” Argument: The audience has to “take a leap of faith.” Nolan uses ambiguity as a storytelling tool. There isn’t just one answer.
Nolan’s Comment: “Oh no, I’ve got an answer…”
He even outright told it to Wired:
“The most important emotional thing about the top spinning at the end is that Cobb is not looking at it. He doesn’t care.”
There you go. Nolan really doesn’t either. He may be the Architect of this Dream, but these days, he’s got four rug rats (and one still-alive-at-press-time wife) to go home to. I think we can all guess which interpretation of the end he likes. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the opposite of the one I like. Because I’m a childless misanthrope who prefers to picture Leonardo DiCaprio eternally trapped in some subconscious hellhole, fighting a never-ending battle against his evil, dead (but not Evil Dead – this movie’s not that good) wife.
Either way, Inception is exactly what it says it is: an elaborate maze designed by a college kid (who very well may be in his forties, but naming your Token Girl after the daughter of Minos is Freshman Year, Creative Writing 101-level shit, right there) in order to implant an Idea into all our heads. And it worked, because the Idea was a simple one: that Inception‘s a movie worth talking about.
Of course, I’d go further to say, “Inception‘s a film worth seeing, owning and shouting about, because its what all films of its type should be, or at least try to be.” But that’s just because the idea’s taken root. After all, look at us. We’re all here, still talking about this movie. Inception successful. Job’s done.