Inerrant Rampancy

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Inception

…Good movie. Great template.

The reviews I’ve read so far of Nolan’s Inception are either slobbering praise or pissy complaints, with a few well-considered analyses thrown in for the film majors. It’s a bit sad to think that the majority reactions are so polar and overly simple, but this is a blockbuster and it’s hard to have high expectations for the reviews of a film that will inevitably get lumped in with Transformers.

I was skeptical of the movie at first, and was relying more on my dislike of Leo DiCaprio (there’s just something about him that annoys me and makes me want to punch him, and that emotion routinely overwhelms my understanding that he’s really a good actor–I like him in Blood Diamond, if that gains me any credibility), and my “meh” reaction to Ellen Page (in her defense it’s more the function of her character than her acting, but more on that later). Those were the only two actors I had knowledge of, and I was equally in the dark as to the plot, two ignorances that had me on the “rotten” side of the tomato-meter when I stepped into the theater.

But having romped my way through the film once now (and planning on taking another explosion-laced romp when it drops on DVD, or maybe even BLU-RAY if the finance gods are kind to me), I’d say that the lavish praise is a bit much, but also forms a much more accurate assessment of Nolan’s latest than the determined hatred. Something that is surprising to me is how much I want to agree with certain reviewers and commentators who have said that negative reviewers simply don’t “get it” on some higher level or, even worse, don’t understand the basic plot mechanics. I think I know what’s going on, both literally and at a more artistic/interpretive level, and what I think I know I also find quite pleasing and intellectually stimulating, if a bit dumbed down for commercial purposes.

The idea of dreams as a landscape is interesting, if only because our dreams are still not understood from a cognitive or psychological or even broad philosophical standpoint. Freud and Jung may have some massive tomes, but we’re still relatively lost when it comes to our minds after dark. But I don’t think that gives writers and directors carte blanche to make things up. Thankfully, Nolan does have a few rules and, as far as I can tell, sticks to them. Detractors want to think there are holes regarding “kicks” and the subconscious projections and dream time, but the whole thing works for two reasons (one of which you can consider a rationalization, I suppose, but it’s a rationalization we apply to fiction pretty much across the board, especially to movies).

One, those rules are actually consistent. A dream time expounded exponentially as one moves deeper into the subconscious is not at all implausible, and the movie seems to adhere to the expansion ratios. Complaints of a math that doesn’t add up are adhering too strictly to a linear timeline with a 1:1 ratio: a scene may seem to take longer than it should, but the expansion isn’t going to necessarily line things up nicely, and framing the various levels cinematically means viewing expanded time through a lens ground in and by the only sense of time we really have–real time. Essentially, it’s like viewing multidimensional objects on paper. We can get a close approximation, but there are going to be problems, at least if we try to ignore the fact that it’s just a representation.

This imperfect lens is important to keep in mind as well when thinking of reason number two, which is the ever-shouted idea that “It’s fiction, stupid!” Again, “cop-out” claims could be made, but the film world of dream analysis is relatively uncharted territory (compared to the world of say, time travel, which I’ll get to in a bit). Previous movies (especially the engaging ones) dealing with the unbelievably complex realm of dream interpretation (and its partner, memory) are few, and all are fraught with perspective issues and problems of continuity that ultimately stem from trying to interpret dreams and memory via the same machine that constructs them and using the rules of reality. It’s difficult, if not impossible, and movies like Inception, Memento, and Mulholland Drive are best viewed with a healthy suspension of disbelief. I’m still mostly convinced that this movie adheres to its own rules, and remains both internally and externally consistent, and so does not need as much of the belief suspension as other films might, but I think it’s a good idea not to critically destroy the film while trying to cram its expansive philosophy into a square hole.

In the end, as far as this post is a review, I’m satisfied with what Inception attempts and what it achieves. The plot was complex enough to engage me, and was executed well enough to have me thinking more about what it all meant than what the hell happened. Most of the acting was good, and DiCaprio made me believe him as a guy who knows he has demons and who, rightly or wrongly, thinks he’s got them in check. His performance can be said to be marred only by his other movie this year, Shutter Island, where he plays a similar character with similar skill, and negative reviews have almost universally referenced SI when discussing Inception. though I don’t think the one performance has anything to do with the other. The writing was succinct in most places, and ventured just enough into humor to break up long stretches of exposition and shooting. Complaints include Ellen Page as a hollow container meant to be filled by the audience (I had a similar complaint with (500) Days of Summer and don’t like that aspect in movies in general), a focus on explaining mechanics in a way that is pure Oceans Eleven (Twelve and Thirteen) rather than assuming the audience is smarter than that and more interested in character development than plot, a lack of focus on the mechanics of the shared dreaming machine (something I personally would have found more interesting than watching Page treat dream-Paris like a Rubik’s Cube), and the completely unnecessary shot of the spinning top at the end, meant to make us wonder Is it a dream or isn’t it? when we were already wondering that anyway, and actually pushing us toward one answer (it is a dream) when it would be better to leave things in a kind of quantum state. These are all problems born out of marketability and the generally low IQ of most moviegoers, so I’m not going to fault Nolan for wanting to reach a lot of people and wanting to make some of the $170M investment back.

What I’m more interested in is Inception as a template for other kinds of sci-fi ventures, mostly time travel movies. Time travel is another subject of cinematic debate, mostly because time travel is, at the moment, both practically and maybe even theoretically impossible. Paradoxes in theory are annoying, but when acted out they end in madness and localized or universal destruction. In movies we can’t have any of these things (madness, to me, ends up playing like “It was all a dream…” and is an unsatisfying resolution both in terms of plot and philosophy) because they are too depressing and obvious (“Everyone Dies” works in Hamlet, but gets old after a while, even if we know that playing fast and loose with time travel will almost always end in the fabric of the universe tearing apart).  In some ways this is an inherent problem, and therefore unavoidable, but if there is to ever be a satisfying time travel movie, one that maneuvers successfully around and through the paradoxes and philosophical holes, I think it will be a movie that works much like Inception does, with simple rules that set up a bounded area within a larger plane in order to keep characters and plot lines safe from the perils of things we don’t quite understand yet. Certainly there are underlying issues with the subject matter of Inception, ones that may be as problematic as time travel paradoxes, but the movie does a good job of making the plot of dream invasion and manipulation secondary to the idea that dreams are as much filled with happiness and hope as they are with misery and regret. Our dreams are our brains untethered by the higher-level processes that impose rules and logic, that much we know, and this fills our dreams with limitless potential for both good and bad, much as time travel is filled with the benefits and detriments of changing our lives.

Inception does the smart thing by taking the rules of dreaming as a kind of given, making them the canvas and brushes, and making DiCaprio’s character’s emotional problems and the dangers caused by them the paint that brings the final picture to life. Cinematic time travel, though more difficult to solidify into something as solid, would benefit from the same treatment. It came close with La Jetée and the remake, 12 Monkeys, but few others put the emotional state of the time traveler well-enough ahead of the science to be as satisfying as Inception.

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July 18, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Joe, I agree with a lot of your thoughts here, so I’ll try not to reiterate. My two cents, or just stuff to add. Maybe I’m getting old and crotchety, but for me, I thought there was a little too much action. I can understand the van chase on the ‘1st level’, but as the movie went on, whenever I was starting to have a moment to just really start thinking on a deeper level, BOOM back to guns ablazing / fist fights / skiing down alpine forests / hallway epicness (which was really really well executed). I, like you, could have gone with more explanation of the group dream machine, possibly linking it to Michael Caine (who eerily felt that there was more to him the entire time, although his character never developed into anything more than a , “Here’s Ellen Page, take her and go”. I appreciated the rules and their creation/adherence. As for the time exponent aspect, a wild and brilliant idea. But there were only so many jump-cuts I could take of a VAN down by the river. I get it, it’s falling. As far as Leo’s acting, I don’t hate the guy, he puts up some great performances. I’m not going to lie though, probably 75% of the way through, I did think SI, but only briefly. And when Mol jumps, I love his “OH GOD NO!” It’s something he excels at, that feeling of gripping pain, a lot better than most of Hollywood.

    So to sum up my little diddy, Too much action (did I just say that?), Epic scale, grandiose scenery (better executed than recent Bond films, more on the scale of a Raiders or even close to a Tarsem film), you can shut up about Ellen Page, and that’s the best rendition of Dreams I’ve seen since Van Hagar’s 5150.

    ~Mike

    Comment by Mike | July 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. “These are all problems born out of marketability and the generally low IQ of most moviegoers, so I’m not going to fault Nolan for wanting to reach a lot of people and wanting to make some of the $170M investment back.”

    Very well put. I’m amused by the progression of response from Inception’s detractors over the weekend, from “If you don’t understand Inception, you’re stupid” to “If you understand and enjoy Inception, you’re too stupid to see the flaws.” While I do recognize that the middle section gets a bit talky in the explanation of how this will work, I understand why Nolan felt it was necessary.

    Though, I wonder what he might have been able to achieve had he played more on the uncertainty and absurdity of dreams. I know that my dreams don’t necessarily unfold in a linear fashion, things are left out, etc. But then again, I don’t know how far you could push the surreal boundary before it burst at the seams.

    Comment by Suzanne | July 19, 2010 | Reply


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