Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Runnin' Down a Dream, Pushing Through the Cobbwebs - The Exhilaration, Deception, and Frustration of Inception
A note on spoilers - I consider a "spoiler" to be any story point that is not made evident by any trailer for the movie at hand. As Warner Brothers has revealed almost nothing about Inception in their promotional materials, everything after about the first five minutes will be new information, so it is impossible to discuss this film without getting into what I consider spoiler territory. As such, I'll freely discuss everything in the film, up to and including the ending. So there, you're warned. That said, just as a public service announcement, take some responsibility - it's pretty hard to have a movie spoiled for you if you're not in some way an accomplice. Just don't read anything about it. So simple.
Like a lot of you out there, I've been thinking about writer/director Christopher Nolan's Inception pretty much nonstop since seeing it. It's been tough to parse out my reaction to the film, separating what was simply a disappointment based on expectations and the failings of the film itself. Undoubtedly, expectations for the the film were huge; as it's coming out in a summer filled with retreads, and mere months after word got out that Hollywood may actually be seeking original material, I wanted this film to succeed on every possible level. But, you know, expectations can be a tricky thing.
It should surprise no one (although it somehow surprised me) that Inception has bred reactions very similar - in fact, almost identical - to those garnered by The Dark Knight (Nolan's previous film) two years previous. Quite a few people came out of the gate two weeks ago declaring it a masterpiece on par with the work of Stanley Kubrick, something that vastly exceeded not only the usual summer blockbuster but movies in general. Nolan's problem with the next Batman film won't be following up The Dark Knight, they said, but following up a Best Picture winner.
This was almost immediately followed by a whole new round of people claiming it was dreck, completely unimaginative and creatively fruitless. Not only was it not changing movies, it was actively making them worse by fooling millions of people into thinking they're watching an intelligent piece of filmmaking.
And, much like The Dark Knight, the truth lies somewhere in between. Those comparing it to Stanley Kubrick really, desperately need to bone up on their Kubrick - this doesn't have half the depth of even A Clockwork Orange (another movie claimed to be a lot smarter than it really is), never mind Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Eyes Wide Shut. Like all of Nolan's films, the only thought-provoking subjects are hinted at and buried beneath the surface, never outright addressed. The intelligence on display here is on par with the best of Lost - it's huge, exciting, and complex, but those applying "intelligence" to it really mean "you have to keep track of a lot of things." There's nothing much to truly gnaw on intellectually about until the very, very end, and that depends a lot on how you interpret the ending (more on that in a second).
But it's also a pretty exceptional piece of entertainment, there's no getting around that. Between the constant introduction of new concepts and rules for the world, the often awe-inspiring action sequences, and the usual excitement that comes with the structure of a well-executed heist movie (have you heard? Inception is like a heist movie but IN YOUR MIND, MAN). There can be intelligence in constructing and executing a great piece of entertainment, and Inception is almost entirely successful at that, just as often exciting us by Ellen Page discovering the possibilities and limitations of dream manipulations as by Joseph Gordon Levitt leaping around walls in a truly magnificent fight scene. Every visceral sensation the film aims for is elicited, and there are so many pleasures both small and large that stem from a simple yet profound desire to absolutely wow us as an audience - in these moments, the film earns its 2001 comparisons. And the few parts where it slacks in these regards are more than made up by those that completely exceed your wildest dreams.
Oh yes, dreams...the movie ostensibly takes place inside people's dreams, where Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a poor man's DiCaprio) goes in and steals people's secrets, only the thrust of the movie is planting an idea in this guy Fischer's (Cillian Murphy) head. Thing is, there is nothing at all dreamlike about any of this. Nolan's explained this away in interviews saying he really latched onto the idea that dreams feel real when you're in them, and Cobb says as much in the film, but that's not exactly true. They feel real, but they do not feel at all linear or coherent, so the fact that the "dreams" in Inception make complete and total sense is a bit of a reach.
That said, these aren't really dreams, and the film would have been better off making the distinction - they're constructed realities inside people's minds that can only be accessed through sleep. All the major information is fed to them and filled in by those involved, and while I would have personally preferred that Nolan explore the true nature of dreams, I'm not going to fault him for choosing to make a movie about something else.
So again, all of the problems associated with the movie thus far are things other people are bringing to it, not things that are actually wrong with the film. If it's not truly intelligent, okay, it's not truly intelligent. If it doesn't really explore dreams, okay, it doesn't really explore dreams. There are some things the film does do, however, that completely fall short. First off, there is a metric shit ton of exposition in Inception. Most of it is necessary to work our way around the world and a lot of that set up pays off in a major way in the second half of the film.
What doesn't work at all, not even a little bit, is every time Cobb suddenly starts explaining elements of his past that have thus far remained a mystery. First we'll get a tease of it, a slightly incomplete bit of information that will be expounded on later (a familiar bit of frustration for fans of Lost), and then suddenly, out of nowhere and for no good reason, Cobb will just tell us, directly, who he is, why he's doing what he's doing, why he feels the way he feels, etc. I was onboard with every second of exposition about the way dreams and dream technology works, but as soon as it came to diving into Cobb's past, Nolan took the most ham-fisted, blunt route possible. Anything that could have been revealed gracefully through Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister's striking imagery was relegated to monologue upon monologue.
But I'll forgive bad monologuing any day if it's in service of something crucial. The end of Shutter Island, a film that shares more than a few similarities to Inception, is a dramatic mess, but what it says and how it affects the film is staggering. It's effective because it's at once a continuation and a reversal of everything we've come to know about the film - everything it reveals and the resulting questions have been established, even if it catches us blindsided. And this is where we get into something potentially crippling about Inception, the one element preventing it from being the great film it could be of whatever genre you choose to put it in - its central thematic conceit is a moral and emotional one that Nolan admits involves the heart but only looks at with the head.
If, like me, you believe the entire film is a dream, you'll know what I mean. We'll all just have to skim over the evidence portion of this, because proving my approach interests me much less than expounding on it, but when one takes into account all the elements - Mal's question as to how Cobb can believe his life is so interesting to be an international fugitive, the recurring dream imagery in what we're to take as the "real world" (it's all over the place in Mumbasa, when Cobb is running through buildings that form a pretty convincing maze), a "real world" that's introduced to us the exact same way as all the "dream worlds," a supporting cast that has no interior lives (coupled with the concept of people in dreams as projections), the entire lighting and editing scheme after Cobb "wakes up" on the plane - it's damn near impossible to read it any other way.
So the central conceit is this - better to live in a fake world with representations of the ones you love, or a real world in which you have none of those things? It's not a new question, and though it's not a particularly relatable one, it's something we can fundamentally grasp as being a real struggle. One of the reasons I adore Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (and don't much care for the original) is that Soderbergh recognized the emotional toll of this question, knowing our intellectual curiosity would do that portion of the work for him. There was no need to foreground it; the simple inclusion of the question was enough.
For Nolan, his primary concern is intellectual, a complaint often lodged against his work but one I feel applies here for the first major time. He's trying in many cases to get us to feel, but comes up a little short (it's...interesting that the most emotionally-charged scene, Fischer's confrontation with his father, is essentially a sham) and doesn't back it up at the end. While that allows him a better last shot than a more emotionally-inclined director would allow himself, it only really works intellectually, to keep you guessing as to the reality of the moment, but the question of the spinning top is relatively pointless. It was Mal's totem before it was Cobb's, Cobb is the one who sets the rule that if it keeps spinning, it's a dream, and if it doesn't, it's not, and by this point, even if you don't buy that it's all a dream, Cobb is another in a long line of Nolan's unreliable narrators.
And intellectually, I'm onboard with what the film is after here, making Cobb a cripplingly flawed character, to the extent that, in spite of the massive conflicts the film introduces, the only villain is Cobb himself, or his subconscious anyway. That's a great concept for a summer blockbuster. By and large, the logistical and kinetic ways this is explored are fantastic. It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following Nolan's work to this point, but his craft in this regard is impeccable.
However, he film simply doesn't "hang" emotionally. The ending should be as gutting as it is electrifying, something Nolan managed to achieve in Memento and The Prestige, and I get the sense Nolan was aiming for it and just missed. At the very least, it feels crucial to the film's creative success.
I'm keen to see Inception again, and had hoped to do so before writing about it, but an extensive workload and my brother's fast-approaching wedding will keep that from happening for at least a week, but it was important to me to get some initial thoughts up while the Internet wanted it. If my opinions change or any new revelations occur, I'll be sure to write about this again.