Monday, August 9, 2010

If Time Moves Slower in a Dream, Why Did This Go By So Fast?

I got around to seeing Inception again with a friend who was seeing it for the first time. She really loved it, emerging from the film as excited as I've seen anyone about it. I, on the other hand, was reminded only how intermittently I actually enjoyed the film. A second viewing was helpful to be reminded just how strong the narrative drive was at points (and, it's worth pointing out, those two-and-a-half hours fly right by), but the emotional shortcomings were as dire as I feared, and worse, the film had little to support itself thematically. All that was left were moments of intense, pure excitement.

In the weeks following The Dark Knight, after the initial enthusiasm died down and we (that is, my fellow nerds and I) were all able to gain a little bit of perspective on the whole affair, I still defended the film even in the face of the massive wave of very convincing criticism it received. One element made it essential cinema - the narrative drive. The pace of the film is relentless, a charge often lobbied against it, but one I felt was very fitting to the story it was telling, which was all about the concept of "elevation;" that the world was becoming dangerous too fast for the forces of good to keep up with. While also exciting, the pacing fit thematically with the picture.

Inception has a whole lot of none of that. The pacing is absolutely punishing, to the extent that I told my girlfriend after seeing it the first time that it too often felt like a trailer for itself, an admittedly snarky complaint that felt all the truer in the second viewing. Gone, gone from this place is any of the elegance Nolan brought to his earlier work, most notably Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige, all of which dealt with memory, regret, and guilt more deftly and effectively than the sledgehammer approach of Cobb simply telling the audience how guilty he feels. Not that those three films didn't have similar moments, but the confessions were dramatically motivated; you got the sense, by the time they came out, that these characters needed to tell someone. Cobb's come because he's asked more than once.

There are interesting concepts, but as in The Dark Knight, they are mentioned rather than explored - that, for example, Cobb has actually been alive for eighty or so years (maybe more, I forget), and has reverted back to youth since emerging from limbo. As this was revealed, I thought instantly of Francis Ford Coppola's criminally underrated Youth Without Youth, which needless to say explored this concept far more elaborately - that is, at all - than Nolan does here. For Coppola, it was a starting point from which he explored more fundamental, human questions than I have the inclination (or the memory for that matter) to list here, but for Nolan, it's nothing, and that this comparison was drawn so instantly in my mind brought to full bear how intellectually empty Nolan's film is, even in the face of contemporary cinema, itself so often charged with shallowness.

It's fascinating that Inception has sparked so much discussion, with many bloggers and podcasts doing extra posts or episodes purely to dissect it, because for me, the more I looked at it, the less I found (though I suppose it's telling that I, too, have now done two posts on it). Both times I saw it, it proved to be tremendously entertaining in spite of Nolan's inclination to stop and explain every...little...thing, but there are few aspects that hold up under scrutiny. Make no mistake, is all a film is doing is trying to excite me, that's great, but Inception attempts to offer more (and I went into greater detail about the emotional shortcomings here, but suffice to say I didn't find anything more this time around). Further, Nolan's insistence on literalism, logic, and structure makes it impossible to excuse the film's smaller, but nonetheless essential, flaws. We'll finish it off with some simple notes to this effect:

-Structurally, the end of the heist is a huge letdown. Nolan sows the seeds to wow us in the scene in which Ellen Page learns the possibilities and limitations of shared dreaming, but when it comes to the main heist, Nolan goes big either too soon or not enough. The first level, with the freight train and the van chase, is reasonably exciting stuff. The second level, in the hotel, is absolutely stunning, and easily the best thing in the film. But by the third level, we're in a paint-by-numbers snow shootout, and in limbo, everything hinges on an emotional hook that, for me, never landed. The snow scene, at the very least, had to be staggering, but it was limited both in execution and imagination. Which brings me to...

-If Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Eames (Tom Hardy) can summon weaponry out of nowhere (in the "you can't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling" moment), why can't they just sit it out in that warehouse for a week? They could rig up a couple motion-sensor guns with never-ending clips, plant a few mines, dream up an HDTV, and just chill.

-Limbo is set up to be a fate worse than death (or at least something very undesireable), but apparently you can come out unharmed simply by killing yourself. We see this not only with Cobb and Saito - which could be explained away with the ending being a dream or death or whatever - but more damningly with Cobb and Mal. Cobb's mission to rescue Saito, teased at the beginning in the most delicious way possible, proves a mere footnote, and appears to have been designed more for a compelling opening than a gutting finish.


Chris said...

Thought I would leave my first comment, as I've just become a follower of your blog

I wouldn't go so far as to say Inception is intellectually empty, it had many interesting ideas. The problem for me was the overall pace of the movie didn't allow me to breathe and ponder these tacit ideas.
I agree Inception works best as an entertaining thrill ride.

I also agree their are emotional shortcomings

Feel free to follow my blog. I have also reviewed Inception:

CMrok93 said...

The pace could be received as a big problem, it just didn't take anything away from the fact that this was a sci-fi thriller at heart.

Scott Nye said...

@moviesandsongs - Perhaps "empty" would be a bit strong, but I guess the only really strong idea for me was that Cobb had spent decades in limbo and had aged, in his mind anyway, something like fifty years while his body remained young. That's a good idea. THAT would have been worth exploring. But stuff like multi-level dreams are, to me anyway, simply clever concepts. Your mileage may vary, but that's where I stand.

@CMrok93 - And I wish they HAD focused on the sci-fi thriller aspect, because it was by far the most interesting part of the film. But they were aiming for an emotional punch that never landed and conversely stopped the thrills dead.

Castor said...

Great blog you got here. I think most people are confusing complex narrative with emotional depth and I agree that this movie seriously lacks the latter. Now, I thought it was a good summer blockbuster, just nothing more.