An “Inception” Review Revisited (Last Words)
So… of all the challenges to my Inception review (including those comments I didn’t approve, like fanboy one-liners from “go fuck yourself,” to “you’re a fucking idiot who should have never been born” – because, really, as I’m sure you’ll all agree, those aren’t what we’d call useful responses), I still haven’t read a single comment that has convinced me to rethink what I initially wrote in my review.
Instead of addressing every response, I thought I’d post an addendum if only for clarification… and to attract further discussion if necessary.
To start, I’d say this… calling inception a “masterpiece,” or “oscar-worthy,” or “groundbreaking” is, well, the stuff that dreams are made of. In my ever-so humble opinion, there’s little in Inception that we haven’t already seen before, and maybe even done better by some of its predecessors; and this urge to lynch those who find some fault with it, is somewhat creepy actually. You do realize that one can both appreciate a work and be critical of it, right? The criticism itself should say something about the expectations of the work, and those who created it, which is a good thing IMHO.
So, let’s go through this again, shall we:
1 – Inception is “smart,” yes, but not as “smart” as it thinks, or as some seem to think it is. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I think the basic premise is simple enough to understand. It really offers nothing “groundbreaking” in its exploration of dreams, that anyone who’s had dreams (essentially just about all of us), or who’s read a book on the matter, or seen other films that deal with dreams on any level, should already understand somewhat. Does the film get convoluted, and maybe even deceptive? Yes, it does. Might you be left with questions about all you saw and heard? Yes, you likely will. But you’d be naive not to realize that was all by design. Nolan isn’t a dummy. He knows that the subject matter alone (one that’s as universal as dreams), and what I feel was his intentional manipulation of the audience, providing no obvious conclusions, will indeed lead to further discussions, centering on the varied interpretations of the deliberately confusing material. How could it not? We’re talking about dreams and the subconscious here. The subject matter alone, as I said, is universal, and inherently controversial, almost always inspiring discussion. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s some super-brainy piece of art, does it? Some say, see it twice? Why? I mostly got it the first time. And I’m no fool; is part of the hope here by the filmmaker and studio that we’d all be disoriented enough by the film, that we’d want to see it a second or third time, to make sure that we “got it,” or that we didn’t “miss anything,” translating to plumper box office receipts for the studio? Maybe I’ll catch it again when it’s on DVD or VOD. And how about the subtlety or lack thereof. The names of some of the characters are a little too obvious in relation to the motivations of each. For example, Marion Cotillard as “Mal?” French for “bad;” Ellen Page’s “Ariadne” a Greek Goddess, also known as “Mistress of the Labyrinth;” “Cobol Engineering?” Are those inclusions supposed to somehow automatically contribute to our wonderment at just how mind-blowingly intelligent the film is?
2 – As for the film’s emotional core… The intent is certainly there with the inclusion of plot-lines that were obviously meant to tug at heartstrings (the dead wife, the children, the father-son relationship, notably); but, folks, that doesn’t directly register as an emotional core. There’s still something called execution that has to happen; i.e. the ideas still need to be translated well enough for the audience to really feel something for these characters and their plight. Everything from the dialogue (which starts with the writing), the actors bringing the characters and their words to life, the direction, the editing, the soundtrack – all those things still have to work well in unison to give the film the visceral response it so desperately seeks. In my POV, it’s not entirely successful in that regard. Those scenes really weigh the film down, in my opinion; they’re a little too earnest, even melodramatic; the film devolves into daytime soap opera territory in those moments; and I’d actually have much rather had them completely absent from the film, leaving Nolan and company to instead really develop the other more intriguing aspects of Inception. Also, in the end, what’s it all really saying? What’s at the heart of it, after all that pomp and circumstance? What did you walk away with? What did you feel (other than perplexed)? Solaris (especially Steven Soderbergh’s version), which I referenced in my review, in terms of the similarity of specific plot-lines, was far more affecting… devastating even. A suggestion for Nolan would have been to maybe start the film with the Cobb storyline (since he’s the lead protag), and really get us to understand, identify with, and appreciate the man and his foibles, before throwing us into dream-scape. I can almost imagine Kris Kelvin’s psychological fragility eventually leading him to Inception’s subconscious explorations. I’d even say that Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in Shutter Island – which is very similar to the character he plays in Inception (essentially, a man with a dead wife fluctuating between realities) – was actually more engaging to me.
3 - Regarding the supposed “groundbreaking” special effects… Maybe I just saw a different movie than most of you, but there was absolutely nothing in Inception’s visual presentation that we haven’t already seen before. Is it technically sound? Yes, it is. With a $160 million budget, I certainly hope so. It’s well-shot, it looks good, it’s visually appealing. The packaging is solid! But, from the exploding buildings within dreams, to the shootouts, car chases, the anti-gravity fight sequence… what’s so novel about those ideas? We’ve all seen buildings exploding, or falling on themselves in films before haven’t we? Car chases with shootouts? Check! The anti-gravity fight sequence? Did you all not see The Matrix movies, and all the copy-cats that came after it? Am I missing something here? There was little to nothing visually in Inception that awed me.
4 - For a film about dreams and the subconscious, it’s far too rational. All the threads are a little too fine, and the dots connect a little too neatly. There’s a perfect expository explanation for everything! Also, some of the peeks into the “undesigned” subconscious worlds are actually not very imaginative, in my opinion, with landscapes that look like they were ripped out of a James Bond movie. I think this is one area in which Nolan could have really played, and had some fun – especially as they went deeper and deeper, layer after layer, which I’d expect should lead to even more of the bizarre. And if the dots don’t instantly connect, that would have been perfectly fine with me. Those are discussions I’d rather have – the analysis of the dreams themselves, than on whether or not who was dreaming, and when, and whose subconscious we’re entering and why. There’s a moment in the film when Ellen Page’s character, the young architect/apprentice, who’s essentially meant to represent the audience, clearly confused, asks, amidst chaos, whose subconscious they were about to enter, which is, of course, followed by yet another expository explanation from DiCaprio’s Cobb, so that the audience can understand where they are. Some in the audience I saw the film with laughed in that moment. Some laughed maybe because they had the exact same question in their heads; others laughed because the explanation, like all the other explanations that preceded it, was a little too, shall we say, precious… perfect… expository… tedious even…; and still others laughed because, even with the explanation, they were still uncertain of what exactly was happening. See #1 above.
5 - I’ve read a few positive reviews from other critics, as well as the positive responses to those reviews, to see if there’s some explanation for my apathy, and I noticed a commonality. Many of them compare Inception to the crop of studio films we’ve seen released in the last several years, essentially stating that the film is a welcomed work in a sea of uninspired studio filmmaking. What they don’t seem to realize is, in saying that, the implication there is not necessarily that it’s an earth-shattering piece of art, but rather that, amongst the deluge of mediocre titles, it stands out. Well, yes – of course it will! I suppose there’s a compliment in there somewhere, but seriously, that isn’t nearly enough to crown it as some glorious achievement in filmmaking. No – it just means we agree that most studio films suck, and we’re just glad that one studio took a chance with something that isn’t a complete retread. It’s not the most ideal usage of the phrase, but, as it goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king“… but he’s still one-eyed, isn’t he? In a good year, Inception will likely be just another film; but when was the last time we had a really memorable year in cinema? Especially Hollywood studio cinema? It should stand on its own merits. As I wondered before, it seems that we’re all so hungry for something “original,” “different,” that we’re a little too anxious to proclaim the greatness of anything that leans in that direction. I have to wonder if the near universal approval has less to do with the film itself, and more of a vote of what we could call the expectations of a movement – a new direction for Hollywood to take, in terms of commercial, mainstream filmmaking.
6 - Lastly, to clarify, I don’t think it’s a bad film folks! I just don’t believe it to be as great a film as many seem to think it is, and isn’t this groundbreaking work it’s being labeled. Nolan even himself said in an interview with LA Weekly that, “The film is shameless in its regard for cinema, and its plundering of cinematic history.” Sure, it has its intriguing moments, but for the most part, I just wasn’t fully engaged. It seemed to want to be profound, while still being able to maintain some commercial appeal, and entertain audiences. And for a lot of people, it passed that test, given how well it’s done at the box office, and the overwhelming praise it’s received. But I think in it’s effort to be both, it ends up not really being either. Not that a film can’t be both profound and entertaining. I was actually more enlightened and more entertained by Waking Life (a film that I’d consider more groundbreaking than Inception, in how it was realized) – another film that explored the subconscious, the nature and meaning of being. I guess it’s all subjective, isn’t it?
So, in closing folks, I’ll say this: it’s really OK if you didn’t care all that much for the film, or weren’t blown away by it as many apparently were. Really, it’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with you, so don’t be afraid, and don’t let others “scare” you into thinking otherwise. I’ve got your back As I started off saying, you can both appreciate a work and be critical of it. The criticism itself should say something about the expectations of the work, and those who created it, which is a good thing, in my opinion. And if you think it’s the greatest thing ever, that’s fine too!
But I’ll also say that the fact that we’re all talking about the film itself (whether in agreement or disagreement) means it’s already won, doesn’t it? And as I said in my review, it’s a step in the right direction, and I certainly hope that studios continue along this path. So, sure, if you still haven’t seen the film, don’t let me discourage you. Go out and see it! Cast your vote for better things to come. But be sensible about your expectations of it.
And that’s all I’m going to say about Inception.
The floor is yours… and if you’re going to respond, ad hominem attacks are useless.
And just to show that I’m not some Christopher Nolan hater… here’s a trailer for his debut feature, Following, made in 1997 – a film that actually appealed to me more-so than Inception did. Obviously taking advantage of Inception hype, IFC Films has re-released Following on its VOD channel today. So, check it out if you can. I believe it’s also available as a Netflix “Watch Instantly” feature:
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