Insipid Inception

16-Aug-10 10:53 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 5 comments.

Inception has been out long enough, and enough people have formed their own opinions, that I now feel confident expressing mine: I didn't like it. I would think that sci-fi fans would find it unoriginal, and other theatergoers would find it confusing. Popular opinion has proven me wrong, yet I'll attempt to defend my position, though it will likely cause me more nightmares than Inception did its cast.

This summer blockbuster stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an expatriate whose job is to enter people's dreams and steal confidential data. The reverse — planting an idea in someone's mind and making it seem organic — is nearly impossible, but he accepts such an assignment knowing that it could clear his criminal record and allow him to return to the States and see his children (who he apparently never considers having flown to France). He enlists Ellen Page and teaches her the subtle rules of creating a dreamscape: basing it on other's realities but never your own, so you know what's real and what's not; creating a personal totem that serves an indicator of dream or not; how dying in a dream simply wakes you up, but if someone in the real world needs to wake you up, they need to convey a "kick" — a sense of falling.

It sounds like a neat science-fiction plot, but Inception can't decide if it wants to play to the action crowd or the sci-fi one. As a member of the latter, I found many of the film's devices hackneyed. Is this a dream, or is it reality? The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and ExistenZ asked the same question. I suspect the director, Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight and Memento fame, was inspired by these and other media, though to suggest its origin lies with Scrooge McDuck is a bit far-fetched.

MC Escher waterfallThe ability to create and inhabit fictional worlds was also explored in both films and The Matrix, except inhabitants of the matrix could achieve awareness of the nature of reality and use it to their advantage. Inception's dreams are remarkably lifelike, where people put on suits, go to work, then get a drink at the bar to unwind, with one scene flowing naturally into the next. Since DiCaprio's team is often tasked with lulling their victims into a false sense of security, it is vital that the world seem realistic, such that the nature of the trap is not revealed. In that respect, the dullness of these dreams makes sense. But in moments of urgency, we rarely see DiCaprio use the dreamscape to his advantage. There are two instances of one person disguising himself as another, and only one of an Escher-like trap into which a dreamer lulls an enemy. But we see no one leaping over tall buildings, pulling bazookas out of their pockets, or — if you really wanted to make this dream-like — finding talking elephants in their closets. It's not what I would expect from lucid dreaming.

I also failed to understand how multiple people could share the same dream. One person going into one other's seems plausible, but the film usually had a bank of dreamers networked into each other by nothing more complicated than IVs. Just before they'd fall asleep, they'd ask amongst themselves, "Whose dream are we going into this time?" and, without rhyme or reason, one person would pipe up, "Mine", with no parallel action to suggest how or why.

Inception by Profound Whatever, on FlickrThe final, prolonged sequence of events features multiple layers of dreams. In each dream, time supposedly moves faster than in the dream before (or above) it (though we never see days turn into weeks or months as they suggest). In this sequence, we see a van falling off a bridge, providing its sleeping occupants with a waking kick. It takes about a half-hour of dream-time for the van to fall, as we're reminded every five minutes by a slow-motion sequence of its progress. I understand the temporal mechanics of this technique, but the tension of the moment is insufficient to sustain the suspense over such a long period of time. Slow motion is intended to bring attention to a brief, singular moment, as bullet time did in The Matrix. To have it last thirty minutes causes it to lose momentum, so to speak. Compounding the situation is that, throughout this climax, the action sequences aren't terribly exciting — though one fight scene in a hotel hallway with variable gravity was definitely cool.

One thing Inception consistently does well is pace its plot. As the film progresses, nuggets of DiCaprio's background are slowly revealed to the audience, each one elaborating on what we already know while raising new questions, until finally, all is revealed. Though the acting throughout these revelations is impeccable, the story itself didn't engage me enough to be enraptured by the film's indefinite and unoriginal conclusion. Friends tell me they went to see the film multiple times to see everything they missed. Though it's true that any film has details that are overlooked in an initial viewing, just like the first time I saw 12 Monkeys or Memento, I didn't walk out of Inception feeling I'd missed anything mission-critical.

I confess that I went into this film petulantly biased: there were other films I wanted to see, and the group I was with voted to see none of them. I tried to keep an open mind and let Inception in to work its magic, but I found it somewhat less than dreamy and not up to the creative and inspired storytelling of which Christopher Nolan has previously demonstrated himself capable.

5 Responses to “Insipid Inception”

  1. roughana adds:

    >But we see no … pulling bazookas out of their pockets
    There is one instance of this when they are just about to bust out of hiding in the van to head to the bridge. The rifle proves ineffective and a companion pulls out a somewhat larger weapon and says something like 'dream bigger'.

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  2. Steven Weyhrich adds:

    I have the disadvantage, possibly, of having not seen the other movies you mention (besides The Dark Knight and The Matrix), so I don't have the preconceived notions provided by those movies as I walked in to see it.

    I agree that there are some aspects of HOW things work that were left out (such as how do people in the same vicinity, hooked into the same IV, share the same dream). I suspect the director chose to leave out the technicalities, instead pointing to that box with the button which delivered the drug as the magic that makes shared dreaming happen.

    I also agree that perhaps using some of the "physics" of a dream that you describe could have been incorporated into the dream in places other than when Ellen Page is learning what can be done in the dream world. If that had been done, however, would people have said, "Oh, it's just a rip-off of The Matrix, they can jump over buildings!" or "It's just like Roger Rabbit — he pulled a bazooka out of his pocket!" (Which makes one wonder: What will we do when all possible plot contrivances have been used, and there is nothing left that is new?)

    I had not seen before any dream-oriented movie, and especially one in which a dream lies within a dream within a dream, etc. So, for me, I found the movie engaging and kept my attention throughout its showing. I also agree that the way in which DiCaprio's character's problem is revealed helped keep the movie plot moving well.

    There is no way you can tell someone "you HAVE to love this movie", but I did love this movie, well enough to see it a second time with someone who had not seen it before. Perhaps I need to watch The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, or ExistenZ to see another view of the living dream theme.

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  3. peterw adds:

    I have to say I enjoyed Inception too. (A great movie? Perhaps not, but a good movie? Sure!) My wife enjoyed it too, even though she really only went along because I wanted to see it. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

    I will take issue with one comment you made however. You wrote, "…see his children (who he apparently never considers having flown to France)."

    Firstly, getting children out of a country without the documented approval of both parents (or a death certificate!) is non-trivial! It's intended to stop a separated/divorced parent from "disappearing" overseas with a child.

    Secondly, bringing the children to him would seem like a very neat and easy way for the authorities to find him! So I'm sorry, I can't let that one slide!

    (On the other hand, you could probably raise your eyebrows legitimately over a single phone call being enough to resolve the original problem!)

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  4. Ken Gagne adds:

    Peter: Thanks for the insight into the difficulty of having children removed from the country. Still, with a deceased mother and a criminal father, the kids must have some other legal guardian — maybe Cobb's father? Surely a trip overseas to visit Grandpa wouldn't be so unreasonable … and if Cobb can visit his father's workplace without bringing down the authorities, what's a few more relatives?

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  5. Ken Gagne adds:

    Now THIS is what I thought a movie set in a dream would be like:

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