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.

Expecting the Unexpected

13-Jan-08 10:50 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 3 comments.

When I first heard of the film Juno, it was only in the context of it having had a stronger opening weekend than Aliens vs. Predator. A closer look revealed a familiar cast: Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, who so effectively played father-and-son on the abortive television series Arrested Development.

Though these two actors justify seeing Juno, it is the plot and titular character that warrant its box office success. In concept, Juno is very similar to the 2004 film Saved!: a teenage girl with an unplanned pregnancy must live with her decision to have the baby. But the differences between the two films are both subtle and powerful. Saved! is set in a private Catholic school, where perception and judgment are almost physical in their reality and impact. Can a woman who has sex out of wedlock be considered a good person? Is such an act justifiable — not only to her peers, but to herself? Who are her true friends: those who guided her along the path of Christianity, or those who accept her when she strays?

Both Saved! and Juno deal with relationships, but Juno occurs in a more accepting environment. Juno's predicament is almost entirely accepted by her peers and guardians, leaving her to deal with the people it brings her closer to: her parents, the child's adoptive parents, and the child's father. Looking through the classifieds, Juno finds Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, an apparently perfect couple unable to have their own children. But the arrival of not only a child, but also its mother, into this couple's life brings to surface issues all three didn't realize were beneath the surface — while Michael Cera, the father of Juno's child, is left on the sidelines, confused by what his role should be to either his offspring or its mother. (As you may know from Arrested Development, "confused" is an emotion Cera plays well.)

Juno is a clever comedy, due primarily to the witty repartee of Ellen Page (X-Men 3) as Juno. She has a casual way of speaking her mind, using unpredictably creative metaphors, making others uncomfortable. Juno handles herself with surprising maturity and decisiveness — but when confronted with the unexpected, the scared 16-year-old peeks out. Her relationships are complex, one that made me fidget in my seat even more than Blue Car did. Juno's fetus is the impetus, not the focus, of the whirlwind of emotions that are bewildering to so many.

Page and Cera as parents-to-be, Garner and Bateman as parents-who-can't, and JK Simmons (Spider-Man) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) as Juno's parents-who-are each turn in lively and nuanced performances, making Juno a film unquestionably better than Aliens vs. Predator. How's that for a recommendation?