Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Inception Didn't Save the Movies

Inception is not the savior of all cinema. It's a good movie. It's an even better action movie. But what else is it? Sure, as I stated in my five star review, it's intelligent and complex and we don't get that much in movies anymore, especially summer ones, but it kind of stops there. Maybe if people wouldn't have built it up as something to be compared to the second coming of Christ before they had even seen it than it would have had a deeper impact on me. When I'm looking for action and confronted with psychology, I'm intrigued. When I'm looking for psychology and confronted with action and fractured narrative, I'm entertained. See the difference? In fact, Inception may be, now upon thinking about it, the most self-reflexive movie I can think of that forecasts its own shortcomings. Like it's hero Cobb it breaks it's own rules and becomes the victim of it's own psychobabble. One of Cobb's musings within the film is that an idea is like a parasite that is impossible to kill. It will simply latch onto the brain and grow until it has consumed the person's entire life. It's funny then that the film itself wouldn't heed its own ponderings. The film is, narratively speaking, ultimately rendered too mechanical because it focuses on an idea that seems to consume the every aspect of its telling. The idea is that dreams can be entered and manipulated; that they have different layers and levels and such. The film's dialogue concentrates so heavily on talking about dreams and explaining different forms of dream logic, and discussing different waking mental states and philosophies about the nature between dream and reality and how it is possible for one to corrupt and consume the other, that by the time it is over we know everything about dreams but next to nothing about the characters in the film or what they are doing. As Jim Emerson and David Edlestein have rightly criticized, the entire film is more a narrative maze than an involving meditation of the division between dream and reality. It's ironic then that this hasn't been a problem with past Nolan films. In his two best films The Dark Knight and The Prestige Nolan also created films about ideas and such but the difference was that the ideas were represented by the characters as opposed to the characters being at the service of the idea. Thus, to understand the idea was to understand the character. So when Nolan drew in ponderings on Darwinian order in The Prestige or created the Joker as a Freudian study in the uncanny in The Dark Knight, that was a way in order to help us understand the character while also digging deeper into the overall thematic elements. The Joker was so scary because his ideas about society and chaos and evil were ultimately human and thus we understood the psychology of his character on a ground level and could relate to him as such. But once we understand the nature of dreams in Inception, what are we left with but a bunch of masterful action sequences and a trick ending? Interesting enough, Jim Emerson wrote yet another of his anti-Inception posts in which he starts the article off with an interesting quote from Stephanie Zacharek that states, "If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing." She's absolutely right, about Inception and Memento anyway. Inception is an awesome technical tour-de-force and that's what I awarded my five stars based on. As an action movie it's about as good as they come. However, as the saviour of cinema, Inception is a false prophet.


  1. I thought people were just saying it was the saviour of the summer blockbuster?

  2. Excellent post. Inception certainly was a very good summer blockbuster but is it really a masterpiece when it has a notable amount of flaws and inconsistencies? Had Nolan been able to put an emotional heart in this movie, maybe it would have been so much more.

  3. @ Castor: I think he tried to put an emotional centre into the film with Leo's plot but it was latched on after the fact, or, I should say in regards to this post, after the idea.

    This post gets at what I was getting at with my comment in your Hype thread. For a movie about dreams, it doesn't say much about all the themes you might expect would follow from that. Dreams in this case are the set piece, but, having seen the movie a second time last night, what an entertaining one to set an action blockbuster in. It works like a fun maze to unravel as the movie develops.

    Re: the Hype thread: Looks like Ebert has chimed in on his blog regarding the usefulness of a reviewers thoughts. Fits well into your thread.

  4. I finally saw this so can start dropping my Inception thoughts throughout the blogger community.

    I spent the first hour of the movie thinking it was very incoherent, and the last hour thinking that a lot of what was previously incoherent was now sort of paying off. Therefore, I think it's a success, but I may get more out of it if I watch it a second time. That, unfortunately, means that your movie failed on some level -- it shouldn't be necessary to watch a second time to fully appreciate.

    I'm sure this comment has been made in multiple forums (but I'm starting out with you, Mike), and besides, it's not really speaking to the issue you raise in your post -- but how much better would the movie have been if we didn't START with a dream within a dream, but rather, with Leo and his team pulling off a SUCCESSFUL job to lay the groundwork for the rules of the dream architecture? Sorry if this is the most frequent and obvious complaint about the movie.

    Good post as usual, Mike. And once again I will state my intention to go back and see The Prestige again, because from my memory of the film, it is not quite as closely related to Inception as you say it is. (However, I grant that you are probably right -- just means I need to see it again.)

  5. Castor- I think that's probably why, in the end, The Dark Knight and The Prestige are better films.

    Steven- I still need to get onto that Ebert piece.

    Vance- I'm not sure if that is the most frequent criticism of the movie or not but it certainly is a valid one. In temrs of The Prestige comparison, I outlined that in my review and think both the plots, structure and ending image are almot exactly the same excet one relates to magic and the other to dreams.

    It is interesting, Castor recently wrote a review of Dark City which, in the comment section, I said was the remedy to Inception. Both are about dreams amd both are postmodern noirs but Dark City has 1) characters you actually get involved with and 2) actual ideas that run deeper than, oh, well it all a dream.

  6. "But once we understand the nature of dreams in Inception, what are we left with but a bunch of masterful action sequences and a trick ending?"

    A metaphor for the filmmaking process and a defense of the "it's all a dream" trick ending (in general, not just in Inception).

    Inception is more Fellini than Kubrick, and indeed it may be Nolan's personal 8&1/2 with DiCaprio standing in for the director. If 2009's Inglourious Basterds is about how cinema effects a nation, Inception is about how it effects an individual. Cobb and his crew, after all, are merely doing what every filmmaker seeks to do when presenting their art to audiences; he's trying to lead his audience through a constructed narrative in the hopes of evoking some kind of emotional response from the viewer. (Quick and dirty breakdown of the who's who here: Cobb is the director, Gordon-Levitt is the producer, Ariadne is the script writer, Saito is the studio suit, Eames is the actor, Fischer is the audience, Yusef is the technical guru. Mal, ostensibly, is Cobb's conscience and/or his artistic inspiration.)

    Once the crew enters Fischer's dreams, their task is to spin a story that leads him to a catharsis regarding his relationship with his father. Of course, the catharsis ultimately derives from something that isn't real-- but that's also the point of the film.

    Nolan's arguing that regardless of the real nature of the source of Fischer's catharsis, the catharsis itself is genuine. If anyone groaned at the idea that the entire movie is a dream-- "but that just cheapens the whole thing!"-- well, they're missing the point. Dream or not, Fischer and eventually Cobb both have their catharsis, and the emotions that they feel are completely and one hundred percent real. And this argument logically extends to the emotions we feel when watching movies, too, if we accept that dreams are movies in this metaphor.

    Up isn't real. I will never see Paradise Falls. I will never shake hands with Carl Fredricksen. But the tears I shed at the incredibly poignant and heart-breaking opening were real even if the events and characters of the film were not. Why wouldn't they be? Art doesn't need to be real, or even realistic, to be moving or inspiring, and that seems to me to be the whole point behind Inception.

    I don't get why "saving the movies" even matters. Who cares? A movie doesn't need to restructure the way we think about movies in order to be worthy of deeper levels of critical thought, or to provoke a genuine emotional response.

  7. Andrew - Thank you for your invaluable input. I was waiting for someone to break out the Inception as metaphor for filmmaking and here it is. I won't lie, the very thought crossed my mind and then I put it away and I'll tell you why, although there seems to be no room to argue with your air tight interpretation. It's such an easy argument and ultimately, what does it get us? To quote Roger Ebert "It's not what a movie is about that makes it good or not, but how it is about it." Yes, Inception could be a metaphor for filmmaking, but so what. If it is, it forges no new pathes on the subject that hasn't already been covered by Fellini or Godard or even Hitchcock. In reality, you could make this very same argument about any film about dreams and it would still hold water.

    The other thing is that Nolan is not a filmmaker who musing on the filmmaking process. He makes contemporary noirs and interweaves Freadian and Jungian psychology, which, I guess we could bring into a discussion of filmmaking as dream as well, but it only, unless you can argue otherwise, applied to this film, while ever other Nolan film has a running theme that connects them all.

    PS - You are right, who cares if a movie saves anything? My title was certainly a bit of a verbal jap at all those who decalred Inception the saviour of cinema before it was even released.

  8. Yeah, I tend to ignore any commentary that suggests X movie is the Y of anything, prior to or after release. It's usually hyperbole.

    I disagree that the filmmaking metaphor could be argued for any film centered around dreams and dreaming-- in fact, I think Ebert's quote applies very well in that particular circumstance. Taken out of context, I read that quote to mean that a movie's subtext must be supported by its text in order for it to have value; therefore taking another film in which dreams feature prominently and arguing that it's about making movies wouldn't necessarily work. The reason it works in Inception lies in the nature of the film's plot-- it's about a group of people literally putting on a show for an audience (granted, an audience of one, but an audience nonetheless) and attempting to get them to buy into the illusion of their false narrative.

    But ignoring the quote, and answering your question about what we get out of Inception-- well, we get a defense of art's value, which to me is itself priceless. Maybe it's me but the intrinsic worth of "art" in a broader context tends to be looked down or at least glossed over by the mainstream, as though art is just something someone does for fun and attempting to pursue it on a loftier scale than that is the sign of artsy pretension. Even if I'm just paranoid and this isn't the case, Inception's central argument should be something all film enthusiasts can at least respect. This is a movie about how the emotional responses movies draw from us are entirely genuine and therefore to be valued, despite the fact that the movie itself is a fabrication parading around as reality. Who cares if Wikus van de Merwe isn't a real guy? I found his actions at first repelling in their bigotry and later on moving in their heroism. And as much as Daniel Plainview never came along to impact the shape and direction of the American oil industry, I was no less compelled by his story and how his avarice and selfishness applies to certain modern day business moguls responsible for a certain economic downturn the country has experienced.

    If Inception's metaphor validating the power that art can have on an individual isn't enough to justify its existence as a work greater than the sum of its action scenes, well, I don't know what is.

  9. Damn, this guy Andrew is a good writer.

  10. Yes Vance, well someone needs to keep us on our toes. Let's have him be the third on our upcoming review show. I think this debate has gotten to the point where it is exceeding the comment section and needs a whole new post.

    BTW Vance, have you ever considered doing a podcast? Everyone else seems to be doing them. I haven't the slightest clue how you would but it's something to consider, no?

  11. Mike, Vance, thanks for the kind words. Not sure what review show you're talking about but I wouldn't mind hearing more!

  12. Andrew, the review show is a joke I had with Vance in the comments section of another post. However, as I did say to Vance, if you or he had any interest and/or knowledge in podcasting let's consider it. It would certainly be better than 90% of them out there.

  13. I've seen many comparisons between this movie and The Matrix and some other movies. I think that the closest resemblance is to Vanilla Sky in terms of what is real what isn't. Thanks for your time and effort on this review!

  14. Inception - Thanks for stopping by. That's a pretty good comparison, I'd also include Dark City but for different reasons.