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Cinemalphabet: I is for Inception (2010)

December 9, 2010

After offering my own thoughts on Inception I decided to wander the internet in search of other opinions. What I found was not merely a variety of impassioned opinions, but folks demeaning opinions not in alignment with theirs. My own analysis of the film was less interested in the merits of the narrative or visual effects – which for the record I found satisfying – but the positioning of the film’s female characters and the film’s alienation of older viewers.

That kid from 3rd Rock and Leo

Please note: this entry DOES NOT CONTAIN ANY SPOILERS!!!

I am not a fangirl of any particularly franchise or genre. My status as a marginalized person conflicts with the sort of unexamined devotion I associate with fandom. I don’t have the luxury of such devotion, as benevolence is not usually assumed of marginalized folks, who must prove themselves in ways privileged folks do not. Moreover, being a fangirl involves a level of selective observation I am incapable of, specifically as it relates to film viewing. For better or worse, I tend to see the film in front of me rather than the film I am hoping to see. This ability works against me if a movie contains plot twists, which are vital to the enjoyment of the film; I can figure them out pretty quickly. I don’t have a problem with knowing the outcome; I have a problem with knowing the outcome and having to get to it the hard way – via a long, tedious, convoluted process. Part the reason I wasn’t especially thrilled by the Star Wars prequels was because the outcome was known – Anakin becomes Darth Vader – so the journey couldn’t merely be good (which it was) it had to be fantastic (which it wasn’t).

Inception is billed as a “sci-fi heist thriller” and this is utterly misleading. Look, sci-fi hybrids are no novelty. Blade Runner, I. Robot and Minority Report without their sci-fi bedzzling are basically police producedurals and are effective on that level. Stripped of its fantagical elements, I’m not sure the same could be said of Inception‘s heist aspirations. Nevertheless, the film is really freaking good. But unfortunately, it seems criticism of any aspect of Inception is immediately dismissed as uniformed hateration, which I find really irksome.

That said, critics have rushed to lavish praise on film, which seems completely unwarranted. Beyond drinking the Kool-aid, what seems to be a work is the same dynamic of someone being repeatedly hit upside the head with a brick who finds profound ecstasy in the moments of reprieve between strikes. Each movie release this summer has probably felt like another strike upside the head by a brick, given that critics have to see EVERYTHING and not merely the films which interest them. When viewed through this lens, it’s not surprising many of them have rewarded Inception with good reviews. In a summer with better films, it would be interesting to see how the film might fare. The term “original” is being bandied about in a gratuitous fashion. While it’s certainly true there is no source material for Inception, it’s a stretch to consider it original, given that Nolan himself stated the film takes draws inspiration from Bond films, though he leaves out all the other influences, which are fairly obvious to anyone who watches a lot of movies, which off the top of my head include:

  • The Matrix
  • La Jetée/ 12 Monkeys
  • Eternal Sunshine
  • Blade Runner
  • Angel Heart
  • The Italian Job (What do you think Caine is doing there?)
  • Strange Days
  • Vanilla Sky
  • Any number of John Woo films
  • The Spy Who Loved Me
  • The Bourne Franchise
  • Brazil
  • Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video

Unlike Tarantino who actively encourages the audience’s recognition of his influences, it seems as though Nolan – via his fanbase – takes great pains to subvert any discussion of the influences which appear in his work. Noting these influences doesn’t devalue the inspired concept of the film, any more than noting the strong influences of The Big Sleep devalues The Big Lebowski. Speaking of Lebowski. When I saw the film – opening night – I knew little about it and enjoyed it tremendously. My friend who accompanied me, knew everything about it and enjoyed it tremendously. Critics, however, were mixed to negative – though there’s certainly been some revisionist film criticism on that front – partly because while I was viewing Lebowski, it seemed they were viewing a film that wasn’t there – Fargo. As the battle for Inception‘s soul continues it’ll be interesting to see whether distance will provide a bit of objectivity and an opportunity folks to engage with the film’s actuality and rather than the idealized version, which has captivated both critics, casual observers (like me) and fanboys, but in many cases for decidedly different reasons.

Leonardo Dicaprio was interviewed by NPR’s All Things Considered and gave the impression his role as Dom Cobb in Inception was a departure for him. It’s not. He’s been perfecting this emotionally lightweight, technically masterful character since The Aviator. While drinking the Dicaprio Kool-aid is not a requirement, it certainly does help. Dicaprio, like Johnny Depp, is an actor I wished I loved as much as I am supposed to. Dicaprio’s involvement in a film does not typically get my butt to the theater, but when I do, I’m usually impressed by his highly developed acting abilities. The deciding factor in seeing Inception was Dicaprio’s brilliant performance in The Departed. (I have never seen Titanic!) That said, I kept wondering what Christian Bale, Daniel Dae Kim or Will Smith could have done with the role. (I believe the role required a bit more age and gravitas) Dicaprio’s perpetually youthful appearance (ditto for the glorious Ken Watanabe who it appears hasn’t aged in a decade) is not nearly as distracting as it was in films such as Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Dicaprio has wonderful body awareness, he moves beautifully and is fascinating to watch in Inception, saving the character in places where the script and plot fall short.

Inception is an intriguing, frustrating film, but ultimately satisfying. The paucity of marginalized folks, particularly women, makes the film difficult to embrace. As a heist flick, Inception is unsuccessful as it opts to eschew well-established tropes of the genre without offering inspired alternatives. As a character study, the production design and visuals overwhelm the human element; you’d do better to check out either version of Solaris for a nuanced examination of themes Inception attempts to explore. But as smart, sexy eye candy, Inception triumphs.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 12:55 pm

    “Leonardo Dicaprio was interviewed by NPR’s All Things Considered and gave the impression his role as Dom Cobb in Inception was a departure for him. It’s not. ”

    Indeed. His role in Inception reminded me so much of the role he played in Shutter Island that it was actually distracting for me.

  2. December 9, 2010 2:10 pm

    Indeed. His role in Inception reminded me so much of the role he played in Shutter Island that it was actually distracting for me.

    He’s like Seal in that way. If it ain’t broke, keep doing it.

  3. December 9, 2010 4:13 pm

    @Snarky, I agree with you about the acting, not just DiCaprio’s but the supporting cast members as well — basically everyone but Ellen Page. And the visuals are sometimes stunning, and the score is fabulous.

    Where the movie falls horribly flat for me is in terms of the writing. Not only does it not work as a heist, it doesn’t work as sci-fi either.

    One of the complaints about “sciency” shows like Big Bang Theory is that the writing wasn’t done by scientists, but by interns who look stuff up on Wikipedia. But that’s still a step above just making stuff up, which is what Inception seems to have done in terms of the gobbledygook it spews about the nature of dreams and consciousness. And if that’s not annoying enough, we have Ariadne asking elementary questions (whose answers I’d imagine she’d have already learned) so that Cobb can continue to force feed this psychobabble down our throats.

  4. December 10, 2010 2:27 am

    But that’s still a step above just making stuff up, which is what Inception seems to have done in terms of the gobbledygook it spews about the nature of dreams and consciousness. And if that’s not annoying enough, we have Ariadne asking elementary questions (whose answers I’d imagine she’d have already learned) so that Cobb can continue to force feed this psychobabble down our throats.

    Inception strains credibility by disregarding long established conventions of dream life, not conjured up by pop culture, but from honest-to-Xena sleep studies and dream research. For example, most people report the inability to read text in dreams. Or if they can read it, somehow it changes before they are able to “understand” it. I’ve seen “Exit” signs in my dreams that look and feel like Exit signs the way that’s understood in waking life, yet they don’t say “Exit” despite being understood as such.

    Inception is really uninterested in the dream world most people are familiar with, which is one of the film’s chief thematic deficits.

  5. Lani permalink
    December 10, 2010 11:59 pm

    Overall I liked Inception when I saw it, but to me the film was really disjointed because it was telling two different stories, and I don’t think I ended up being invested in the one Nolan wanted me to invest in. I actually found the “fake” climax, when Fischer finds the windmill in the safe from his father, far more emotional and powerful than when Cobb finally confronts his dead wife, and I couldn’t help but feel detached from the rest of the film after that, checking my proverbial watch and wondering when it was time to leave. I also didn’t think that the film’s ending was nearly as ambiguous as it wants us to think. A review I really resonated with (Abigail Nussbaum’s) pointed out that within the film we never mistake dreams for reality or the different layers of the dream world for each other, with the exception of the opening sequence. So the ending’s open question just seems completely tacked-on and not at all effective, because the film never asked us to challenge the different realities.

    I thought it was a fun film, but I agree with you Snarky that I don’t get where a lot of the lavish praise is coming from, and I also think that in a stronger film season it wouldn’t have held up as well.

  6. cDonnaF permalink
    December 11, 2010 6:12 pm

    Hello! I just happened upon this review. Specifically, anyone who calls Ken Watanabe “glorious” has my full attention. I loved this movie and hold different opinions than you about most of it. (For what it’s worth, I’m not a “Nolan fangirl”; this is the only Nolan film I’ve ever seen.)
    However, I want to thank you for the way you’ve written about it. As you’ve noted, many critics of this movie have expressed their opinions very harshly and combatively. Here you have not. You don’t condemn everyone who doesn’t agree with you as either a credulous idiot or a ranting hater. You simply explain calmly that the movie didn’t succeed for you in some respects. You don’t need to tear down anyone who feels differently. I very much appreciate your approach.
    Two other minor comments I’d like to make–first, when you mention that Nolan leaves out the other influences on his film, this isn’t entirely correct. In at least one early interview (in the L.A. Times, April 11, 2010) he states that he was also influenced by “The Matrix,” “Dark City,” and “The Thirteenth Floor.”
    Second, one of the Blu-ray disc’s extras is specifically about current dream research and its relationship to the movie’s ideas. There’s the recent batch of interviews with Nolan in which he discusses the film’s ending–especially the interview with Wired magazine where he talks about, and disposes of, some fan-favorite interpretations. Have you seen or read any of these? If so, what did you think? I don’t expect these to change your opinions in any major way. But you might find them of interest on some minor points.
    Again, thank you so much for an interesting–and civil!–review.

  7. December 11, 2010 6:30 pm

    @cDonnaF – Ooh, thank you so much for your comment. I haven’t seen all the Blue Ray extras, but I need to. Does Nolan touch on Lucid Dreaming? I also have read a few more things about the film since penning this review and have seen some things Nolan has said regarding the film and I found them very interesting. Nolan like a lot of peeps with rabid, dedicated fans probably has difficulty controlling the message. He seems a less pretentious than his fans, though not as lively as James Cameron when advocating for his artistic vision.

    That said, even with the film’s deficits it seems destined for Best Picture Oscar, because it’s probably the one film most people can agree succeeded in more areas than it failed.

  8. cDonna F permalink
    December 12, 2010 1:29 pm

    @Snarky: You’re very welcome! I wish I could see the “Inception” extras for myself, but I don’t have a Blu-ray player. The DVD doesn’t seem to have any extras (argh, Warner Bros). I can only go by what the box description and other people’s comments. The extras will probably show up on the Internet soon, though.
    It’s an interesting experience to be a fan of “Inception” without having been exposed to Nolan’s other films–or other fans! Sometimes I wonder if Nolan’s own reserved, laid-back approach doesn’t actually stimulate some of his fans to be even louder. (James Cameron seems quite capable of singing his own praises loudly enough.)
    Not having seen any of the other Oscar contenders, I can’t say whether “Inception” actually deserves any major Oscars. But I hope it at least gets a few of the more prestigious nominations. It deserves some acknowledgement for being a big-budget blockbuster that tries to be intelligent.

  9. hsofia permalink
    December 14, 2010 3:44 am

    Like Fiona, I thought DiCaprio’s character was extremely similar to the one he played in Shutter Island – and SI engaged me so much more on an emotional level, that Inception left me cold by comparison, and felt almost plagiaristic. It was really just bad luck to have seen them both so close together. I went in wanting to like it, but that similarity threw me off. Inception also had more plot than I need in a movie. There were elements that I liked, and I would say it is a good film that I wasn’t able to connect with by the end. Mostly I felt sad that Lukas Haas was dispensed with in the first act.

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