[Inception. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Released July 16, 2010. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, the review contains many spoilers.]
I’m going to try something unusually, um, structural for this review. It’s in keeping with a structural notion of dream levels used in Inception and it may help shed some light on the divide that separates the idolaters from the unimpressed. By the divide I mean the many fans of Inception who are convinced that it is one of the greatest movies of all time (8.9 IMDb rating and top 250 movie), versus those who, in various words to the effect, think it is crap. There seem to be very few in the middle. Maybe that’s the interesting point.
Level 1: Confusion
Here’s something that tells you quite a bit: Even the people who really like Inception say that you need to see it more than once. How many movies are so confusing that you almost have to see it twice to understand what’s going on – and a lot of people think that’s okay? Inception seems to divide the audience like the Red Sea parting for Moses: “…way too long and confusing. Not that there was any depth or cleverness to the film. Too much repetition. Just explosions and dumb dialog, with shallow characters and a convoluted storyline.” OR “This is storytelling at the level of high art, a magnificent blend of visual wonders with a smart story about working out memories through our dreams.”
To say the least Inception is not a quiet little film. It’s a big, musically pulsing, action-filled, high-tension Hollywood movie about implanting an idea in somebody’s head through their dreams. So it’s kind of a movie about dreams. Movies about dreams usually go phantasmagorical, this one is no exception. The reality inverting ‘dream sequences,’ at least ¾ of the movie, have spectacular special effects such as a chunk of Paris folding on top of itself. Movies about dreams also like to play head games with the audience, especially with time and reality. Inception is no exception. Most such movies, even well crafted ones like Inception, walk the line between dramatic effect and confusion. Inception crosses and re-crosses the (time)line deliberately. Given it’s pace and complexity I’d be surprised if most of the audience didn’t get confused at least some of the time.
Level 2: Comprehension
Whether on the first, lucky you, second or fifth time you see Inception and you get it, it does enhance your appreciation. Essentially there are two pieces of the story. The big piece is the inception job, where Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the leader of a group that normally does industrial espionage by picking important information out of dreams. In something of a twist, Cobb is asked by a Japanese energy company tycoon (Ken Watanabe) not to steal information but implant information in a competitor’s mind – an inception. This is considered impossible, except that Cobb knows it can be done. That’s where the story connects to the second piece: Cobb and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) experimented with going through three levels of dreams and falling into the limbo level of dreaming. That’s a dream within a dream within a dream and after that there’s limbo nothingness. It’s a good setup for a mind bender movie. It’s almost as good a setup as director Christopher Nolan’s previous opus in this vein, Memento. In that movie the protagonist is trying to solve the murder of his wife but he has almost no short-term memory, so basically Memento’s story unfolds backwards in time as he tries to piece together his memories.
In a way the Cobb character is also piecing together what happened at the death of his wife, an apparent suicide. Was it part of their dream or are the pieces from his memory? The American authorities believe he killed her, so Cobb is a fugitive in France. There is nothing he wants more than to return to the U.S. and be reunited with his children. (And why aren’t his children brought to France? Plot requirement, of course.) He takes the inception job because if successful the Japanese tycoon can arrange his legal return to the U.S. These two pieces of the story intertwine, the father-wife-children story providing the emotional dynamic and the inception job providing the action plot.
Level 3: Consequence
Here’s the thing, when you get the story and the pieces more or less fit together, what have you got? Now we are at level three. Having come through confusion and comprehension, the movie should provide some take-home. This might be analysis such as ‘a nifty study of dreams’, or ‘I really symphathized with DiCaprio’s character’ or even ‘it was a helluva ride.’ If you go with the ‘it’s just a movie’ cliche then a thrill is enough, Inception’s got thrills.
Other than that, the way Nolan constructs his movies, the payoff from Inception was always going to be the result of a balancing act – balancing interest with confusion. For most of the movie the balance is action playing off puzzles. Nolan loves to set up conundrums and explode them, sometimes literally. There’s often a frustrated, emotionally drained smart guy who’s trying to get his own psyche together while dealing with the needs and necessities of those around him. In Memento this is obvious and the main character’s dilemma is the focus of the movie – the only focus. Inception has two things to focus on, Cobb’s dilemma with his family and the job at hand. The dilemma with his wife is emotional, explosive, and difficult to comprehend – it is for him too. The job at hand is a designer dream, which turns out to be a variation of heist movie, full of sound and fury. The two parts don’t play well enough together, they’re out of balance – and often so are the music, pacing and even the visuals.
In switching back and forth between scenes of car-chase shoot-em-up mayhem and relatively complex psychology, people not only get confused, but they can stop caring about what’s going on. For me it happened somewhere around the two-hour mark while the movie was in the tour-de-force “attack the alpine fortress in the snow segment.” (This was supposedly concocted by the architect of the dream, played by Ellen Page, but is clearly a bald-faced homage to James Bond movies by Mr. Nolan.) It was at that cartoonish point that I didn’t care what happened. In the layer upon layer of dream-state and the constant rush of the action, I lost the emotional attachment to the story or the characters. If this was all Cobb’s dream, start to finish as the movie foolishly tries to imply, then I didn’t really care that he found some closure with his family. If this was really some sort of clever-heist movie, then I didn’t really care whether the mission worked or not. In retrospect, why should I care whether one energy monopoly wins out over another energy monopoly?
Is this everybody’s reaction? Obviously not. Inception will have its fans. I do suspect Inception won’t have legs – it isn’t a movie for the ages. It is neither conceptually brilliant like Memento, nor does it provide endearing or enduring characters (which means no sequels). It is visually interesting but not the visuals are not sustaining. Do you learn much from Inception? Certainly nothing about dreams.
I suppose question of learning something only matters if Inception had claims on being a movie with great depth. Obviously there a many good movies that aren’t illuminating about anything in particular; mostly they’re entertaining. In the movie business that’s kind of a limbo, but a good limbo. Inception is probably one of those movies.
Let’s start with an interesting but not terribly important question: Is Inception a science fiction flick? Quick answer: No it’s not. I’d argue that first and foremost it’s an action-heist movie, secondarily it is science fantasy. The story, about implanting an idea in someone’s mind as part of corporate sabotage, provides the action-heist movie, but it depends on the ability of characters to enter into a shared dream world. That’s the science part. How many people who have seen the movie for the first time can describe what exactly is done to put the characters into the dream-state? It’s drugs and a controlled connection not unlike the ancient communicator system used in Stargate Universe, but who cares…the mechanics are a throw-away. The movie maker isn’t interested in the scientific machinery and only peripherally interested in the psychology of dreams. Dream psychology, such as it is in the movie, is there to move the plot forward. In short, the science in Inception is minimal, not crucial to the story and acts as a springboard for the extended dream fantasy that is the bulk of the movie. I’m not being derogatory; it’s just that in my opinion Inception is science fantasy, not science fiction. As I alluded to above, for many people this distinction is unimportant.
So what about the science? It’s all about dreams, which are as slippery a subject as there is in science. Try reading Freud. As of the time when the movie was made (2010), scientists have more than a century of research on dreams behind them and agree on almost none of it. The parts of the brain that are active during dreams have been partially mapped. There are many studies about the possible purposes for dreams and twice that many theories. There are libraries of anecdotal information and dream interpretation stretching back into antiquity. In short, in terms of neuroscience it is not yet known what dreams are, especially at the cellular level, and it is not fully known what functions they perform. Consequently, for Inception to base a story on entering other people’s dreams and manipulating them is pure fiction, or as I’d say, fantasy. It’s a wonderful milieu for the storyteller because just about anything goes, visually, emotionally or otherwise. It’s not now and won’t be science for a long while.