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Saturday, August 07, 2010

I thought Inception was a pretty good movie, until my friend Heidi, who I saw it, mentioned that it was really terrible, and then I realized it was in fact pretty weak. Yes, fabulous graphics visuals and amazing cutscenes action sequences, and a really complex, well-executed plot. But it hit me and left.

Why? The story ought to work. All the elements of story are there. The main character's personal jeopardy is huge. His stakes are huge. He has a ghost, an intimate opponent, all that jazz. Personally I don't see what the big fuss is about Leo diCaprio, but for a movie with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, it's a really well-made plot.

I think of the movie in terms of its lost opportunities. We are in various character's minds. But their mindscapes seem a good deal like ordinary hotels and Arctic fortresses and cheaply built condo projects. There's more weird going on in the average TWIN PEAKS episode, or any Terry Gilliam movie. You would expect dreamscapes to be far more distinctive and revelatory. If you were running around in my dreamscape, you would know me a lot better than I ever want you to know me. You wouldn't have trouble breaking into my safe. You'd have trouble finding the safe, because it is in the garden under the zucchini. Sixteen feet under the zucchini, in the chamber where the Once and Future King sleeps. The safe will open if you blow on the horn around his neck. But once you get a good look at his face, you realize you don't want to wake him. Really. Want to know why?

Apparently Leo's mind has only one big secret and no small ones. It is uncluttered. Maybe my problem is that it's a dream movie that is too clear. Too safe. Not alarming enough.

Of course, a movie that was revelatory and alarming and murky like dreams would be much harder to write and harder to absorb, and it would make about 10% of what INCEPTION is going to make.

INCEPTION is a classic director's movie. "Look at this. Isn't it cool?" "Yeah, but about the story--" "--never mind that. Looks at THIS. Isn't it COOL?" That kind of movie does well overseas.



Now if they only had the story wielding mind of Joss Whedon to work that script. The "Restless" episode of Buffy had that wandering through people's disjointed dream in spades. Funny, poignant and dangerous spades.

Yes, yes I know I should let it go. The show had run its course, its best years were behind it and the cast and crew were ready to move on... but dammit I still miss Buffy.

By Blogger Clint Johnson, at 6:22 PM  


Inception lost me at the reveal of his secret. I have no sympathy/empathy/give a $#!# about a character who bemoans his love for his wife then admits to doing something so heinous as to experiment on her. If he loved her so much, why play a dirty trick on her? I don't care that she studied/did the same thing. It was a violation that once revealed I didn't really care what happened next. Actually the whole concept is akin to being rufied/date raped.

By Blogger januaryfire, at 6:34 PM  

"But their mindscapes seem a good deal like ordinary hotels and Arctic fortresses and cheaply built condo projects."

The reason for the "ordinary" dreamscapes is due to the architect. The architects build the dreamworld so that the extractors can safely navigate the victim's minds. This was clearly communicated in the film.

Without an architect to compose the dreamscapes, the extractors would wander within dreamworlds that puts Lewis Carrol to shame.

"Apparently Leo's mind has only one big secret and no small ones. It is uncluttered."

Recall that piece of exposition where its explained that architects were used by the U.S. military.
Leo's character used to be an architect. So his dreamscapes are more well constructed than the garbled mess you'd see in mine or your dreams.

By Blogger William, at 10:57 PM  

@William: I'm not saying it's a plothole. I'm saying it's boring.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:36 PM  

@ Alex. Fair enough.

By Blogger William, at 1:16 AM  


I think one of us misunderstood. What I got was that the "experiment" was simply his way of attempting to get her back to reality, and in the end it backfired, when she never felt that reality was real.

And Alex, I'm pretty sure the lack of "dreamscape" was due to the fact that the dream had to look realistic in order to fool the dreamer. The whole point was that the dreamer had to believe that the dream was real at the time because once the dreamer realized he was dreaming, the jig was up, which is what happened with the opening.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of "ultra-weirdness" anyway, so a more dreamlike dream probably would have turned me off.

By Blogger Tim W., at 3:54 AM  

I think Inception could have worked exceptionally well if the scenes had emotional weight. The very logic of its created rules would've been a good way of doing this. As soon as Mal enters a dream, say, then the rest of Leo's subconscious begins leaking out. I think the scenes with Mal were a wasted opportunity. Dreams are about nothing BUT emotion: finding yourself naked in public, or unprepared to take a test, or your teeth falling out, etc. It IS possible to do it without sacrificing the action sequences or the gorgeous effects or the elaborate plot.

By Blogger Eme Kah, at 8:21 AM  

No matter how weird my dreams have been, I can only recall twice when it crossed my sleeping mind that I might be dreaming. Usually it is- "Of course I am a small morphic herbivore that only takes a fraction of a second to shift to carnivore when attacked. What else would I be? Now let me get back to repairing this fence, it is getting dark.".

You know how you keep someone from realizing they are in a dream? Don't bring it up in the conversation.

By Blogger Clint Johnson, at 11:29 AM  

I liked Inception, but I did find that it was slightly cold emotionally, but I'm not entirely sure that wasn't intentional.

And I've known I've been dreaming on many occasions. And I've had no dream security training of any kind, that I recall.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:58 PM  

Alex, I'm surprised to see you come from this angle. I know, you're Canadian and all ;), but come on!

Here is an intelligent film - and it works. For a H'wd production this is as good as it gets.

Nolan carefully crafted what was essential to make his story work. Any layered-on dream-fluff would not have served the concept and resulted in a much longer film that audiences would have probably loved as much as they have loved Terry Gilliam's last ten years.

By Blogger Karel, at 7:16 PM  

Others have pointed out why the dreams feel sterile and clean: they are a controled environment.

Inception is not a psychological trip to weirdo land, it's simply a HEIST movie and should be watched as such. Your first instinct of saying "what a great movie" was quite correct.

In my opinion you should take Heidi to watch the Gilliam and/or art flicks and see Nolan with someone else.

By Blogger Patric, at 9:26 PM  

I'm glad someone is on this side. It's lonely overhere.

There's something about all of Christopher Nolan's movies that I feel like -- he's holding the protagonist at arm's length from the viewer.

I really want to care more about the characters. Be more involved in their world. But there's something so sterile about his characters.

By Blogger James, at 5:14 AM  

"I thought Inception was a pretty good movie, until my friend Heidi .. mentioned that it was really terrible, and then I realized it was in fact pretty weak."


The aim of the movie is to provide an enjoyable experience. It did that for you. But then someone else mentioned something - and you decided that you hadn't enjoyed yourself after all ?

Admit it - you enjoyed it while you were watching it. Millions of others enjoyed it to.

What else matters ?

By Blogger Mac, at 7:43 AM  


I went through the same emotional arc after Inception. Left the theater thinking it was great, but the color sort of leeched out of the experience the more I thought about it...

I think Inception should get a ton of credit for its world-building. The whole movie is nothing but Setting with a capital S. The sheer amount of exposition is staggering (Think of how much time the characters spend explaining how the dream world is built, what the dangers inherent in it are, how the dream-within-a-dream world functions, etc.) and yet, to Nolan's credit, it never seems to drag.

When a director tries to hand us a good story along with a whole new world, I find myself mentally stacking it up against The Fifth Element. Luc Besson managed to give us a huge, vibrant Setting -- one that never got in the way of Plot -- and somehow never made it feel like Act I was too long. (Star Wars is another good example; The Phantom Menace, its antithesis.)

Back to Inception. I did, however, love that Nolan exposed two "dream movie" tropes right off the bat: 1) No, characters here don't die in the real world when they die in the dream, and 2) No, you're not going to spend the whole movie wondering if there's an M. Night Shyamalan "dream-within-a-dream" twist coming...

...Which sort of helps make the final shot even more perfect.

By Blogger Arlo, at 8:36 AM  

I also enjoyed Inception in the theater and had the bloom fade rapidly once I started thinking about it. Even in the theater I thought it was strangely cold, and I didn't like the final shot - it seemed like a cop-out for an abrupt ending. But I loved the visuals and it was a decent heist. Somehow you want to root for all the characters (though many of my friends object to rooting for someone who mind-rapes people for a living).

What really struck me retrospectively was how this dream-sharing thing would make the best video game experiences ever.

By Blogger Emily, at 2:54 PM  

I couldn't agree more! I've found the screenplay flawed & several issues were presented in a shallow manner.

By Blogger isabela, at 3:03 PM  

"'Look at THIS. Isn't it COOL?' That kind of movie does well overseas."

... Feel slightly insulted by that, but moving on.

Terry Gilliam's dreamscape looks different from Federico Fellini's dreamscape, which looks different from Alejandro Jodorowsky's dreamscape, which looks different from David Lynch's dreamscape, which looks different from Jonathan Nolan's dreamscape... which looks different from yours.

But this isn't your story, or mine. It's his. So, y'know, fair play. Home field advantage.

Maybe it would have felt more "traditionally" "dream like" if it featured... something like this...?

By Blogger Andy Diggle, at 4:50 PM  

Actually, Andy, you're kinda making my point for me. Putting a dwarf in a dream is a "look at THIS! isn't it COOL?" kinda thing to do. Because it isn't revelatory, it's just spectacle.

And sure, every director gets to put whatever he wants on the screen. But does that mean no one's allowed to criticize? Are we not allowed to say that Uwe Boll is a crap director because everyone is entitled to their own vision?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 6:27 PM  

The first words out of my mouth when the film was over? "That was AWFUL."

Technical mastery aside, Nolan took The Sixth Sense and mashed it with the dopiness of a Pierce Bronsan-as-Bond movie. There was no mystery, no puzzle, just a convoluted mess. Which is a shame because I thought the ideas were definitely there — the lost love, letting go, remorse, and so on. Nolan should have kept it focused on that. He had a germ of a great idea but to keep fanboy asses in seats he grafted gratuitous gun play and silly mission impossible set pieces.

The film collapses under the weight of the rules Nolan sets up, which have no real logic, except to create more dilemmas for the characters to overcome. If you get killed in this hyper-sedated dream state, now you will go into a coma forever. Hey, there's a dilemma! In this dream level, your subconscious is now an arctic mountain fortress protected by soldiers on snowmobiles. Hey, another dilemma!

And as if it wasn't entirely clear how you should react, pay attention to the music. Because when it gets excruciatingly loud and bombastic, that means SOMETHING DRAMATIC IS HAPPENING. Whoa!

Finally, the raid on Castle Wolfenstein at the end was just beyond silly. And every time it cut back to the van falling in the water in slo-mo, I kept laughing; it reminded me of Lancelot repeatedly storming Swamp Castle in The Holy Grail.

By Blogger daveed, at 1:11 PM  

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