Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Inception" Elaborate Surface, Empty Inside--A Film Review

I was intrigued by the premise of "Inception".  Who wouldn't be fascinated by the idea of entering the dreams of another, to remove dangerous ideas from another's unconscious, or, more deliciously, to penetrate several mysterious levels of subconscious to plant an idea that will grow and change the world? 

This is a movie I really wanted to like, and I kept an open mind. 

Yet "Inception" never really develops its themes, or explores its Freudian musings.  Ironically, for a film that is concerned with descending into dreams within dreams, "Inception" never penetrates deeper than its own elaborate surfaces.

This is a film that comes with a ready-made audience, and is fairly critic-proof.   The few unique set-pieces and twisty, explosive visuals will be enough to keep fans mindlessly entertained, and should ensure a healthy box-office.  However, those who are entertained by thought-provoking stories, with characters and situations that reflect the world around them, and who want to take something of value from their investment in a film, should beware of the raves in the ads urging you to see "Inception" twice...You might want to read the reviews twice, and then stay home.

"Inception" is ostensibly about an expert in dream engineering, or "extractor" (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is hired by a corporate businessman (Ken Watanabe) to enter his competitor's dream (Cillian Murphy), insert an idea in Murphy's subconscious to abandon his corporate empire, which would keep Watanabe in business, and allow DiCaprio to return to his motherless children (his wife, Marion Cotillard, lost touch with "reality" after Dicaprio similarly entered her subconscious, once...).

Eventually it morphs into  "real" plots involving the DiCaprio-Cotillard marital tragedy; and Murphy's troubled relationship with his father (leading to a really odd , pointless kind of "Citizen Kane" moment involving a child's pinwheel.  Or maybe that was the idea that was planted...who can say?)  I guess when you trade in dreams, you can justify just about anything you want to throw into the mix.

DiCaprio assembles his own team to assist him, including the unconvincing Ellen Page as a brainy dream "architect", and the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a dream-monitor, to lend support and assistance. (ASIDE:  I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his strong resemblance to a young Heath Ledger lends this film an unavoidable Nolan-"Dark Knight" connection. )

The film then sets up three or four parallel dream-worlds. There is no shading, no irony, little humor, and no serious attempt to explore its own dream-logic.  Since one is never always sure what is real or what is a dream, there is practically nothing at stake, so we're left with endless displays of pyrotechnics and digital effects, and a wall-to-wall pulse of noise that has, incredibly, been praised as an effective music score.

After about 30 minutes of this nonsense, "Inception" feels like being trapped in a room filled with fanboys and gamers who are impressed with the fantasy they have devised, and spend hours explaining the rules as they make them up along the way.  The dialogue in "Inception" exists as endless exposition.  Characters say nothing except to explain what is about to happen, what has just happened, what might happen in different circumstances, what would have happened but didn't....

The performers plunge gamely into their roles, and to their credit they mostly convince us that they truly believe in the proceedings and take them deadly seriously.  Least effective is Page, although she does deliver the film's only witty line, which produced the only reaction from the packed house where I saw the film on Saturday.  Best is Levitt, who looks great in his suits and delivers his lines with a sense of throwaway fun.  As for DiCaprio, I enjoyed him here more than I have recently, owing to the fact that he uses more than just his furrowed brow to convey emotion (although his high-pitched voice is wrong for drama).  Cotillard, as always, is compelling, and I hope she gets to play a contemporary, modern-day romantic character soon.

Director Christopher Nolan has admitted that his entree into film making was inspired by seeing "Star Wars" at age seven.  That seems to be the driving impulse of the bulk of the motion picture industry today...(I envision Hollywood decision-makers and "artists" addicted to fantasy, like the wasted indoctrinees of an opium den, trading in and consuming the same substance until they die of malnutrition...) 

Still, I have to admire Nolan's dedication to this complicated if empty concept, and the difficulty of his task to make a coherent whole from this maze of undigested material.  Many critics have applauded the film as an example of a shared audience dream, or a metaphor for the processes of life, or even the Shakespearean idea of a dream without a bottom.  All of these are noble ideas for cinematic treatment, but really, they are "projecting" these ideas into this film.

I am not a fan of Nolan's visual or storytelling sense. Aside from a script that has no nuances and a tired sort of cleverness, the picture is filmed in a dreary monochromatic palette, the dream sequences are fairly standard chase-scene fare spiced up with "Matrix"-retread effects, and the score by Hans Zimmer is a real disappointment.

The music in "Inception" has for some reason gained a following of its own, maybe because the score was streamed, live, on-line during the world premiere.  In interviews, Zimmer describes how he was not allowed to see Nolan's images, but could only score off of the script. This was Nolan's misguided experiment in artistic "shared dreams".  I think the result intrusive, boring, and an embarrassment to great film music.

Another jaw-dropper is the filmmakers' decision to use Edith Piaf's "Non je ne regrettte rien" as a device, a "kick", to suddenly waken an endangered dreamer.  Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose", and the use of this song seemed like a bad in-joke.  Zimmer claims that the song was already in the script before Cotillard was cast.  He then goes on to say that he was afraid to ask Cotillard what she thought about the song's inclusion, which Zimmer himself urged Nolan to retain.  If she read the same script as Zimmer, I don't understand his fear.  I still think the song is a mistake....although Cotillard is a great addition to this film.

 While some may be convinced that "Inception" recreates a dream-state, a more objective viewer may discern that it merely induces sleep.  Even in a film that uses dream-logic, there needs to be a disciplined vision, and it needs to be clearly communicated to an audience. One may well give up hope determining the significance of the totems, whether the "kicks" will work, who the "projections" are and by what rules they exist, and when a "dream-suicide" will really kill you or just send you to limbo....

This is a film I hated to review negatively.  The effects work is limited but excellent, and I found myself finally engaged in the proceedings during the last fifteen or so minutes, when there was the promise of an emotional payoff.  But "Inception" seems like a film that is too impressed with itself.  It needs the "kick" of some tighter setting the alarm an hour earlier...


  1. Oh, I loved it. The music, Ellen Page, and of course the great Marion Cotillard. Alas, JGL was the one aspect I did not love, but even then I liked him enough.

    I do agree that it's not as difficult as its surface wants you to believe, and while I'll see it a second time to enjoy it, I doubt that it's necessary to do so in order to "get" it. I feel that's only being used as a rejoinder to negative reviews, which is insulting. You know what you saw, you just had a different reaction. Can't people be satisfied with that?

  2. Walter, thank you for your restraint here...I know now, having read your blog review, how much you loved this film. I tried to be true to my own experience of "Inception", and as I mentioned, I wish I had enjoyed it better.
    Whether we disagree or not, each of our reviews in some way replicates the experience of seeing the film, through our own unique points of view. It's odd how two guys who normally are on the same page about movies saw "Inception" so completely differently. I'm sure we each brought wildly different expectations in with us.

  3. With the revelation this week of the tonal similarities between the opening bars of Je Ne Regrette Rien and the main theme of Inception have your thoughts on it's inclusion changed at all?

    I understand most of your comments here and fully agree with your assessment of the film dropping the ball when it comes to the ideas and concepts it could have dealt with - and it's certainly not as clever as i thinks it is - yet I feel it does work as a heist film, as an action adventure and perhaps should be judged on that basis too.

  4. Ben, regarding the main theme,it's an interesting premise...I still don't quite understand the attachment to that particular song.

    What do you think about the method by which the score was created, in which Zimmer was not allowed to see the the film but only the script? (I have an image of the Director blindfolding the

    I must be getting old...I still compare heist films to "Topkapi", which set the bar high... and for laughs, "Who's Minding the Mint"....

    Although we differed in our view of "Inception", you do make some worthy arguments in its favor.

  5. It's a really strnage way of composing a score surely the music shoudl reflect the action and this might be the reason why you found the score oddly jarring.

    I'm not a fan of Topkapi which I feel is too baggy and badly cast. Dassin's other hiest movie Riffifi is excellent though.