Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Disclaimer: I would not be a male in his 20’s with a blog if I didn’t write about Inception.

Big flapping deal.

(my knee-jerk reaction to the web’s sickly fanboy hype, of the C.H.U.D. variety, in which Hollywood blesses us with Genius every quarter, of the Fountain/Pan’s Labyrinth ilk)

I left Inception (currently IMDB’s #3 film of all time) with the same feeling I had when I left The Dark Knight: that I had just taken in an overly ambitious, overly serious and distinctly ponderous work. Yes, it’s a maze. I hope you signed on for one. But then if you’re coming to see a Nolan film, you know that you’ll be wading/paging/sprinting. A Nolan film requires a great deal from its audience. Another feeling I have when I watch a Nolan film… very strange, to me… is this pull… like the film is telling me to think the way Nolan thinks, to process information the way he does, with the application of a great deal of dynamic and fast-paced camera movement (like a smart, sexy commercial), combined with a great deal of complicated technical narrative information. I recall that when we delved into the film’s third layer – or should I say Level 3: Snow Fortress – I was quite lost. Whose head were we inhabiting..? Did any particular cut last longer than 7 seconds?

Is Nolan’s chief desire topping himself? What are we to expect from him next? He has become the King of Hollywood, and he’ll have anything that he wants. It’s quite an incredible position. Another Batman film, of course, will come. He hasn’t yet tackled time travel – I can smell it. An epic time travel tale spread across the span of civilization… I digress. I just want to enjoy myself. I don’t need to sit there and be told that I’m brilliant. I’d just like to have fun. Nolan is considerably more interested in image… not quite so much with “cool,” though not far from it… there’s a complete emotional detachment in his work. Perhaps he’s seen too many music videos (but Fincher balances himself with perfect ease..). This in itself isn’t problematic (if you like that kind of film, which I do)… it’s just strange when Nolan does it. And obviously, this is just me speaking.

Here are most of my feelings on the film, snagged from an email I sent to a friend, while mildly inebriated. Spoilers ahead:

I have a question for you about Inception. Don’t get too excited… Here it is. So Cobb is in a dream, at the end, the top spins. I saw that coming pretty early on, and was actually expecting quite a lot more development of that idea – I was convinced that the film would eventually build to this climactic moment where Cobb is convinced he is in “reality” but has doubts, and it would all end with him putting that gun to his head… it seemed so inevitable. Also it would’ve been a lot like Vanilla Sky/Abre los ojos. But n e way. So it’s the end. The top spins. My question is, why was the top spinning only then? He spun the top before, and it toppled. Or is the idea that he had gone too far during “the Dream Job”? He had gone into the deep subconscious (depth level 4), and only thought he had escaped and completed the job successfully? If so, I think the film’s major problem is the way we’re privy to a number of perspectives. Such a story as this requires the telling to only come from one man’s POV. Know what I mean? When a mindfuck twist comes, it’s completely irrelevant to suddenly cut to Cillian Murphy and Tom Berenger sitting on the water’s edge, musing about the future… as at this point, we’d still only be in the head of Cobb. Well anyway, perhaps you’ve followed this…

Also, Ellen Page’s character served pretty much no purpose at all except to ask Cobb questions. Her role diminished as the film went on until she was just asking him question after question about Mal… that bugged me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, awesome as usual, I found hard to believe… he’s 28 years old and he’s a merciless hard-boiled professional of a caliber never seen – he deserved more attention than was given. Actually I think the role should’ve been played by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart is exactly that hard-boiled man, and the age thing would’ve been more believable.

David Denby’s review for the New Yorker sums up my feelings on the film very accurately. And finally, my big critical note, which applies to any number of films which indulge in dream-fiction: I have never in my life had a dream anywhere near as indulgent and fanciful as the ones seen in the film. Frankly I think the aspect of lucid-dreaming and dream creation is narrative carte blanche, and since it very largely served action/thrills more than anything else… meh. I’ll take Buñuel’s dreams any day of the week!

Welles: “A magician is just an actor… playing the part of a magician.”

To me, Nolan is a trickster, a deceiver, a sleight-of-hander – which is why The Prestige is very much Nolan material. But such a magician is more along the lines of David Blaine than Orson Welles… magic as spectacle. And it requires an audience who is ready, willing, desirous of magic, and of being duped, and of figuring out, and of feeling smart.


OK, fine, an addendum. I’m being a bit hard on Nolan. I would not like to imply that I don’t appreciate what he has achieved. It’s incredible. And were it not for the poisonous hype, I would not take such a tone. I’ve seen all of his films, some many times. Part of me desires to make similar productions, which is why I get so irked when I see him handle them the way he does. My chief grievance, if you’re so blind you can’t tell, is this “seriousness.” No fun. Nolan is no fun. Nolan wants you to sit there and BE BLOWN AWAY. I mean… fine. I get it. There’s a place for that. But I am not blown away, and don’t appreciate that I am expected to be. The Dark Knight’s tagline is “Why so serious?” It’s a bit embarrassing that Nolan does not recognize such glaring irony.

I got around to rewatching Inception. 2nd viewing: same feelings as first. 3rd viewing: plot finally understood – because I finally put forth the effort – the effort Nolan requires of a viewer. I had to lower my standards, you see, and view the film in the way Nolan wants me to, which is largely “big loud quick cut Hollywood action kitchey dumbness.” I’m rather amazed at how little effort Nolan puts into aesthetic crafting (I’m speaking simply of mise-en-scene, frame composition… he’s like the ultimate Hollywood director). There’s still a tremendous amount of nonsense to endure, mostly in the melodrama and the conflicts with Mal. Dom is a monumentally dull man with nothing in his life but those damn children – the oldest narrative cliche, “Doing it for one’s family.” With all the effort Nolan fucking puts into the intricacies of his plots, you’d think he could attempt to transcend emotional convention, you know, just a little. And I still think it’s downright idiotic that 75% of the film is expositional, there’s always a new rub to be described – and in the lamest way, by a secondary character asking the main character to explain it to her. Nolan puts a great deal of energy into his plots but none into the fundamentals. And again, my biggest problem, he just doesn’t have any fucking fun. If you’re going to ask the audience to put forth so much effort into taking something so seriously, and to deciphering so much, and juggling so many characters, at least have a little fun. Godard knew how to do that. Fun is had when the method of storytelling becomes insouciant, casual, ironic. Nabokov knew it too. Dostoevsky dallied with it once or twice.

But here’s my real problem. It’s called Inception. Inception first occurred when Mal realized “this world is not real” – that was her way out of limbo – and carried that idea into reality with her. In the film, Dom (Dom Cobb, wtf kind of name is that??) is only able to escape limbo by coming to the same realization. He “incepts” himself. It’s a cool idea. But – – – he gets back to reality, and thinks it is reality. There is no effort made by the filmmaker to play on the idea that Dom now has that virus that killed Mal. Dom is doomed, for sure. Yet the final moment is witnessing Dom holding his children. In the final seconds, we do see the top begin to topple – not that that makes a fucking difference – and Dom’s new life struggle, “this world is not real,” is simply forgotten. He hugs his damn kids. What a boring man! What a boring film! And at this moment I like it more than ever.