This was about the only movie I’ve been looking forward to for a while, and based on The Prestige and The Dark Knight, and the crazy trailers, I was getting pretty jazzed. Then reviews started coming out saying that they don’t see what all the fawningly positive reviews [didn’t see those] were about, then the movie was released and the mediocre reviews started pouring in, then two guys wrote me to specifically ASK me to review it, because they couldn’t understand what the hype was about and they wanted me to tear it to shit. And you know what a whore I am for flattery. But I started to worry—what if I liked it? Would I let them down? But no worry: it is spectacularly mediocre, and I will now commence to tear it to shit.
There’s too much story to go into. DiCaprio is Cobb, who normally goes into people’s dreams to steal information, but is hired now to plant an idea, which we’re told is well-neigh impossible. He is supposed to get a young heir to break up his father’s giant oil corporation so the rival giant oil corporation can achieve world dominance. That’s a goal we can all get emotionally invested in, right? He assembles a team, most of whom remain quite present but almost entirely without distinctive characteristics, except for Ellen Page as Adriane [the name is for the Greek “mistress of the labyrinth”] who is ostensibly the architect—the one who fashions the dreamscapes—but is really on hand as someone for Cobb to give exposition to, and later as a relentless nag. We never, in fact, actually see any particular evidence of her skill, we’re just told that she’s really skilled. There is a LONG section in which nothing happens except Cobb laying out the rules and various special effects, then, an hour in, we finally start the heist.
But Cobb has some dark history with his wife, who is dead, but shows up when he enters dreams because his subconscious generates her. Because of something related to her, he is unable to enter the States, and thus cannot see his precious KIDS! It’s all about those gosh-darn KIDS! And Jesus, can’t someone have a DIFFERENT motivation one of these days? The kids, the precious kids, are always the first and easiest character motivation, when one is needed. Anyway, they finally enter the dream, and a dream within that dream, and a dream within that dream.
Ariadne tags along because by this point she has already established a long history of emotional nagging [“You can’t lock your past away!”] of Cobb about his considerable psychological issues, which supposedly place the team at risk of entering an unending dream state, which, maybe it’s me, but I don’t think sounds all that dire [and proves not to be]. The first thing that happens in the dream is a huge gunfight, but who cares, because it’s all a dream. Then the pharmacist is placed in charge of driving the van through traffic at high speed for long periods while being shot at with machine guns? What exactly qualifies him for that? I guess a librarian or accountant weren’t available? Which led to one of the several alternate titles for this review I brainstormed during the vast amounts of mental free time watching this movie afforded me: THE PHARMACIST IS DRIVING THE VAN.
They’re all sleeping in the back of that van, by the way, and enter another dream. More levels, more complications, more chases and gunfights with no consequence or reason for happening. By now we’ve had time to notice that these dreams aren’t all that dreamlike. There’s ONE strange element/special effect—no gravity, collapsing buildings—but the weirdness is confined to that one element, and everything else works pretty much the same as in the real world. After a while it becomes apparent that the only emotional element here is Cobb’s unresolved relationship with his dead wife, and that is pretty much a giga-snooze, incandescent Marion Cotillard notwithstanding. Also, by now I’m ready to gun-butt Page for her constant whines of “You have to forgive yourself and confront her!” and suchlike. Look lady, if we’d wanted Oprah to tag along, we’d have asked Oprah, okay?
So during the last hour, one thought kept coming into my head, and that thought was: “This is all just SO DUMB.” The other was trying to recall the exact wording of the Shakespeare quote: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I have seen a great deal of reviews of people who loved it [check out the IMDb] and who talk about how brilliantly intelligent it is, yet none of them go on to articulate what they think it is saying. Instead you get a number of statements such as: “To try and explain Inception’s many plot twists and incredibly intelligent arcs would be a foolish task.” So you see, it’s SO amazingly intelligent, we simply cannot discuss how intelligent it is! That’s all there is to it! I’ve also been enjoying critics—professional and amateur alike—“knowingly” discussing how it gives play to Freud’s theories on dreaming. One of those moments where you say “Come now, are you really expecting us to believe that you’re read The Interpretation of Dreams?” Because guess what—I HAVE—and what’s going on in this movie has only the most surface-level connection to it. Nevertheless, it seems that many people are indeed blown away by this film… or Warners’ marketing department has done an excellent job of convincing them that the numb, confused feeling they left the theater with is what happens when you encounter genius. Listen to some of these review titles by average IMDb contributors: “In a decade, Inception may be a religion,” “A benchmark for all cinema to come,” “A mind-blowing stroke of genius,” “A monumental achievement in the history of suspense,” “Cinema hasn’t died yet,” and “Inception marks a new era in filmmaking.” And I think it’s all true! Either that, or there are a ton of people out there desperate to make something into more than it is in order to believe that they are a part of something genuinely important.
And now, as a special bonus, you get a little mini-essay, entitled: Things That Can Go Wrong With a Movie, which discusses issues common to all movies, but using this one as a particular example:
Here we are completely aware that they're all dreaming, so all of the gun fights and chases and explosions hold no suspense or excitement whatsoever. The movie tries to paper over this a bit by saying if they die they will go into Limbo, but we only have an intellectual understanding of that anyway [unlike visceral DEATH], and from what we see at the end of the movie, doesn't look like much of a big deal. At all. So it's all a lot of running and screaming and fighting, but why? This movie makes it quite clear--despite all its yak-yak, that these characters are never in very serious danger. So why should we get involved?
Insupportable Character Motivation
This has been on my mind a lot lately, how you need a reason for the characters to act, regardless of how facile it is. Because in addition to giving the characters something to work for, it helps keep your mind off of how there really is NOTHING for them to work for, or just how the whole thing is cocked up for no reason at all [or for the sole reason of this movie making money]. Here, the whole reason all of this is happening is so one multinational corporation will be disbanded, so another will survive and take over their business. What this means is that one person or group of people will become billionaires. Is this something you really want to vicariously join the fight for? Sure it might be realistic, but this isn't reality--it's a movie.
Even if you don't have much investment in what the characters are fighting for, it at least can't be NEGATIVE, or something you have serious reservations about supporting--and by getting involved in the movie, you are indirectly supporting it. A good goal also allows you to get emotionally invested in the movie, as if the characters really believe in something, you can get caught up in it. Here--why are these characters working so hard to make some distant billionaire even more of a billionaire?
My friend and I had a long discussion about this afterward, and we decided that if the one billionaire was going to, say, buy up the Arctic and extract oil in a manner that would destroy the environment there, and if they succeeded the rival company, who was investing in alternate fuels, would succeeed, then it might work. Because even if you're the world's biggest Republican or a Gulf worker who is totally behind drilling for oil, you get the overall idea that all this effort is to help people, and it MATTERS, and the characters involved believe in it enough to fight so hard for it. None of which can be said about the effort to make one billionaire rich instead of another.
No Character Development
First of all, not only are many of the roles here not clearly defined, none of these characters undergo any change or development over the course of the story at all. They all end up pretty much exactly the same person at the end as they were at the beginning. I suppose Cobb has some development--or at least we're supposed to believe that he does--but even that is minor, and so abstract and has such low stakes [the person he's in love with is already dead, so there's no chance it'll work out] it isn't involving. So you're just watching these people run here and run there, but never getting involved with who they are or watching their progress.
No Resonant Images
In The City of Lost Children, there are a group of people kidapping kids in order to steal their dreams. At one point there is a truck with an eye painted on the back. A door opens in the eye, arms reach out, grab a kid, and he is pulled right up into the eye--a powerful image that seems to contain a great deal more meaning than that contained by the plot point itself.
This film, for all its promise of blowing your mind with crazy dream imagery, is just very low on resonance. In fact, it's downright undreamlike. There are crazy cityscapes and folding streets and zero-gravity, but none of these images have an uncanny weight, they're not spooky, and they don't illuminate the psychology of the character whose mind we're in. Furthermore, the illogic of real dreams isn't present: People don't become other people [except when specifically intended], colors don't change, there are no strange or illogical sounds, and no jumps in time. Sure a train might appear in the middle of the street, but that will be the one and only strange element, while everything else remains completely normal. So you don't feel so much that you're watching a dream as that you're watching tentpole special effects.
Too Much Exposition
Naturally we'll need a lot of explanation of the elaborate rules of the dream world, but when it gets to the point where about ten solid minutes are devoted just to pure explanation, one starts to wonder how much of this is going to be on the test. In this film I just started to shut down--and I HAVE an attention span--and figured the film would work it out. Which is a form of disengagement with the movie. A position not helped by having one's suspicion that none of this is really going to add to the experience of the film confirmed. And the fact that its complexity requires certain pieces of information to be repeated nearly verbatim. And its complexity necessarily short-shrifts attention to any one character. And the ultimate feeling, when it's all over, that it was very busy, but without much actually going on.
Our Hero Is a Scumbag
At an important moment it is revealed that Cobb, our main character, has seriously imperiled the psyches of his team of five, [they could remain in a vegetative state] including his best friend, for his own selfish purposes: "I did what I have to to see my kids!" So this guy is a real monster. He's downright evil. Yet somehow we're supposed to forget all that and worry about his personal problems? Sorry, when my life is imperiled so someone else can get what they want--which will not benefit me in any way--I want to get away from that person. Which seriously affects one's ability to identify with these characters, again, preventing one from becoming involved in the film.
It's Not Fun
When it was over, my friend said "Well, I'd have to see that again to figure out all that was going on," and I, in addition to feeling that there's not really that much going on, replied "There is NO WAY I am sitting through that again." Because it's long, it's grim, and it's just not fun. Compare to the Matrix--you were perfectly happy to sit through it and try to plumb all its mysteries because the experience of doing so was FUN! It had the mystery and emotional involvement and cool fights that made it a satisfying experience. Here, Nolan's tone is that of all of his other pictures: grim self-seriousness. But even The Prestige had a sense of fun--you could get involved in the magicians' escalating rivalry--but here it's just a lot of trippy visuals, but no sense that being in this dream world is a BLAST, a place where we'd love to hang out. Which ultimately makes the movie theater showing this film not a place you'd want to hang out.
Go ahead, see for yourself.