Friday, 22 April 2011

Thoughts on Inception

I start my film-reviewing session of 2011 with two sci-fi movies which couldn’t be more different from each other. Released in two consecutive summers, both movies were admired by the critics and audiences alike. Enthusiasts on the Internet (to be polite) greeted the films words like “awesome”, “masterpiece”. However, what I feel about these movies has nothing to do with the general reaction to the movies or the backlashes and counter-backlashes or the publicity machinery behind these movies. (I dislike the word “overrated”.) I wish to describe my thoughts and emotions based only on the images and sounds that appeared before me. Here's the review of one of the movies. Needless to say, this review most likely contains important plot points i.e. SPOILERS, if such things matter to you. So read them only if you wish to.

Inception (2010)
Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan

Most detractors of Inception pin down the film on an essentially wrong note. They want Inception to be a dream movie in the surrealistic traditions of European films like , Last Year at Marienbad, Wild Strawberries, The Andalusian Dog. It’s unfair on my part to expect a film which must submit to my preconceived notions of a dream-movie and not allow it to become what it wants to be. So Inception unfolded before me exactly the way the film wanted to.

But as the film ended, it left me curiously empty. I was utterly confused. Well, the reviews of this film are replete with that word which is meant as a compliment. (The more a film is confusing and complicated, the more “awesome” it is, the current trend goes.) But believe you me; my confusion had little to do with the comprehension of the oh-so-complex plot. It was the film’s intentions (which don’t necessarily translate to the maker’s intentions, something I am least concerned about) which put me in a state of confusion. It was never clear to me what the film wanted to become.

Did it want to become a heist movie? Well, the basic template is obviously modelled on heist movies. But the film never really exploits the possibilities of the genre. The film with its frequent stabs at profundity and an avowed resistance to humour never lets itself become anything less than a Seriously Serious Work of Art. Well, is it a dream movie, then, the movie that explores the dark lanes of the mind and the abyss of the subconscious? Yeah, the kind of subconscious depth that can be reached through . . . an elevator! Who do I think I am kidding? As the detractors have duly noted, Inception’s dream world is too literal-minded, too rule-bound, and too clockwork-ish to be called a dream world. Is this film, then, a sort of genre-sampler, which combines and maybe satirises the two aforementioned genres? I’ll now turn to my favourite contemporary filmmaker who has taken on genre films like no other filmmaker in modern film history has. Quentin Tarantino is able to see the genre films for what they are because he has wholeheartedly embraced and absorbed all sorts of genre. That’s how he can simultaneously write a love letter to and a scathing criticism of the movies. He can satirise genre conventions precisely because he understands them so well. But Inception is too timid to embrace genre conventions (well, it’s Serious, you know) and consequently is stuck in a limbo (pun intended).   

Is Inception, then, an allegory about cinema itself (the last weapon in a critic's arsenal)? But do we really need a film to tell us that films are dreams? As far as I am concerned, films are dreams. Don’t we all live in the films? Don’t we consider films as the only reality while watching them, just as we do in dreams? Cinema, since its inception (pun unintended), is a part of our collective (sub-)consciousness, isn’t it?  There was a John McTiernan film called Last Action Hero, in which a boy is so obsessed with movies that he literally breaks through the fourth wall to be within a movie with his favourite action hero (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and influence the way the film shapes up. Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie, questioned the validity of being-within-the-movie device because, he argued, we always are within the movies. So if Inception is equating cinema with dreams, it’s merely stating the obvious.

Let me now tell you how I perceived the film finally: a bloated, confused mess. It’s a self-conscious, self-congratulatory film which is manufactured in such a way that the audience never really forgets how “awesome” the film is. It throws up some lofty ideas in the air (such as the difference between dream and reality, the perils of being stuck in the past, detached from the world) for us to appreciate its profundity but never quite explores these interesting ideas. On the contrary, action sequences that resemble those James Bond movies and banal plot mechanics are what the film seems to be mostly interested in.

It never allows the audience to ask questions. Inception is just one set-piece crammed hurriedly after another (in other words, a 140-min trailer with one climax piled upon another). The film just wants it audience to gasp at its superficial cleverness. The film is reliant on its plot points, twists, jolts and shocks to such an extent the film is hardly allowed to breath. The film has got very little visual style to speak of. Aided by Hans Zimmer’s thumping score, it practically instructs every audience member on what to feel (namely the film’s superiority to the audience’s intelligence). Whenever there is a faint scope for the audience to ask questions, the film introduces another level of dreaming and endlessly cross-cuts between the levels to make sure we never forget we are watching the work of a genius.

I’m not really averse to exposition in films. Exposition is an essential tool of filmmaking which is employed by the greatest of filmmakers. However, there are different kinds of exposition. Some do it through a camera angle, some through editing and some through dialogue. Even exposition can be made charming at expert hands. But the exposition in Inception appears laboured and pedestrian. But the exposition has no point and doesn’t even establish the mythology of the fictional universe. The mythology is strictly limited to the required plot points and the rules set early on the movie appear to be completely arbitrary. As a result, the film is not as well-thought-out as it wants us to think it is. Take, for instance, the zero-g sequence in the films. It’s established in the film that the physical experience in the state of sleeping is transmitted to the immediate next dream level. That’s the basis of the admittedly spectacular hotel corridor action sequence involving Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the second level dreaming. We see that the level three dreamers are floating weightless in the second level because of the movements of the car in the first level. By extension of this logic in the film, the dreamers in the third level should be weightless too since the sleepers are weightless in the second level. But if we apply this logic, we wouldn’t get a James Bond action sequence, no? Again, it’s established that one can change the physics of the dream (even when being in someone else’s dream) at will in the dream session with Ariadne (Ellen Page, retaining the smugness minus the hipness from her endearing performance in Juno). But curiously, nobody seems to remember altering the physics of the dream world to make their job easier in a difficult situation. Why would, then, Arthur strain himself to handle the floating dreamers when they are in just another zero-g hotel room? Why would Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, appearing more bored than ever) and his team have to pain themselves so much to reach the ice-fortress in an hour (in dreamtime, of course!) instead of bringing the fortress closer to them? We aren’t really supposed to ask such banal questions as long as we get the bangs for bucks. I had spotted some other lapses in the movie’s internal logic but the movie is too uninteresting to go back to.

The ending aptly sums up for me all that is wrong about Inception. Thousands of words have been written about what it possibly means and there’s been all sorts of interpretations of the spinning top, the totem which is supposedly the test to distinguish between dreams and reality. There was  a perfect ending set up before this. A father is reunited with his children he has long wanted to shower with his affection (whether in his dreams or in reality) and it’s this emotion which matters to him most. He has found his heaven and who are we to argue otherwise? But no, Mr Nolan couldn’t make it quite straightforward and offer a simple resolution. He has to make it something meaningful and ambiguous. So he goes for the all-too-convenient open ending to suggest that the entire movie could have been a dream. Raising such a question itself makes the dream-world collapse because, regardless of the answer, the question invalidates the movie that preceded it and takes entirely away from the essence of the final sequence. We needn’t know whether it’s a dream or not because Cobb has reached his destination.

The Wikipedia page of Inception tells me that Mr Nolan wanted to convey that the point of that scene was that Cobb didn’t care and he didn’t look at the top. As I said, I don’t care about the authorial intention; I have to make my deductions from what’s before my eyes. (You know, “Trust the tale, not the teller” and all that). But even considering that was the intention, the director fails to convey that. Let us now analyse the sequence and the camera movement. Cobb runs to his children without taking a look at the totem. As it happens, Cobb and his children become out of focus and the camera moves away from them. Perfect so far. Cobb is now in his own abode. The problem of the scene begins now. The camera slowly pans to the spinning top on the table and then places it at the centre of the frame and the rest of the table is out of focus. And then as the top slightly wobbles, the end credits begin. So what should we take away from this scene? Doesn’t this establish that the spinning top was the most important thing in the entire sequence? Doesn’t the end want us to take away the image of the spinning top and make Cobb’s happiness less significant? Why should we care whether it’s a dream or not when Cobb doesn’t? But unfortunately, the ending wants us to care. The ending, like the preceding movie, wants us to dig into layers and layers of meaning with thousands of interpretations while denying us the opportunity to take away an image or feeling from the film which resonates within us. Imagine how much better it'd have been if the camera panned away from the spinning top towards Cobb and his children, finally going out of focus. It was one of the rare occasions when I felt the classical, cheesy (or corny, whatever you like) and sunny ending of Hollywood would have helped the film.

And it’s interesting that a movie with so much talk has almost nothing to say. The moral universe of Inception is painfully shallow and I never got any indication that the movie was interested in morality at all. The characters blindly accept a feeble explanation to go all the way through four levels of dreams to plant an idea in someone’s mind. This is why the sudden surge of morality in the third level dream and the consequent explanation only undermine the film. “Are you destroying parts of his mind?” asks Ariadne when Cobb is gleefully killing the “projections of subconscious” when their mission involves planting an idea in someone’s mind so that he may break his father’s business empire! I mean, destroying parts of someone's mind in not morally sound, but changing someone's mind (in other words, brainwashing) is?  Even when the movie (in another passage of dry, witless dialogue-driven sequence) asks the morality of the act of inception, the heist movie premise itself negates the possible answer of the question. I mean, everyone in the audience is expected to root for Cobb and Co. as they accomplish their mission while coolly killing dozens of subconscious projection, no? So raising such a question is pointless and pretentious. And the movie never hints that it's criticising itself.

Well, this is all I had to say about this movie. Now a bit about the frequent comparison of Mr Nolan with Stanley Kubrick. Firstly, there’s no way Mr Nolan should be compared with Kubrick because it’s completely unfair to Mr Nolan. But more importantly, this comparison reveals more about the current film culture than about anything else. It’s worth another blog post, but surely, Kubrick was more than rotating sets!  Save Insomnia and Following, I have seen all films by Mr Nolan and he seems to me the cinematic equivalent of Mr Dan Brown, whose prose style is quite close to Mr Nolan’s cinematic vision. Now interpret this ending!

UPDATE I: For interseted readers, here are some reviews of/articles on Inception which are worth reading. A. O. Scott, David Denby and Andrew O' Hehir explain why the movie didn't work for them. (O'Hehir's Michael Bay comparison is priceless.) Here and here are film theorists Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on the film. While they like the film a lot, they also seem to share some of the concerns I have with this film (the mythology, for example) .

UPDATE II: From the blog of Bordwell, I found a link to A. D. Jameson's piece, "Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception". Jameson makes some fine points there.  He and I seem to share some similar concerns about the film. It's worth a read, even if you don't agree with all the points. His comparisons with Bryan Singer, George Lucas and Peter Jackson are spot-on. Also see his post on the shot construction of Inception.

UPDATE III: Here's the best bit: the Inception button, which needs no explanation. A must-see!


mediaconsomme said...

Great review! I especially loved your thoughts on the movie's intention or lack thereof. My belief is that Nolan set out to make, well, the usual sort of film Nolan makes. Thrilling, mysterious, "confusing." He's not big on filling in the gaps, which you pointed out many times; I don't think he cares about mythology. The lack of morality was quite odd. But, Nolan = Dan Brown? Ouch.

I just posted my review of Inception here, if you want to take a look: Much less pointed than yours, but I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

i have sent you a mail to your email ID mentioned above. please check it and reply soon.
another space lover!!

Space Lover said...

@mediaconsomme: At first, apologies for replying so late. I couldn't get the time to reply to your comment after I had moderated it.

And now, thanks for the lovely comment. Yours is the kind of comment that I value most. Thanks for offering your views.

About the Dan Brown comparison, it's more an observation on the tendency of both of them to shock and shake the audience/reader at every possible situation with an apparent cleverness and an eagerness to project the work as more profound than they actually are. Moreover, it's a little jibe at those who make such facile comparisons. (Nolan needn't be Kubrick!) So I was trying to have a bit of fun there. That said, I definitely look forward to seeing Nolan's next film - something I can't say about Brown's next novel.

I'll be more than glad to read your review.


@Anonymous: I've already sent you the reply.

Anonymous said...

It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.

Space Lover said...

@Anonymous (2): Pardon?