On seeing Inception…

Contains spoilers, so don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet and care about such things…

I just got back from seeing Christopher Nolan‘s Inception. The media has fuelled huge excitement over this film, which is translating into a mammoth box office take. The buzz was based largely on Inception being both a) very good and b) very clever, so I wanted to see whether this was true, or whether it was instead a) over-rated by a fawning and too-easily-pleased media and/or b) a bit pretentious. Off the bat, I will say that I thought it was good. I found it exciting, engaging and provocative, though the latter didn’t really kick in until it had finished. I’d score it a solid four out of five and it’s certainly worth forking out for, but three things stop it being a really great film – mediocre dialogue, lack of empathy, and some fourth-wall-breaking deja vu (see a bit further below for the blah blah on these).

One of the key memes related to this film is that it is somehow hard to follow. I thought that was nonsense. I hadn’t read any spoilers (other than knowing it was somehow about invading/manipulating dreams), but I found the film’s narrative a pretty easy ride. It is only in the interpretation of the narrative (and the related conceptual devices) that the confusion arises, and this is more for after the film than during. It was more a case of “what was that all about?” than “what’s going on!?” This might seem to be a false distinction, but I think it is important, as many reviewers have complained that their enjoyment of the film at the time was affected by the story’s complexity. Sounds a bit like this to me.

Not that it is a masterpiece. One of my three criticisms is that the pedestrian dialogue detracts in a significant way from the overall quality, partly because I felt there was too much exposition and repetition of important devices; I thought it would have flowed better with less hand-holding for the audience. Indeed, this blogger thinks that it was all too simple (among many other good points). More broadly, I felt it could have done with more ambitious/artistically-satisfying dialogue – befitting the grand central idea – rather than some fairly bog-standard Hollywood chit-chat.

The second problem was that I didn’t care (much) about any of the characters, nor was the worst thing that could happen to them (i.e. going to ‘Limbo’) sufficiently frightening. It’s fine to put together a gang without much background – The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds, Ocean’s Eleven etc. – but the trade-off is an increased risk that people will not empathise. [Inglourious Basterds tackles this in two ways – absolute brutal hilarity, and the fact that it’s specifically and explicitly reducible to Hitler vs. “The Jews”, a face-off in which empathy with the heroes is not hard to elicit. Ocean’s Eleven? Well, that was a bit crap wasn’t it.] Without deep characterisation the tension and threats have to be that much more palpable; the idea that  if it all went wrong someone would have to hang around in a dream going slowly gaga for fifty years was somehow unsatisfying.

Third, and I feel like this is a bit of a cheap shot, but I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this before. Not individual scenes, per se, nor the grand dream idea exactly. I’m talking about that 2010 film where Leonardo DiCaprio plays a character who moves between reality and delusion, was involved in the death of his wife and misses his family, you know, the one where at the end you don’t know whether he is in reality or the delusion. Even the music – excellent in both films – was similar. Had Shutter Island not been delayed six months (supposedly because of the recession), the comparison might seem less stark (the aforelinked Satyamshot called Shutter Island the ‘unthought’ of Inception). DiCaprio discusses the similarities and differences here, and points out the great common strength of the films: the ‘unreliable narrator’, a literary theme which the Guardian Book Club also touched on recently in the context of American Psycho (‘narrator’ is probably not the right word for Shutter Island/Inception, but the sympathetic narrative is certainly pinned to DiCaprio’s protagonists).

As I said, though, overall I thought it was very good. The opening heist is a great set-up for what follows, and the putting together of the team, so often a hoary old film cliché, was handled nicely. The scene in which Ariadne creates a cityscape for the first time is fascinating – I also found it strangely moving, and of course it explains why she signs up. The fights between Arthur and various assailants in zero/rotating gravity in the hotel corridor were excellent, and Eames had some entertaining (if a little sub-Bond) quips.

The acting was good but there wasn’t a whole lot of it, what with the frenetic movement between dream levels and the long sequences of dialogue-light action. Leonardo DiCaprio continues his great run of form (which I think really began post-The Beach, and probably excludes Blood Diamond which was pretty turgid), but this was less captivating than his roles in either Shutter Island or The Depaaahted. While there is some sense in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt will always be Tommy from ‘Third Rock from the Sun’, he is putting together one of those nice careers which straddle indie and mainstream, and he was fantastic as Arthur here.

Ellen “Juno” Page was good, though she had very little to do other than to verbalise the questions which are supposed to be forming in the mind of the viewer. Tom Hardy, who has some absolute shockers on his resumé, actually gave a bit of a star turn as Eames. While the character was a portmanteau of many loveable colonial rogues of old, he was more of an effective portal for the viewer than was Ariadne, the spinner of labyrinths (wasn’t her name a slice of luck…) Ken Watanabe, in a stereotype-busting role (!) for a Japanese character, was devoted to his business, inscrutable and ultimately noble. Radical scripting there.

The other actors – all of whom have star status to some degree – really didn’t have enough screen-time for me to decide whether they were much good or not. Cillian Murphy looked worried (very well), Pete Postlethwaite expired masterfully, Marion Cotillard excelled at being confusing, Dileep Rao was called upon to provide the brief moments of humour, and  Michael Caine was in the film so fleetingly as to be a bit of a distraction. I forgot Tom Berenger* but he was so unrecognisable that he didn’t really make an impression. In any case it was Eames in disguise.

Here is a helpful/unhelpful graphical description of the whole escapade. It has been criticised for suggesting that the ‘Limbo’ scenario takes place in a more or less linear progression with the others. However, a) it does, in a narrative sense, and b) I think it’s possible that rather than going into a group limbo, the fourth level was in fact Cobb’s dream layer (after those of Yusuf, Arthur and Fischer/Eames**). In fact, isn’t it most plausible – whatever that means in this odd context – that after Mal died in the fourth (Cobb) layer, he (Cobb) then went further (i.e. into ‘Limbo’) to rescue Saito? The second Telegraph review – linked here – complains that not knowing precisely which person’s subconscious the team were in at any given point was confusing, but surely that’s the point. When Ariadne asked that question, Phillip French found it “self-reflectingly comic”, which I think is much more pertinent. Do people seriously want a dummy’s guide? I must say I like the idea of being confused by films – life is confusing, isn’t it? And it’s not as if there aren’t thousands of completely telegraphed narratives out there already for those who feel inclined (try Apocalypto, the single most predictable film I have ever seen). Incidentally, the Telegraph magazine reviewer’s conclusion – “Nolan’s modus operandi here is to present a muddle at such a breakneck pace that it gets mistaken for profundity” – is far too harsh, but does contain a tiny grain of truth.

Anyhow, these seem to be the more common theories for what it all ‘means’:

1) Face value: They were a crack team of dream commandos employed in industrial espionage. When their mission was sabotaged by an uncontrolled part of Cobb’s subconscious, he improvised to rescue the mission by going into Limbo and ingeniously saving the day, for which his rightful reward was to be reunited with his children. This is the version that Nolan and the actors are more or less sticking to, while acknowledging that there is a lot of obfuscation on the way to that conclusion.

2) One layer unseen: The whole thing was a procedure to incept the idea of his own non-guilt into Cobb’s deep subconscious in order that he could recover from his own psychological trauma. This view is pretty popular online, and is probably best put here.

3) Pseudo-Matrix. The whole thing was a dream. This has no upper or lower boundaries so it’s a bit meaningless, but people like to say it and then go “aaaaaaaaaah!”. Much of this is prompted by the concluding shot (which was so obviously not going to be resolved on screen!) In this scenario, Cobb is still in a dream somewhere, albeit a happy one.

These interpretations are still only operating at a narrative level. The real ‘meaning’ of the film seems to be squarely in the psychological, philosophical or theological realms. On a psychoanalytic level, it can be read as a warning of the dangers of suppressed emotions (Fischer) and screen memories (Cobb). Incidentally I found this rather pleasing, being more of a believer in the continuing value of Freud’s work than many, I suspect.

Philosophically, it seems a treatise on the true value of the Real, setting up a fascinating conundrum by which Cobb might be thought of as happier in an entirely created (and un-real) “life”, with a dreamed-up wife and surroundings called into existence by thought alone. At least a part of his subconscious is in favour of this. This links it closely with The Matrix and the works of Baudrillard, though Inception does not wear its French poststructuralism so boldly.

There are a myriad of pointers which suggest a religious element too. The ‘test of faith’ is a recurring motif, and the whole idea of a shared limbo is thoroughly Catholic (in this case limbo of the fathers, not limbo of the infants). There’s something less well-defined about rebirth and possibly reincarnation too. I’m not convinced this is much more than a calculated extra layer of ambiguity, but it is interesting as it would normally not sit well with the über-rationality of psychoanalytic interpretations; is Nolan suggesting that undergoing psychological treatment is actually analogous to religious experience? Both demand tests (and corresponding leaps) of faith, but is this ‘a good thing’?***

Who knows? The abundance of ambiguity is a marketing strategy as much as a piece of art, and that’s the thing that is putting me off watching it twice (or even three or four viewings, as those in line to profit from the film suggest you will ‘need’). But hopefully I will wake up tomorrow and have dreamed up five new interpretations of the film, and over the coming days I will doubtless think about aspects of psychology, visual media, religion or storytelling that Inception brings to mind. The never-ending conversation goes on, as it must…

* Wowsers, check out Tom Berenger on IMDB. He has never stopped working, though I can’t remember seeing him in anything since Gettysburg.

** The standard explanation, as given here by Dileep Yao (Yusuf), is that the third layer of dream is that of Fischer, since this is where the inception is meant to take place. However, Eames seems to be controlling it. This makes me suspect that there may have been an additional layer added to circumvent the planned security, or rather to “prove” to Fischer that his accomplices were indeed on his side, so that when he returned (after being shot) from the next level down (or ‘Limbo’), he had sufficient faith to open the safe and see what the mission needed him to see. The whole film is about tests of faith, so this wouldn’t surprise me. However, since there is – by design – no canonical interpretation…

*** Here (and only here, I would argue) the ambiguity is a weakness, because there is no moral or emotional anchor. It’s the old story – ‘man needs to get home’ – but since his wife is (we are told) dead, his children are safe, and he himself is somewhat unstable, the imperative for him to succeed is not compelling.

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 12:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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