July 16, 2010

Inception (07/16/ 2010)

Lettergrade: B

We saw Inception the weekend it came out, but I never got around to writing about it due to a lot of personal business combined with my usual laziness. Now that I've sat down a month later to do so, it strikes me that I haven't really thought about the movie much in the time since. I recognize that it's expertly made and very good, of course, but I don't know... I also found it a little cold and choppy, and ultimately too wrapped up in itself to be all that involving.

There's no shortage of intellectual and philosophical fat to chew on, but I guess the movie didn't stimulate my imagination as wildly as some of Christopher Nolan's previous movies did: Memento, 2006's The Prestige and in particular 2008's Batman sequel The Dark Knight. Back when Dark Knight came out, I remember a lunch with my friend Cindy where we both admitted that we had seen the movie, like, three times already in the week it had been out. Inception, by contrast, was an engaging three hours, but not an experience that I'm lingering on much, nor do I especially want to revisit in order to unlock more of the mysteries. And boy are there mysteries to unlock.

Although the concept is unlike anything I can remember seeing in a movie before, the general plot premise is a classic: A master thief (Leo DiCaprio) must engage in "one last big job" before he can retire and leave the life of crime behind him. The twist, of course, is that what he typically steals are people's secrets, and he does it by entering their dreams and getting the subject to metaphorically "give up" whatever information it is that they're trying to get (information that will supposedly be worth a lot of money to someone for mysterious, off-camera reasons, we can assume).

The usual proceedure changes when Ken Watanabe approaches Leo not about stealing someone's secrets, but instead planting an idea into someone's head, or "Inception." If Leo can pull this supposedly impossible task off, Watanabe can make all his legal troubles in the US go away, and he won't have to be a fugitive dream thief anymore. To do it, he assembles a crack squad of other dream heisters that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and painfully out of shape Tom Hardy. Unbeknownst to his co-horts, Leo's been on the edge for some time now, and his dreams have been continuously haunted by the specter of his dead wife Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, whose presence, also unbeknownst to them, is a serious threat to the mission and places them all in jeopardy.

I don't want to get into specifics with this movie, but I will say that after introducing such an intriguing set-up, the way the movie played out kind of disappointed me in a few key areas. Foremost, it felt like it was a much longer movie that became a lot shorter during post production, meaning that a lot of the character stuff feels vague and undernourished. This is most heavily felt in the scenes where Ellen Page and Leo talk, which seem rushed and trucated. I almost suspect that they decided to remove every other scene they had together from the movie in the interest of getting the running time down. During several of their mid-movie exchanges, I caught myself thinking, why the hell is she saying that to him now? I assume a lot of this was trimmed to make way for the "big heist" sequence which, while spectacular, seems to take up at least the last 90 minutes of the movie.

Additionally, the nature of the dream world that the gang enters felt a bit too literal and regimented, with strict rules that don't get anything close to any dream I am aware of having. My dreams tend to feel a little like hazy, rambling lies that keep changing as they go. One moment you're in one place, and the next you're someplace else doing something else: Everything shifts to accomodate whatever the stream of conscious needs, often mashing incongruent places and things together for the sake of trying to get things to make sense. Credit the middle entries in the Nightmare On Elm Street series for getting this feeling right. The Inception dreamscapes feel a little more like a video game, or the Matrix from The Matrix, or the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I don't entirely understand the rules of the dream world either, except that there don't seem to be any. How, for example, did Mal "take" another character into Limbo late in the movie? She shot him in one dream, but then took him into another? I just don't understand how Limbo is supposed to work, although I think I understand what Mal is supposed to represent in his subconscious.

I think the movie made sense... The rules of the world were laid out so fast that I'm not sure if it stuck to its own logic or not! I felt like a lot of the movie was Nolan sort of showing off his intellect, but even so I'm not convinced I really had a grasp on how the world works why they had to do certain things at particular times.

In a way, it reminded me of a staging of "Arcadia" that I saw in college: That play is a little like Tom Stoppard showing off how smart he is, and it ultimately becomes like a bewildering intellectual blitz that (for me at least) was pure, unadulterated agony. I hated it for that, and I have a small amount of animosity toward Inception for similarly setting up such a dense world and then giving the audience so few tools to actually figure out what the hell it's trying to do. I appreciate movies that become richer upon repeated viewings, I really do, but I think they've got be accessible on some level the first time through, otherwise it's like the director arrogantly spitting in your face, proclaiming his work to be worthy of you watching multiple times before you can truly understand the brilliant message he was sending out to the world.

Another example of this for me is Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, which I watched probably a couple dozen times on DVD and love dearly, versus his next movie, The Life Aquatic which I saw once on opening weekend, and hated so much that I walked out of it a few times, only to return upon realizing that the only other thing playing in the theater was Lemony Snicket. People who have taken the time to really figure that one out assure me that there's a lot of great stuff in there. I say life is just too short, and I'd rather catch up on episodes of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia that I missed the first go around.

Funny thing is, I liked The Dark Knight (and several of Nolan's other movies) because it was a popcorn movie that aimed really high. This new one feels like one of those art-house mindbenders that knows how to look like it's smart when in fact it's mostly being dense and unclear. Is it okay to say that I admire Inception more than I actually enjoyed watching it? That the movie is excellent, but simply didn't knock me over the way I was hoping for? Is there a problem here that's rooted in extreme hype and impossible expectations?

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