Update: Related posts that may interest you:
- “Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle“
- “Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination“
- “More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1“
- “My Favorite New Movies of 2010“
- “A D Jameson talks about movies #1: The opening scenes of Inception” (YouTube)
- “The Ever Risable Dark Knight” (HTMLGIANT)
- “We Need to Talk About Batman” (HTMLGIANT)
- “Reading Frank Miller’s influences on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy” (HTMLGIANT)
- “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” parts 1, 2, 3, 4 5, 6, 7, 8
Christopher Nolan, while presumably a rather likable fellow (he does give work to Michael Caine), is a depressingly artless filmmaker. To be sure, some of the concepts in this new one are clever enough (even if they play like weak snatches from Philip K. Dick): the military developed shared dreaming, which then became a tool for corporate espionage—sure thing. The great Dom Cobb and his team now must infiltrate a businessperson’s mind in order to plant the seed of an idea, rather than steal one—a nice enough twist, and a fine enough premise for a caper.
But Nolan then fails to dramatize his concepts. His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception. Its actors are talking threadbare ciphers, eager mouthpieces for their director.
Examples abound. After failing in their mission to deceive Saito, Cobb remarks to his teammate Arthur: “We were supposed to deliver Saito’s expansion plans to Cobol Engineering two hours ago. By now they know we failed.” (A potential response: “Hey, dude, I’m, like, your partner. I know the score!”) An even better one: the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.
This unwieldy verbal exposition must be the first thing that I comment on, because it is utterly relentless. Inception consists of two modes, really: expository dialogue, and gun battles. (Oddly, the characters are never out of breath as they trade factoids in between shots. Nor are they ever once scratched, or their hairdos mussed, or their clothes torn—although I suppose that part’s just like a dream.) (It’s just like my dreams.)
Ever since the 1980s, it’s been the consummate gospel in Hollywood that if you want every last audience member to understand something, then you must repeat the info three times. Nolan proves especially devout; so, Saito tells Cobb and Arthur (while they’re riding around in his helicopter) that he wants Maurice Fischer’s empire broken up. Cobb then relates this clear and precise goal to Eames, the happy thief, while they sit and chat in the exotic café in Mombasa. And then Mr. Saito explains it once more to Cobb and his fully assembled team, in an otherwise throwaway scene on a rooftop in (I think) Paris. Good work, Nolan! (There are even more repetitions after that, while the team is planning their caper, and during the caper itself. I doubt that anyone is confused on this particular point by the film’s end!)
In a similar fashion, Nolan’s filmmaking style is heavy on the literal, and extremely one-to-one. What you hear is what you get: if a character speaks, you can be sure the onscreen image will be of that character moving his mouth. If that character mentions something, then you can be sure that Nolan will cut to a close-up of that object. (The man owes D.W. Griffith an extraordinary debt; he is desperately in love with insert shots.) (I’d be curious to see what would happen if someone told Nolan that he could use one and only one lens—and not a telephoto lens!—on his next project.)
Another example: When Cobb calls his darling, fresh-scrubbed children back in the States, Nolan cuts to footage of the two kids—and right when their voices come on the line. It’s very helpful—indeed, almost comical—as though the tykes, squatting in the sweet summer grass with their darling backs turned toward the camera, are psychically talking to Cobb on the phone. (Well, maybe they are!) Similarly, when the one kid asks about their mother, Nolan obligingly cuts to images of Mal.
And so it goes, 148-minutes worth (minus credits). And this is filmmaking dumbed down so far, so debased, that nearly all of its poetry, all of its 120-year-old rich artistry, is lost. (It’s not really cinema at all, in fact: it’s an illustrated script.) Of all the young A-list Hollywood directors, Nolan strikes me as the most ham-fisted, the most unimaginatively literal, the most unaware of cinema’s vast potential (although, come to think of it, Bryan Singer gives him a pretty good run for his money). (Actually, Singer’s far worse, now that I think a bit further. Nolan, you’re second.)
It saddens me to hear that it took Nolan ten years to write Inception, because, honestly, it’s just so terribly written. Some sample dialogue:
They come here to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?
She had locked something away, something deep inside her. The truth that she’d always known but chose to forget. Limbo became her reality.
Do you think you can build a prison of memories to lock her in?
We wanted to live in a house, but we loved this type of building. In the real world we’d have to choose, but not here.
(I especially love that last one. I bet Nolan spent one full year alone debating whether he should name the type of building, or go with the circumlocution. I think he was right to choose the latter—otherwise, he would have had to include a scene explaining Modern architecture—three scenes, in fact…)
As Harrison Ford once told his (similarly inelegant) director, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
What’s especially depressing about all of this (the one-note, bare-boned nature of the project) is that there has now been well over fifty years worth of precedents for this kind of artwork—the psychological/postmodernist/mind-fuck narrative, call it whatever you will. Philip K. Dick himself wrote dozens of them, and he wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) in…what? Two months? (He wrote five other novels that year, among other things.) (Indeed, the biggest mystery of Inception, in my opinion, is why Nolan didn’t simply adapt Three Stigmata—a novel that practically contains Inception!)
Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do! (His closest rival here is, once again, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Bryan Singer.) Consider Inception‘s opening scene alone:
- slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock
- slow motion shot of waves
- close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore
- point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle
- reverse shot of Cobb’s face
- pov shot of the boy and a girl making a sandcastle
- reverse shot of Cobb’s face
- pov shot of the kids running out of frame
- shot of a gun being pointed at Cobb’s back
- reverse shot of a guard standing over him, holding the gun
- reverse shot of the gun pulling Cobb’s shirt up, revealing his own gun
- reverse shot of the guard calling to another guard
- long shot of that other guard
…And then we cut inside. (Note the three shots of the kids. Again, Nolan’s concern is that we not miss a thing.)
Well, at least he’s providing plenty of work for his crew. That’s five separate acting calls (Leo, his body double, the two kids, guard #1, guard #2), maybe even three or four separate days of shooting! (Of course he snagged the other, later footage of Leo on the beach when he did 3, 5, and 7; shots 9 and 12 are of a body double; 1 and 2 are second-unit—maybe even the 13th shot as well, since it doesn’t have dialogue.)
Here, just for the record, is a trailer for a much better shot, much better directed, much more beautiful, much more suspenseful, and all-around much better movie that also begins with somebody washing up on a beach:
Fewer nifty effects, admittedly. But somebody does get shot!
More egregious than the exposition’s gracelessness and its relentlessness is its irrelevance. Much of what is mechanically and prosaically explained to the audience throughout the film’s first hour—the set-up—turns out not to matter. Once the team goes on its little mission, it’s to be nothing but generic gun battles with anonymous baddies.
Why would Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) guide their new architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) through such nifty surreal dreamscapes as the exploding neighborhood cafe, the origami Paris and the Escher staircase if she’s not allowed to create any such environments herself? Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie’s most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway? Wouldn’t it have made for a better story (and better showmanship) if the dreams got more spectacular as the movie went along? Wouldn’t a chase through the streets of a folded city be more dazzling than, say, regular old gridlock (even if somebody does throw a runaway locomotive into the middle of it)? [...] Why promise ‘cathedrals… that couldn’t exist in the real world,’ when the movie has no intention of delivering anything more visually exciting than familiar action-movie settings: a traffic jam, a hotel, a ski slope?
Nolan can’t really be blamed for forgetting so much of the film’s first hour—not even the characters can remember all that dialogue. So, for instance, in the hotel, when Arthur was wondering how he could drop his teammates in the total absence of gravity, I kept thinking, “Hey, uh, why don’t you do what Ellen Page did during her very second dream, and alter the physics of the dream? Because it’s your dream!” I thought the same thing, in fact, in all of the dreams. Yusuf kept driving his van around the city, when he could have been making a floating platform that took the van out of reach. (Eventually he did do something a little like that, kind of.)
But Nolan, not unlike Michael Bay, would rather solve his dramatic problems using explosives. (I didn’t count all of the explosions in Inception, but there were a lot of them. There were even a bunch of close-ups right in the beginning of the film of cars exploding—when Saito’s subconsciousness is rioting in the streets—and I kept thinking, wow, they sure are blowing up lots and lots of cars. (More work for the crew!) And those scenes didn’t even matter very much, I think, in the end. (Do you even really remember them? Do you think it would have ruined the film had they been missing? Remember, we’re talking about blowing up cars! That really increases a film’s carbon footprint!) All that work, all that carbon, and they wash right over us. Next movie, he’ll have to have even more.
Explosions used to mean something in a movie. Here’s a great one:
And here’s a really fantastic string of them—the ending of Zabriskie Point:
If you still want more (but, you know, artfully done), check out the work of Cornelia Parker, who I’d wager (besides Antonioni) was another influence on the design of that café scene:
OK, another example of things just not mattering: A great deal is made by Ariadne of the maliciousness of Cobb’s subconsciousness—it’ll “drive a train” right through her creations. Indeed, she uses her secret knowledge of what Cobb’s repressing to justify tagging along on the raid. More than once she chastises Cobb for endangering the others.
However, there turns out to be little, if any danger. Despite that initial train (a novel image, and the kind of thing that the film needed far more of), nothing really happens. Mal turns up only once, in the snow fortress, just in time to shoot Fischer and send him to Limbo. But that, too, is easily solved: Cobb and Ariadne drop down to Limbo themselves, very casual-like, where Cobb finally tells Mal to stop bothering him—and that’s that!
Well, one can find dozens of such examples. The opening scenes establish a clock motif (close-ups of watch hands speeding up and slowing down, the prominent sound of ticking on the soundtrack), and then that’s dropped and never returned to—etc. (Maybe there’s more clock footage that will be included as deleted scenes on the DVD? And wouldn’t that be so great? You click on “deleted scenes,” and it’s fifty-three minutes of close-ups of clock hands, running at various speeds… Nolan could do commentary: “Yeah, I shot all these, and I really wanted them in there, but the test audiences said that they slowed the film down some…”)
Ariadne’s easily the film’s most thankless character: rather than actually design anything (the film never really explores this—she doesn’t show her designs to either Cobb or to the audience!), she’s just an ingenue, an outsider whose questions allow the author to explain different stuff to the audience. And none of that stuff tends to matter.
The worst example comes late in the film, during the assault on the snow fortress-hospital. Cobb finally starts gunning down random bad guys, and Nolan interrupts the action to have Ariadne cry: “Are those projections part of his subconscious?“
(How has Ariadne forgotten this basic principle, one of the first things that Cobb explained?)
Cobb coolly replies, “Yes” (probably thinking, “I should have explained this two more times to her”).
Ariadne then cries: “Are you destroying those parts of his mind?“
Now, this is a fine question to ask, while they’re three dream states deep, and hours into a perilous mission (which followed weeks and weeks of planning).
But: “No, no,” Cobb assures her (and therefore the audience) “—they’re just projections.”
…What is this dialogue doing here? Why did Nolan find it necessary to write, and shoot, and edit in this exchange? And why is it here? Cobb or anyone else could have explained this concept earlier on, before the mission, or on one of the umpteen occasions when someone else was happily gunning at folks. Or (and I like this solution even better): no one needed to explain this factoid at all. Because, really, who cares? Ariadne, you’ve joined the ranks of a criminal gang on an illegal and ethically compromised caper—why the sudden twinge of conscience?
My guess is that the following conversation occurred during pre-production:
WARNER BROS. STUDIO EXEC: You have Cobb shooting and killing projections here. It’s really the first time in the film, in fact, that he’s killed any of them.
NOLAN [distractedly—he's busy planning an explosion]: Mm-hmm.
WARNER BROS. STUDIO EXEC: Well, the audience might think now that he’s a bad guy—that he’s destroying Fischer’s memories, or something. (Cillian Murphy’s eyes are rather blue, and rather soulful.)
NOLAN: …I hadn’t thought of that. [Puts down his models, thinks a second.] It’s OK. I’ll throw in some dialogue that clarifies he’s not doing any harm.
That’s Nolan’s solution to nearly every writing problem: throw in some dialogue!
As with his earlier film Memento (which I also didn’t like, but which strikes me as a much better movie than Inception), Nolan doesn’t trust the audience to understand anything. Memento—which was daring enough to swipe from an episode of Seinfeld—differed from that TV show in that it betrayed its own gimmicky concept. Lacking the courage of Seinfeld‘s creators, Nolan interspersed his backward-chronology segments with scenes of Guy Pearce explaining everything over a phone, clarifying anything that was even remotely confusing.
(Who was on the other end of that phone? Why, it was the audience, of course!)
…To be fair, the Seinfeld episode (The Betrayal) was inspired by Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. So Nolan and his brother were possibly also inspired by that (or by any number of reverse-chronology narratives). But Nolan always reaches with two hands: with the left one for the gimmick he’s going to employ, and with the right one for the means to clearly explain it. (He’s like a training bra for experimental art.)
[Update 21 August 11: I removed the embedded Seinfeld and Pinter YouTube videos, since they were dead. But for more on reverse chronology, see this post, where I've assembled a very complete list of backwards-running works.]
Along these lines, Inception might as well have been titled My First Mind-Fuck Movie. Here’s a list of more than fifty films dealing with memory or the unreal nature of reality, all of which are vastly superior to Inception:
- Rashômon (1950)
- Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) (1957)
- Vertigo (1958)
- Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
- L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961)
- The Innocents (1961)
- La Jetée (1962)
- 8½ (1963)
- Charade (1963)
- Les Mepris (Contempt) (1963)
- Blow Up (1965)
- Persona (1966)
- Tanin no kao (The Face of Another) (1966)
- Belle de jour (1967)
- Point Blank (1967)
- Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968)
- Petulia (1968)
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968)
- The Swimmer (1968)
- Performance (1970)
- Amarcord (1973)
- Don’t Look Now (1973)
- Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) (1974)
- Zerkalo (The Mirror) (1975)
- The Tenant (Le locataire) (1976)
- Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire) (1977)
- F for Fake (1977)
- Providence (1977)
- Bad Timing (1979)
- Stalker (1979)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- Brazil (1985)
- Total Recall (1990)
- Naked Lunch (1991)
- Schizopolis (1996)
- Lost Highway (1997)
- The Game (1997)
- The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
- Los amantes del polar circulo (Lovers of the Arctic Circle) (1998)
- Wandâfuru raifu (After Life) (1998)
- Del olvido al no me acuerdo (Juan, I Forgot, I Don’t Remember) (1999)
- Fight Club (1999)
- The Matrix (1999)
- American Psycho (2000)
- Donnie Darko (2001)
- Mulholland Dr. (2001)
- The Others (Los Otros) (2001)
- Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters) (2003)
- Oldboy (2003)
- Marebito (The Stranger from Afar) (2004)
- Sud pralad (Tropical Malady) (2004)
- A Scanner Darkly (2005)
- INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
- Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) (2006)
- Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes) (2008)
- Les herbes folles (Wild Grass) (2009)
If you liked Inception, and you haven’t seen one of these films; or if you haven’t seen Inception, and haven’t seen one of these films; or if you hated Inception and haven’t seen one of these films—then I’d recommend every single one of them!
Now Nolan’s no dope; he does do a few things right. He knows enough to visually distinguish the different environments that his characters pass through. (He’s seen Return of the Jedi.) And so we get a rain-soaked city in the first dream, an Art Deco hotel in the second, and the ice-planet Hoth at the end.
Mind you, he stages interesting action only in the second environment; the first and third are populated by generic baddies who don’t impact the plot in any way. (They fire “unreal bullets,” the kind that miss true heroes until it’s time to further the plot—e.g., the one that gets poor Saito.)
The Hoth-bound gun battle is by far the worst. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir aptly called it
the supremely boring ski-patrol vs. Arctic fortress shootout found on Level Three, like the Alistair MacLean adaptation “Ice Station Zebra” from 1968. (With Rock Hudson! And Ernest Borgnine!) [...] [It] could be in one of the Roger Moore Bond movies or an abandoned Cold War drama with Sylvester Stallone. (“No man’s ever broken out of the Soviet Union’s super-secret Northern Fortress. But one man’s going to break IN.”)
1980s action movies seem a rather formative influence on Nolan. Quentin Tarantino, when he steals, is smart enough at least to do so from Howard Hawks and Jean-Luc Godard; Paul Thomas Anderson swipes from Kubrick and Scorsese. Nolan imitates George P. Cosmatos.
And that was a very good decision, dressing both the good guys and the bad guys from head-to-toe in white snow camouflage. I had no idea who was shooting at whom, really. And then, even when when Mal showed up, slinking down into a room from the ceiling (?), she too was wearing snow camouflage, and not her typical sexy black number. (Now that would have been an image! Something straight out of Buñuel—a filmmaker Nolan has probably never watched.)
I couldn’t follow that battle. But, thankfully, it too doesn’t matter, as it, like all the others, neither advanced nor impeded the plot. Guys just got shot.
(The second time I saw the movie, I watched this sequence very carefully. There are so many shots of guys running around, falling off of ledges, jumping on snowmobiles, falling off of snowmobiles, getting shot, getting hit by explosions. And I kept thinking, my god, I have no idea how someone even begins planning to shoot a sequence like this, let alone shoots it, let alone figures out how to randomly intercut this footage into the film. So there’s a skill that Nolan really has—he and Michael Bay both—even though I regard it as a completely worthless talent.)
Inception has the general shape of a heist movie, but mostly it fails to follow through. (Its too bad, too, because the scene with the strongest pathos is when Fischer gets inside the snow fortress hospital room and opens the little safe, and finds the pinwheel.) The pleasure of the heist film lies in watching the team do its job, demonstrating their unique skills, especially as the situation grows increasingly complicated. And Inception plays lip-service to this idea—Eames gets to shapeshift a couple of times, Cobb gets to pretend he’s Mr. Charles.
But beyond that: Arthur gets to…punch people, float around, blow something up. Eames gets to…blow some things up, shoot some guys. Saito gets to…go skiing (while mortally wounded!) and throw a grenade (blowing something up!). Yusuf gets to…drive a van (for one full week? I wasn’t clear on that; I guess not). Ariadne gets to…ask questions and lecture Cobb. (It’s too bad she doesn’t blow anything up. Where’s the gender equality, Mr. Nolan?) (Well, she does get to shoot and kill the film’s only other female character!)
If you’d like to see a much better heist movie, check out The Asphalt Jungle (1950):
…or Bob le flambeur (1956):
See also, after you watch those three, Nolan’s own The Dark Knight: the Joker’s tricky bank robbery at the start of that film was cleverer and more thrilling than anything in Inception. (The best way to watch The Dark Knight, of course, is to just watch the scenes starring Heath Ledger.)
Many have been trying to read the film as being more complicated than it is—and many seem to be having a lot of fun doing it, so God bless them. Me, I think it’s all much simpler than it appears.
Watching the movie (I saw it twice), I couldn’t help but wonder what Philip K. Dick might have done with such thin material. A few passing ideas:
- Cobb’s top—and the whole concept of the totems—would have been revealed to be meaningless, a lie and not a true test of whether one’s dreaming or not;
- The target of the con would be Cobb himself: in a reversal of the opening sequence, Saito and his accomplice Arthur would have been working to infiltrate Cobb’s mind, either to extract something, or to plant an idea;
- Inception would turn out to be easy, extraction hard—and so the team had to plant the idea that inception’s what’s difficult, extraction hard;
- The true scheme would have been to get Saito out of Limbo, he being a former teammate of Cobb’s (or even his lover?!), now somehow stuck there (hence the “young men” line).
…And so on. And, when I saw it for the first time, occasionally I thought Nolan might even be headed in one of those directions. But, as is always the case with his movies, disappointingly, one can bank on things moving toward the simplest solution—the most one-to-one. (I wonder if any of the above plot twists occurred to him during the decade he worked on the film.)
Don’t believe me? Consider: After the scheme with Fischer has succeeded, Cobb chooses to “die again” and return to Limbo, looking for Saito. (How he knows Saito has died is a tiny mystery.) He informs Ariadne of his choice (of course the plot point is clarified and presented verbally), and so she cries to him: “Don’t lose yourself! Find Saito and bring him back!”
Which is what then happens, quite literally. Cobb returns to Limbo, and this time he doesn’t know who he is or what’s going on. (Why it’s different than the last time he was there, mere minutes ago, is another tiny mystery.) Indeed, the very first lines of the film, spoken by a guard to the very old Saito, inform us of this: “He was delirious, but he asked for you by name.”
(Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in this scene, his eyes glazed, his curled hand dutifully and dully shoveling gruel into his mouth, is very wonderfully, unintentionally comic. I’ve never much understood the fellow’s appeal, but he’s starting to grow on me—he’s really quite pure in his delivery. He picks an emotion, and then he projects the hell out of that emotion!)
And then—well, Cobb and Saito talk, and through their dialogue remind one another that Limbo is only a dream, and so Saito reaches for Cobb’s big fat gun, and presumably they shoot themselves and wake up on the plane.
I’ve seen and heard some claim that we shouldn’t read this section this way, because we don’t actually see Saito shoot himself, etc.—and usually I’d agree… But Nolan is just so damned literal! I think it’s always best to underestimate him, to err on the side of simplicity. (More proof: Arthur, when he finds out what Cobb has done, intones, “He’ll be lost.” And Ariadne replies, “No, he’ll be all right.” …And she’s correct!)
With all due respect to Ron Silliman, I find comments like this pretty silly:
I’m sure some ambitious critic is going to come along & make the claim that Christopher Nolan is making a film about films – that this rather obvious analogy is what all the dream-within-a-dream stuff is about – and that Nolan is showing how these summer thriller features are themselves compilations of genre-defined devices from earlier films (down close to the smallest detail, say the way the children won’t turn around & look at us echoes Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was released when Nolan was just three years old, or that Cobb is a name Nolan himself has used before, in his first feature, The Following). As the director of the last Batman mega-hits, as well as Insomnia, Memento & The Prestige, Nolan is well-positioned to make such a critique, done here with the sort of special effects that will repeatedly bring a spontaneous grin to your face, as when Ellen Page’s Ariadne – who says women architects never get interesting assignments? – bends all of Paris in various directions so that she & Cobb start walking down the street by going up the wall (shades of Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding)!
Silliman’s right about all those film allusions; however, I’d argue that any critic who makes an argument like that isn’t ambitious, but deluded. It gives Nolan entirely too much credit to claim that he “is showing how these summer thriller features are themselves compilations of genre-defined devices from earlier films”—randomly pick a film, any film, and you can do the same kind of backward reading, singling out allusions and steals and bits of direct inspiration. Because that is how art works; people don’t work in vacuums, inventing things out of whole cloth, but make things that adhere more or less to precedents set by the artworks they’ve seen. And just how critics use quotes and summaries and paraphrases and footnotes to connect their ideas to pre-existing knowledge, artists use echos and allusions and homages to connect their works to pre-existing art—which is to say, to human culture.
The argument that Nolan is doing anything novel or insightful or even remarkable here—were some critic to come along and make it (I love the slipperiness of the conditional here, even as Silliman is “sure” that this argument will be made—even if he himself isn’t making it, mind you!)—it’s like when an artist makes an artwork with some metatextual gimmick, his purpose being (he’ll proudly tell you) to demonstrate (or, even better, to prove!) that all artworks are artifice.
Which is to say it’s just like when someone does something entirely banal.
Cobb’s relationship with Mal doesn’t work, and not just because it’s impossible to believe that the man-child Leonardo would ever end up with Marion Cotillard. No, it doesn’t work because Nolan, like so many little-boy directors preoccupied with automatic rifles and explosions, has nothing credible to say about adult relationships. (The deepest romantic sentiment comes when Cobb asks Mal to marry him: he tells her he has a dream (!) that they will “grow old together.” Cue Spielberg-esque footage of a cute old couple shuffling along hand in hand.) (We even get a close-up of their old—but not too elderly and withered and liver-spotted—hands!)
No, Nolan tells us quite clearly what he thinks of la femme, and the problems they love to cause little boys. The (French)woman’s name is “Mal,” for crying out loud! And she’s a vengeful harpy—an angel of fury who relentlessly pursues our hero into his action-adventure dreamworlds. How Nolan expects us to believe that Cobb—or any sane person—would want to spend his life with her is utterly beyond me. (This is a perfect example of deconstruction: the film undoes itself—it argues against itself—by embracing two contradictory points: Cobb wants to be with Mal, he should be with Mal—but no one should want to be with Mal; Mal’s a psycho-bitch.)
And of course Cobb doesn’t want to be with her—he wants to be with his kids—probably so he can squat and build sandcastles with them—hey, they’re having all the fun! (I love how his son is always shown digging in the ground, “maybe looking for some worm.” Nolan should have had the courage to show the two kids lounging on a futon, spaced out in front of the TV, listening to their iPods, ignoring their weirdo dream-warrior parents.)
The audience, I think (I know!), is supposed to cheer—or at least feel fairly relieved—when the film’s only adult female character, who is French (villainous) and whose name is—literally—EVIL!! (I’m still chuckling over that one) finally dies.
(Inception is a pretty misogynistic film.)
It’s also sickeningly violent. Consider this scene, which you may not even remember, it’s presented so off-handedly: Eames is zipping around on his skis, offing projections. He races up alongside an armored truck, and tosses something inside it. Cut to the driver catching the object in his lap, and looking at it. We get a close-up: it’s some kind of explosive. Cut to a close-up of the driver’s face: he’s wild-eyed with fright.
Cut then to a longer shot of the truck. The dramatic music pauses. The truck explodes, killing the driver and everyone else on board. Eames zips past the camera on his skis, an action-movie star.
The second time I saw the film and this scene occurred, the three guys sitting in front of me cheered and pumped their fists. They were so happy that they got to see some anonymous dudes get bombed—and all in all, it took fewer than fifteen seconds! Then we raced right along to the next burst of gunfire, the next explosion.
This (besides all the dialogue) is the actual content of Inception. The folks who love this movie, who think it’s an instant classic, one of the all-time greats (right up there with Shawshank and The Usual Suspects!)—this is what they think great filmmaking is: scenes of casual slaughter. (What’s the body count in Inception? How many shots of death by bullet did Nolan have to plan and then execute in making this personal project? …Quite a lot.)
What so many folks really like about Inception, I’d argue—the reason why it’s currently #3 of all time at the IMDB, and has grossed $200+ million—is that this summer’s big dumb blockbuster has some intellectualismness about it, so no one need feel any shame for liking all the ‘splosions. (Just like with The Dark Knight!)
(Oh, but not you, of course! You like it for the philosophizing!)
Of which there is precious little, really—very few deep ideas. Because what, in the end, is so thought-provoking here? That “life may be like unto a dream?” (Oh, how Chuang Tzu!)
The Matrix movies make for a fine contrast; both films use a giddy drizzle of philosophy to justify a lot of cool action scenes. But the Matrix films, to their credit, are at least very stylistic. They have good production design. They have stellar fight choreography! (Nothing incoherent there.) They have some actual suspense, some actual mind-fuck moments. They have some sense of humor (well, the first one does), and they even have sex and romance, to some (very small) extent. They have interesting special effects throughout—and the Wachowskis, admirably, kept working to one-up themselves as the trilogy progressed. (They didn’t introduce the concept of the Matrix to then have Neo and his friends engage in boring shootouts.)
Furthermore, The Matrix demonstrated at least a partial understanding of the philosophy that it gleefully invoked. I don’t want to make the claim that the Matrix movies are profound or anything—Baudrillard was totally right when he remarked, “the Matrix [is] the sort of film that the matrix would make about itself”—but there do exist a few moments of real wit, and insight.
For instance, Neo’s hollowed-out copy of Simulacra and Simulation—that’s worth a real chuckle. And I have to confess that I really like the scene where Morpheus uses an artificial reality program to show Neo a simulation of the devastated earth, which he then calls “the desert of the real.” That’s pretty fucking clever! Wheels within wheels, man…
Inception, as far as I can see (and of course I may be missing more—I hope that I am!), has only one thing of this sort: the Marion Cotillard/Edith Piaf connection, which I will readily concede is pretty slick. And the reference goes even deeper than that, as this YouTube video demonstrates:
…and as this New York Times article reveals.
And we can continue this reading even further: the Edith Piaf song used is “Non, je ne regrette rien,” or “No Regrets,” an obviously ironic choice given Cobb’s relationship with Mal. A tidy bit of work!
But, sadly, other than that bòn mót, Inception is (to my eyes) barren and joyless; it’s paltry humor comes from obligatory Bruce Willis-esque one-liners like, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a bit larger, darling,” not to mention jokes like “it’s raining because the ethnic guy drank too much free champagne.”
The best moment in the movie, I’d argue, hands down, is the one in the hotel dream, where Arthur tricks Ariadne into kissing him. It’s the only scene in the film that feels alive. (As a friend of mine said: “I bet it came from some on-set improvisation between Joshua Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page—and not from Christopher Nolan.”) (Well, however it got there, thank God. And it’s really not all that much.)
17. The Parting Shot
OK, so it’s time for some discussion of the ending. What does do happen in that final scene? Has the whole movie been just a dream? Has Dom Cobb been tricked, deluded? Does his stolen top totem keep spinning, or does it topple?
The first time I saw the film, I thought this:
[M]y haphazard reading of the ending is that they all did get out of the dream worlds, and then Saito put Leo back to sleep, so he could dream that he was with his children. That was what Saito was offering him, not true political amnesty. Note how cagey he was when Leo asked him how he could get him through customs. (He says something like, “I can do it, there is a way.”) The question then becomes as to whether Leo will accept this dream, or find a way out. The fact that he walks off and ignores his little top suggests the former.
Not that I think Nolan really knows what he was going, mind you. I think he just felt like he had to put that kind of ending on it, because the “mindfuck” genre calls for such an ending.
However, once again, I think that the real answer is relatively simple.
A monk once asked his teacher, the renowned Zen Master Zhaozhou, “Master, does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Zhaozhou answered, “Mu.”