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.
As Jim Emerson complains here:
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 shots, 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 Joseph 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.”
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
- An inventory of all my writing on cinema
205 thoughts on “Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception”
Thank you for this. I agree with all of it.
What was bizarre is that the Cobb/Mal relationship was the same kind of idealized-but-imperilled fifties relationship that was at the bottom of Shutter Island, another mindfuck built on nothing.
Another thing that just didn’t matter: the antagonism between Gordon-Leavitt’s character and Tom Hardy’s. What was it about? Nothing. I had never seen Hardy before, and that was a treat, Gordon-Leavitt is wildly overrated IMHO.
And the endless explanations and expository dialogue, painful.
My oldest niece said she loves “Inception” because it has so thoroughly snowed the fanboys. Really, though, she said, because the whole stupid thing takes place in Leo’s Big Action Head, it is in fact a film in which NOTHING REALLY HAPPENS. Cobb might be a teensy bit closer to reality at the end (sort of like someone coming out of a very long coma), but he’s still stuck in his dreams. So it’s kind of like an Oreo that’s three layers of nutritionally vacant filling: you’ve got (dream-)filling at the beginning, you have one hundred and twenty-some interminable minutes of (dream-)filling in the middle, and, instead of a crunchy chocolatey cookie of a wrap-up, you’ve got more (dream-)filling at the end. Nolan could be asking audiences to sit and stare at a blank screen for two and a half hours, and the effect would be pretty much the same (if considerably quieter and less explosion-filled). The creepy thing is, his fans would do it. At least two times each.
You make me happy, Adam, thank you.
Strong response, Adam. Feels like you gave the film a thorough smack down, beat down, pummeling, and then a face stomp just to make sure it was dead. It’s a brilliant display of the destructive force of criticism, but at the end of the day I wonder about the value of such destruction.
Criticism can open texts or shut them, and I feel like this post performs the latter. You mention my post at giant as an attempt to read the film as more complicated than it is, but I think what I was really doing was performing the opposite of what you’re performing here: an affirmative criticism, one that attempts to open the film up, that looks for possibilities, that uses the film as a starting point for conversation. Whereas what you’re doing here feels like an attempt to close the film off, deny possibilities, and shut down conversation.
Ultimately, your attempt to prove that I’m wrong – that the film is completely uncomplicated – does nothing to convince me. Instead, what it does is highlight a difference in approach: one of curiosity, wonder, and affirmation versus one of cynicism, scorn, and negation. If anything, I see your destructive critique of the film as further proof of its complexity: the fact that you are able to amass 17 ways of criticizing the film indicates that the film has at least 17 significant aspects worthy of critical reproach. Not to mention the fact that you found the film worthy of being viewed twice, and worthy of your time enough to dedicate this lengthy response.
I’d never say I liked the film or didn’t like it, nor would I ever make a judgment about whether or not the film is good or bad – I believe such claims to be categorical errors (in philosophical terms) and/or the provenance of professional movie pundits – but what I do maintain is the ability of the film to inspire fascination, which was the opening claim of my post at giant.
Fascination comes in both negative and positive forms. Thinking of it this way, what you’ve proven with this extremely thoughtful response is that despite your attempt to show the faults of the film, you’ve actually shown the degree of the film’s ability to spark fascination. Thus, in the end, I think you’ve proven that you agree with me: the film was uber fascinating.
Besides all that, I enjoyed reading this post – I always enjoy reading your posts — I’m a fan of your thoughtwaves. Despite the fact that I may sometimes seem diluted, I think what you have to say is fascinating :)
Thanks for the reply!
More than anything, I want to open up discussion of Noloan’s merits—or lack of them—as a filmmaker. I’ve mostly seen folks debate their various metaphorical interpretations of the film, and not the film itself—not its aesthetics, for instance, or its function as a material/political object in our culture. And metaphorical interpretation is fine and all, and there’s certainly a place for it, but I’m more of a Marxist/Formalist/aesthetics/politics guy myself, and I’d like to see more discussion of those aspects of the film (and of any film).
So that’s what I mostly wrote about here. My view of this particular film in this regard happens to be a negative one, but I don’t think that shuts down any conversation. I’d love it, in fact, if others wanted to talk about these aspects, rather than debating whether the top spins or falls, or whether the whole story’s “only a dream,” or who’s dreaming it, or whether the movie is ultimately a brilliant metaphor for filmmaking. (Only two of my criticisms, I think—16 and 17, maybe 13—relate to metaphorical interpretations, which is what 99% of the discussion has focused around (for instance, most of the comments you posted at the giant—and most of Silliman’s comments, too). And, again, there’s nothing wrong with that sort of discussion; I just think our culture tends to be awash in it, and I happen to prefer discussing other things (like how misogynistic and violent contemporary Hollywood movies are, not to mention how badly shot).
A side note: when I was in grad school, I had a test I called the “open book test.” Basically, you go into a lit class and observe how people discuss the books they’ve been reading: Do they ever open them? If not, they’re probably discussing their interpretations of the book, and not the book itself. (To put it in more formalist terms, they’re discussing the fabula, and not the syuzhet.)
So, said another way, I’m writing a more syuzhet-based critique, in an attempt to wrench conversation away from pure discussion of the fabula. I’m trying, in fact, to open the book!
I think this might be more a difference in how we approach criticism. I imagine I could write a critique of the same length of just about any film out there—and would be happy to do so. And I never mind watching any film twice. I’d even watch Inception a third or fourth time or more, if I thought there was good reason for me to do so. I love watching movies! I learned early on in college, from my first Marxist mentor, to dissociate my personal likes/dislikes from the subjects of my ideology critiques.
But I don’t consider Inception remarkable in this regard. Indeed, I categorically disagree with you: the film was uber un-fascinating (to me). (I found it especially boring on a second go-round, and had to take extensive notes to keep my attention from wandering—transcribing dialogue, documenting edits, counting insert shots, checking focal lengths, observing when musical cues came in and left, etc.)
And this can be done with any movie. Check out the Cine-Metrics crowd:
(I also ate a really good falafel sandwich while watching it, along with a liter of Gerolsteiner mineral water. And that is my favorite memory of the screening.)
So Inception doesn’t fascinate me at all—no more than the average anything, and a lot less than many, many other things. (I saw Charade again today, and there’s an uber-fascinating film I’d rather watch over and over again!) So I think what prompted me to write all the above was less the film itself, and more the conversation surrounding the film—because I want to try nudging that conversation more in a certain direction. If numerous others weren’t praising it, I wouldn’t have written anything about it.
If my critique is harsh, that’s because I honestly consider guys like Nolan the Enemy. He may be a nice friendly guy and kind to kittens, etc. (I don’t know), but from my POV, he’s a lousy filmmaker who fills up the screens at my local cineplex with crap—and I resent him for that.
Here’s a question I find fascinating: Why are so many people so eager to talk about Inception? In other words, where does that fascination that you mention come from? What is its source?
I’m sure some of it is genuine—I’m sure a lot of people genuinely like the movie (inasmuch as anything is ever genuine)–but color me suspicious. I’d rather argue that the reason why Inception is dominating the current cultural conversation has less to do with the film’s actual merits, and more to do with its massive advertising campaign.
For instance, I polled my students the week before Inception came out, and every one of them was simply dying to see the film, even though none of them knew what it was actually about. I recall very clearly that one of them said (paraphrase), “I don’t know anything about it, but I hear it’s fascinating.”
Funny how that word keeps circling around the film:
Talk about hype! This is one of dozens of examples floating out there; I recall seeing them daily for weeks and weeks. (I’d love to get my hands on the PR packet for the movie. I bet that’s the source for that “fascinating” meme. Inception in real life proves rather easy. Madison Avenue has understood this for decades!)
(Of course all of this is discretely coordinated by the studio.)
Well, your mind is the scene of the crime, I read somewhere. My students and you and me and the culture at large were all sold Inception, months ago—we were assured that it was the movie event of the summer, if not the year—and we bought that hype, and the fact that it was a fascinating film.
…Well, I resent this!
This is the Culture Industry at work, and Nolan is the current face of that industry. And despite all this buzz and hype and 3,792 screens and nonstop media chatter, the truth is that the guy makes tepid objects that masquerade as Art, and that people then feel compelled to talk about for months. And, resentful being that I am, I will criticize him for that!
That all said, if anything I’ve written here makes anyone more interested in—more fascinated by—Inception…then that is between them and their god.
Thanks again for the comments—and the kind words!
I hear Nolan is so kind to cats that he hangs them in his office on hooks, in place of movie posters.
Thanks, I needed this. I came down here to add one point, but then I saw you already made it in the comments. In your first paragraph, you say: “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.”
And I immediately thought, hold on, that’s bullshit; real-life inception is *easy*. No dream-machines required. Criticism #18 (or #0, if you will) is this: Nolan’s concepts of consciousness, dreaming, and creativity are hopelessly muddled and counter-intuitive. “We always know where an idea comes from?” Since when? As you said in your response to Chris above: “Inception in real life proves rather easy. Madison Avenue has understood this for decades!” So in addition to poor execution and lousy filmmaking — for all the reasons you list — the whole thing is based on an understanding of human consciousness that is questionable at best. Exasperation.
The notion that inception is much more difficult than extraction was the first thing in the movie that made me think, “well, that’s pretty dumb and illogical.”
That was a great post!
Truth be told, walking out of the theater I felt like I kinda liked the movie. It wasn’t all that great, I was (a bit) disappointed by it really, but I thought it was okay.
I still kinda agree with that idea, that at least it’s not a completely retarded Hollywood production that tries to make you dumb. It’s not smart, doesn’t think you are, so it will say everything, three times, but at least it doesn’t just yell and makes fart jokes like so many other (blockbusters)…
That said, the more I thought about it, and I did for a little while, the more I agree with you. Except you put more thought into it, and didn’t lack humor.
Only one bad thing I have to say. Two movies came to my mind while watching Inception, and I was extremely surprised not to see them listed on your list, because they both fit, and are brilliant movies : eXistenZ, and Dark City.
The former plays much better with “the unreal nature of reality” and making us wonder where we are; the later just fully utilize its premise of a changing reality, having its characters moving into a world that changes around them.
To second Andrew: Bullseye! Couldn’t agree more on just about every point. Although I did moderately enjoy the film while I was watching it just as a piece of escapist entertainment, when I got home and actually really thought about what I’d seen, I realized how uninteresting, how inept and shoddily constructed it was. And that’s the impression that’s stayed with me: a bloated whale of a film, pretentious in the truest sense of the word, but ultimately one that fails to deliver on either the intellectual or the escapist side of things. That is its ultimate failure. It’s not great art, but it’s hardly great entertainment, either.
Nolan just strikes me as an unbearably bland filmmaker, period. I don’t get what so many otherwise respectable cinephiles see in this guy’s films, Inception especially. In particular – and I don’t believe you touched on this – his use of music bugs the hell out of me. Why the need for this constant tense hammering, regardless of whether the characters are engaged in combat, or simply talking to one another in a room? It lends the entire film a kind of same-iness, a uniform blandness; every scene, every moment is made just as pivotal as the next. No room for truly great individual scenes/shots/moments; or when they do come, they inevitably just blend in with the rest of the film. No time to slow down, or reflect on things a bit, to potentially give an event or a sentence spoken more resonance; not in this film.
I get the feeling that Nolan doesn’t trust the audience to follow the narrative as they ideally would with any great film, so we get this ADHD-addled tone of constantly-Important streamlined blandness running throughout the film, enforced by Zimmer’s poundings and the spoonfeeding provided by the endless, endless expository dialogue. It’s beyond frustrating.
I enjoyed hearing that Piaf tune whenever it played, though.
That music thing is very true. Nolan isn’t alone in it, though—nearly all Hollywood films are wall-to-wall music these days.
I was once at a movie theater that was directly under a bowling alley (it was in one of those massive multistory Asian malls). A friend and I went to see François Ozon’s Swimming Pool. We could hear bowling all through the movie. Then we went to see Mystic River (it was our wet-and-wild Wednesday night double feature). We didn’t hear a single bowling ball.
I remember that screening in Bangkok!
Wonderful essay, Adam. I forwarded it to all my UCLA cohorts, many of whom flipped their wigs over Nolan’s lumbering, joyless film.
Interesting that you brought up that screening of Mystic River — Eastwood sometimes suffers from the same aesthetic delusions as Nolan, overstuffing lurid trash with cosmic significance. (This ain’t opera, fellas! If it were, we’d attend for the sake of the music, not the plot.)
The feeling I came away with after seeing Inception was that there wasn’t a single redeeming moment of warmth or spontaneity in the entire 150 minute experience (save for the aforementioned kiss), which is the difference between a craftsman eager to please a fickle audience and a master confident enough to express himself, audience be damned.
At the time of its release, some criticized Vertigo for having a similarly airless quality, a sense that its plot was more calculated than felt, but time has since vindicated that movie as its other virtues shined through and remained in memory long after we knew the plot: Hermann’s unforgettable themes; Barbara Bel Geddes’ performance (Hitchcock famously directed her “Don’t act.”); Jimmy Stewart’s furious interrogation in the final scene, and every one of Kim Novak’s close-ups to name a few. I doubt if anything in Inception will remain in memory after discussion of its possible interpretations is exhausted, which should happen any minute now that Catfish is in limited release.
Bill, it’s always wonderful to hear from you!
I thought Inception‘s score pretty good (in the abstract)—at least, what I remember of it. It’s not Hermann, but—I thought it fairly enjoyable.
The only flaw I ever see in Vertigo is that Midge is much more attractive than Madeleine. What was Scottie thinking???
This is the funniest damn thing I’ve read on the web all year. Still wiping tears of laughter out of my eyes, thank you. You ought to start a blog dedicated to all the films you hate, especially the films you hate enough to see more than once, (just to take notes) to make sure everyone knows just how much you hate it. It would be very entertaining! Seriously though, you have students? I feel sorry for your students. You remind me of the philosopher in Kafka’s short story, The Top. Ever read it? In its entirety:
A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which is why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.
Shut up. You’re in Dubrovnik; I can’t hear you.
Of all the young A-list Hollywood directors…
Out of interest, who are the others?
Paul Thomas Anderson
…The New New New Hollywood that folks have been talking about since the mid-to-late 1990s.
An excellent analysis.
While I think Inception was still one of the smartest big-budget action movies I’ve seen since, well, Christopher Nolan’s last one, I still agree with a lot of your criticism. Particularly the bit about dialogue. I hadn’t noticed that, but you’re right: Nolan characters are talky! Maybe that’s why his movies run so long.
Also: are Nolan’s movies getting grimmer? Going from a sort of fatalist humor to a dark, plodding doom?
Thanks for saving me and the Missus $20. I must say, the most insufferable thing for me (as a writer) to endure is exposition–whether in film or literature or art or any place else. I read just the Wiki entry on this film’s plot and smelled a stink bomb a mile away. All the while, listening to all my buds and budettes wax poetic upon it, extolling its virtues. But I never gave in. Two things I don’t have in my life: time and money. Thank you for this cerebral breakdown of what I suspected was typical Hollywood shite.
I am one of those who made up their mind never never never never to see this and have suffered on account of that because it is becoming more and more necessary to see it to be able to say all the things about it it that I know it deserves. Like Shutter island it is one of those abominably popular films that has got to be seen to maintain order in the universe.
Give it a few months, and people will forget it for the Next Big Thing.
What’s the problem with exposition? Nowhere did I feel that exposition was unnecessary.
And sorry, not everyone has eidetic memory to remember every single line to tally with, already a lot is going on at the same time. Also, I don’t mind repetition as long as it wasn’t done to death. In fact it is exactly because of this the movie was so accessible.
I agree with you on Ellen Page’s part.
Mulholland drive was Pain in the ass movie which was only bearable because of lesbian love scenes.
also I was left with a doubt, Why didn’t Leonardo di Caprio kill his wife himself in first place? (He has no problem killing arthur)
Nothing’s wrong with exposition. Nothing is wrong with any literary device. It’s the inelegant, hackneyed ways in which Nolan employs such devices that grate me. And I do think it becomes a problem when so much of the exposition doesn’t matter; I prefer more economical storytelling.
(To be fair, Nolan isn’t alone in such problems. Hollywood was once known for its marvelous screenwriting, but it’s long been in decline.)
I think Leo didn’t want to shoot Mal because she lived only in his subconscious. ?
This is such a kind and generous response to a comment that basically says, “Hey, I like movies that are dumb and condescending.”
Bottomline: the film worked for me. This review didn’t.
Exactly. This review is overrated, more than the movie actually.
This review sounds like a typical Internet moaner full of himself thinking he’s floating over the masses and a PhD in Cinema (just because he can drop names like Alain Resnais, Tarkovski and linking random Godard’s scenes in the same sentence). The typical rant of the self-proclaimed “haters” who are so proud of themselves never following the trend even though you blatanly sound like a hipster. But the more you talk about it and spends so much time talking sh*t and dissing it, at the end of the day you’re just part of the crowd caring for it and liking it/not liking it for what meaningless reasons don’t make you a Genius. You’re just reacting like every viewer at what Nolan wanted to show or not to you. But you know if Inception is a lame and irrelevant movie in Art History, why did you watch it twice? (So you’re asssuming you didn’t “get it” hahaha) Why be so pompous trying so hard to slaughter it with AICN-talkback arguments like in resume: “Nolan is crap, Me I know Phillip K. Dick. Do you know Phillip K. Dick? Nolan doesn’t know Phillip K. Dick as his fanboys ha ha I’m such a genius blabla crappy self-centered stuff”. Are we talking about an author who got works like “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, “Minority Report”, “Total Recall” (or “Paycheck” and “The Impostor” on the other hand) adapted in the last two decades by the likes of Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Paul Verhoeven produced by Hollywood industry? Is that your definition for a relatively unknown author that awfully needed to be enlight by an obscure blogger on the Internet? So I can tell you one thing pal, you’re definitely not underground by knowing and loving Philip K.Dick stuff nowadays because it has already been sucked into Mainstream Mass Culture. Reading and citing K. Dick is not Hype-y anymore.
I’m sure you can’t do this with Tron Legacy, the last hype of the month, because there’s not enough material to take on artful philosophical discussion. (Or maybe you loved it so much you can’t…)
So you prefer bashing a Christopher Nolan movie because it seems to you he may represent “The so-called clever Golden-Boy of Hollywood” so if you punch it hard and pointing eagerly how idiotic are his movies, you’d like to think of yourself as challenging his intellectual and directing abilities knowing much better than him what he wanted to express and how you would handle it and nailed it better than him, you’re so smarter than him. Ridiculous.
Because you want so much to flatter your intellect and ego so your little virtual attendance can cheer and comment “Oh you tore to shreds The so-called clever golden boy of the Month, you are smarter than him. You’re my hero, can I give you a blowjob?”. It takes no talent and no reward to do that.
Discard Inception in order to praise The Game and American Psycho (boring and vain piece of pretentiousness, I’d rather recommend to read Bret Easton Ellis books) and stating they are better pieces of Art (giggles) than Inception only prove we’re taling only on a subjective matter and clearly NOT THE TRUTH. (and to my tastes, both are terrible but no one cares as I got no time to write a complacent essay of how I hate those movies so hard on every levels I want to run a crusade for revealing the whole world how ignorant they are loving these flicks and whining how much North By Northwest and The Clockwork Orange are so much better and so underrated (I noticed everything is crap comparing Kubrick’s works, it became like a Godwin Point in movie related discussions.) I’d like to focus on what I love and wish to share. Not taking a movie to serve as a support for hatred. Like I’ll go like “Mission to Mars is crap, I hated it so I will argue why 2001 A Space Odyssey is much better FTW.”)
I agree with almost everything you have to say but to a much smaller degree. All of these faults exist and there were moments in this review when i went ‘oh yeah, that IS true,’ but i think you blow these faults out of proportion.
Somewhere you forget that this is not, and was never supposed to be, avant garde cinema. This is a blockbuster big-budget big-studio film and there’s only so much genuine mindfucking that it can do if the studio has to turn a profit. Some of your criticisms are valid even keeping this in mind, but many of them lose their bite when you view this film in its context.
Thanks for the comment, Vinay. I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree, though. I don’t think the fact that Inception is a commercial Hollywood film excuses it of anything—indeed, I rather deplore that mindset, which is a defense I suspect Hollywood itself developed.
I certainly didn’t walk into Inception expecting a Stan Brakhage or Maya Deren film. But mainstream Hollywood blockbusters can be truly excellent films! I just taught a short class in which we watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and North by Northwest (1959), both A-list Hollywood action/adventure pictures, both superbly entertaining and (I’d argue) great works of art. And in my 9th criticism above, I pointed out all of the following as being superior to Inception:
The Innocents (1961)
Point Blank (1967)
Blade Runner (1982)
Total Recall (1990)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
The Others (Los Otros) (2001)
All of those movies were, I’m pretty sure, A-list properties designed to be blockbusters. None of them are avant-garde (I prefer the term experimental, myself)—or, better put: while some of them are somewhat experimental, they’re also all designed to be very watchable and entertaining. (Personally, I don’t like the idea that experimental and entertaining are opposites, which is one of the reasons why I don’t like the argument you’ve made.)
Total Recall in particular makes a great contrast for Inception: supposedly a big dumb sfx action film that is in fact quite clever and wonderfully subversive. (And yet it still has explosions!) …Well, that’s the reason why Paul Verhoeven is a master.
Best regards, Adam
Dead on. I just linked this article in a Facebook fight with a stranger who insisted that Inception was–I shit you not–“the greatest movie of the decade.” The only reason I didn’t agree with him, he maintained, was that I simply “missed the point.” A point, I might add, that he failed to explain even once, let alone the three times the great director would have given me.
In short, fuck Inception. I like it less the more I think about it; I wish I could go back to the evening after I saw it, when I had already forgotten how I spent those two and a half hours of my day.
Also, thanks for the list! I’ve probably seen a third of those, and love them all (esp Resnais’ Marienbad!), so I’ll see about working my way through the rest.
Well, the decade is pretty young, so perhaps Inception can hold the title for a little while…
Drawing from recent US releases alone, though, I vastly preferred The Ghost Writer.
After having seen both in the theater, I feel I can safely say that anyone who says Inception is the best movie of the decade clearly hasn’t seen Piranha 3D.
Harry Knowles came to the same conclusion:
“Before the film, Eli [Roth] did an impersonation of Aja’s intentions in making this film as described at a certain get together of a few members of the SPLAT PACK… and the word, ‘Guilty Pleazhure’ came out of Eli’s frenchy best Aja speaking mouth. ‘The guilt will cause exquisite pleazhure. The pleazhure of guilT!’ This is that film.”
I don’t have much stomach for gore, but everything I’ve heard so far about Piranha 3D (except for the blatant misogyny—but it sounds as though even that is pretty tongue-in-cheek? maybe?) sounds fairly compelling.
Not only is everything tongue in cheek, but there’s an awful lot of misandry to go along with the misogyny–a pretty misanthropic film all around. Maybe that’s why I loved it.
To address the gore factor: I don’t have much stomach for it either–I never go to horror movies and war films leave me cold–but this was so over the top and often so fake that it actually didn’t get to me much. Ask someone who knows you well and has seen it. It might be worth a try.
Mostly, expect to laugh a lot and be reminded of a time when movies were honest about just being an excuse for so much spectacle.
Misanthropy I can get behind. Thanks! I’ll probably go see it now.
Meanwhile, there’s this:
Well done! I walked out of this movie thinking “Booooo-ooooooooo-oooooooring!” and all I’ve heard since is “WELL THEN, YOU OBVIOUSLY DIDN’T ‘GET IT’.”
Thank you for giving me a neatly made, point-by-point list of almost all my own issues with the film. I will be referring others here from now on.
I am pleased that you criticized the treatment of Mal. Cotilard was painfully misused in this film, yet was possibly one of the most capable actors in the bunch. Nice work, Nolan. Also, I found most of the emotional expression particularly wooden, and not just because of DiCaprio’s terrible acting. Does Chris Nolan have children? Because his whole storyline around the kids was awkwardly clunky, simplistic and cliche.
Thanks again! I’ll be looking through the rest of your blog now!
Thanks, Heidi! And, yes, the Inception children were those typically angelic Hollywood children, who wear stain-resistant, gossamer playthings, and who do nothing but continuously giggle. I think there’s a factory in Burbank that rents them by the pound.
…Although, TO BE FAIR (I’m adding this before Inception-lovers pile on us), sure, yes, those children are but APPARITIONS in Dom Cobb’s mind, and are NOT REAL. They are, I suppose, his fantasized memory of his real kids. (There’s a scene where Cobb is on the phone with his kids, and their voices are young and cute, and then one of the voices changes to an older girl’s voice, which more bitterly says something like, “Are you really coming home?” There’s ample evidence that Cobb is simply deluding himself.)
BUT. Those squeaky-clean kids still remain a problem, I’d argue. Because they are VAPID. And so Cobb is vapid. And it’s tough to root for a protagonist who’s vapid. (As that very well-done snarky graphic points out: “Just have Michael Cane fly the kids to France.”)
Cobb’s a real dope, and not the kind you feel sorry for. (Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer is ultimately something of a dope, but he’s a wonderfully sympathetic one, and as such the film—like so many Polanski films—ultimately turns very elegantly tragic.)
hey dude i live in poor part of india havent got a chance to see this movie though i have read about it so i have no doubts about it but still i want to say this kinda analysis is really required and i also do it all the time . what i really wanted to ask lets assume u get a chance to make a movie( advancement in technology like computer generated graphics so easy or sumthing ) not asking it degrading you cause i am already a fan just asking .
Thanks for the comment, manvir. And I would love to make a movie. I’ve made a few short films and music videos, and I’ve been planning a feature-length film for years now. But I need to stop planning and just make it.
How about you? Any ambitions to direct? Feel free to email me if you want to talk about it.
re: Inception’s one use of ‘wheels within wheels’: according to wikipedia, Nolan apparently had to be convinced not to scrap ‘je ne regrette rien’ (and all it’s intertextual/ironic glory) after he’d decided to cast Marion Cotillard. Who convinced him to keep it? Why, Marion Cotillard!
I agree with most of the things you wrote about the movie, but I have to say you are not very polite and you are so very wrong about mentioning Dubrovnik in that context. You should be ashamed.
…Actually, this is easier:
finally got to see inception heres what i think of the movie
action 2 on 10 (a movie filled with action this is a very sad rating , why so sad nothing new to offer all old stuff and rather sad stuff projections keep dying i feel sad for them )
compare this with dark knight atleast 2-3 scenes were very orignal like that chineese guy kidnapping and opening scene
one or two scene was there orignal that was the van about to hit water and building spinging and losing orientation but both were ok also that paradox i felt sad at such a mathematical thing being wasted away.
comedy 4 on 10 ( there was no more than 2-3 attempts and they were also nothing great atleast doesnt bore with bad stuff )
romance 2 on 10 ( why does this guy even want his wife he was there 50 yrs with her in some dream since they never told , my friend said it was true love but i say give some reason why he cant even move on, kids also
stupid only looking for some worm he could have got a dog )
character development – where is the character development every one starts the way they end side characters are so badly done i feel sorry for them . some of the side characters are there so pointlessly i feel like the movie was a dream there dream how are we here and what am i doing here ( that chemist guy who gets them sedatives blah there going for inception(impossible job) with non specualist people at least leo could have his own team of 10 ppl of which atleast 3-4 die ( they are on some deadly misson )
twist and turn – starts well when they open about the first time dream within a dream thing after that what is the biggest twist ?
one at the end may be not many but this was ok cause i always expected something grand to happen or i was thinking something grand is happening or i need to use full concentration to not miss anything, i am always was watching with full attention .
dream factor – sad part was dreams were unreal and unreserchd i tell u one of my own dream – once i had a accident stupid accident but after it my friends pick me up take me back to room . it was late in night and i was their in lot of pain before sleeping i was just wishing and hoping and praying change reality go back in time and stop this stupid accident . then i slept what did i dream i dreamt of playing football but it was not a simple dream i was playing back in old schools and stuff then from there i keep moving playing in diffrent places and so on it was all so confusing becaz it was still hurting but the point u cant control your dreams . well they changed this to and obviously some change was required to make the story ,but sad part they controlled it so well making it so simple i would have loved if the dreams were unrealiable making the characters do some on the spot thinking anyways may be again hard to pull off stuff. but the only unreliabilty came from the dead wife this itself tookaway the dream charm of the movie away from me .
the top spining part is also lame in many ways . what these people dont know abt friction ? in a way u realise its importance and why it was there just to give that
“open ending ” but i would have again loved it if they didnt have a top spining to tell dream from reality makes it much difficult and hence the process more dangerous like keeping the people at the edge of always going into madness ( and what in the world was that girls having a chess piece to differenciate between reality and dream ?)
so then what about the inception , the inception itself could have been great/ greatest work the last scene some what salvages it . wish they worked more on this to tell some thing to some one and make him think of the idea as his own was a very difficult task and to then make him stick to that idea is actually what this movie should have been about (this was orignal and this with 3 dream layer could have been made into a confusing and intersting show again this could have seriously provided some mind fucking with dreams getting confusing all the time )
some other thing i didnt like this movie was leos own role why is he so pro he hardly did anything in the movie rather than fuck it up with his dead wife and assemble a team . he just knew who to bring in like some football manager buying off players the forger/ thief whoever was killing people way to go he can be in the sequel also doing it all alone
finally i will like to say long before this i had an idea kinda of story only , were the main hero has to hold some major secret in his head ( for eg if its harry potter stuff then he know harry potter will kill voldermort kinda stuff like he knows some future and the bad people want it , nothing orignal i picked it from ninja robots i think .) now since i was the hero and i was young , the idea was he cant learn to hide this secret as he cant fight against mind reading people ( at this point i feel sad for giving harry potter example cause i had thought of mind read before reading it) so his master tells him that he forever will live in the mind of his student (me) and protect his mind . i think and therfore in mi mind a projection kinda thing exist which is so strong because i always believed master is the strongest guy so which ever guy enter his mind never defeats him .
why this example here because the projections were so character less i felt to give this more could be done about them.
finally they left out philosphical question of choosing dream vs reality which anyways has been done many time
it choses a very well known story telling method of start a story some were and then go back there kinda of increases the coolness was done in fullmetal alchemist very well
overall was it a good movie ?
i cant tell my opinion is subjective i was very biased from the begging the world loves it may be ill love it too wen i see on star movie/hbo
btw sorry for pasting it on ur place i did so because all my frnds think this movie is awesome if i post it on my blog and make them read it there experince of it mite suffer let them be happy is what i think still i wanted to reach out to atleast some one
No problems at all, manvir. Good to hear from you! Cheers, Adam
Wow. What an analysis! I really enjoyed the film and still do though I agree with some of your points.
A few things I wanted to mention: I don’t think it’s appropriate to criticize a film because there have been others before it of a similar nature. Perhaps I misunderstood your point (did you feel he was stealing the ideas?) but that’s what I got out of it.
Also, while I think one can certainly become a better writer or filmmaker by seeing classic films I don’t think it’s a negative to have not seen them (besides, if you do there’s too much of a chance of being accused of stealing from them, right? ;) ). Perhaps I feel this way because there are so many I haven’t seen and have reached the point where I stopped apologizing for or accepting criticism for having not seen them all. I do appreciate the value of learning about and knowing the history of film and I do want to see more of the classics but I don’t feel that’s a fair criticism of Nolan or any other filmmaker whether you’re correct about him or not. Well, except for Michael Bay. All criticisms of him are acceptable and fair.
But I really enjoyed your article will certainly be a regular visitor. Your insights and intelligence in this post were wonderful to read and have given me a lot of things to consider in my writing!
Thanks to Scott Myers for linking to your post!
Thanks for the comments! I mostly agree with you: I don’t fault Inception at all for following other, similar films (we all trail behind great works); I fault it rather for not improving on their ideas. (Actually, I fault it for not executing its ideas as well as they do. Anyone who likes Inception, check out Philip K. Dick; you’ll find a lot to love!) (PKD is just the greatest. I picked up a cheap used copy of A Maze of Death over the weekend and am very excited to finally read it.)
And of course there are so many films out there, it’s impossible to see them all, let alone all the good ones (whichever ones they are). I’ve been watching movies very steadily for 15+ years now, maybe about one every three days on average, and I’m not even close to seeing all the ones I’d like to see (I have a list of about 2000 right now I’m eager to watch, and I’m sure there are 2000 more beyond that). And seeing a film once, what is that? I feel as though I need to see a film at least two or three times (preferably projected at least once) before I even begin to understand how I feel about it…and I might be wrong…and then I want to see it again ten years later or so, by which point I’ve either forgotten the film, or have changed… Well, it’s simply endless!
That said, I do fault Nolan for repeatedly employing such a basic and simplistic film grammar, and for not having a stronger grasp of cinema’s vast potential. I find his work terribly formulaic and reductive, so much so that it saddens me. I don’t think this comes down to how many films one has seen; when Agnès Varda made her first film (La Pointe-Courte, 1955), she’d seen maybe ten movies? It has instead to do with having an open mind, and simply being creative. Some people have it and others don’t; Nolan ain’t got it. (Maybe someday he’ll discover it?)
Adding: For anyone out there who hasn’t seen anything by Varda, I can’t recommend her work strongly enough. The Gleaners & I (2000) makes an excellent starting point. She’s so imaginative and thoughtful and fun! Plus it’s a relatively short film—80 minutes long—and easy to find through Netflix, etc. Do check it out! One of the best films of the 2000s, easy!
…And I’ll stand by that list in #9 as all being better movies than Inception. Again, time is short, there are a lot of great films out there, one can’t see everything—but I recommend every one of those. If you do watch any of them, and want to discuss them, please email me; it would be great to chat.
Thanks again for chiming in! Cheers,
Bravo! I, too, thought this film was vastly overrated. I agree completely that the dialogue was wretched and, all in all, the exposition was clumsy. You’re spot on: Nolan doesn’t dramatize his concepts.
And this part: “Inception consists of two modes, really: expository dialogue, and gun battles.” Exactly.
I know some smart people who think well of this film but I still have no idea why. Thank-you for stiffening my resolve – tend to doubt myself when I disagree with intelligent people who have more movie knowledge than I do.
Very disappointed. Overly cynical. If Mr. Nolan’s film fail to entertain you then maybe you should stop watching them. You never rise by tearing art down. Either, you like the film or not — but the attempt to dissect some ones hard work and craft does not make you an artist, critic, or even profound; it makes you look bitter.
Obviously, you are not a filmmaker. I’m sure you tried and failed, or, you never had the balls to go for it. Now you resort to childish attacks on the internet.
“the attempt to dissect some ones hard work and craft does not make you an artist, critic, or even profound”
If dissecting art doesn’t make you a critic, what does? You’re the one resorting to personal attacks instead of engaging the article. Shame indeed.
The only thing real about a movie — the emotional reaction from the viewer.
If you walk in attempting to break down the construction, you are not accepting the art. What is on the screen only exist to create a feeling within us. Nothing more. Every film can be dissected and torn apart. And it takes little to no talent to do so.
I certainly agree that one’s emotional reaction to any film is very valid. But there’s also great validity in critically debating the worth—aesthetic, social, political—of any artwork. (What else is criticism, otherwise?) If you don’t agree with my appraisal, write your own, convince me otherwise, convince others.
And don’t be naive. Nolan made Inception to move and entertain people, yes, so bravo him (he failed in my case). He also made Inception in order to make millions and millions of dollars. Film is a business at the same time it’s an artform. It’s also a battleground for the popular imagination. I don’t want to live in a society where people think Inception is the pinnacle of cinematic arts—it’s lousy filmmaking, and I want to call it out as such. Many will imitate it, nonetheless. (I shudder to see the results.)
Not to mention that I resent living in a society where the main reason people want to discuss the film for months and months and months is because its makers can spend hundreds of millions on an ad campaign, and thereby dominate the cultural conversation. There are simply more interesting movies—more interesting art—more interesting things we could all be talking about, rather than Inception, Inception, Inception. (“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” —Oscar Wilde)
So color me cynical and guarded, for sure. I am not a passive viewer. I’m not there to “accept.” If I like a film, I’m happy to say I liked it. (I liked Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, flawed though it is.) I gladly reserve my right to criticize!
Thanks, though, for taking the time to comment.
were is the guy who wrote this article , anyways i thought one more thing why they based leo character on same cliche man with a dead wife, they should have got inspiration from tiger woods life makes fr better character :P they could have got some 200 women he cheated with in dreams and stuff also one thing i have started to notice about american movies since comedy is regarded as movie for fools all intelectual movies cant have comedy
@ point no. 7 the reason why ariadne asks such a basic question ao late into the movie is clear to us a few seconds later ….. when mal appears in the room, cobb gets lost and cant know for sure if she’s real, and then ariadne tells him what cobb just now told her – she too like the army is not real, just projection, to which cobb asks again “but how do you know for sure?”. Ariadne asnt really asking to know, she was asking so that cobb in a way tells it to himself that he is just killing projections. Now this is what i think, coz we both agree that this is really an elementary question now that 3/4 of the movie is over. This really is an educating post but sometimes i feel you have thought up unnecessarily snarky scenarios instead of thinking form some other point of view.
just using the chops doesnt make a great filmmaker. am i right to say that its not a necessary condition?maybe millions are “getting” inception at a deeper level but just arent aware what it is. it infuriates you that millions love it despite aforementioned things. maybe for nolan’s goal of eliciting a particular audience’s emotional response “basic and simplistic film grammar” sufficed. maybe simplicity of grammar makes the dream world look real and guess what – simple, so we cant tell one from the other
To be sure, using technique doesn’t necessarily mean anything. One must use technique well. I’ve never liked Brian De Palma much, for instance, because I think he uses technique to no real end. Meanwhile, punk rock (I’m a huge fan) demonstrates the extent that enthusiasm and raw creativity can compensate for lack of technical skill. I’ll take any Shaggs song over any De Palma film, any day of the week.
But that still doesn’t excuse poor use of technique, or lack of both technique and creativity, which is what I repeatedly see in Nolan. It’s the absence of any artistry–technical, inspirational, whatever–that annoys me.
…It doesn’t infuriate me in the slightest that others like Inception. (I wonder where you got that from?) What upset me was the lack of criticism of the film, which is why I wrote some criticism. I wanted the discussion to be more balanced, so people could have more perspective on it (if I can be so boastful as to think my writing, should anyone see it, provides perspective). Now that there’s been more criticism elsewhere, I feel less inclined to discuss the film, honestly. Other things elsewhere are more important to me.
Meanwhile, if people want to love Inception, God bless them. It’s good to love things. Loving that film wouldn’t serve me well, but perhaps it will serve others well. When I look back at the formative influences of my childhood (mostly G.I. Joe, X-Men comics, and Star Trek novels), I often shudder at how badly made they were. And yet they gave me something I’m very grateful for, and wouldn’t trade away…not even for the Shaggs.
I agree with every single thing you wrote, including this:
“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.”
That moment felt so tonally disparate from the rest of the movie. I immediately thought, “I wish we were watching *that* movie, instead.”
Anyway, it is such a relief to see it all articulated so precisely. Of course a trippy movie that takes place within dreams and incorporates Jungian ideas is going to be somewhat interesting and provide plenty of things to talk about, but that’s because trippy Jungian ideas about dreams are interesting to talk about on their own. It’s so frustrating – infuriating, even – to see such fabulously exciting themes squandered by artlessness.
If only more people vehemently hated movies that are badly executed, there wouldn’t be so many of them!
Any press is good press. Your thorough review only inspires people to view INCEPTION, and consider your critique while viewing it. You’re helping the mega-million dollar marketing campaign.
If you like SCOTT PILGRIM so much, write a BIG review praising it and inspire people to see it. AT THE MOVIES was one of the biggest catalyst to the independent film market because they campaigned for little films that did not have studio marketing.
Possibly. More than a few people have told me they don’t plan to see the film, based on what I wrote. Maybe it evens out? Personally, I don’t want to motivate people to either see it or not see it—that’s their decision. I just want to contribute to the conversation about it.
The problem you identify is a real one. Adorno described it better than anyone, I think. The Culture Industry wants, more than anything, for us to pay attention to it. But does that mean we should simply ignore it? That doesn’t seem a fitting response. …Well, it’s a puzzle. I aim for a kind of informed balance, myself.
More than anything, I’d like to convince people to watch Barbara Loden’s Wanda.
Nice read. I’ve not seen the film in question, but I remember well being bewildered at the level of praise for Memento (which was essentially the vehicle for a narrative trick, and not a particularly difficult one to pull off, as is confirmed by the fact that the dvd release allows for a linear version of the film), and especially The Dark Knight (almost offensively uninteresting good-vs-evil concepts tied to an aesthetic that was never proficient enough to go beyond ‘shadowed’). Perhaps I’ll watch this in the future, but I’ll certainly not kick in any money for it.
I’m posting to request something unrelated, however; when you discuss The Shaggs, please don’t use the “enthusiastic” argument. It seems to me this has historically been a means of denying aesthetic/technical interest in majority-female bands, instead offering platitudes about feelings; the most notable example probably being the snippy Village Voice comment, included in the liner notes to the re-release of their eponymous debut, that “The Raincoats say they rehearse.” Yeah, because they’re just a bunch of women forming a band for shits and giggles, so why should anything they do be of technical significance?
I’m not even saying your appraisal was unwarranted in the circumstances. I just hate to see a good man straying onto such a dangerous path.
Thanks for the comment, Paul. I definitely agree that the technical skill of female artists is routinely downplayed in our culture, or even outright ignored (women being “emotional” creatures who lack manual dexterity, I guess). It’s sexist and it’s abhorrent.
That said, I think that in the case of the Shaggs, we might agree that their technical skills are…not the most polished? It’s not sexist to say that they failed to play the kind of pop music that they were trying to play—as would anyone, male or female, who had been playing those instruments and songs for such a short period of time. (“The girls hadn’t been playing very long and were uncertain of their abilities.”)
But that’s precisely what’s interesting about the Shaggs (and so much outsider art), and why many fans regard them as “better than the Beatles”: their imagination—as well as, yes, their sheer enthusiasm—enabled them to transcend their technical limitations, and create art. (Great art, I’d argue.)
My larger point was to reply to Nikhilesh’s comment that the mastery of conventional skills isn’t the ultimate arbiter of artistic quality. I wholeheartedly agree, and think the Shaggs demonstrate why. But if that still seems sexist, then substitute any early Ramones record for Philosophy of the World.
one weird thing about the shaggs is that the lead guitar mirrors the vocal line perfectly, which isn’t that easy (although it isn’t that hard either tbh)
and yup, inception blows
No, you’re absolutely right; my beef was with those who would substitute the term “enthusiasm” for any discussion of technical/aesthetic merits; I never thought you were doing so, and clearly your response shows an appreciation beyond such patronising comments, which I dig.
Actually, to use an illustrative example, my wife is currently working on a research project pertaining to the creation, dissemination, and reception of jazz in Berlin and Paris during the 1920s-30s, and this attitude seemed to be systemic amongst critics within this sphere, too; she points out that musicians like Louis Armstrong are referred to with terms such as “childlike,” as well as the usual claptrap about “innate musicality” that seems to inevitably follow African-derived cultural forms.
Anyway, I’ve found this entire page very pleasing. It’s motivated me to re-watch ‘Born in Flames,’ which is one fine endorsement!
Paul, I’d love to hear more about that project, if your wife feels like sharing. It sounds fascinating!
I used to work in an “Outsider Art” gallery, which made me pretty sensitive to the routine denial of technical ability to non-white, non-male, non-mainstream artists. It’s a real problem (often one of the white male mainstream critics not recognizing unfamiliar aesthetic traditions).
I’ll readily admit I was one of those “We must go see Inception because folding buildings! And that guy made Batman with that actor who was great!! Yeah!” while at the same time thinking I was a terribly intelligent cinema goer. And I will admit I saw it three times, and that I walked out thinking “This is truly groundbreaking cinema”. However I did love the film, and it’s sad to see it didn’t quite charm you as it did the rest of the world. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it is a shame sometimes to see big scale films with big looking ambition fall flat.
And while I you’re a bit cynical for my tastes, you have some really good points. The concept of this film could have gone so many brilliant places, but every time it nearly did, it sort of only dipped its toe in the water. Like for instance you mentioned when Ariadne asks “Are you destroying those parts oh his subconscious?”. That line seems to tie in with the idea that if they plant an idea it could come to define who the subject is, in the sense that destroying projections could be affecting the subject as well. But then Cobb dismisses it and we’re left with a line that feels completely out of place.
I read somewhere that Mal is short for Marlorie, which itself is derived from malheur, meaning misfortune (I think). Oh and don’t get me started on Ariadne. It may have gone over most people’s heads, but to anyone who knows some classic Greek tales, it is cringe-worthy as heck. Ariadne was a princess in Greek myth who aided the hero Theseus as he traveled into a labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. Subtle, Nolan, subtle. Also I think the reason Mal was such a complete nightmare (oh the puns) was because she was Cobb’s projection of his last memory of her. He remembered her to be somewhat selfish and bitter and crazy, so dream Mal played out that way. He most likely didn’t want to spend his life with THAT Mal but rather his actual wife, and the reason he held onto her so long was the hope that maybe he could re-create her well enough. Which eventually he couldn’t so dream Mal ‘died’. I actually disagree with you that we should be cheering on Mal’s ‘death’. I found that scene really sad, because as evil and as psycho as dream Mal was, she had a touch of tragedy. It’s seems that even though she died, she lost something too. Cobb didn’t follow her, so in essence she lost him as much as he lost her. Of course that isn’t possible or what’s actually happening, she’s just a representation of Cobb’s guilt (which to me is enough to make the scene touching).
I had some other things I wanted to say but I can’t remember them so I’ll end on a question. I’m by no means educated in film, but I do want to study it. You seem to make a big deal out of the number of shots a director uses to establish things, and that whenever a character directly mentions something, Nolan shows it in the shot. I’ve never really paid attention to this (and I think when Inception comes out on DVD, I will), but that seems a bit pedantic of sorts. I just think, well, if Cobb is talking to his kids why is it so bad to show them? What else is there to show? And why does it matter that Nolan uses thirteen shots instead of six? So my question is, what in your opinion could he have done? Not criticising here I’d actually like to know how he could have made better cinema.
Finally, after reading and writing all this you’ve helped me see a little better that film is an intricate and difficult art form as much as writing or painting or anything else. Hopefully someone can come around with as much cash as Nolan who can make really really good films. I’d like to see the “big budget = average film’ mold be broken.
Am I assuming that Inception has been singled out for a particularly hard lambasting due to the hype surrounding Nolan and his movies?
Does the fact that so many people liked this movie – and were impressed by its’ cleverness’ – really grate on people who ‘know better’? (i.e. are more perceptive with better taste according to themselves)
I am fully aware of P.K.Dick’s precedents (and that scifi literature in general nearly always beats movies to high concepts), and I also noticed the heavy-handed exposition. But I still enjoyed it. in fact, I found it more fun than the absurdly over-rated and equally unoriginal Moon – and, to be fair, more stimulating from a cinematic point of view than every other Hollywood attempt at scifi in recent times.
It was just an old-fashioned heist movie in reverse, with scifi knobs on – and on that level it worked well.
For example – I have heard people knocking the ‘floating sleepers’ idea due to its unlikely connection with the ‘physics’ of the plunging van. Yes – of course its nonsense – but hey – what a great and memorable image. Film-makers are like painters sometimes.
And the list of better films?
Come on…Total recall was a crass and often idiotic movie.
I could take any movie – especially fantasy and scifi – and rip it to shreds. So I assume in this case, Nolan has just become a fashionable target.
And the bottom line is that we will all be interested to see what he does next.
Thanks for the comments, Goodbluff. And, yes, I criticized the film because, at the time, I saw nothing but praise for it, and I wanted to try bringing some balance to the conversation. Since then I haven’t kept up with what people think of the film, because in the end I can’t say I really care. Have people tired of it yet?
I actually just re-watched Total Recall (a film I’ve gone back to on several occasions), and I’ll happily defend it. Verhoeven is a great filmmaker in my book, a moral pornographer who uses crassness to lambaste dominant culture. It took critics and audiences a while—until Starship Troopers and Showgirls—but I think many eventually figured out that Verhoeven’s ultimate goal was to ridicule everything that they loved (and that he himself, too, can’t help but love—he’s very honest). …Well, I’ve never seen anything like that in anything Nolan’s ever done.
The only recent Hollywood sci-fi film I’ve enjoyed has been A Scanner Darkly, which I thought tremendous. I guess I just love PKD that much! (He’s one of my all-time favorite authors.) …I think that’s probably a coincidence, though. I’ve gotten pretty tired of Hollywood sci-fi/horror/zombie/fantasy/superhero movies, and have kind of checked out from watching them… (I figure I’ve already seen plenty.)
You’ll have to forgive me for not having any interest in seeing Nolan’s next film, which I imagine will be some Batman thing. I’ve already seen enough Batman movies, I think. Although I’m sure the Culture Industry will do its utmost to make me feel like I’m really missing out for not watching it! I’ll be missing the Big Media Event of 2012, or whenever!
I’m mailing from Bangalore and was directed to this post from a blog that dealt with film studies. I’m preparing to shoot my first short film so yes, films are an important part of my life and at the outset, I’ll mention that I watched Inception seven times on the big screen and none of it was influenced by the showering praise. I’ll admit that when I left the hall after watching it the first time, I was left cold but it was only because there was a lot to digest and subsequent viewings made my experiences more enjoyable.
I agree with some of the points that you’ve mentioned here regarding the movie wrt exposition, film language, camera techniques, talking heads and incoherent action sequences. I found the exposition to be grating, tiring and having looked like it was made on the fly as was felt convenient. As for the action, that was not Nolan’s forte anyway. However, I’m unable to understand if your scathing review of Inception is targeted at the makers of the movie or the press that has deemed it good enough to laud it in the manner that they have.
If its the former, then I would like to say that even though film criticism is a job, its still a job that has the luxury of looking at something “in Hindsight”. I purchased the shooting script of Inception and it has an interview of Christopher Nolan where he states his primary inspiration for the movie and it dates back to his college days. He often would be late for class but would make sure he reached the breakfast on time because it was free. Post breakfast he would resume sleeping and in that phase he found his dreams to be more flexible in their ability to be modified. That sowed the seeds for Inception. I think the above experience is something that every one of us has been through but how many of us have actually been inspired by it to come out with an idea for a movie (and I am talking about people who want to make films). You have listed more then fifty films that deal with Mindfuck in a better way and even assuming there are a hundred of them that are better than Inception, wouldn’t that make it just after a hundred? What’s the crime in that? Because I don’t remember Nolan having stated anywhere that “Inception is the movie of the summer” or proclaiming himself to be a genius or a film maker of extraordinary talent. In fact, he’s only been truthful about his influences. He clearly stated that the snow fort sequence was meant to be like James Bond and on being asked if he subconsciously ripped off from “Last Year at Marienbad”, he replied that he hadn’t seen the movie till he had finished the script but once he saw it he realized he had subconsciously ripped off from movies that had strong traces of “Last Year at Marienbad”. Moving on to exposition, that was clarified in promotion interviews that the character of Ariadne was meant to be the exposition device. Someone from whom the audience could get their information from. So there was nothing shocking I believe in her asking so many questions and the resultant long dialogues. For someone who would criticize it, I can only start up an intelligent debate which would be headlined, “If not this then how?”. Then again, all of the participants will have the luxury of having the material in front of them to review and offer suggestions and dissect. What of the person who actually thought of it and realized his idea by putting it up on screen for the whole world to view.
Moving on to film criticism and audience reception, just who is a director expected to satisfy? At best, he can be expected to make an honest movie and expect it to do well. And just whom would you blame for a movie turning out to be the way it does? The director? Because he’s the guy who mans the ship? Or the studio guys? Because its their ship so they will inevitably find ways to modify the original vision of the director and bend it to their will? Inception cost 200 million dollars I believe. Its neither a sequel nor a franchise which is a gamble in itself in todays world. So should guys like me feel happy that an original vision has been greenlit by a major studio, however flawed it might have been or should be feel let down by the movie because of the seventeen points that you’ve stated above. You’ve stated in a reply that you want to make your first feature film but you haven’t gone beyond planning. I sincerely believe that you would like to see more quality movies made so wouldn’t it be more apt if you could something with the movie thats in the works and finish something and try and bring about a change in the way movies are made in this world. I come from that part of the world which is even more ruthless in cutting off independent visions, so Inception is like a gift to me!
I saw “Scott Pilgrim vs The World” a couple of days back. I found it imaginative but not engaging on a story level. But apart from talking to friends about it and not giving a favourable review, I wouldn’t post anything against it in a public forum because I happen to have the same career dreams as the makers of that movie and unless I do something thats defining, I feel I have absolutely no right to even talk unfavourably about it. I did however feel that it was an honest movie.
I don’t know if I went off-tangent on a few occasions but these were thoughts that just flowed as soon as I read this piece. It was good read but not necessarily something that I agree with.
I’m happy to hear that this post is still reaching people, months after I wrote it, and as far away as Bangalore (although is there really any distance on the internet?). Thanks for taking the time to read what I wrote, and to comment.
I think the best answer (my best answer) to all of your questions is: the way I see it, artists make objects and put them out into the world, and then other people (audiences, critics) get to talk about them. Some people will like those things and say so. Other people will not like those things and will say so. Other people will feel one way or the other and will stay silent. Other people won’t see it, or will feel a bunch of different ways, etc.
Over time, there might be some consensus, or rather a few or a bunch of different consensuses, regarding the object that was made. Those consensuses may accurately reflect how most people in fact feel about the object. There may also be other views that are not represented. Also, over time, those consensuses might change, or might not.
Christopher Nolan’s “job,” as an artist, is to make the best object he can possibly make—the intersection of what he most wants to make, and can possibly make, at any given time. My “job,” as a critic, is to say how I honestly feel about that object, if I feel compelled to speak. (I also have to do the best job I can do, too. For instance, I might try to be as convincing as possible, just as Nolan’s trying to get as many people as he can to see his movie.)
In this case, I felt compelled to speak. I said what I felt about the object (the film) as clearly as I could. (It’s also my responsibility, I think, to take the object seriously. And while it may seem to some as though I’m not taking Inception seriously above, please know that I take the film very, very seriously, in that I watched it very carefully, and thought about it for a long time, and then took a long time to write what I wrote.) …Perhaps what I wrote will go some way to influencing how some others feel about it; perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it will contribute to some consensus view about the film; perhaps it won’t. But the important thing is for everyone involved, critics and artists, to be as honest as they can.
Well, I hope that clarifies my position. …Best of luck with your shoot!
A lot of piquant observations here, and more than a few made me chuckle. However, the force of your insights is considerably blunted by snarky, snide personal jabs like “Buñuel—a filmmaker Nolan has probably never watched,” which expresses nothing about Nolan or his film but rather a lot about yourself. The great failing of a lot of criticism is to ascribe to the creator of the piece some perceived motivation or intent, and even worse, to critique that perceived intent — a sort of critical straw man; there’s some of that here as well.
That’s fair. My point, though, I think, was more that the paucity of technique in Nolan’s work leads me to conclude he doesn’t know much about film history, and the choices that filmmakers have. I don’t think it’s important that anyone watch Buñuel, necessarily. I do think it’s good for artists to study widely, though, and to be able to choose from different options. Cinema has a very rich history—many rich histories.
My central criticism of Nolan is that he’s a formulaic filmmaker who (for example) relates 95% of the information in his films through expository dialogue shot in shot-reverse-shot. He’s not an artist; he’s a hack who’s just applying a simple and economical formula over and over again. I find it tedious to watch, and am saddened that so many enjoy it, because I think it represents a narrowing of cinema’s possibility, and artistry.
Meanwhile, I don’t think Nolan cares whether I’m snide or not. I’d rather have his millions than my snark.
…Thanks for the comment! Cheers, Adam
I do agree with a lot (if not all) of this criticism…and there are many ‘mindfuck’ films that certainly surpass this one. However, I also have to give the film, and Nolan, some credit…he does make certain people who would otherwise never delve deeper into the cinematic artform do so. I believe in this sense, he presents general audiences an opening into work with much more value…which I believe gives the film a purpose to be at my local theater.
Also, Nolan does strike me as a man who is passionate about his films, even if they are not the best, or even great pieces of work. I do not believe he is so much a money-grabber…although his style has worked out economically for the studios. Whenever I watch one of his films I am under the deep impression that he is making the film he wants to make for the purpose of the film, and not the benefits that will come from it.
Lastly, I do think you are being unfair with your condescension to Nolan. After all, he has struggled to make his dreams come true, and the rest of us are still dreaming.
I do love your criticism and you seem to excel in the world of critical-thinking. Thanks for this post
PS: Do so many people really hate Shutter Island? I think that film is worthy of a thousand praises more than this one…I would rank it up with Ghost Writer in the best American releases of the year.
I do think it’s awesome that Nolan makes movies. On some level I admire anyone who can make anything; good on him. That said, as a critic, I need to my job, and criticize what I think needs criticizing. Of course I do hope he goes on to make better films.
I didn’t care for Shutter Island, myself (although I loved the soundtrack). But I didn’t feel all that compelled to write about it, either way. If you write anything about it yourself, let me know!
I think I shall write a review for Shutter Island…though I had better go buy it now.
Inception is a dumb movie for dumb people. If you think it’s smart, you’re dumb. If this review made you mad, you’re mad because the guy who wrote it is smarter than you. PERIOD.
Hmm, looks like you deleted the comment that prompted my comment, so…never mind about that.
This is by far the most pretentious, arrogant piece of rubbish I have ever read in my life.
We get it. You’ve seen lots of obscure films.
We get it. You like picking tiny holes in other people’s work.
Isn’t it amazing? How much joy you ripping into ‘Inception’ has brought into the world? Oh wait. None.
You achieve nothing but writing this, who does it help? It only serves to bring more unneeded cynicism into the world and most likely scare off aspiring film makers who are too afraid to proceed with their work lest they be moaned at by self-righteous losers like you.
Ok, you didn’t like Inception, but let me ask you this –
What films have you written?
What blockbusters have you penned?
What have you done to get audiences talking?
If Roman Polanski had written this article, at least I would have felt he knew what he was talking about.
You’re just some guy with too much time on his hands.
Most of the posts that have been the most critical of A D Jameson’s post have been of the flavor of Benedict T: all ad hominem, no effort whatsoever to deal with Jameson’s extensive, specific criticisms. It adds nothing to the conversation but bile.
BT wrote: “How much joy you ripping into ‘Inception’ has brought into the world? Oh wait. None.”
It brought a lot of joy to me. I enjoy reading good, critical thinking.
BT: “You achieve nothing but writing this, who does it help?”
It helps people who like to think about what they see and understand the thinking of others.
BT: “It only serves to bring more unneeded cynicism into the world and most likely scare off aspiring film makers who are too afraid to proceed with their work lest they be moaned at by self-righteous losers like you.”
Cynicism does not equal criticism.
The idea that aspiring filmmakers of any worth are scared off by bloggers is laughable. Mr. Nolan is enjoying his multi-multi-millions while Mr. Jameson labors in much greater obscurity and, I assume, poverty – and all of the aspiring filmmakers know it.
BT: “Ok, you didn’t like Inception, but let me ask you this –
What films have you written?
What blockbusters have you penned?
What have you done to get audiences talking?”
So, you have to have written a film to criticize it – do you also have to have written a film to praise it slavishly? Everyone who sees a film comes away with an opinion about it. Very few of those people have made a film themselves.
Some opinions will be positive, some negative, some in-between.
Some people will make the effort to advance thoughtful arguments and reasons for their opinions. Some people will call names, e.g., “arrogant” “pretentious” at any one whose views threaten them.
BT: “You’re just some guy with too much time on his hands.”
You don’t say, BT.
Thank you for the comments, Judith. Well said! Cheers, Adam
Wow, so fascinating and well written! It’s so true. You’ve really put words to what I was feeling about the whole movie. After watching it I felt that it lacked a huge part of debt. There was something missing. But everyone I talk to about the film clearly think otherwise. So thanks again. There is so many hollywood-movies that need to tell the audience of every single thing by dialogue instead uf using visual effects (as you should when you’re making a film and not writing a book). The phrase “read between the lines” should also “appear” on the screen.
Yes, your review is bitter, and yes, it is cynical; however, everyone is entitled to an opinion.
I liked Inception. After reading this article, I’m wondering whether you look down on people who enjoyed the movie. It isn’t a weakness to genuinely find movies interesting, no matter how many shots are in the first scene. But perhaps you don’t need me to tell you that.
No, I have no judgment whatsoever of anyone who likes the film. People should like whatever they want to like. There are lots of reasons to like things regardless of quality, which is what my critique focuses on.
Its amazing that someone who criticizes Nolan for “dumbing down” his concepts and filmmaking style for the audience would then completely misunderstand certain points and use them as examples of why the movie is bad.
Case in point your quote from Jim Emerson:
“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?”
I don’t quite see how you would have failed to notice that Cobb and Arthur did NOT take Ariadne through these predetermined dreamscape tests (the exploding cafe, the folding city). The exploding cafe was a result of Ariadne realizing she was in a dream, panicking, and thus destroying the dreamscape; it was not Cobb’s doing, and it happened to show Ariadne how dangerous it is for the mark to learn he/she is dreaming.
The folding city was Ariadne’s doing, trying to be creative now that she had a large sandbox to play in. That was very clear.
The Escher staircase WAS an environment Arthur taught Ariadne, but you are confused. He said that WAS a useful tool to make in the dreamscape (You and Emerson imply Arthur said you can’t do this), and in fact, Arthur uses it later to confuse his enemies. How did this escape you if Nolan uses too much exposition and dumbs down his concepts for everyone to understand?
“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.”
What do you mean she never shows her designs to the audience? She designed the dream that got her killed by Mal! You know, the one with the folding city and the mirror-portals to new landscapes. She designed every level during the Inception (that’s how she knows of the shortcut into the fortress that was Eames idea if I remember correctly).
Again, these are things you miss yet incorrectly use as weapons against Nolan and the film. Not as “dumbed down” as you apparently thought, it seems.
I got the logistical points you mentioned; I think you’ve misunderstood my critique.
Nolan introduced early on in the film that, since the characters were going into dreams, anything was possible. The first few locations are pretty remarkable. And indeed the film was sold on that remarkable imagery (the folding city, which people talked about for months).
Then, he fails to provide amazing dream locations for the rest of the film. He justifies it through dialogue—something about how the dreams should be mundane, so the dreamer doesn’t get suspicious, etc. And I would call that bad filmmaking.
Why on earth would the director invent a limitation like that on their own work? Nolan was free to do whatever he wanted to do! He could have made Cob say instead, “You have to make the dreams as SPECTACULAR as possible, ultra weird, so they’re like real dreams, and the dreamer doesn’t get suspicious.” And then all the Big Mission could have happened in amazing, spectacular locations. Kinda like the movie promised.
That’s my criticism. Using the Escher staircase once—excuse me while I yawn. I think it’s easy to imagine insanely deranged fight scenes and chases in constantly twisting, bizarre, exciting locations—something Nolan failed to deliver.
Artists can make whatever they want to make. Nolan dreams very small.
If you were Fischer and you found yourself in some sort of weird place, you would instantly realize you were dreaming which would make killing yourself the best option-as in the first level when he was kidnapped. I think Nolan was right in making the dream feel like reality.
You notice in the second level when the water in the glass was slanted-Fischer got suspicious and Cobb had to tell him that it was a dream. In fact, Fischer wanted to kill himself at the slightest opportunity he had-the gun Cobb gave him.
Wow. Lots of responses; at this point, I’m probably repeating someone, and you’ve moved on, and no one cares that much about Inception but…
I can’t help but feel you’re describing a Godard film when you write:
“Inception has the general shape of a heist movie, but mostly it fails to follow through.”
“Some sample dialogue: ‘They come here to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?’”
“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.”
“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.”
“Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception.”
…which isn’t to say that Inception is anything like Godard (whose films I adore), but rather that I think many of your reasons for disliking Nolan’s film are not always pitfalls of filmmaking.
But I have yet to read a critique of Inception that is really cogent and cohesive. There is no doubt that Nolan has a difficult time filming and editing action sequences that are comprehensible, but this is the only criticism I’ve read that holds water, and it pertains rarely to any moment beyond the snowmobile sequence.
Not that I loved the film, but I thought it was more entertaining than most “action” films from last year (including The American, Salt, Kick-Ass, Machete, Harry Potter, Red, Iron Man II, etc., etc., etc.). And certainly a vast improvement over The Dark Knight.
Here’s a question: are critics of this film backlashing against its enthusiastic reception (à la Avatar), or is there something particularly galling about the film in and of itself, something that doesn’t become a positive attribute in another filmmaker’s work?
PS—There is a Cornelia Parker at the De Young in SF that I like very much, but you really have to smell it in order to appreciate it; it’s the remains of a fire-bombed Baptist church. I’m not sure I understand the way in which it has influenced Inception. Did you mean that seriously?
Thanks for the fascinating post!
gcgiles, thanks for such an excellent response. Sorry I’d missed it until now!
You’re right, many of those critiques, when extracted, do sound like descriptions of a Godard film. Except for this one, I think:
And this one:
Godard isn’t very expository—or, at least, not the same way Nolan is. The characters talk a lot, but their dialogue tends to be more playful than anything else—puns and quotes and nonsense and film theory. Not so much backstory and plot mechanics. And there are also lots of quiet stretches: the minute-long silence in Band of Outsiders, the race through the Louvre in that same film, the book argument in A Woman is a Woman.
The key difference, though, is that Godard would never make a film like Inception: a formulaic progression of master shot, shot-reverse-shot, scene-in, scene-out. Godard represents the cinema of creativity, in that every shot, every scene, becomes a chance to experiment and play with the established conventions and patterns of filmmaking. He’s Nolan’s antithesis, really.
But the comparison you point out is funny. No, I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with having a gun in a film! Not in the abstract… (It’s all in how one uses the gun.)
As for your question: I genuinely dislike the film, and think it particularly galling. But I wrote the critique in response to the adulation I saw the film receiving. There’s since been a backlash against the film, but back in August, it was difficult to find anything that wasn’t gushing praise. I wanted to add a different voice to the conversation.
As for Cornelia Parker, I don’t know if there’s a direct influence, and I’m not accusing anyone of swiping anything, but the explosion scene did remind me of her work, and I thought that perhaps someone somewhere had seen something and maybe was influenced somehow—you know how ideas float around in the culture. Better put: I see a lot of artists working with suspended materials these days, in assemblage, and there seems to be something of a common visual currency; the explosion shots in Inception reminded me of that. Parker’s work is some of the best-known in that arena. …But who knows, really?
Thanks again for chiming in!
wow, imagine if you put that much effort into a movie that you DID like…
Arthur Penn’s Night Moves
Brevity, Part 5: Roundhay Garden Scene
Hail the New Puritan
In Memory of William Lubtchansky
…It’s Time to Mystify
Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination
Some Thoughts on “Vagabond”
There Will Be 2001
First, I absolutely loved your criticism, and I agree whole-heartedly. As a physician, I spend far more time combing through medical journals than I do watching film, so many of your references were over my head, but I loved the ones I did catch. I’ve been forced to watch this movie three times on Blu-ray over the holidays, to help explain it to various parents/aunts/uncles as it moves along, and the relentless thought that penetrates me each time I watch is that Nolan has mistaken complexity for mystery… for readers looking for a critique of Inception a bit less loquacious, here’s a similar review done in a manner more accessible to the “lay-person”: http://www.goodisthenewbad.com/review-inception-326.htm
Thanks for the comment, James K! And thanks for the link to your own review. I particularly liked this line:
I also thought your criticism of Nolan’s overuse of philosophical concepts to merely advance plot was spot-on.
And I agree that the Matrix is so much a better film than Inception. There’s a real sense of glee in that one, a creativity that’s missing from Nolan’s plodding formulas. It also remains visually delightful throughout—even by the end of the film, the Wachowskis are still showing their audience new things. I don’t think it’s great philosophy, but it’s very fine movie-making.
Interesting read. But in all honesty, this could have been written about any film or work of art in the history of human civilization if people were so willing to go this far. This article in itself was no revelation.
In what way, Dave?
Your just a hater plain and simple. Hating on Inception for the fact that you are upset that people are claiming this to be a great movie and you hold high standards for the other movies you mentioned that you cant stand to see inception in that category. It’s one thing to not like the film but to trash what is considered a great film like you just did is unreasonable. With all due respect, i believe most if not all points where invalid. Nolan IS a top 3 director of this generation but you fail to see any good in any of his films. There should be an article 17 reasons of criticizing the useless points to bash inception in this article
Nolan is a top 3 director of this generation? What exactly is your top 3?
Wow, I didn’t hate it as much as you but this article is hilariously insightful. Keep up the good work.
Even as an enormous fan of Inception (and as you may be able to tell by my username, Nolan in general), your read was interesting, even if I did feel a tad insulted by it. But it did inspire me to do something I’ve always meant to do and expand my horizons more. So, good job there.
Sorry to have insulted, even a tad. Thanks for the comment!
I wouldn’t consider Inception to be post modernism. I agree with a lot of this, regardless. However, the dialogue factor interests me as it is, for that reason, a movie that you do have to watch thoroughly. I don’t normally find Nolan’s work to be that entertaining from an intellectual standpoint but Inception was, for me, a very interesting movie as dream within dream schemes are incredibly hard to write. He does lack a lot of creative delivery in the dreams though. I mean, consider that Mal and Dom spent 50 years in Limbo and all they constructed was an empty city? I suppose it’s part of their preference but it seems kind of lonely and dull to me. Although, I can honestly say that I really enjoyed this film as “illustrative storytelling” because you can really create your own vision of the film, even if you don’t believe that was Nolan’s intention. And perhaps it was accidental, but it kind of is accidental genius when you think about it. I also would not at all put this even close to the story in Three Stigmata. That book is more about religion than the ins and outs of reality, I really can’t see a connection at all. Also, Mal is psycho because of inception, we don’t know what she was actually like because the movie only introduces her when she is so fixated on the idea. It seems unfair to call her psycho, especially if you have no idea what it is like to be so mentally tormented by something.His catharsis is about forgiving himself, not her, it wasn’t her fault.
Thanks for the comments, Kelly!
The first time I saw Inception, I really wanted to like it. I tried to connect with it emotionally, but just couldn’t. I certainly didn’t go into it wanting to hate it (I never do that, with any film). I agree that Nolan had some interesting ideas; he just doesn’t know yet how to express them in a corresponding fashion.
In regards to Three Stigmata, I think one can make strong structural comparisons, since both works deal with artificial words embedded in reality, and the way those worlds call reality’s reality into question. Three Stigmata is better (and more disturbing) in every way, however.
I wouldn’t call Mal anything myself; she’s just an underwritten character. But, at the risk of playing armchair psychologist, I think it’s clear that Nolan has no sympathy for her whatsoever—he’s the one who named her “bad”! If anything, I find his portrayal of women (in all of his films) misogynistic; it’s something I strongly dislike about his work. Sadly, it passes mostly unnoticed in today’s Hollywood, which is mainly so infantile…
I don’t really believe in postmodernism, myself, but am sometimes forced to use that word, since others use it so often. Ideally, I use it only to erase it—but that’s another post, if not series of posts.
On #15: I’m relying mostly on several-month-old memories here, but wasn’t Mal (despite her name) supposed to be a good, even “wonderful,” person who became crazy only because of Cobb’s manipulation of her mind?
Sorry; I see Kelly already asked this. But at least one other person feels the same way!
Yes, I think that was the idea. He did some inception on her, and then she couldn’t shake the idea even after they woke up. Effectively.
I liked the movie. I thought that it was entertaining as a whole, and to certain people who like to look at the intellectual side, also great.
It earned money and critical acclaim, which is all Christopher Nolan can ask for.
I disliked the movie. I thought that it was not entertaining as a whole, and to certain people who like to look at the intellectual side, not so great.
It earned money and critical acclaim, which is all Christopher Nolan can ask for.
This was an interesting read (I came across it this late because it was linked to from a recent entry at Jim Emerson’s blog).
But I wish you could just have presented your case calmly without undercutting it with your steady stream of rather nasty and condescending remarks.
It seems to me, however, that you may not have thought so deeply about the film as you let on.
You claim the film is misogynist because of the presentation of Mal, but you seem to have overlooked the fact that Ariadne is by far the most intelligent and insightful character in the film. (She picks up the dream design business very fast and Cobb’s psychological predicament as well.) This omission indicates to me that your criticism of the film is at times quite cheap – and much of it may have derived from the fact that you were unable to connect with the film, and therefore had lots of time on your hands during screenings to think up reasons why.
You complain about how Cobb was confused when he was in Limbo going after Saito but was lucid when he went after Mal. The reason why he was confused going after Saito is that he arrived in Limbo because he had died in a dream – since he was still asleep in the winter level, he died when the mountain hospital blew up. (This is probably why he suddenly has an injury on his cheek when he wakes up in Limbo). You constantly ridicule Nolan for having used ten years to think up this film, but you should perhaps be a bit more humble.
Nolan is probably not the most elegant director around. But it is strange that you find him so clumsy when most critics who praise him constantly talk about his storytelling flow and relentless forward motion. I agree there are awful amounts of expository dialogue in this film, but it is mostly presented in efficient, clipped sentences, and constantly introduces new concepts, so it somehow contributes to the flow of the film, rather than disrupting it.
Just happened to stumble upon this.
I realised I was wasting my time by the time reached your Way 9. To question the logic in Inception and then declare a movie like Mullholand Dr as superior is, I think, the height of hubris.
Of course, Inception is not a perfect movie and Nolan is hardly a great director. But you’ll realise that more than half of ur Ways of Criticising Inception are void if u care to watch it with an open mind (and bothering that others are all-praise abt it).
Btw, about the legal nighmare in US-France extradition. I’m from India and that bit kinda helped me. You really don’t think that everybody should have knwn abt it, do you?
Another thing: I noticed u have included Fight Club. Nice!! I hope you remember the question Tyler asks the Narrator: “How does it feel? Being clever?”
Someday the sun will expand, engulfing the Earth, and with it all human civilization.
correction: (and NOT bothering that…._
an absolutely fantastic piece. The bits on it being too literal and “George, you can write it, but I am sure as hell nobody is going to say it on screen” were awesome. In fact I liked the film, still like it, but I like your review even more. You know if you watch all the 5-6 films, which Nolan has made, you get a feeling that he doesn’t know much about life but he knows what a film is. He seems to be a movie buff who knows if the last scene is kept in the place of first and first in the place of last, how the audience’ reaction will change. As you mentioned, Tarantino is also in the same category, but he is very high on aesthetics. Just wanted to know who dont you write more on movies, I cant find much on this blog.
Thanks so much, Karan, for your comment. And I find this line very perceptive: “You know if you watch all the 5-6 films, which Nolan has made, you get a feeling that he doesn’t know much about life but he knows what a film is.”
I know I was surprised to learn that Nolan is married and has kids, because there’s no hint of that in Inception, none whatsoever. I was reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which seemed to me a movie made by an alien who had seen humans in love, but had never experienced that situation himself. (Of course Aronofsky is not an alien.) I guess the challenge becomes, “how does one translate the experiences of real life into cinematic artifice?” And I’m not sure folks like Nolan and Aronofsky know how to do that, at least not yet. Quentin Tarantino—I find more recognizable humanity in his work, I suppose, although he, too, is, as you say, in the same category.
There is some! You can find it all categorized here, under “A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies” and “Other Cinema.” Thanks and I hope you like it!
I think you are an stupid, arrogant and pretentious. I completely disagree with almost everything you’ve said, and this is coming from somebody who’s seen at least half of that list of ‘superior’ films. The one thing that pisses me off is how you insult and make fun of the creators of the movie, rather than just criticising it (I have no problem with people expressing their opinions). It is especially insulting seeing how your arguments are full of holes and largely flawed. I truly believe that you have been brainwashed into a ‘classic-movies-are-the-best-I’m-so indie’ mindset, which explains for almost every point you make. I’m sure if Inception was made 100 years ago by Luis Bunuel it would be at the top of your favourite movies list. What I also find funny is that I applied your reasoning for determining a bad film to a number of your recommended films, and found that they had the same so called flaws as Inception. Start thinking smart
Thanks for your comments, Aidan!
I agree with Aidan. Some of this points are simple jokes about something you are too cool to enjoy. The others are just wrong. Everything about Mal, for example.
I was unaware that art had become so objective. Or that I had become cool.
So, when you say that Nolan is a little boy-director, when you laugh about how Nolan ALWAYS shows what the characters mention (I don’t remember to see Mal with a psychologist, even when Cobb mentions it but,hey, alwasy is always), when you say that six shots ARE better than thirteen, this is just your opinion?
Please look at the essay with your eyes. If you do so, you will notice how often Mr. Jameson qualifies his statements as follows (emphases added):
“*I think* that the real answer is relatively simple”
“Nolan *strikes me* as the most ham-fisted”
“the biggest mystery of Inception, *in my opinion*”
“Memento (which *I also didn’t like*, but which *strikes me* as a much better movie than Inception)”
“*I regard* it as a completely worthless talent”
I could go on, but that would be a waste of time.
It is the nature of film criticism, and the critic’s job, to provide an opinion–preferably, an informed, rational one, that is also entertaining to read. Kind of like this one here.* Yes, Mr. Jameson takes some pot-shots at Nolan (and I think he’s right on). But again, if you look at the review with your eyes, you will notice that they are all focused on Nolan’s craft, not his character. It would be nice if all conversation on the Internet were so civilized.
Happy further reading,
*This is why criticism is most useful to the reader if you read it regularly and carefully enough to find a critic whose opinions you frequently agree with (or at least respect) and use their recommendations to choose movies. It can also work well if you don’t take differing opinions personally, and instead reflect on why you disagree with a reviewer, instead of jumping to impugning said reviewer’s personality.
“This is why criticism is most useful to the reader if you read it regularly and carefully enough to find a critic whose opinions you frequently agree with”
I dont think so. It’s very hard for me to express how much i liked some film and what i liked about it, I don’t have the skills to order my thoughts and express it in a way that make sense for everybody who isn’t me (and english just make it harder). So, when i like a movie to the point of waste my time thinking about it, I like to read the opinions, and the most useful are the negatives.
I’ve read a lot of critics about Inception, because there is a lot to criticize, and i understood most of the complains. At the end, it’s just that the good things are more important than the bad ones.
But this, from the point 1 to the 17 is complete bullshit. Some are like an abstract painting critic: “I don’t like means it’s bad”, and you can put a “I think” before, but it still a very snob snob attitude. At some points, it’s even contradictory: It is bad to show us everytime what happen in so explicit way, but there is a lack of slowly clocks. Others are nosense, like complaining about the behaviour of Cobb’s subconcious. The writers wanted a train, and that’s why there is just one train. Coppola wanted a horse head, not two. And there is a reason for Mal comming just at the end (a very critizable reason, but he waste that chance for the LoL).
Some others are absurd. I don’t care about how much does a scene cost, I don’t care about how many years took Nolan to write it.
And others are wrong. Maybe watching the film one more time he could find why is wrong, but ther is no reason to watch a movie you don’t like.
I’m here through google, and I’ve read some others opinions from the author. I agree with someones, and I understand all of them. But this one… This one is a reflection of what internet is these days: Fanboys vs Haters. No arguments, no facts. Just noise.
PS: I hope anybody could understand this, sorry for my english.
Thanks for taking so much time to comment, HenryPorter. I do appreciate it.
> ther is no reason to watch a movie you don’t like.
Actually, I think there is. My main interest as a film critic is in understanding what movies are being made—what they’re like, what they’re not like, how they’re changing. As such, I watch a lot (a lot!) of movies that I don’t like. “Liking” and “not liking” are ultimately not all that interesting to me. Or, rather, they’re not the only things I find interesting. (There is a time and a place for that, but it’s not the only thing we should be discussing.)
I strongly agree with you that there’s a lot of noise on the Internet. I hope my post isn’t part of that. I think it’s useful (essential, even) for there to be a lot of different opinions out there. As I’ve said elsewhere, when I wrote this post, all I saw were people praising Inception. I disagreed, and wanted to make another viewpoint available. If you read through the comments here and elsewhere, you’ll see that some people agreed with me, others, like you, thought my argument “complete bullshit.” Overall, I’m glad I wrote this, and that it was helpful to certain people.
I’ve studied and taught film for a pretty long time, and I think that Nolan is a bad director. I dislike the way he makes his films, I dislike his films, and I dislike the influence he’s having on film culture. Others are welcome to disagree with me. But I think there’s a lot of value in my point of view, and I will continue to defend it.
I meant there is no reason to watch -three times- a movie you don’t like the first time.
“when I wrote this post, all I saw were people praising Inception” This is the key. Maybe for compensate (?) you wrote a text in the opposite direction. But that’s been part of the noise.
“and I dislike the influence he’s having on film culture” Really? In a world where Michael Bay, Hannah Montana or things like that move the people to the cinema, you think that Nolan is a bad influence?
> I meant there is no reason to watch -three times- a movie you don’t like the first time.
Maybe if you’re a casual viewer. Film critics and film professors don’t have that luxury. Indeed, we often watch movies we dislike many, many times, so we can better understand what it is we find so offputting. It would be pretty irresponsible of me to write so strongly about a film without first watching it a few times and making sure I understood my reaction. Also, it takes a long time, and numerous viewings, to really see what’s going on. I sometimes watch particular scenes ten, fifteen, twenty times before writing about them. Sometimes more!
You and I define noise differently. In my view, it’s stuff that doesn’t mean much of anything. A dissenting opinion—especially one that lays out a pretty thorough and specific argument—isn’t noise. Rather, stuff like “your views are complete bullshit” is noise.
> you think that Nolan is a bad influence?
Sure. There are lots of bad filmmakers out there. Take your pick. I also don’t like J.J. Abrams and Bryan Singer, off the top of my head. Although, to be sure, it’s all relative. And people can do good things with bad influences. I watched a lot of crap when I was a kid, but that didn’t stunt my growth (I don’t think that it did).
But feel free to castigate me over those opinions, too. Meanwhile, if you don’t have anything specific to say regarding my criticisms (other than that they’re “complete bullshit”), I have better things to be doing than debating with you.
Thanks again and best regards,
Oh, and Peter Jackson. I absolutely loathe his Lord of the Rings movies, think they’re the worst films made in the past ten years or so. Which is a view I imagine most people would disagree with.
Someday I’ll try to explain why I feel that way. (I just rewatched most of The Return of the King, and was reminded that I wanted to write something about it.)
I think Alex says it very well. (Thanks, Alex.)
I’ll add that I like to think my opinion is an informed one.
“Someday I’ll try to explain why I feel that way. (I just rewatched most of The Return of the King, and was reminded that I wanted to write something about it.)”
Seriously, I’ve never liked those movies and I’m a huge fantasy dork (D&D, Michael Moorcock, Song of Ice and Fire, all that.) I’ve tried to articulate several times the things about the LotR movies that I find irritating but I lack the experience/film vocabulary/ability to watch over and over movies I dislike in order to them dissect properly. I’m very fond of the above “Inception” article-I don’t 100% agree with it, but it articulates pretty wonderfully everything I didn’t like about the movie. It’s like having a hard-to-reach itch scratched. Would love to see you do it with the other movie(s) I dislike but have trouble really going into the whys with.
Thanks! I do intend to write something about them… In fact, I even rewatched big chunks of Two Towers and Return of the King recently. And read this blog post. Which is kind of like doing research…
The problem is: it’s just so daunting. Every time I sit down to write something, I get a few thousand words in, and realize I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think that nothing less than a book would suffice… But I promise I will, eventually, try…
(Actually, what I’m really hoping is that Mike Stoklasa, aka Mr. Plinkett, will take them on…)
“Oh, and Peter Jackson. I absolutely loathe his Lord of the Rings movies”
THIS. I thought I was alone.
I’m not asking if you think Nolan is a bad director, it’s clear you think so. What i mean is if you really think that is “worst than the general” (hard to express it, why don’t you people start talking spanish, like everybody else?), if movies like Inception do some kind of harm when they have such a success. Even considering nowadays cinema.
I’m glad we agree on that one. :)
I wouldn’t call Nolan “worse than general.” I think it all depends on the context. For instance, I had some nice things to say about him in this post. Because I think he’s a much better director than Bryan Singer.
I wish my Spanish were better! I studied it in high school and college, and regret now that I didn’t keep up with it. Lately, I’ve been trying to speak it more and more here in Chicago…
P.S. Thanks again for your comments. I’m happy to see this post is still attracting attention and feedback. Which is kind of humbling. I had no idea when I wrote it, almost one year ago, that it would interest people so.
It’s worth admiring the way u r defending your take on Inception. You’ve gone on and on how Chris Nolan turned out to be incompetent in visualising Inception’s screenplay. Very well.
But really, (as the Joker says in The Dark Knight), let’s wind the clock back. Let’s take into consideration how the movie was made. Would you, or any other film critic for that matter, rubbish an otherwise well-made science fiction film for the lack of realistic special effects? No. That’s because u take into consideration–or reacts benignly to–the limitations the filmmakers would have faced. That is the right thing to do, anyway.
Now, take Inception. It took $160mn to produce that movie. It was ‘positioned’ as a summer blockbuster. It needed to at least break even. Much the same way a mad-cap, but brilliant, science fiction filmmaker–whose movies you like–might have struggled for budget, Nolan was, perhaps, ‘burdened’ with the scale his movie was made. The least he could have done was to make the complex screenplay, visually lazy. Agreed, he may be a lousy filmmaker; but one can’t deny the audacity of making a big-budget movie one is not sure everybody would understand. It was not meant to be high brow; it was meant for the popcorn munching American crowd, and the international audience which has Hollywood movies as staple.
AD, my question is, why don’t you take THAT into consideration before judging Inception?
I 100% agree with you: the film’s context should be taken into consideration when criticizing it. I think Roger Ebert puts it pretty well: action movies should be judged against other action movies, dramas against other dramas, etc. And there’s plenty of room for dumb, fun, summer blockbusters, provided they’re actually fun. This year, for instance, I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class, which I thought was really fun and also very well made. (See this post for more on that.)
But none of that means such films should automatically get a pass. Sure, Inception was a big-budget blockbuster. And sure, Nolan had to make certain concessions in order to earn that money back. Film is a business. I have no problem with that. And, sure, Inception is a better film than, I dunno, Thor. I was certainly more excited to see Inception than I was to see Thor—but that also means that I was more disappointed.)
Film criticism shouldn’t be all or nothing. For instance, I just saw Super 8. I thought that there were some good things about it, and some bad things about it. I’m still trying to decide which side is, for me, more important. (At the moment, I’m leaning toward the bad things, because the good stuff’s already worn off, and I’m still thinking about all the negative stuff.)
But that’s neither here nor there. What happened was, I texted my friend before I went to see it. And he made some disparaging comment about the film. And after the movie was over, I texted him back, saying, “Super 8 isn’t terrible.”
And he wrote back: “That’s…exciting? (Is this what we’re reduced to, being excited when things aren’t terrible?”)
I like to think, no, that shouldn’t be the case; we should insist on more.
P.S. Next weekend, the Music Box (a theater in Chicago) is screening Terminator 2. Which I have long insisted is one of the best summer blockbusters ever made. And I’m very excited to go see it! (I’ve actually never seen it projected.) I saw it again recently, in HD, and think it really holds up. Were I making a list of the best films of the 90s, I’d put it on that list, no question.
Just to add a little more perspective.
“For instance, I just saw Super 8. I thought that there were some good things about it, and some bad things about it. I’m still trying to decide which side is, for me, more important. (At the moment, I’m leaning toward the bad things, because the good stuff’s already worn off, and I’m still thinking about all the negative stuff.)”
Ha…may be that’s why it’s called motion picture…Once its finished playing on the screen, it starts playing in your head.
(Honestly, i still can’t do away with the feeling that you were influenced by other people’s opinion about Inception; the good opinions. Yes, you argue your case against Inception pretty good, but…well, didn’t somebody plant those 17 points in your head??)
funny how most critics and people agree is a great film and even funnier that you haven’t made a greater film to prove your points on good filmmaking, and most possibly you never will.
Good points! I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for chiming in! Cheers, Adam
American Psycho, Total Recall, Fight Club, Matrix better movies than Inception? Well lets agree to disagree. I am sure that Nolan appreciates you watching his movie you hate three times though.
Yes, all better movies, I’d argue, though perhaps not that strenuously (except in the case of Total Recall, which is brilliant). And Christopher Nolan sent me a birthday card, thanking me—nice guy. Though I haven’t seen Inception as many times yet as I have The Lord of the Rings, my least favorite set of films of the past decade… That’s the problem with film criticism: you often have to watch the ones you hate the most. Cheers, Adam
Simple Jack’s right. Great movie. Loved it. Loved all the dialog. Tom Hardy’s a badass. Marion Cottilard is gorgeous. Ellen Page is miscast. You are all jealous d-bags. That’s my contribution. Enjoy.
Firstly, I’d like to say that this article really made me think about each of your points, which a lot of articles I’ve read about “Inception” haven’t done. After mulling over these 17 points for quite a while, I’ve decided there are some I agree with, and some that I don’t.
I absolutely am in consent that the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Repetition, repetition, repetition; that’s what really bugged me about this movie. The characters over-explain every major plot point. I suppose that might be necessary to make the average American understand it these days, but it just isn’t the art that film dialogue should be. It really isn’t that pleasant to listen to the same point being made over and over again. And, oftentimes, the dialogue seemed tacky and forced.
I also agree with the fact that there are an extravagant number of explosions in the film. But hey, it’s a blockbuster. Once again, its what the average American will pay to watch in theaters. And I’m okay with a few explosions. Just not an explosion to solve every problem.
However, I have to disagree that Nolan develops plot points that never have real importance, especially the point about the danger that Mal and Cobb’s subconsciousness presents to the team’s mission. In the attempted extraction from Saito’s mind, Mal nearly ruins things for Cobb and Arthur, and only some fast thinking from Cobb saves the day. Then, when Mal shoots Fischer in the ice world, she causes the only major disruption in their plans so far. And retrieving Fischer from limbo isn’t quite as easy as you make it sound. If you’ll remember, Mal stabs Cobb, which conceivably could have turned out much worse than it was, and Ariadne has to shoot her to resolve that conflict. And about the clock motif; I’d have to argue that it was never meant to be a motif. Instead, it was one way of establishing – without using dialogue, thank goodness – that time moves more slowly for those in the dream then those in the real world.
I’d like to point out about your comment that “Nolan doesn’t trust the audience to understand anything,” , that I believe that’s absolutely true; however, with the average American viewer today, that is exactly the case. And if people don’t understand what’s going on in a movie they won’t pay to go see it, which is, and always will be the ultimate goal of Hollywood. These movies are meant to appeal to the masses, not to the few who have a deeper understanding of art.
You also point out that Nolan always moves towards the simplest solution…once again, I appeal to my average American audience argument. Most people completely lack imagination, and – here it comes again – won’t pay money to see something they don’t understand. Now, I’m not saying that makes the movie any better. I just don’t believe Nolan really had any choice in the matter if he wanted to stay employed.
I also disagree with the fact that Mal and Cobb’s relationship doesn’t work because how could Cobb ever want to be with Mal? (who you describe as “a phycho-bitch”) It is clear from the film that the real Mal was, in fact, a very nice woman. When Ariadne’s asks Arthur what she was like in real life, Arthur responds, “She was lovely.” Cobb’s projection of her is simply formed from the guilt that he has from planting the idea that killed her in her mind – it is very imperfect. Cobb, therefore, was remembering the real Mal, and wanting to be with her, which is quite believable. And yes, Mal, Evil, Evil being destroyed at the end of the film…that made me chuckle as well. I’m with you on that one.
You made the point that Inception is a rather violent film…and I’d agree. However, I’d like to say that although many people are blown up or shot, most aren’t real people – only projections. This removes the ethical dilemma of having such a high body count, and really, I’m okay with it. I’m not saying that it adds to the movie, but it doesn’t take away from it either.
Overall, the main problem that I had with Inception was the overabundance of dialogue. Dialogue has its place in explaining the plot points of a movie, but in this movie, Nolan uses it for everything. And half of the dialogue doesn’t even seem to matter. The plot’s decent, the production design is very nice, the acting (from most) also decent, and the dialogue – crap.
Hi will m,
Thanks for taking the time to reply! I certainly understand the financial pressures that led Mr. Nolan to make Inception the (stupid) way that he did. However, I don’t think that defends his choices from an artistic perspective. Meanwhile, plenty of mainstream filmmakers have found ways to make very popular films that are also pretty sophisticated—look at Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, which features strong, clever direction throughout, and didn’t seem to confuse anyone (it still grossed zillions of dollars).
Your explanation of the clock imagery is probably right. Still, it’s curious how much attention it receives at the start of the film, after which it disappears. As for Mal and Limbo—I still think they turn out to be paper tigers.
More importantly, though, regarding the violence: I would argue it doesn’t matter whether the guys getting shot and blown up are projections. That’s like when they made the Foot soldiers robots in the Turtles cartoons so our heroes could still whack the shit out of them. On some level we all understand that the violence in movies is fake, so what does it really matter how the film tries to make it go down more smoothly? Images of violence are still images of violence, and disturbing, especially when they’re presented as populist entertainment, in which regard Nolan never fails to deliver.
Thanks again for chiming in! Cheers,
Well, I enjoyed inception a lot, and I agree that Nolan’s style of filming is rather dry. The writing, as far as the story itself, is in my opinion, phenomenal. Not to be confused with dialogue, well, I accept the delivery of anyone’s speech (I’m in social work), I’m more found of the intention, I like to read in between the lines, then test what I’ve read by making predictions. Inception was genius(though the entire idea was stolen from a duck tales comic book). May I opine on this critics angle, I feel as though you don’t like any of Nolan’s films, as I don’t like any of Michael Bay’s, yet, the themes and the ideas of his films still get me to the theater. Both of us, aren’t trying to understand those directors.
If you were trying to understand the movie, you’d see that there isn’t anything literal about what’s forthcoming in all of the actors’ dialogue. Inception was being done on Leonardo alone. Mal wasn’t evil, that’s Cobb’s projection of her last state, even Arthur tells Ariadne that Mal was a wonderful person. Ariadne’s entrance to the film was lead by cobb’s father. She’s inquisitive for “no reason,” asks if “those are projections” on the snow level, accompanies Cobb to another level and shoots Cobb’s projection of Mal, refocusing his attention on his kids, whom are really alive. Fischer is possibly also apart of Inception, but his story is there to reveal how the job is being done on Cobb. The shape shifter and Cobb insinuate to Fischer about Mr. Charles’ ill intentions, there by changing his perception of Charles. Mal’s projection cannot be changed because Cobb knows that she’s dead and that she’s a projection, she has to be killed after Cobb gets rid of his guilt. You complained that it’s all literal when its the reverse, if you tried to understand it. Nolan answered your Phillip K Dick dream, and it went unnoticed by you, the totem doesn’t actually matter, that’s why he walks away from it, for that reason and for him finally seeing his kids. The totem doesn’t matter because it’s not Cobb’s totem, it’s his wife’s. We never see Cobb’s totem.He spins the top and looks out the window at times, it reminds him of her. Nolan actually blurs Cobb’s daydreams, in the first half of the film we see him staring out of a window(reminding him of mal’s suicide), then we start to see him daydream about his kids, all after Ariadne starts lecturing(incepting) him.
It bothers me though, that you complained about the dialogue being literal, and you missed that literal convo about Mal being pleasant in real life.
I enjoyed this article
What I think the director was trying to get at, which is very powerful for a lot of people, is that you should get rid of guilt, form your own opinions(not from consensus, I can’t tell you how many opinions are actually born, through out time, things such as beauty, intellect, goodness are all ideas that people have adopted, and not created by the individual), stop projecting those negative opinions onto people(like cobb did mal, fischer did charles);especially opinions from consensus. Your walking life starts with your dreams, and what you allow to taint them.
If ever a movie deserved a good going over it is this one. Your wonderful list of better movies says it all. Most of the people who tell me they think inception is a great and deep movie have never seen half of those movies (quarter,third eighth?). Even within its own framework Inception doesn’t deliver. The action scenes are just stupid. There is no excitement in them.
Reblogged this on Moondog Madness.
Thanks, martininch! I’ve been reading and enjoying your own blog…
Reactionary, snarky, and pretentious.
When all you’re looking for is the negative, that is all you will see. As others have pointed out, you willfully misread and misunderstand elements of the film in order to fit them under your 17 reasons of why it should be hated.
You have mentioned several times in your comment replies that you are resentful or that you “resent” this and that, and I think that’s the most genuine thing you’ve said. You, sir, are resentful. You are a bitter, pretentious grouch who nitpicks and dissects and stomps on things that, while not perfect, are enjoyable and strive to be something more. You blow everything out of proportion and hate that which is popular because you believe you are above us all. You are elitist, insulting, and condescending.
I leave you with a quote from Ratatouille:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
Thanks for chiming in!
“Hey! Look! I know the names of so many great directors and great films. This totally gives credibility and validity to all the bullshit I spout. Well, I hope it does. “- This article
Thanks for demonstrating why ignorance is preferable.
AD JAmeson Ill put you in a sleep induced coma and invade your dream to the fourth level and make you watch inception for eternity.
I’m OK with that so long as Marion Cotillard joins me.
Apologies if this has been said, I didn’t read all the comments, but you say Memento is swiped from Seinfeld? The episode “The Betrayal” took its backwards structure from the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal”; there is a character in the episode called Pinter to clarify this. Since Nolan read English at university, I doubt he that he got the idea from Seinfeld, brilliant as it is. Regards. DM
Thanks for the comment! I was being facetious/snarky when I wrote that.
Later on, I ended up writing something on backwards chronology, in case that interests you.
Just a quick nitpick of your analysis. Someone may have pointed it out, and if so, sorry for wasting your time.
Basically, you took something out of context a bit.
“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?”
Well, to understand what the dialogue is doing there, you have to watch and see the next thirty seconds of the movie or so. Basically, Mal drops in, and Cobb hesitates.
So, at first he has no restraint in killing the projections, which the dialogue establishes, but when the projection looks like Mal, he completely freezes up. It shows the affect Mal has on his thinking, how his inner conflict throughout the movie basically causes him to mess up at the last minute during his mission, the external conflict. The dialogue preceding this, the dialogue you’re criticizing, establishes the juxtaposition. Now, you could say that juxtaposition is unnecessary or way too obvious, and that it would have worked fine without the dialogue in there, but you seemed to have missed its intended purpose in the first place, so it couldn’t have been that obvious, and it basically provides context to a major consequence of Cobb’s actions (not letting go of Mal), so it isn’t really unnecessary, either. You go on and on how it doesn’t make any sense for Ariadne to ask those questions then, and beyond that, it’s basically purposelessness for the scene at hand, when that isn’t exactly the case. You still have a point and all, namely why Ariadne asks the question when she could have asked it before (seeing how it’s a pretty stressful experience for the entire group, let alone her, being the most inexperienced one, I let the thing slide and gave it the benefit of the doubt, but whatever). But anyways, I think you used a bad example.
That was just something that really stuck out at me. Other than that, I enjoyed reading your criticism.
I’ve been saying this since I watched memento
Nolan is a terrible screenwriter
And a very mediocre director
But… he is very smart
That’s why he makes millions while we struggle to make 14 minutes short films
Metalworks, if you happen to swing back by, I’m intrigued by your description of Nolan’s “terrible” and “mediocre” skills while also declaring him “very smart.” I don’t disagree. It sounds exactly right, in fact. Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but I’m trying to figure out what it means. Can you elaborate, elucidate?
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Dude, you never realized Cobb was dreaming… God.
I cannot stress enough how much I LOATHE this film and all it stands for. Im 16 and surrounded by people who simply dont know film- but call it “ART” and “A Masterpiece”. Its not, but Nolan fanboys often ignore reasoning for hate and its a futile battle there. So glad you could accurately pinpoint the reasons the film is flawed, its just sad to say there will be a lot of hatred directed at the post if fans find it, rather than debate- and that they will NEVER change their minds- trust me- Ive tried.
Worked my way through quite a bit of the list of the 50 other films, Rashomon favorite so far.
Question though: Do you really think The Usual Suspects is THAT good? I mean its OK, and its twist is superbly executed, but its nothing really special, at least to me. For the 1990s, films like Sleepers, Se7en, Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas and especially The Thin Red Line top the decade, least of all that one.
Great post, very much enjoyed reading it :)
Hi Mark, Thanks for the feedback! I wrote the post because I, too, was surrounded by people who thought it was a great masterpiece (“maybe the best film ever!”), and it was that uncritical mentality that I was mainly attacking. Incidentally, I’m working on a book on geek cinema that will contain a lot more on Nolan.
> Do you really think The Usual Suspects is THAT good?
I haven’t seen it in some time, but I remember thinking it was a fine film. I should revisit it. I agree there are much better 90s films, like Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas.
Thanks again for the comment!
I’m surprised none of the comments here even once brought up the spinning hallway scene or the gravity scenes, or even the cross cutting convergence near the end. Very few movies of the last 20 years match the iconic craft of those. THOSE are ace fucking scenes, IMO, and those are modern Nolan burgeoning out of the shallow focus nonsense purveying his early work.
Really though, i would say a lot of Nolan’s poor editing and shot choices stem from his 12 year partnership with Wally Pfister, a DP whose haphazard skill seemed to encourage Nolan’s own haphazard approach to filmmaking. Wally doing the Transcendence bomb was a blessing, because Hoytema is a much more gifted cameraman, with a much better and wider eye for action and tangible spectacle. Interstellar and Dunkirk show Nolan having more confidence in staging and direction(though Interstellar does suffer from the exposition dumps). I genuinely believe Hoyte has schooled Nolan in how to control images better.
This is the most self-contradictions I’ve ever seen in a criticism of anything. Did they just say Inception was “Sickeningly violent” and then go on to say how much better The Matrix was? Since I feel the need to spell it out: Projections are not people, leaving the kill count of Inception at about 2 (If we’re to assume Cobol killed the first architect), and the combat in it is sterilized PG-13 shooting, while in The Matrix we see Neo and friends brutally and bloodily murder countless innocent soldiers and security guards, many of them likely husbands and fathers to what are now orphans and widows. Bloodless combat with figments of one’s imagination vs. almost completely avoidable brutal slaughter of innocent civilians.