Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reflections on Inception


I’ll never forget the dream sequence in Vertigo. As brief as it is, as cartoonish as it is in the light of what CGI can do today, it never fails to chill me, and when we consider the ordeal Scottie has endured prior to his nightmare, it packs an emotional punch, and the tense romantic relationship Hitchcock has so artfully developed has brought us to that punch. Recently, when it comes to films which present a dream world or a world inside someone’s mind, I can still recall the disturbing grotesqueries of The Cell (2000), created by CGI and amazing costume design, and the vivid, stunning images of the storyworld imagined by the crippled stuntman in The Fall (2008), images created by breathtaking shots of real settings. But after my first viewing of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller about “extractors” who use a technology called Inception to enter a man’s dreams and plant the seed of an idea from which they will benefit, I expected some punch-delivering imagery, but I couldn't think of an image that beckoned me to go back and see it again.

I also found myself thinking of Vertigo early on in the movie when Hans Zimmer's rather repetitious score seems to echo the main theme that accompanies Hitchcock's classic depiction of the haunting, forbidden, unreal yearning that grows between Scottie (Stewart) and Madeleine (Novack). Similarly, in Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory, in seemingly real form, of his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who beckons him back to a passionate but painful relationship that is totally unreal and as dreadful as death.

But watching Inception I was having trouble connecting with it on the kind of emotionally gripping level that Hitchcock creates in his classic thriller. As much as I was intrigued by the premise and the journey into three dream levels, I felt there was too much information to take in. I was too busy listening - and Watannabe and Hardy's accents didn't help the situation. There seemed to be no time to connect emotionally with a story that I objectively found fascinating. My initial response - to echo a key word in the story - was "disappointed," disappointed by the film's lack of impact though I had been moderately entertained by its ideas, psychological themes, and sci-fi storyline.

I decided immediately that I had to see it again. I had to iron out my comprehension of the many plot elements. I would look forward to my favorite image: the diesel-driven train barreling down a congested city street. But I felt it wasn't the memorable image it could have been, as the whole film could have been, with better editing, less time spent on gunplay, and more time spent on clearly establishing the urgency of the predicaments the extractors find themselves in when they enter the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy - a wonderfully sensitive actor), the son of a dying energy magnate (Pete Postlethwaite), whose last word is "disappointed."

I couldn't fault the acting. Although Ken Watanabe as Saito never makes me care, and Tom Berenger as Browning is a weak link, each member of the extraction team delivers an earnest performance. As the extractors do their thing, I found myself thinking of The Sting, and you might find yourself thinking of Oceans Eleven though the operation is more of a confidence scam and less of a heist. In order to plant the inception of an idea in Robert’s mind that will benefit Saito financially and allow Dom Cobb to evade a fabricated murder charge that has kept him away from the States and his two children, the team gets together for a psychological flimflam that will take them to three levels of unreality. I’m very impressed with little Ellen Page as Ariadne, the "architect,” who molds the dreamscapes they must navigate. (Ooh-ah! In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus negotiate the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur.) One of the film’s strengths, Page uses her wide-eyed reaction to the power of Inception to take us along for the ride. The team also includes Tom Hardy as Eames, the "forger,” whose job it is to change his appearance (I can’t explain how) and impersonate key figures in the deception. Eames makes his presence count whenever he's on screen, and he provides a little comic relief along the way with his flip one-liners.


Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the "organizer” is mostly relegated to the duty of fighting off aggressive "subconscious projections" of the dreamer’s mind and planting charges to provide the falling-sensation “kick” that can jolt you out of a dream, he’s just plain cool in all he does and I wished he had been given more time for character development. I love his weightless conflict with adversaries in the tilting hallway, and I love it when he outwits an adversary by changing the direction of the stairway. Meanwhile, Dileep Rao, as Yusuf the "chemist,” and Cotillard, as Mal, are solid at what they do, but darn it if Michael Caine doesn’t shine once again in a few brief scenes.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I could have done with more CGI – more CGI and less shooting. Or, perhaps not necessarily more CGI but more dramatic introduction of the CGI employed by the film. When “limbo” (the place where dreamers go when they “die” under the influence of a heavy dose of sedation) could be any bizarre realm imaginable, why is it that Dom and Mal’s “limbo” is nothing much to look at? When the stronghold that Robert has been trained to dream up as a defense against extractors could be any amazing level upon level of impregnable defenses, why is it just a fake-looking James Bond villain's stronghold in a snowy canyon complete with a bland shooting ski chase straight out of a James Bond movie as well? And if Dom is jeopardizing the mission because of intrusions from his subconscious such as the barreling diesel engine, why isn’t this premise used to introduce more surprises, suspense, and stunning imagery elsewhere in the story?

The story is clever, the acting is solid, some of the imagery is promising, but this fairly entertaining thriller is seriously in need of editing. (I still feel that way after a second viewing.) In a film that cries out for an intense beginning, Dom Cobb’s entrance into Saito’s limbo and the cut to Cobb’s presence in Saito’s dream constitute a dull opening. There’s nothing immediately interesting here. When the film cuts suddenly from the room where the extraction team is supposedly inducing Saito’s dream to the rampaging "subconscious projections" rioting and blowing up buildings, there’s no tension or suspense because we have no idea what’s going on yet. Thus, the film's opening lacks impact. On second viewing, knowing what was going on, I was more engaged, but I still found it to be an unengaging opening to a film that becomes more engaging once the team is assembled, the ramifications of the different dream levels are explained, and planning problems are solved.

My second viewing was a remarkably different experience. Even though I knew what was going to happen, and I knew the meaning of a whole glossary of terms from "kick" to "totem," I was totally involved in the premise and ideas, and nicely gripped by the action - despite the inordinate amount of bland shooting at the snowy fortress - and especially because of the masterful parallel editing of the three dream levels as the team members move toward the "kicks." Also, with a clearer understanding of the story, I saw the imagery differently and found it more dramatic. This is a very good movie with an inventive story that is consistently gripping once the team members enter the first dream level, but with tighter editing, something more imaginative than numerous James Bond shootouts, a less disjointed, flat beginning, and clearer, more strategically placed explanations of how dream travel works, it could have been much stronger.

13 comments:

FilmDr said...

Thoughtful work. I found myself not even remembering the beginning of the film, as if I needed the expository scenes about dream logic and mazes (with Ariadne paying attention) before allowing things to snap into focus. Your critical points are all valid, but I tend to give the weaknesses of the film a pass because a) the film is way better than most anything released recently, and b) because the movie has thought-provoking puzzles, such as:

1) Is Dom dreaming at the end? If he is, the whole movie changes.
2) What is the significance of all the train imagery?
3) Why is all that zero gravity fighting and body-in-the-elevator stuff so memorable?
4) the different time speeds running simultaneously
5) the significance of the mazes

And so on. I like any film that resonates on so many levels. Have we ever had a blockbuster-type film like it?

Craig said...

Ahhhh no, Hokahey! Stick to your guns! You hated it -- bring on the hate!

Nah, I jest. I think it's admirable that you were willing to see it again, give it another chance. I feel no such compulsion. But, I think your only-half-joking point about wanting "more CGI" is interesting, because I almost felt the same way. On one hand, I was glad not to feel bludgeoned (for once) by a lot of fancy effects. On the other hand, the dreamworld Nolan concocts is terribly dull. I read somewhere that Nolan's not a fan of CGI, and more power to him. But plenty of directors have created vivid dreams or mindscapes on miniscule budgets ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" springs forth as a fairly recent example). I think his problem is simply a failure of imagination -- an unimaginative statement, I know.

Simon said...

I liked it, despite its (sometimes glaring) flaws.

Jake said...

I would have liked more JGL too, but then I'm a big Gordon-Levitt pusher anyway. He looked downright perfect for the part: he's got the Thin White Duke frame and the high cheekbones to make a great presence in a mystery/thriller even though he's doing a dandy enough job so far acting the hell out of whatever he's in.

And as for Caine, isn't it crazy how Nolan has given him three of his best performances in a row, and Caine barely has any lines in any of them? I've got big issues with Nolan as a director despite my fairly unabashed love for him, but his working relationship with Caine may stake a better claim for viewing the director as a genius of economic filmmaking FAR more than his visuals do.

Hokahey said...

Simon - Thanks for the response. As I said, I enjoyed it much more the second time.

Jake - Glad you like Gordon-Levitt. He was awesome in Brick and he's so cool here. He is one of the film's consistently solid factors.

Craig - Yes, I was pretty serious about wanting more CGI - or more imagination. Great minds - I nearly added a reference to Eternal Sunshine in my opening paragraph in regards to memorable dream worlds.

FilmDr - Yes, the film has interesting puzzles - and that's what I enjoyed from the first. And, yes, few films this year have made us think! My son 18-year-old son, who has learned (I'll take the credit) to be a very discriminating film viewer, came home last night late and woke me up to tell me that he thought Inception was "amazing." He loves a movie that takes you to different levels of reality and makes you think. He's also a big DiCaprio fan. Since my second viewing today, we have discussed the puzzles and questions, some of which you pose here:

1. We say a big NO - because we were disappointed with the surprise ending of Shutter Island and we want his happy ending to be REAL! We observed that the top wobbles before the cut - and it never wobbles in the dream world. When a top wobbles, it means it's going to stop. Final! The top only wobbles in the weal world. (Couldn't resist that.)
2. Well, of course, the train "killed" Dom and Mal to release them from Limbo. The meaning? Rush hour on a rainy day is like being tailgated by a diesel train? The Juggernaut of fate?
3. Cuz it's like 2001? We've kind of seen it before in that movie that came out last year early - Push. For me, here, it was cool because JG-L was kicking butt.
4. I loved that! It must have been fun to edit that!
5. The mind can be even more complicated than a maze.

Thanks for all the comments!

Hokahey said...

Simon - Thanks for the response. As I said, I enjoyed it much more the second time.

Jake - Glad you like Gordon-Levitt. He was awesome in Brick and he's so cool here. He is one of the film's consistently solid factors.

Craig - Yes, I was pretty serious about wanting more CGI - or more imagination. Great minds - I nearly added a reference to Eternal Sunshine in my opening paragraph in regards to memorable dream worlds.

FilmDr - Yes, the film has interesting puzzles - and that's what I enjoyed from the first. And, yes, few films this year have made us think! My son 18-year-old son, who has learned (I'll take the credit) to be a very discriminating film viewer, came home last night late and woke me up to tell me that he thought Inception was "amazing." He loves a movie that takes you to different levels of reality and makes you think. He's also a big DiCaprio fan. Since my second viewing today, we have discussed the puzzles and questions, some of which you pose here.

Hokahey said...

MORE

1. We say a big NO - because we were disappointed with the surprise ending of Shutter Island and we want his happy ending to be REAL! We observed that the top wobbles before the cut - and it never wobbles in the dream world. When a top wobbles, it means it's going to stop. Final! The top only wobbles in the weal world. (Couldn't resist that.)
2. Well, of course, the train "killed" Dom and Mal to release them from Limbo. The meaning? Rush hour on a rainy day is like being tailgated by a diesel train? The Juggernaut of fate?
3. Cuz it's like 2001? We've kind of seen it before in that movie that came out last year early - Push. For me, here, it was cool because JG-L was kicking butt.
4. I loved that! It must have been fun to edit that!
5. The mind can be even more complicated than a maze.

Thanks for all the comments!

Daniel Getahun said...

Great thoughts, though I would have preferred a more considered look at all the potential flaws in logic. ;-P

Forgive me for copying a comment here about the emotional resonance that I just made elsewhere: "...I enjoyed it in the moment and am encouraged by all the debate today (if only because movies so infrequently produce real debates or discussions these days that aren’t rooted in subjectivity, like whether or not something was “funny”), but the weak emotional heart of the story/lack of character development is a problem for me. Not because I wanted a tear-jerker, but because I think it would have made me care more about what was real and what happened at the end. But I didn’t know anything about these people (even DiCaprio, outside of his marriage), so in the end I can just throw up my hands and say, “that was fun, was it real? Eh, anyway it was still fun.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Fischer relationship is what others connected to – those were by far the most well developed characters.

Maybe it’s just me, but if Cobb were a more flushed-out character (What was HIS relationship like with his dad? What’s his moral center? How did he meet Mal?), would you care more about figuring all of this out?"

And regarding the train, maybe I'm thinking too densely for your question, FilmDr, but if you're referring to the one in traffic, isn't that just a representation of Mal disrupting the proceedings as she is invading Cobb's subconscious, as happens with Saito in the opening scene and Fischer later on? I just assumed she was the train, the only significance being that a train was their suicidal preference in limbo. But maybe I missed something else.

Oh, and excellent point about the editing, Hokahey. I was retroactively stressed out by the crazy rioters in the first scene only after I learned who they were.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Daniel. Your comment here was part of my problem on first viewing: but the weak emotional heart of the story/lack of character development is a problem for me. Not because I wanted a tear-jerker, but because I think it would have made me care more about what was real and what happened at the end.

With all movies, that's a big factor for me - the ending means nothing to me if I don't care about the characters. In addition to being confused by the overload of information about how the whole premise works, I did not feel connected at all.

On second viewing, with the confusing plot elements out of the way, I felt more of a connection with the characters. Yes, Cobb is not developed very well. We learn more about Mal - and yet Cobb's the main character. But I felt for him in his predicament. He is drawn to Mal out of passion, but she is also "mal" for him because she wants to draw him back into oblivion.

As for the film's logic flaws, my son (who has also seen it twice) and I have been helping each other through particular confusions that we think might be logic flaws - and yet we've come up with logical explanations most of the time. I'm sure we'll come up with some, and you are welcome to list some flaws here. I know you love those logic flaws!

The one that bugs me is that when they're in the first level in the warehouse, one of them states that they've never had to deal with heavily armed subconscious projections before. So why are they all (including Eames who doesn't seem like the militant type) so good with guns?

Daniel Getahun said...

Truth be told I think I'm still confused as to exactly what traits (i.e., gun skill) pass from the real world to the dream world. Meaning, can't you just make yourself better and badder in the dream world, like what's his name "imagines" a bigger gun? That's a good one, though.

Others include:
*Why did it take SO many seconds for the van to hit the water? I swear, even in compounded time and super slo-mo that was still way too long.

*Why would Cobb have been sitting in the warehouse dreaming his intimate little dream and given no consideration to the fact that somebody - in this case Ariadne - would link in and see his secret world? Just didn't seem like he was very private about that. For that matter, didn't Arthur also know about Mal? Why did Ariadne have such leverage?

*When the van is rolling, would that not have kicked them all out of the dream?

*Maybe I'm an idiot, what was the situation with the gun accuracy? I know the good guys never get shot in movies, but they were dodging so many HUNDREDS of bullets here - without even trying - that I became convinced there was some dream immunity from being shot. Yet that obviously wasn't the case. Can anyone explain away how nobody except Saito got shot or even grazed by a bullet in every level?

Hokahey said...

You raise some good questions. I wondered why the rolling van wouldn't provide the kick... ah, I know - it's because the kick has to come after the music signal, which is a Pavlovian signal to the extractors. You hear the music; then you drool. Uh, no, sorry, you hear the music, then you know to expect THE kick. I think. Or they needed a stronger kick than that to get them out of multiple levels.

Yes - with all those bullets flying around... and yet we as viewers so easily accept the scenario of the good guys evading tons of bullets while the bad guys get knocked over like ducks in a shooting gallery - and especially in the snowy fortress sequence, they went down just as easy as that.

In my opinion, the film's biggest failing is all the shooting. There was just too much shooting altogether - too much shooting that did nothing for suspense - and nothing for logic.

Yeah, Cobb's just lying there... maybe he thought no one would dare intrude on his dream. Ariadne was ballsy to do that.

All these questions are valid - but often things like Cobb just dreaming out in the open are a contrivance to move the plot. When you think of it - all of film is a contrivance - some more artful and logical than others.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific review, Hokahey. This is very well said:

"But watching Inception I was having trouble connecting with it on the kind of emotionally gripping level that Hitchcock creates in his classic thriller. As much as I was intrigued by the premise and the journey into three dream levels, I felt there was too much information to take in. I was too busy listening - and Watannabe and Hardy's accents didn't help the situation. There seemed to be no time to connect emotionally with a story that I objectively found fascinating."

Indeed, the intricacies of the plot overwhelms everything else.

Also, in addition to agreeing with Daniel (and you) about all the shooting, I think it could be argued that the jostling of the van could easily provide the "kick" to bring them back toward reality. Maybe Nolan thought he was creating suspense there ("will they wake up?") or maybe he thought he was showing just how deeply they were in dreamland. Instead those images make us question our understanding of the laws of the dream world.

I'm somewhat compelled to see this film a second time, just for the moment at the end with Murphy. But here's where the overlong problem comes into play. At just 2 hours, I'm back for another ride. At Nolan's running time, I dunno. It's a lot of time to invest to have everything explained to me again, which felt uninspiring the first time around.

Hokahey said...

Jason - Thanks for the praise. As for a second viewing, I think it's worth it and it seemed to play faster than first viewing - and, as I said, there was time to be gripped.

Another thing that bothered me about the van is that the bad guys kept shooting out windows - more windows than it seemed to have. It would have been fine if Yusuf had had a few breaks driving down streets without being pursued.

Again, it's not a perfect film - but it has drama, an interesting story, and lots to talk about. Yet the way this week's issue of Entertainment Weekly (which rated it a B+) seems to be blowing it up as the greatest thing since 2001 is a reflection on the serious dearth of decent films that are worth talking about.