“Inception”: is it good to be the most “talked-about” movie of the summer?

I always think it’s fun to try to understand why certain critics would make certain comments in their reviews. “Toy Story 3,” for instance, has a 99% fresh rating on rottentomatoes.com, which means that there were just 1-2 critics who gave it negative reviews (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it…but if you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t like a film, doesn’t that say more about you than it does about the movie?).

“Inception” has also received a pretty favorable response from the movie critic community, and as I was scanning the reviews, I remember several of them mentioning that this was destined to be the most “talked-about” movie of the summer, and that people were going to immediately want to see it again, etc. (One critic’s negative review, however, stated that this movie “was trying to be ‘too’ smart,” a review I immediately discounted because she quoted the word “too.” Um. Why? For emphasis? Ever heard of italics?)

But I’m often skeptical when I hear that a movie will make me want to see it again. Is that a good thing? Like, I loved the movie so much that I want to keep watching it until I’m sick of it (the “Anchorman” syndrome)? Or, maybe there was some crazy twist that the filmmakers pulled off, which makes me curious as to how they were able to do it (see “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects”)? Or, perhaps, I didn’t understand what the hell I was watching, and so I’ve got to see it again to try to figure it out (for me, this happened with “Syriana”)? If the movie is great, then “you’ll want to see it again!” is a compliment, right? But if the movie is convoluted or confusing, then “you’ll want to see it again!” is a bad, bad thing; a movie steeped in obscurity, for the sole purpose of making us think we’ve watched something smart, just so we’ll “talk about it” and then “see it again?” Smart marketing concept, but bad movie.

I know, I know. A very long lead-in, right? What did I actually think of “Inception,” with all of these different ideas swirling in my head?

I thought it was good. And for a summer action film, I thought it was great. Yes, it was a very smart movie, and Christopher Nolan certainly understands how to structure an action-adventure narrative, how to structure a mystery, and how to sustain a visually interesting world. The characters were all great, unique, and it was the rare action film where the plot was dictated by specific character personalities and decisions (in other words, I could drop any human characters into “Transformers,” and nothing would change…but if I changed the characters at the core of “Inception,” the entire plot changes).

“Inception,” in a way, reminds me of a poor man’s version of Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” There are several spheres of narration here: the waking world, the dream world into which the characters descend, and then level after level of different dream worlds within the initial dream world, each of which progresses in real time (but occurs at a speed of 1/12 the waking world above it, meaning that you can spend a full hour in a dream but will have only aged by five minutes…got that?).  It’s a great concept, and the cuts between various levels of narration are often seamless, easy to understand, and add to the overall drama.

“House of Leaves,” as a sidenote, utilizes a first-person narrator (Sphere One) who finds a literary analysis manuscript written by a blind man (Sphere Two) which focuses upon a film created by a man who moves into a haunted house (Sphere Three) and the subsequent investigations (hundreds of them) into the true circumstances of the haunting. Extremely clever, and much more complex than “Inception.”

But while there are a lot of things to love about “Inception,” there were also quite a few moments when the filmmakers were either (a) needlessly clever, or (b) deliberately and annoyingly vague.

(a) When I say “needlessly clever,” my undergraduate students usually rail against me. If it’s clever, it must be good! But that’s not always true. Sometimes, when you’re clever for the sole purpose of *being clever* and *out-smarting your audience*, you’re actually hurting the story that you’re trying to tell. After all, any storyteller SHOULD be smarter than his/her audience (he/she created this thing), so why shove it in our faces? “Inception” opens with a scene in which Leo is crawling through some mountains or something, and is brought to an old man in a mansion/castle/whatever. The scene lasts for only a minute, and then we cut away to some entirely unrelated scene. By the end of the movie, we’re back in the castle with Leo and the old man, and it’s clear that the filmmakers included the quick scene at the film’s opening as a sort of framing device. Um. Did you really need to do that, Christopher Nolan? It’s bad enough that we’re dealing with six different spheres of narrative, but now we have to worry about whether you’ll disrupt the chronology of the story? Doubtless, there will be many viewers who see the scene at the end and say “Oh cool! We’re back where we started!” but for me, it just made no sense for the story. This was the author’s hand interfering with the story, just to prove how smart and clever he was. (And I can guarantee that there will be legions of fans who defend this storytelling device because it is part of the experience of the “mind fuck” that is “Inception,” but…well…the movie’s fine/better without it, which is–I think–the ultimate test of whether a scene or device works in a story)

(b) When I say “deliberately and annoyingly vague,” what I’m really saying is that Christopher Nolan loves to polish lazy storytelling with slick visuals and dialogue so that we don’t notice when he’s being lazy. This was the case in “The Dark Knight” (and the reason I disliked that movie), when the Joker was everywhere at once, able to do whatever he wanted, but viewers didn’t seem to care because so much stuff was getting blowed up real good in such artistic and interesting ways. In “Inception,” characters also seem to have unlimited access to funds and equipment, but worse, the science and rules of “idea extraction” is explained at such a break-neck pace that we are not meant to really understand it…we pick out a word here and there (ahh, “dream sharing.” or ahhh, “inception”) so that we can move through the narrative with the understanding that the characters are doing stuff that adheres to the rules that were set (“Oh, I see, if you are killed in the dream world, you wake up!”), but we cannot question the ideas because the science was kept so vague. In other words, the filmmakers don’t want us to know how the “architect” builds the fake dream worlds. It would take too long to explain, maybe, or perhaps it’s unimportant…it’s a “macguffin,” a detail that doesn’t really matter to the plot. But wait: here’s why I object to the vague or confusing or fast-talking science of “Inception.” Several times in the movie, the filmmakers completely change the rules on us. (“Wait. Now they can actually die if they are killed in the dream?”) The characters explain why the rules have changed, but again, it’s quick and confusing and we–the audience–is just supposed to take away the basic idea without questioning it.

Sigh….again, a lot of viewers (and legions of fans) might not have a problem with this, but I do. Christopher Nolan is a smart filmmaker (we know this because he shoves it in our faces), so I know that he’s better than this. Set up your world. Set up your rules. And if the rules suddenly change, and you can’t explain it logically and clearly, then…chances are…you shouldn’t have changed the rules.

“Inception” no doubt, will be the most “talked-about movie of the summer.” Look at the length of this review, and I’ve just scratched the surface of what I enjoyed, and what I disliked, in what was the most ambitious action film (from a storytelling standpoint, not necessarily a visual effects standpoint) that I’ve seen since “The Matrix.” Everyone will leave the theater with questions, and many will talk and talk and talk for the duration of the night, the next full week at work…and that can be a very good thing. In fact, it’s an amazing and powerful thing when a book or movie can make you think, and when you literally cannot stop thinking about the world that the authors have crafted. But remember the difference between the way we talked about “The Matrix” and its sequels? When we talked about “The Matrix,”  we were talking about the possibilities of the world that the authors crafted, and when we talked about “The Matrix Reloaded,” we were talking about how confused we were, how many questions we had, why this happened, why that happened, if any of it really added up and if the filmmakers had out-clevered themselves. Our discussions were mired in frustration. “Inception” is both “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Reloaded,” a great film and a frustrating film.

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