Saturday, July 17, 2010

You Snooze, You Lose (Inception)

Warning: Spoilers.

There's a scene in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's tiny arthouse flick from two years back, that illustrates my conflicted feelings about him as a filmmaker. Early in the movie, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and his henchmen are up to no good in an underground parking garage when they're confronted by a couple of wannabe Batmen as well as the actual Caped Crusader himself. Immediately the movie introduces a key theme -- the spread of vigilantism in Gotham -- yet it's conveyed through a visually incoherent fight sequence where it's virtually impossible to tell who's who and where they are in relation to one another. Still, the scene more or less does what it needs to accomplish to get the point across. This is Nolan in a nutshell: a great idea combined with sloppy execution that ends up sort of working anyway. I'm not sure exactly how he accomplishes it without any semblance of passion, playfulness or wit. He's the directorial equivalent to a plodding pulp novelist who manages to hook his audience while rarely turning a memorable phrase.

To achieve this, it helps to stand out from the pack, and with its intelligence and intensity The Dark Knight was at least a notch or two above the usual summer blockbuster fare. Nolan's latest feature, this summer's Inception, already deserves credit for being something other than a sequel or a remake (though Nolan has made his share of both). As everyone knows by now, Inception is a brainteaser movie about infiltrating dreams, with Leonardo DiCaprio leading a team of dream-invaders to plant an idea within somebody's mind. Nolan, as usual, is onto something, only this time the ingeniousness of the concept far outstrips his grasp.

Dreams have a high risk-to-reward factor in cinema: done well, and they can rank among the most memorable scenes in movie history; done poorly, and they can sink a film. David Lynch is frequently cited as our greatest living filmmaker of dreams, but in my mind he's far too self-conscious about his own "weirdness" and fixations to pull off a convincing dream sequence. A director whose movies do feel to me like dreams is Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark, his amazing one-take historical stroll through the Hermitage Museum, left me in a heightened daze; similarly, The Sun, about Emperor Hirohito's surrender at the end of World War II, is a digital depiction of history that also leaves you in a discombobulated state of mind. The movie additionally features an extraordinary sequence where Hirohito envisions the horrifying bombing of Hiroshima with planes resembling flying dragons spewing fire on the city below. Sokurov understands that real dreams function as an amalgam of the straightforward and the surreal.

Nolan's film, however, contains a fatal flaw. For "inception" to work, explains the protagonist Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), the subject must be persuaded to believe that the dream world is real. Therefore the team's architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), takes pains to construct a world that is just like our own: when anomalies occur, as when Cobb's dead wife Mal (Marion Cottilard) intrudes on their dreams, the risk grows that the subject -- in this case, a young mogul (Murphy again) poised to inherit his dying father's industry -- will become aware that what is transpiring isn't real and will awaken. Except since when have strange occurrences made us conscious that what we're experiencing is a dream? Random oddities are entwined with the familiarly mundane in our dreamworlds: many of the examples in Matt Zoller Seitz's piece linked above show filmmakers who understand this and have created exhilarating flights of fancy. Nolan is even more self-conscious than Lynch, and far more thuddingly literal: he seems to want to distinguish Inception from being even more derivative of The Matrix than it already is, and I would conjecture that the best way he thought to do this was to make the creators of the dreamworld the good guys rather than the baddies.

It's a bummer to watch a movie about dreams where all the dream sequences are like James Bond films without the sex. Inception's impressively ambitious hour-long climax crosscuts between a handful of dream-layers (one of the film's most imaginative concepts), yet all involve our heroes getting chased and shot at by "projections" of the dreamer, who resemble the villains in The Matrix bereft of Hugo Weaving's personality. One of these sequences so closely resembles the bravura skiing shootout in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that I wasn't surprised to learn that Majesty's is Christopher Nolan's favorite Bond movie. Nevertheless, there's no discernible joy in how he stages the scene; it's as self-serious as the rest of the film. Moreover, as Matt Seitz also points out: "how can a film that posits four or more layers of dream world have absolutely no sex, or sexual feelings, anywhere in them?"

This is how Cotillard is truly wasted, in a part that poses plenty of opportunities for mischief. (She comes out of it unscathed, as she did Michael Mann's wax-museum Public Enemies and Rob Marshall's megaton stinkbomb Nine, but she needs to choose her parts more wisely -- admittedly, not that good ones are abundant for actresses.) Cotillard looks more than game to have some fun in the role of saboteur. But Nolan has always had little use for women in his films, not out of any apparent misogyny so much as they don't seem to fit into his mathematical theorems. A truly great filmmaker would approach this as a viewpoint worth exploring and challenging: stretches of Inception seem to want to be about the struggle between order and chaos, like The Dark Knight, only represented by masculine and feminine impulses. I typically loathe reviews that offer suggestions for a different version of a movie rather than focusing on the one that was made, but I couldn't help but feel that Nolan ignored a lot of comic potential in his premise. Making DiCaprio and Cotillard as playful adversaries with an erotic attraction may have jolted the movie to life. Yet even when focusing solely on their characters in the actual film -- a husband still mourning and haunted by his deceased wife -- a missing sexual component dilutes the emotional impact of their relationship.

True to Nolan, and despite these flaws, Inception kind of almost works anyway. Cillian Murphy, in the film's best performance, works wonders for him again, filling in a sketchily written character with emotional resonance. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't come across as strenuously as he did with his similar character in Shutter Island, though I can only guess Christian Bale was busy on The Fighter and therefore unavailable. (Did David O. Russell put Nolan in a headlock again?) I like the idea of "the kick," the name for the common physical sensation of being jolted awake, and which prompts the team out of their dreamscapes. (Using Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" as an exit cue is a nice touch, though it should be more aurally powerful than it is.) The extended climax sticks with you even if you think it's botched, as does one of its set-pieces, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's zero-gravity fight in a hotel lobby. Gordon-Levitt, who plays Cobb's right-hand man Arthur, has the spindly physicality of a silent-film star -- to which Marc Webb, his director in (500) Days of Summer, was acutely attuned, and to which Nolan appears oblivious save for this one scene. Much more could have been done with his character as much as Cotillard's, while Ellen Page proves once again to be in over her head inhabiting a character requiring two or more dimensions. (She and Gordon-Levitt are allowed exactly one fleeting kiss, from which Nolan cuts away with the embarrassment of an eight-year-old eavesdropping on his parents.) Reportedly, Emily Blunt was considered for Page's part, and she'd have given both the character and the movie a much needed comic edge and healthy dose of irony.

But these are Serious Times, mainstream movies continue to remind us, with audiences surprisingly eager to embrace dourness and solemnity. I don't begrudge others their want of entertainment, much as I fail to understand it. (Has there even been a less jaunty putting-the-team-together sequence than the one in Inception?) Perhaps one day somebody will fully illuminate how post-9/11 movies like Inception have tapped into our sense of loss and need for closure on that event. I'm not the man for that job. I can only note that Christopher Nolan remains on my list as a compelling filmmaker: well above James Mangold regarding the originality of his ideas, though far below Martin Campbell in terms of visual dexterity, elegant craftsmanship, and appreciation of his actors. (Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick....don't even go there.) It was in, respectively, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale, that Campbell made stars out of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Daniel Craig and Eva Green. Their characters came across as multi-dimensional, sophisticated yet carnal, flesh-and-blood human beings. What that kind of director could do with the likes of DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt and Cotillard, one can only dream.


Hokahey said...

"True to Nolan, and despite these flaws, Inception kind of almost works anyway." Well said, and true. but "kind of almost" isn't enough for me here and this movie failed to grab me. Your description of the scene in The Dark Knight illustrates some of the shoddy orchestration in Inception. Parts were confusing. Parts had great dramatic potential, but they fell flat. I liked the premise, the ideas, the acting - but as a whole the film is just poorly edited. Nolan could have started by cutting out most of the shooting and editing in such a way as to get more dramatic impact out of moments like the train.

I'm going to give this movie another try and then I will post a response on my blog.

Dan North said...

An excellent review, really finely attuned to the film's flaws and foibles. I also could have done without the shooting and chasing, and there was probably too much crammed into the film. Generously, I might suggest that this was the film trying to convince us, the viewer, that these dreams were real, or at least real movies - hence everything looking like movies rather than misty hallucinations.

I think critics have been so beaten down by the unrelenting badness of Hollywood this year that anything with half a brain gets a Messianic welcome. Thanks for the corrective. I really enjoyed the film, though. Like Hokahey, I'll give it another look and see if it still stands up or even, as puzzle films should do, gets better on a second viewing...

FilmDr said...

Excellent review, but I wonder how much Nolan's decision to leave out sex was a good decision. I was struck by the same omission, thinking why not a dream sequence such as one finds in The Big Lebowski? But Nolan doubtless left in the Bond-esque violence to help the movie succeed for all of those guys in the audience who don't care about the dream metaphysics of it all. Also, it seems to me that eroticism doesn't work in many recent movies. Have you seen Chloe? Even though it doesn't fully reflect the range of dreams one can have, the austerity of Nolan's vision has its good points. He could have made a heist film with a flawed gang with more characterization as in Asphalt Jungle, but instead he focused on the dream mechanics itself.

I was also intrigued by the casting of Ellen Page. She brings an indie watchful intelligence to her role, whereas Blunt would've been more like Cotillard. I wonder how the associations with films like Juno and Brick offset the oppressive blockbuster gravitas of the movie.

Tom Shone said...

Great review

Craig said...

Thanks everyone for your insightful comments.

Hokahey -- Yes, "kind of almost works" was the most generous marquee blurb I could formulate, though you're far more generous than I am in giving the movie another go. We seem to be on the same page with our feelings about the movie as a whole.

Dan -- Thank you for stopping by. You've helped remind me of a claim I've heard from others over the years, which is that movies are just like dreams. Nolan would appear to agree with this. But I've actually felt that movies are more like fantasies, and that there's a difference between the two. Fantasies we can control; dreams we can't. Had Inception been about this distinction, it might have worked better for me. As it stands, I think the director gets them confused.

Film Doc -- Great thought as always. I think Nolan left out the sex because that's his M.O. The last time a shred of eroticism appeared in one of his movies was with Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento, and he seems determined that it never happens again. That's his prerogative, but I think it creates an implausible dream environment and fails to take advantage of his actors: Why cast performers as beautiful (let's face it) as Marion Cotillard and Leonardo DiCaprio and establish no physical connection between them whatsoever? (With their emotional connection, Nolan fares better.) And while I didn't care for the James Bond theatrics, if you're going to make that your dreamworld, why not use Cotillard -- who would make a great Bond girl if ever there was one -- to full effect within that world, instead of keeping her locked in the basement? (I also see your point about Emily Blunt being too much like Cotillard, but then that's what doppelgangers are for.)

There are the other usual Nolanesque problems. A rivalry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy builds up to nothing. Plenty of fuss is made over Ellen Page's choice of totem (and the chess piece is a lovely visual), but that's dropped too. None of this would matter so much if I believed in the movie's universe, or if our time spent there was any fun. I'm struck by the fact that out of the less than a handful of movies I've seen in theaters this year, that the one with the most serious themes -- The Ghost Writer -- is also the most playful. Polanski knows how to turn the screws and leap over the plot-holes while keeping us entertained. I agree that Inception isn't as oppressive as other blockbusters, but it didn't draw me in, either.

Once again, Matt Seitz (with whom I don't always agree, but our thoughts are aligned here) makes one of the most astute observations: "What's at issue is how Nolan...constructed the film in such a way as to close off poetry and turn the subconscious from thrilling, dangerous, sensual place into a big spreadsheet. Why would a filmmaker do that? Why is that a defensible thing to do?"

Tom -- Gracias!

Craig said...

Experiencing some weirdness with posting comments. Hope everyone's came out okay.

Jake said...

"This is Nolan in a nutshell: a great idea combined with sloppy execution that ends up sort of working anyway."

It's funny how I almost exactly agree with this statement yet I end up completely loving him (I'm working on a post now about how his various contradictions, flaws and shortcomings actually attract me to him and give what would otherwise be unimaginative films something that sticks with me; I may not finish it for a while though because I might just turn it into a mini-retrospective and I need viewings of Insomnia and Following for that). I have to disagree with the next sentence, though: I think playfulness is his stock and trade. You don't stretch out a shot of a van falling for a half-hour without some cheek. In fact, I've never really been on the Memento love-wagon because I think it's so focused that it doesn't allow for much soul. Not that emotion is a presence in many of his films (this may be the first), but at least there's a spark of life to The Prestige or his Batman movies that wins me over. In a sense, Memento is TOO good for me, and if that isn't proof that I'm a total asshole incapable of being satisfied, I don't know what is.

I agree about Gordon-Levitt, though I think Nolan understood JGL's silent film look as much as Webb did. They just modeled him after different silent genres: the JGL of 500 Days of Summer is a physical comedian, wearing his emotions plainly on his face and somehow conveying slapstick through dialogue. The JGL of Inception finally takes advantage of his spindly frame in the opposite way: he's never looked taller and thinner than he does in those nice suits, and with his high cheekbones he was born to play someone in a supporting role of a thriller. Much as I hate the current pop culture infatuation with them, I think he'd make a damn fine vampire.

Ronak M Soni said...

Somehow, I've always felt that Nolan meant his Batman fight scenes to be incoherent. One of the reasons I disliked TDK was that, after BB, I found them too coherent.

And I see you (and Jake) are the only other person who saw JG-L. I mentioned him too, in my review (which will be up in an hour or so).

Anonymous said...

One major flaw with the story I noticed when thinking back is "Inception" possible when someone is previously and consciously aware that their dreams could be attacked? For example, the ONLY way Fischer, Jr's dream had henchmen would be because in a conscious state he trained his mind to fight off intruders to his dreams (opening fight scene). So upon awakening wouldn't he have questioned everything he had just dreamed including a dream with 5 complete strangers he just met on a plane? The difference with what Cobb usually did was he was pulling information from unsuspecting dreamer. I don't believe true inception would have been possible with someone who is aware of and trained for the possibility of dream manipulation.
Overall, a good movie with some cool scenes, but if Nolan is going to create a cerebral film, he should tie up the lose ends and not leave all flaws to the "anything is possible because it's a dream" catch-all..

Ronak M Soni said...

Anonymous: I think it worked because they used the sort of idea planting tactics used in the real world. I mean, if you wanted to get someone thinking about something, that's how you would do it. And then, if the plant was strong enough, his subconscious/conscious will think about it, which is achieved by making him sleep within the dream world.

Adam Zanzie said...

It's the action sequences that are keeping any appreciation I still have for this movie alive. As Bond-influenced as it may be, I just dug that ice fortress finale. Much of the rest of the movie, however, flew over my head to the point of no return. Ebert writes in his review that he was caught up in the action sequences because he "cared" about the characters. To that I say: really? I can't imagine caring about any of these characters. They are cardboard. It's the style of the sequences that I admired.

One thing I thought was sort of cool was how Nolan basically assembles three child stars from the late 80's/early 90's in the film's beginning: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Lukas mutherfuckin' Haas. The latter I didn't even know was going to be in the film in the first place. So we have the kid from Critters 3, the kid from Angels in the Outfield and that Amish kid from Witness... and here they are all together. I liked that.

Alas, for the rest of the movie I began to realize that the actors themselves were more interesting that the people they were portraying! Hey, it's Tom Berenger! Hey, it's Pete Posthlewaite! Okay, well... so what? A Bridge Too Far had an ensemble cast, too, and went nowhere with it. This movie goes SOME places... but nowhere surreal.

I actually wasn't that impressed with Cillian Murphy here. He's a fine actor, but I just don't buy him as a wimpy billionaire who's crying his heart out at his father's deathbed. I mean, this is the guy who nearly strangled a chick in the airplane bathroom in Red Eye! Geez.

Craig said...

Great to see so many thoughtful responses, including from those who liked the movie more than I did.

Jake - I've come to love imperfections in movies, too; it took a long time (due to my own stubbornness), but Altman finally taught me that. I think with Nolan, perhaps, the general objection is the incongruity between the flaws in his films and that they seem to be coming from the former president of his high school's Math Club. There may just be an inclination to cut that kind of esoteric filmmaker less slack than artists or poets, and more derision when he turns out to be as much of a klutz as he is.

I too have found this a point. I enjoyed Nolan's Batman films because the grave, literal approach was something of a relief. (That's code for saying it helped me take an art form I frequently dismiss seriously.) With Inception, though, I don't think it works. Dropping a van for a half-hour probably is Nolan's idea of playfulness, but it comes across to me like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man scribbling on his chalkboard saying, "Now this is exciting!" (Or, more disparagingly, throughout his mundane dreamworld, Nolan resembles the first rabbi, asking us to marvel at a parking lot.)

Ronak - I liked your review, especially the observation about Nolan's psychology being "too clean." I'm not sure the fight scenes in Batman were intended to be incoherent, since Nolan has had similar problems with staging and editing in his other movies, but perhaps unintentionally it works better with a character who lurks in the shadows.

Anon - Yes, I get tired of the loopholes used in arguments about films like these as well (and Inception has all kinds of built-in self-justifications for its own inconsistencies). As I remarked in a previous comment, when a movie works for me -- when it draws me into its world -- I find it easier to overlook its flaws or implausibilities. For a director to do that, it helps to be light on his feet, and Nolan's a plodder. I don't find his films reward repeated viewings, either: the other day I watched The Dark Knight again, a movie I've previously enjoyed, and all I could wonder is why the cops would throw the Joker in the slammer with his makeup still on? I can only speculate whether repeat viewers of Inception, for every secret they decode, will find an extra plot hole or two that bothers them?

Adam - I'm with you on the characters, less on the style. Granted, Inception probably looks good compared to most summer fare. But to echo Steven Boone's main criticism, even when Nolan conjures up a memorable image, as he does a few times in Inception, he has no instincts for how to combine image, editing, music, emotion, character psychology, and performance into a unified whole. That he had plenty of opportunities to achieve this made the film a very frustrating experience for me.

Steven Santos said...

Craig, your last comment brings up a good point where the grave, literal approach works for a Batman movie, but I think Nolan attempting to apply that to a movie about entering dreams seemed wrong-headed. It felt like the movie threatened to be playful, but Nolan could not will himself to have any fun.

This felt like the movie where he needed to expand his technique and loosen up as a director to embrace the unpredictable. Instead, he retreats more into mathematical formula and dotting every "i" and crossing every "t". Hence, why half of the movie seems to contain its own footnotes.

I don't know what it says that when a director is given the opportunity to portray layers of dreams, he chooses to dream multiple James Bond scenarios.

Craig said...

Hence, why half of the movie seems to contain its own footnotes.

I'd have gotten a kick out of actual footnotes at the bottom of the screen, sort of the cinematic equivalent of David Foster Wallace.

Ronak M Soni said...

Craig, I just watched four minutes of the Fearless clip and started crying. Stopped because I realised it was the ending of the movie.

If you ever watch bits of BB again, just notice how the fights have a higher level of incoherency than anything Nolan has ever done since (note: I watched a 4:3 cut on HBO, so that may be the reason I think so, though I don't think that sort of incoherency can come from recutting; also, interestingly, I doubt it would work as well in 16:9 as it did in 4:3). At least in BB, I believe it was intentional. And it worked like a charm.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific review, man! I agree with most of it, and I think this is perfectly stated: "Nolan has always had little use for women in his films, not out of any apparent misogyny so much as they don't seem to fit into his mathematical theorems."

My one disagreement echoes a response over at Culture Snob (which MZS said he liked, even though it "rips" him):

I think it's a little unfair in principle to say what dreams do and don't include. Yes, it's odd for there to be no sex in dreams, but I don't think that's the grounds on which this film should be criticized (not that it's the basis of your argument, I'm just saying). Also, as Culture Snob points out, Inception is based on the idea that it does unfold in a dream-like world that isn't random, that can be controlled. So, long story short, it's almost as if Nolan is receiving a bunch of criticism in several reviews I've read so far just for calling these episodes "dreams" and not something else (like, I don't know, the "matrix").

That said, if I'm Cobb and I'm trying to convince someone of anything using their subconscious, the very first area I explore is their sexual desire. I play on those.

Craig said...

Thanks, Jason, for your thoughts.

I think it's a little unfair in principle to say what dreams do and don't include. Yes, it's odd for there to be no sex in dreams, but I don't think that's the grounds on which this film should be criticized (not that it's the basis of your argument, I'm just saying). Also, as Culture Snob points out, Inception is based on the idea that it does unfold in a dream-like world that isn't random, that can be controlled. So, long story short, it's almost as if Nolan is receiving a bunch of criticism in several reviews I've read so far just for calling these episodes "dreams" and not something else (like, I don't know, the "matrix").

For me, the "fatal flaw" I mentioned isn't so much that Nolan inaccurately depicts what dreams are, but that, as a filmmaker, he fails to fully take advantage of his own premise. These kinds of dreams can be controlled, fine; my point is that Nolan too much admires that control, takes its supremacy for granted, rather than truly challenging or exploring it in an insightful or mischievous way. He had a golden opportunity to do this with the Mal character: locked up in the basement, she doesn't wreak nearly enough havoc for me. I think it's fair game to criticize a director who doesn't have enough sense to utilize Marion Cotillard's sexuality. (Or to link a French actress who recently won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf with "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," which would have been one hell of a playful musical cue for her entrances, instead of the dream team's exits.) Also, don't any of the other team members have subconscious desires too? Not depicting any is Nolan's choice to make. But like many of his choices, I think it's wrong.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, I know where you're coming from. I see that. I was responding more to the widespread criticism of Nolan's approach to dreams -- that so many critics have used his boring or lackluster dreamworld as a sign that the movie stinks, when I don't think Nolan was going for Vertigo, Mulholland Dr., etc. Again, I think Nolan could have avoided much of this just by calling them something other than "dreams."

Having said that ...

One dream-like thing that he gets right is the way Cobb wants to see his children's faces but they never turn. Now, in the film's case, that's because it's tied to a specific real memory (at least I think it is). But the elusiveness of faces is, for me at least, a common characteristic of dreaming.

As chance would have it, the night before I saw Inception I had a dream about an old friend form college who I have not seen in more than 10 years. In my dream when I spotted her she was driving a car on a dirt track in some sort of race. I watched her go by twice, but I never saw her face clearly, almost as if my brain is aware that what she looked like then couldn't be exactly what she looks like now. I wanted to see her now, today, but my dreaming brain wouldn't allow it.

After having this dream I looked up my friend on Facebook, tracked her down and spent several nights spying on her from the bushes by her house. OK, just kidding.

Craig said...

One dream-like thing that he gets right is the way Cobb wants to see his children's faces but they never turn. Now, in the film's case, that's because it's tied to a specific real memory (at least I think it is). But the elusiveness of faces is, for me at least, a common characteristic of dreaming.

Agreed there. I also liked the floating bodies in the Gordon-Levitt sequence, which David Denby called "oddly moving" and noted that it was all done with wires rather than CGI. I also don't recall much (if any) music during those passages, which was a nice break.

After having this dream I looked up my friend on Facebook, tracked her down and spent several nights spying on her from the bushes by her house. OK, just kidding.

Reminds me of The Onion headline: "Romantic Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested."

Roguemovement said...

There's a flaw that ruins the whole thing - check it out:

Craig said...

A good point about "the kick" as it also shows that indeed Nolan intends these to be dreams, controlled or otherwise.