Inception thoughts (and spoilers)

Non-spoiling thoughts: The movie pitch version is that Inception is Memento meets The Matrix meets Synecdoche, New York. It’s terrifically ambitious for a summer action blockbuster, and has more than a few inventive tricks up its sleeve. At the same time, there are some extremely frustrating gaps in story and motivation, and you have to look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s furrowed brow a lot. With all of its flaws, I’d recommend it to pretty much anybody.

Many, many spoilers below, after the rotating-gravity fistfight.

First, there is a lot that Inception gets right. It’s refreshing to watch a big-budget summer blockbuster where the cost of failure is not death, but insanity. It that sense it’s an amplified update to Nolan’s nearly-perfect Memento. In both films, the true objective is not to dutifully complete the procedural task of the genre (solve the murder, kill the villain) as much as to choose the correct reality. Inception doesn’t even have a villain, really, unless you count Cobb’s own subconscious. I also appreciated that the team is hired for some relatively prosaic corporate intrigue, and not some Mission: Impossible hokum about having to break into a criminal mastermind’s head before a bomb goes off.

Nolan is aiming for a solid emotional core, and he hits his mark fairly often. I bought the idea of Mal (Marion Cotillard) as a vicious ghost haunting Cobb’s subconscious, and found Mal’s confusion between realities genuinely chilling. (That confusion also made me yearn for Nolan’s next film to be an Alan Moore adaptation, though there’s not a lot of good source material left.) I found the brief sketches of Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) relationship with his father to be moving as well. And the scene where they enter Cobb’s limbo is a fine example of cinema’s power to combine the visual with the emotional. With the ocean eating away at skyscrapers, I couldn’t help but wonder: Has it been the equivalent of a million years since Cobb was last down there? And if so, what does that imply about him?

And, yes, once the action gets rolling there are plenty of great sequences. Nolan’s grasp of action sequences is clearly improving: I’m sure I’m not the only one who was blown away by the rotating-gravity hallway fight scene and the zero-gravity elevator shaft sequence that followed. And if you want to prolong tension in the last act of an action movie, you could do worse than to create an entire set of fictional rules to justify having a van fall off of a bridge in slow-motion for a half-hour. That falling van echoes the end of Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia: When you see something falling, it’s only natural to expect it to hit something soon.

So, about those rules. Yeah, the dream-logic in Inception is maybe the most unrealistic thing ever. In real life, I’d expect to see lightsabers or adamantium skeletons before hearing of scientific proof that dreams take place in discrete levels with precise degrees of time dilation between each one. But does this matter? Is this crazy dream logic of the same sort of fantasy as a lightsabre, or is it some rank new offense against the demands of narrative? I’d argue that it’s fine: Just because a movie uses the word “dream” a lot doesn’t mean it has to feel like Lynch or Jodorowsky.

But there are quite a few rules, which demand quite a bit of exposition, and maybe that’s where the trouble starts. Because while the dream world that these people are invading is explained in great detail, their waking world seems like it was scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin. How secretive is this trade? Who knows about it? How do people get into it? And most importantly, who the hell are these people that are willing to make a living in this way? Even without the threat of limbo, it’s got to be exhausting to keep double-checking whether you’re in the right reality, much less to get killed in somebody else’s dream. (I died in my own dream once, and I’m not sure how much you’d have to pay me to go through that on a regular basis.)

Nolan is describing a world of thrilling and dangerous experimentation, and this is a theme that Inception shares with his earlier film The Prestige. Whether it’s breaking into other people’s dreams, or catching a bullet in front of an audience, normal people don’t do this sort of work for a living. And if Inception had hinted more at who these people are and why they do what they do, the emotional stakes would’ve been as sharp as the action sequences.

Because ultimately, I pretty much never care if the special-effects sequences are plausible. But if the characters aren’t emotionally fleshed out, I might as well be playing a video game. And the film leaves questions everywhere. For example:

We know that Cobb has become reckless with the sanity of the rest of his crew, not telling them until they’re under that they could go insane if they die in the dream. But why does the chemist go along with this? Is he just some maniac who’s left a trail of damaged patients in his wake? The film doesn’t say.

Why does Ariadne (Ellen Page) join the crew so quickly? Sure, there’s the thrill of creation, but if your first dream experience involves being stabbed to death in front of an angry mob, even if you came back you might ask to be given training wheels for a while. But instead, the plot needs her to be the audience proxy who gets everything explained to her, so in she goes, all the way down to limbo.

Why would Miles (Michael Caine) be so quick to hand over his student? His own daughter jumped to her own death, leaving a note saying that Cobb was threatening her. Either Miles believes his daughter, at which point he’s going to believe Cobb is insane and dangerous, or he believes Cobb, at which he’s going to believe that, hey, this dream exploration shit is a lot more dangerous than he realized. Either way, why would he pull Ariadne into all of this? Was he getting sick of her asking for extensions on her term papers?

And what about Cobb and Mal’s working relationship? What was that like? You’re talking about a married couple doing highly risky, psychologically sensitive work together, and, oh, by the way, her father used to do it and may have mentored her husband, but you get almost no sense of the subtleties of the partnership that ended up destroying her sanity. Were they equals, was one of them better at it, did they complement each other? Were they both okay with the risks, or was one of them pushing further and pulling the other along? And did her relationship with her father influence her own judgement as they took bigger and bigger risks?

These sorts of questions matter, because Cobb’s guilt is the central conflict of the film, and when he gets over it at the end, it feels false. You don’t even really know what he’s getting over, because the guilt is so flimsy, so the ending feels deeply unearned. It’s a shame to say it, especially considering how admirable the film’s ambition is. For a summer blockbuster to end in some other way than “then they kill the bad guy” is shooting pretty high. But I think Inception missed its target.

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