Because what the internet needs, clearly, is another post about this film. At least it should be relatively short, since at this point all I really need to do is stake out my position relative to those of other people. Matt Cheney links to a post arguing that Inception is “not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie” which seems fair enough, allowing for two quibbles: (1) it assumes the conventional fictional representation of dreams as incessantly surreal is the representation of dreams to which all such work should aspire, and I at least found the fragile normality of Nolan’s dreamscapes quite familiar, and refreshing (though I should say I’m not a great one for remembering dreams); and (2) these are entirely neutral descriptions, and we all accept that a “dreamer’s movie” is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a “clockmaker’s movie”. I dislike, for instance, Annalee Newitz’ contention that Inception offers an “intellectual high” but is “emotionally cold”; that intellectual buzz is itself an emotional reaction, and for me Inception is a powerful film.

That said, these are only quibbles, because I would have no trouble substituting “idea-centred” and “character-centred” into Newitz’ piece, and because I don’t really think Christopher Nolan is particularly interested in dreams as dreams. One thing that doesn’t particularly interest me, then, is whether Cobb ends the film in “reality”, because in a trivial sense he doesn’t – he’s still a character in a film – and if the clever tricks with the music mean anything, I think that’s what they’re intended to signal: that Inception is ultimately the dream we are sharing with Nolan. No, where I think Nolan’s interest lies – as in Memento, as in The Prestige — is in the mechanisms of narrative, and in constructing models through which to explore the workings of those mechanisms, which is why the ending, although delicately handled, is never less than expected. The excitement of the film for me, from about half-way through, was simply watching Nolan keep his various plates spinning, and tension came not from whether the characters would achieve their goals, but from whether Nolan would allow the characters to achieve their goals. Another way of putting this is that I think Inception is essentially Nolan showing off.

This, I think, puts me largely in agreement with Brian Francis Slattery, over in the comments of Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and I do take Nolan’s purpose to be the same as that of his characters, to place the seed of an idea within viewers’ minds. As in the film’s plot itself, I think this is done obliquely, not explicitly; so the answer I’d suggest to Abigail’s question, “what is Nolan saying about storytelling?”, is: don’t trust stories. Remember that stories have a storyteller. Realise that our responses to the stories we’re told shape the stories we tell. The ambiguity of the ending, in this view, is necessary not to set up a simple question about whether or not what we’re seeing is “real”, but as an expression of scepticism: we shouldn’t take the catharsis we’re apparently being offered without thinking about it first. For this to work, you do have to find the film well-paced — have to be convinced by the stories being told all the way through — which I know is the stumbling block for many; fortunately, it was all balanced just about right for me, and I enjoyed watching the tumblers of the various dreams click into alignment. Like Martin Lewis, I’d say Inception is lesser Nolan, if only because it doesn’t push as far as it could, but I’d say it’s still very much worth seeing.

EDIT: And now I’m mulling over Adam Roberts’ take.

EDIT 2: And Abigail has some further thoughts here, including discussion of inception as a model for storytelling.

5 thoughts on “Inception

  1. The Internet may not need another review but I do, because I was too busy at the time to read all the immediate responses. Anyway, why I am replying, namely irritation (though not at you): it seems daft to me to criticise Inception for of all things, lacking essential dream surreality in its “dreams” Because, yes, these are technological dreams not natural dreams; and since technical far more likely to resemble (as they do) the levelled parareality of games, rather than that weird stuf that goes on in our wetware at night. Reality the criticism should have been if Nolan had done it otherwise – especially given the film seems visually at least to be in a vry near future.

    I enjoyed seeing Nolan keping his plates spinning too. It’s not a sensawuda movie like Bladerunner or the matrix – it’s more an OMG I’m following this as closely as i can withoiut looking down movie, like, oh I dunno, The usual Suspects? Or as many many have pointed out, your typical clever-clever heist movie (has anyone referenced Mamet’s equally cerebral Houe of Games yet?) But again I don;t care: i’m not an sf critic so I don;t have to play the game of “is this good sf”. It’s a good , though not brilliantly original, film. Good enough for me :-)

  2. An interesting review for a movie I’ve been wanting to see since first hearing about it. I read that for sci-fi fans Inception is nothing really new or surprising, but non-SF folk will find it a little advanced. It was also compared to the Matrix because of its dream theme. What do you think?

  3. You’re right, Niall, that “a ‘dreamer’s movie’ is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a ‘clockmaker’s movie'”, and I should have emphasized that more in my mulling of the film, but I need to see it at least one more time to figure out why to me that choice for this particular movie made me feel again that Nolan isn’t really a very visually imaginative director. Part of it comes from my knowledge of the film’s budget, and so in an utterly pedestrian way I have a certain desire to see the $150 million up there on the screen. The intellectual corner of my brain scoffs at such a desire, but still… I found the movie entertaining but not very satisfying, and I’m still trying to puzzle out why. I agree with you, though, that criticisms of it as “cold” are not very helpful (John Kessel and I were just discussing that word in the comments to my post on The White Ribbon, in fact. Now I want to know what John thinks of Inception…)

  4. Started out with a comment, and ended up with a full blooded post on my own site (because, as you say Niall, it’s exactly what the internet is short of right now)

    Verbatim, for convenience:

    I find almost every thought I had on seeing Inception last night began “Is it asking too much….”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie shouldn’t have an assault rifle wank-fest jammed into it regardless of applicability to plot?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie, having hired exceptionally talented actors, should give substantial time to character development such that we give a shit what happens to these people?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie shouldn’t dumb down its script to the point that (for example) a highly talented hired specialist has to have her job explained to her in words of one syllable by the guy who’s hiring her talents?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie should (just occasionally) have a female protagonist?” (just for a moment imagine Cotillard as the haunted team leader, DiCaprio (or other male – maybe Murphy?) as the shadowy destructive figure stalking her dreams; as a corollary, let’s ask ourselves in statistical terms which sex tends to (a) commit violent suicide (b) prefer the idea of a world they control totally to any kind of more negotiated reality (c) abandon their children for selfish reasons (d) kill as a form of possession. And let’s, briefly imagine what interesting things you might have done character-wise with the relationships between team leader Cotillard and practically every other character in the movie. Sigh.)

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie shouldn’t wear its plot surgery with such Frankenstein-monster blatancy that you can clearly make out the outlines of the much darker, tighter, more complex screenplay it once was underneath (and wish you were watching that one instead)?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie shouldn’t have plot inconsistencies you could drive a Mack Truck and trailer through without scraping the sides?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale SF movie should for once be made for adults, without the kind of prissy softening around the edges that ensures it can be packaged out to a pre-teen audience?”

    “Is it asking too much that a large scale Hollywood movie’s principal (and in this case sole) emotional content should feature something other than the mawkish standards Oh-God-How-I-Love-My-Wife-And-Children and Oh-God-Dad-Was-So-Distant-But-Now-We-Are-Redeemed?” (the latter of which was facile shite even when they first rolled it out in Return of The Jedi, circa 1983 – doesn’t anyone ever get tired of this bollocks?)

    “Is it asking too much that a Hollywood studio should cough up a hundred million dollars and fork it over to a gifted film-maker for art’s sake without over much concern for the return on its investment?”

    I’m asking too much, aren’t I?

    Oh well – it was better than The Dark Knight. And massively better than Avatar.

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