Thoughts on Inception

An interesting concept gets bogged down by utter confusion

by Jack Kentala

Inception is a movie that spends every single minute of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime explaining what’s going on. There’s no simple setup within the first ten minutes and then we’re off on some semi-psychological thriller that proceeds without any letup. Instead, we’re held hostage by some heady or, at worst, confusing topics: dreams, dreams within dreams, dreams within dreams within dreams (seriously), the nature of dreams, the malleability of dreams, the mental torture of dreams, and, of course, the fine line between what’s a dream and what’s reality.

On that last note, it’s really surprising that Inception didn’t follow The Matrix‘s zeitgeist immediately. Instead it cooked for a number of years in director Chris Nolan’s head, during which he made Batman Begins, the oft-overlooked The Prestige, and the overrated The Dark Knight. So it’s no surprise that, given his filmography, Nolan has a penchant for the ambitious. It is, ultimately, what keeps Inception from following a straight line from thrill to thrill, and its overstuffed narrative gets in the way of answering questions that are left maddeningly until the very end of the film.

First off, it’s only until well near the midpoint of the film that we actually figure out what Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb actually does. The trailers point it out well enough: he infiltrates dreams and, somehow, extracts information from them. But that doesn’t answer how he gets there, until the main plot thrust shows that it basically involves drugging a subject and then magically getting inside their dreams. Add to it that every dream infiltration requires an “architect” to create a maze-like environment (here, it’s Ellen Page that, thank god, never develops into a b-plot of some sort of love interest) to trap the subject and yet not cue them into the fact that they’re in a dream.

The latter is pretty safe ground to cover, since that’s what the trailers exploit. And they go a little too far, unfortunately. Inception is oftentimes a visually awesome film, but all the best shots have already been sold: the city folding over itself; dreams “collapsing” and explosions surrounding and not harming the characters; a netherdreamworld crumbling into the ocean; and the infamous “gravity hallway” where a rather tedious sequence occurs.

So what about characters, then? For good or worse, DiCaprio is the only one who has a background, a motive, and secrets. Everyone else just fills out the inception “team” for the big theft-dream-heist of the latter part of the movie. Consider it coincidence, but DiCaprio’s personal demons here are eerily much like this year’s Shutter Island, giving Inception a bit of too-soon déjà vu.

Going back to the final setpiece of the movie, we get into a dream within a dream within a dream. And while the first setup is bland, the second a bit more mazelike, the third almost decides to throw out the “dream rules” and just turns into an assault on a Russian bunker in some wintry deadland. And like The Dark Knight, it devolves into a messy action scene in which simply telling who is fighting who keeps it from feeling like there’s anything actually at stake.

I always give points for ambition. There’s plenty of it in Inception. Perhaps what’s obviously remarkable is that Chris Nolan helms such ambitious projects “between” Batman movies, and that, based on something I read in American Cinematographer a while back, he supervises every shot of the whole movie; he doesn’t sit in a trailer while a second unit does the grunt work for some rote material. But the problem with Inception is that, while it could work as a mind-bending What’s Going On? mystery, it’s simply confusing without hinting that the easy answer is just around the corner. You can’t figure it out by yourself. You have to wait for the film to tell you.

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