Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
!! CAUTION !!
There’s a certain charm to those miserably dumb but engagingly silly Z-grade movies that are produced and aired by the Sci-Fi Channel, sort of an admirably scrappy commitment to their own ridiculousness. Christopher Nolan’s Inception reminds me of one of those bits of nonsense, except it cost $160 million and has absolutely no levity at all. That Warner Bros. would throw so much money at Nolan to let him produce such humorless pap shouldn’t really surprise us, given that he’s become one of the most celebrated mainstream directors in history on the basis of a series of fanatically dreary films. What’s more troubling is how readily people seem to accept his pathetically shallow worldview and ignorantly cynical perspective on life itself. He possesses the rare gift not only of making action sequences feel like board meetings, but also rendering superheroes and magic and great big ideas about dreams and the subconscious into apathetically presented, clinical tropes with the entertainment value of an appliance wiring manual.
To the extent this horrendously irritating film has a story, it’s along these lines: Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are spies, in your mind, who get information from your brain and shit during your dreams, maaan. But the big forbidden thing is that some guy (Ken Watanabe) wants them to actually use their fancy tools to get in some corporate heir’s head and plant an idea deep in there to make him do something that he wants him to do, and that’s called inception. DiCaprio goes around the world in like twenty minutes recruiting an utterly generic “team” with all sorts of banal action-movie stereotypes and dialogue to help them do this, and they go three levels deep inside the guy’s skull to make him want to sell a company or something because you can do that, because when you’re dreaming you actually can dream even more but the lower you go the longer time is and shit, so it takes like an hour for a van to fall off a bridge while about fifty years go by in the lower levels, and anyway, meanwhile there’s this hokey backstory about DiCaprio being taken away from his kids because his wife killed herself because she didn’t want to get out of the dream world, and now he just wants to get home and he succeeds in his mission ultimately but then I forgot there are these totem things and you can use them to tell whether you’re dreaming or not because the characters say so, and it’s really ambiguous and deep and edgy and shit at the end, because maybe it’s all a dream and you just wasted a whole bunch of time trying to pay attention to this tripe! Or maybe not! Or oh god. Kill me.
The infuriating length of this shaggy-dog joke (148 minutes) is no worse than that of Nolan’s nihilistic boy movie The Dark Knight, but somehow it brings so much more rage to the surface. The basic structure of the story is easy enough to cope with, to the point that the incessant exposition (achieved through the use of Ellen Page, who is given a script of nothing but nonsensical questions to ask DiCaprio and look pained over) becomes tiring before the first hour is complete. The constant Calvinball entrance of new “rules” and new caveats to the dream-entrance technology and structure recalls The X-Files at its worst. Except in its crushingly stupid domesticated subplot, Inception has no interest in characters or the larger ideas its story brushes up against, only in strategy and point-scoring and leveling up. You’re paying $12.50 or whatever to watch Nolan play a gigantic video game.
A video game, no less, that takes place in the most contemptible kind of Blade Runner fantasy world. It’s been said that criticizing Inception on the grounds that its dreams don’t look or feel like dreams at all is unfair because presenting surreal abstractions as shorthand for the subconscious would just lose the audience. I seem to remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doing a not-terrible job of just that, but fine, whatever, that was way back in the stone age of 2004 and all. Even if you allow that a Hollywood dream doesn’t need to have the disorienting and off-kilter feel of an actual slumbering hallucination, surely you contend that most people’s dreams aren’t basically CG-heavy and pseudo-intellectual Rambo movies? That’s the way Nolan’s waking dreams work, I’m sure, because that’s the thrust of his magical mental world: a big pricey video game fantasy with multiple levels and rules to follow and goals to achieve. It fits, too, with the businesslike take on human relationships he’s exhibited in all of his films to date — DiCaprio’s character’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, filling the Maggie Gyllenhaal void of the thanklessly wafer-thin Female Interest Role in the picture), someone he’s supposed to have missed dearly, is presented as a series of Hallmark card stereotypes when she’s not being a murderous psychotic bitch. It’s the gangster-film version of romantic love, exactly the one that Nolan’s petty little mind games can find time to accommodate.
Much was made of how intricate and playful Inception‘s story was; it’s neither, it takes the easy way out at every flashy, empty turn. Maybe Nolan was vaguely interested in wrestling with the moral ambiguity of the overall concept; mind control and dream manipulation were subjects far more competently and wittily examined in an episode of The Prisoner, a property Nolan was once interested in remaking as a feature (he thankfully abandoned the idea, as much a blessing as the continued roadblocks obstructing Frank Darabont’s Fahrenheit 451). In the end, he does nothing with the implications, just approaches it as a job that must be done to fulfill a specific goal. The collateral damage of that goal is that the victim of all this pesky subconscious-invading is deceived into believing his unloving, distant father actually cared about him, precisely the same sort of idly hurtful dishonesty that was inexplicably celebrated in Amélie — only here it’s worse yet since it’s being done for money or immunity or what the hell ever who cares. Does the film struggle with this or depict its characters doing so? Of course not. Just part of the plot, just part of moving from point A to point B to the final hateful fuck-the-audience gag on which the whole thing hinges.
Inception‘s sole merit — since the whiz-bang action sequences are as incompetently directed as ever by Nolan — is as a work of pure style. There are some strong visual conceits here, particularly the early sequence of a city folding over on itself, and the somewhat interesting if lunatic tying-people-together-and-floating-them-through-a-corridor sequence. It takes very little time, however, for the novelty to wear out; after barely thirty minutes, the film becomes a chore to sit through. One reason for that is the abysmal dialogue, presented with audacious and maddening self-seriousness:
“Are we going to feel a kick with this kind of sedation?”
“Well, that’s the clever part. I customize the sedative to leave inner ear function unimpaired. That way, however deep the sleep, the sleeper still feels falling, or tipping.”
“The trick is to synchronize a kick that can penetrate all three levels.”
“Did you think that you could build a prison of memories to lock her in? Did you think you could contain her?”
“Let me ask you a question: why the hell were we ambushed? Those were not normal projections, they’ve been trained, for god’s sake.”
“How could he be trained?”
“Fischer has had an extractor teach his subconscious to defend itself. His subconscious has militarized. It should have shown in the research. I’m sorry.”
“Then why the hell didn’t it?!”
“Don’t tell me to calm down. This was your job, goddammit! This was your responsibility! You were meant to check Fischer’s background thoroughly! We are not prepared to deal with this type of security!”
“So, what happens when we die?”
“We drop into Limbo.”
“Are you serious?”
“Unconstructed dream space.”
“Well, what the hell is down there?”
“Just raw, infinite subconscious. Nothing is down there. Except for whatever that might have been left behind by whoever’s sharing the dream who was trapped down there before. Which in our case, is just you.”
“But how long could we be stuck there?”
“Decades! It could be infinite! I don’t know! Ask him, he’s the one who’s been there!”
The poor actors, some wooden (DiCaprio) and some trying their best with rotten material (Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), deliver all this with looks on their faces suggesting both great pain on their parts and supreme glee on the part of Nolan, whose stock in trade is human misery — the feeling of wanting to be anywhere but here and seeing little point in doing much beyond baldly going through the motions. He achieves this for Inception with the kind of forcefully cheesy obviousness familiar from decades of Hollywood science fiction — clever but not smart, and free of any interesting subtext. As in the far better but just as overrated The Prestige, the final supposed headfuck of an ending is obvious from the first act: as soon as someone mentions the idea of a “totem,” its final purpose in the narrative will be clear to anyone who’s seen more than a dozen movies. It ought to enrage you when it turns out you were right, and a film with no merit except its superficial bag of tricks is revealed to be more or less a crossword puzzle with a secret insult embedded.
But hey, if you didn’t think The Matrix was one of the stupidest pieces of New Age piffle you’d ever seen, you might like this. My god, you can have it.