I saw "Inception" this weekend. And while I did like it, I don't think I fell in love with it to the extent that many people did. (Or, at least, to the extent that people were planning to. I almost feel like people decided they were going to fall in love with the movie even before they saw it. After I bought and proudly wore a "Dick Tracy" t-shirt 20 years ago -- and then got burned when the movie turned out to be brutal -- I swore off premature declarations of movie love.)
Anyway, here are 11 thoughts I had about the movie. There are no spoilers ahead (unless you're ultra, ultra sensitive to spoilers and didn't even want to know that the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio. In which case, every word below is a spoiler).
One of the many creative visual moments of "Inception".
It's an extremely ambitious, but well-crafted, story. This is definitely a story style largely absent from mainstream blockbuster movies since... well... does "Memento" count as a blockbuster? Unlike the later "Matrix" movies, this isn't a complex story whose complexity comes from the fact that there isn't actually a definitive story. Christopher Nolan did an absolutely masterful job creating a fantasy world with tons of involved -- but very clear and ultimately understandable -- rules.
It does ask the audience to completely buy into this world and its jargon -- and for that, you need to both pay close attention and think. Over the course of the movie you learn about everything from totems to kicks to extractors and, yes, to inception itself. It asks the audience to sit there for quite some time before things truly begin to make sense. (And in the theater where I saw the movie, it asked the audience to do that without a functioning air conditioner.)
At the same time, it's not quite as smart as everyone says. "Inception" is smarter than the bar Hollywood has generally set -- but doesn't take a rarefied genius to understand. Leaving the theater with an understanding of what you just saw should be well within your realm of expectations. If this movie was on a blackboard at MIT, I'm fairly sure any of the janitors passing through would be able to decipher it.
Part of why it's not too smart is because all of its questions actually have answers. This is kind of a strange conclusion to draw and one that seems counter intuitive... but the whole point about it being "not too smart" isn't necessarily a demerit.
For instance, "Lost" was considered a smart TV show but part of the reason that smart people couldn't solve it was because there really wasn't something to solve. We could've taken Stephen Hawking off of his current workload and had him devote the past six years to trying to figure out why Libby and Hurley were in the same mental institution -- and he would've failed, because there was no answer.
In "Inception", everything has an answer and a logical explanation -- at least, logical within the universe Nolan created. You'll end up having to discuss it with your friends and fill in the gaps for each other, but you'll be able to arrive at answers everyone agrees upon. And that's something, we've learned, we shouldn't take for granted -- nor hold against the movie and/or its creator.
Don't doze off for a second like I did. I fell asleep for approximately 40 seconds during this movie and regretted it for two reasons. One, in a movie with about 2,500 crucial little details, you really can't afford to miss a single one or it's like you've put together a giant puzzle of a concert in Golden Gate Park but you're missing the one piece with James Taylor's head.
And two, in a movie about all the bad shit that goes down when you're dreaming, it's impossible not to wake up and at least wonder, briefly, if you're currently in reality or still inside a dream. (And I didn't bring my totem with me -- which would clearly be a dreidel that always lands on Gimel -- to make sure real was real.)
Ellen Page and Leo filming.
Ellen Page spouting this jargon was more likable than Ellen Page spouting "Juno" jargon. Ellen Page has the "new person in the crew" role in this movie, which means she gets to be the audience's everyman rookie companion into the world.
And it's nice to see her saying things to the effect of "Are those real or projections produced by his subconscious as defenses to the extractors?" -- in contrast to her saying "Silencio old man" and "Paulie Bleeker is totally boss, he's the cheese to my macaroni." I'll take sci-fi dialogue over painfully contrived faux-teen speak any day.
I thought the movie delivered a lot of exposition in a very natural way. As I said earlier, there's a lot of information to be delivered here. We have to learn the rules of the universe, the language of the universe, those rare exceptions to the rules of the universe that always seem to come into play right around the climax -- and we have to do it all without someone having handed us a pre-requisite summer reading list last month.
For the amount of exposition required, I thought the movie did an admirable job of delivering it organically. This wasn't like J.K. Rowling creating a deux ex punchbowl-o-memories where Harry could dip his face in and provide us with chapter upon chapter of spoon-fed back story.
"Inception" parceled out the exposition in such a way that you (or, at least I) never felt that you were sitting through a character rattling off the Wikipedia entry on the "Inception" universe.
The emotional stuff REALLY slows it down. There was a line in last season's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" where Mac and Charlie are writing a movie. Dennis suggests they add a female character (to be fully penetrated by a super-smart, super-ripped scientist named Dr. Dolph Lundgren). Mac responds that he hates women in action movies because they slow everything down.
In "Inception", I felt like things kept following this pattern: Stunning visual... moment of calm... crazy action... crazy action... crazy action... building toward something great... crash to a halt because Leonardo DiCaprio's wife and kids appear.
That happens about 20 times during the movie. Just as you're ass-to-elbows deep in action, you see a glimpse of the wife or the backs of the heads of Leo's two blond children of the corn -- which makes Leo's character stop -- which kills the momentum. By the end, you have a Pavlovian response to the wife and kids where you roll your eyes and just want them to get out of the way.
Flying debris = satisfied 3D customers.
I can't believe I'm going to say this, but it would've been great in 3-D. I'm like you. I'm already over 3D, and have been since I got burned on a retro-fitted 3D debacle and realized that I just got scammed out of an extra $3. But if any movie since "Avatar" belonged in 3D, it was this one.
The 3D would've worked perfectly and actually drawn you even further into the world. The "Inception" world featured moments of zero gravity, of things flying around the screen and of exploding Parisian fruit stands. All of which really would've worked brilliantly in 3D. This isn't like the trailer for "Step Up 3D" where you can tell they had to add a bunch of crap for the sake of 3D, like characters throwing Slurpees. The 3D elements were sitting there, waiting.
On the same token, since Nolan didn't film the movie for 3D, I'm thankful the studio didn't go back and "Clash of the Titans" this movie into janky 3D. Because no one wants to have what appears to be an awkwardly-embossed cardboard cutout of Leonardo DiCaprio staring wistfully at them for two straight hours.
The storyline felt more like a sequel to me. After reading about "Inception", I learned that it was Nolan's magnum opus, his life's dream project, his "Battlefield Earth". So he wanted to give us the thickest story possible.
Still, in a movie about a group of people who invade dreams to steal people's deepest secrets, we saw very few people's dreams invaded and very little secret stealing. The focus is almost entirely on one big heist which, while mammoth, involves a variation on that dream snatching business plan.
"Inception" has a shot at being turned into a franchise based on its success. No one could've guaranteed that going in, so we got an incredibly epic story for the first movie. And while I'm sure Nolan and crew will happily come up with an even more epic story if there's another "Inception" movie -- the stakes may be permanently too high for any "Inception" movie to feature a regular old dream snatching romp.
It could be a good sign for movies. If there's one thing I like most about "Inception" on a macro level, it's that its success shows there's room for blockbusters that aren't oversimplified to pander to the dummies in the audience. (Who may not even exist. Even the people who respond to Twitter memes like #youruglyashellwhen could outsmart "Transformers 2".)
If we can look back at "Inception" as the movie that finally made Hollywood realize that the audience wants more than a nonstop barrage of sequels, comic book movies and reboots -- then, really, it's one of the most important movies in years.
The final word. "Inception" is a good movie. It's a brilliant fantasy world where every detail was accounted for -- a sign of intricate planning and care that we rarely see. The story is wildly complicated and yet completely manageable. And it's a movie worth seeing, absolutely.
But... it's not a transcendent movie. It won't reinvent film making or storytelling... or our expectations for either one of those. It's a cleaner and better story than "The Matrix" but it isn't as groundbreaking visually as "The Matrix". You don't walk out of the theater trying but failing to grasp the greatness you just saw -- like after, say, "Pulp Fiction". And you don't walk out saying "If that doesn't win an Oscar than nothing should."
The emotional stuff is just too generic and too boring -- it ends up hurting the cause badly. It hurts the rewatchability -- rather than wanting to go see the movie again to catch the stuff I missed, I feel like I don't want to sit through all of the emotion filler to get there. And while the dream invading universe is done brilliantly, it feels like this movie leaves you disappointed that you didn't see more.
My friend Jackie posted this on Facebook and summed it up perfectly. She wrote, "Inception was mind-bending but not mind-blowing." And I think that's spot on. It's a very, very solid movie with a story that's smarter than we're used to -- but it has too many flaws to be a game changer. And it was aiming to be a game changer.
This post was originally published on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Movies.