Inception: A Smart Movie for Dumb People

August 18, 2010

Like most of the rest of the planet, I enjoyed The Dark Knight. It was slick, had some great action sequences, a splendid cast, a story with some nice twists and turns, and a slight hint of moral ambiguity. It wasn’t a perfect film, and I’m not among those who thought it was snubbed at the Oscars, but as far as big-budget superhero spectacles go, it stood tall above its competition.

And yet, as the film went on, one got a nagging sense that Christopher Nolan felt he was getting too subtle. By the final act, every other line of dialogue was about what a hero should be, how to fight evil without becoming evil, and how even the most noble soul is only a bad day away from becoming a raving lunatic.

It was relatively easy to look past the clumsy commentary, since a movie about Batman fighting the Joker didn’t call for a whole lot of subtlety in the first place. But it was a worrying sign from Nolan, who got everyone’s attention with Memento, a challenging film that didn’t hold the audience’s hand through its twists and turns.

Unfortunately, Nolan’s magnum opus, the film he’d been wanting to make for several years, brings out all his worst qualities as a writer and director. Inception wants so badly to be an elegant, intelligent, and emotional film, but Nolan buried it under crushingly clumsy exposition, meaningless big-budget action sequences, and an egomaniacal desire to make sure everyone understands how elegant, intelligent, and emotional his film is.

The central premise is simple, yet elaborate: At some point in the not-so-distant future, it’s possible to enter a person’s dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has been making a living stealing secrets from dreams, until he receives a more challenging offer from a corporate tycoon (Ken Watanabe): Plant an idea in the mind of a rival (Cillian Murphy) to break up his business.

This is much more difficult from the usual business, we’re told, because the idea needs to be planted delicately and attached to some core emotion in order for it to take hold. There’s also a personal complication Cobb is carrying around: When he travels in dreams, he tends to bring along an angry memory of his wife (Marion Cotillard) who seeks to disrupt his plans, often violently.

So Cobb assembles a Dream Team to pull off the job. The plan is explained in advance, which is fine – every caper movie needs a master plan, if only so the audience understands how things go wrong. But at almost every step of the story, someone recounts exactly what is going on, what happens next, and what the consequences are if it doesn’t work properly. When something goes wrong or someone deviates from the plan, they explain exactly what they’re doing and why. The layered dreams of Inception should provide at least some room for ambiguity and misdirection, but we’re never far from a character reminding us exactly were they are and what they’re doing.

I can understand some of this: Inception is a complicated movie, and it might be easy to get lost if things were too ambiguous. But most of the dialogue is soullessly direct and to the point, and often feels like Nolan simply pasted in excerpts from his plot summary. He shows absolutely no faith in the audience’s ability to understand characters’ actions or motivations, frequently sucking the drama right off the screen by narrating even the most obvious plot developments.

Nolan put together a talented cast – DiCaprio, Cotillard, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Watanabe – but barely anyone gets to do more than recite plot details. Ellen Page seems particularly wasted as the dream architect Ariadne: As the newest member of the team, she’s a sounding board for exposition. First Cobb gets to explain the art of manipulating dreams to her. Later, she discovers some secrets about Cobb and Mal, and presses Cobb for details. (It’s curious that Ariadne is the only one who seems to show any interest in Mal’s constant sabotaging of Cobb’s jobs, given that Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) has been her victim at least once.)

Cotillard is similarly hamstrung by her role. She’s incredibly striking as a spectral figure, but when the action stops she’s either playing angry or sad, a martyr for Cobb’s past sins or a chance for redemption. It’s not unreasonable, given that she’s generally a figment of Cobb’s imagination, but the lack of emotional depth to the character makes it difficult to connect with the character.

Cobb and Mal’s story could be quite beautiful if not for the fact DiCaprio retells it in about two minutes, with all the emotion and eloquence of a man assembling a new stereo system. Their story is – or should be – the emotional core of Inception, but Nolan chooses to tell their story instead of showing it. It’s a great story featuring two fine actors, but Nolan treats it like just another plot element to be bluntly explained to the audience.

There might be more time for meaningful dialogue and a more gracefully unfolding story if Nolan had skipped some of the action sequences. There’s no question that Nolan knows how to pull off elaborate set pieces, but few of them in Inception add to the story. The idea that an unsatisfied client has put a price on Cobb’s head is a nice bit of backstory, but the resulting chase through the streets and alleys of Mombasa is a detour from an already complicated plot, and the whole thing is forgotten five minutes later.

Inception is ostensibly a film about dreams, memories, and emotions, but Nolan seems to be afraid that the audience will stop paying attention if five minutes go by without someone firing an assault rifle. Cobb explains that a person’s subconcious can become hostile towards “intrusive” infiltrators, and while this is a reasonable idea, all the “dream defences” seem to be guys with guns. Nolan turns in at least one impressive dream-fight scene with rotating hallways and an MC Escher-influenced fighting style, but otherwise there’s just a lot of running and shooting. The big finale features everyone running about a winter landscape on snowmobiles and skis like something out of a 1980s James Bond movie. It’s not all that impressive to begin with, and it’s hard to generate much suspense when most of the characters are cardboard cutouts. It’s a pity Nolan didn’t listen to his own characters: “Dream bigger,” someone says, replacing a piddling assault rifle with a grenade launcher; sadly, Nolan’s bigger dreams simply seem to involve bigger guns.

It’s tempting to believe that Nolan’s Inception was a smarter, subtler film, but he had to make compromises with the studio to get it made. But while it may be true, that only goes so far; it’s easy to imagine Inception with a much smaller budget than the $160,000,000 it cost – fewer shootouts and more character development could have yielded a much better film. Instead, Inception looks more like a director’s ambition outpacing his ability. Nolan’s ambition and creativity should be admired, and it’s impressive that he was able to get Inception made at all, but his utter lack of nuance and character keep it from being anything meaningful.