>> Sunday, July 18, 2010

So I went to see Inception with a group of friends last night. This is the new Christopher Nolan movie--the guy who directed Memento and the Batman reboots, among other things, and there was a lot of buzz over the past year leading up to the movie and some awesome trailers, and then some mixed reviews over the past week now that the movie's out.

If you somehow missed any of the noise: Inception is a fantasy film about a guy named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has a business going into the dreams of corporate bigwigs to steal trade secrets from their subconscious. But then one of these corporate bigwigs, a gentleman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) approaches Cobb with a proposal: he wants to break up a rival company that is about to be inherited by a gentleman named Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and he wants Fischer to think its his own idea--hence the title of the movie; rather than steal an idea from somebody's dreams, Saito wants Cobb to implant one.

If this sounds a bit weird and ridiculous even on its own terms, you'd be right; a lot of critics have been razzing Inception's premise and Christopher Nolan's heavy-handed literal approach to dreaming, and I do dig what they're saying. As movies about dreams and dreaming go, this isn't La cité des enfants perdus or Eyes Wide Shut or Mulholland--ah, hell, pretty much any film by David Lynch, actually.1 There's nothing really, truly dreamlike in Nolan's movie, even when the laws of physics are purposely and deliberately suspended or M.C. Escher works consciously referenced. And don't even bother trying to tie Nolan's ideas about what goes on in a dream physically or psychologically to anything anybody's actually done in real-live-meatspace over the past twenty years with regards to sleep research, lucid dreaming, REM deprivation or any of the rest of it; while Nolan may be justly renowned for approaching fantasy with gritty realism (see also, Dark Knight, The), Inception has to be categorized as fantasy, not science fiction.

But as far as being the kind of movie The Matrix2 wanted to be--well, as far as that goes, Inception is sweet, sweet awesome and kicks the ass of The Matrix as well as (for that matter) Dreamscape or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (yeah, yeah, I know) or any other movie where a virtual or dream reality is used as an excuse to just kind of go wild with the action and adventure.

First of all, Inception is the prettiest action movie made in, I don't know, ever? Seriously, this is a movie that's worth forking over the extra bucks for the IMAX version for the digital image clarity and kickass sound system and ginormous screen. Eschewing the usual blues and--ever since The Matrix--greens you always seem to see in this kind of movie these days, Nolan gives us real warmth on the screen, lots of golds and browns and rich, rich, rich colors. There's a sharpness to the images overall that I haven't seen in ages, or maybe since The Dark Knight, actually; this film could be a textbook definition for "crisp." And the sound design in an IMAX presentation is perfect: a shaking building or flood of water triggers a rumble that you can feel in your seat but without one detectable iota of distortion--it's loud but it's clean. I don't know how the experience will translate to DVD/BR when it gets released for home viewing, though I suspect it's still going to look pretty damn fine.

Secondly, the idea that everything happening in the movie is a dream may not work in terms of actual "dreamlike-ness," but as an excuse to create an entire alternative logic in which everyday physical rules can be discarded in favor of a surprisingly-consistent-and-somehow-credible alternate physics, the movie's dream states are something else. To give an example, there's a sequence around the middle of the film in which the characters' physical bodies are unconscious in a falling, tumbling van, which in the dream environment translates into a variable-gravity situation in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt ends up fighting bodyguards in a hotel corridor; sometimes (when the van is in freefall) there's no gravity at all, other times (as the van spins and bounces down a hillside) "down" becomes the ceiling or one end of the hallway or someplace else: Gordon-Levitt and his antagonists swoop and fly and climb around like spiders and bounce off the walls as they try to kick one another's asses, and it's fucking insane. This is a sequence that a lot has been made out of, and rightly so, because it really is just spectacular, the way it plays out. And this is where Inception's premise pays off: action-movie heroes may violate the laws of physics ten times in an automobile chase or gunfight, and it seems ridiculous if you can't suspend your disbelief fast enough, but you don't even have to worry about suspending disbelief when the whole idea is that the characters are asleep and the scene you're watching could be interrupted by a random freight train or abrupt Noachian flood at any second.

Third, and this is really interesting for what is essentially an action movie/fantasy: Inception is ambitious enough to actually have some heart, though Nolan may be too cerebral to completely go for the kind of romanticism you find in La cité des enfants perdus or Brazil.3 That probably sounds like cheese, but it isn't: to Nolan's credit, a love story emerges over the course of Inception that's romantic, plausible and even a little frightening. Meanwhile, Cobb's motivation in going into Fischer's dreams in the first place is that he wants to ultimately be with his kids--something that ultimately goes beyond being a bit of semi-relevant backstory and becomes a recurring theme/plot point, and one that, again, feels credible and earned.4

As for the cast: people love or hate Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, the film's star and an important player, respectively; I think they're perfectly cromulent in Inception. Ken Watanabe is always a blast when he shows up in a film and should get more roles than he does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy are marvelous and steal several scenes they're in (especially Hardy), and Cillian Murphy is Cillian-fucking-Murphy, I shouldn't even need to say anything. The always-welcome Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Caine show up in bit parts and, as said, are always welcome. Tom Berenger, who isn't always welcome, has a significant minor part and is very good in it, acquitting himself well. So all is good, here.

In sum: I think it's good and it's definitely worth seeing on the big screen, or better yet on the biggest screen. How will it hold up over time? That, I don't know and have a harder time with. I will say that I'm not sure that Inception's weak spots stand against it as a movie, if that makes any sense. That is to say, I don't know that Inception is a movie that will haunt you like some of the other dream-movies I've mentioned in this post, even not-very-good-ones like Eyes Wide Shut, but taken as what-it-is, Inception is pretty goddamn perfect.

So go have a look for yourself.

POSTSCRIPT, 2010-07-27: If you haven't seen the business about Inception's soundtrack going around the web, you should check this out.

This actually gives me chills.


1Lest one misunderstand something or get the wrong idea: Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Dr. are pretty deeply flawed works, and quite possibly among my least-favorite works by their respective directors (I think The Shining and Dune are pretty awful films--yes, I just said The Shining was awful--so Eyes and Mulholland certainly aren't Lynch's and Kubrick's worst films, and both have moments of real visual lyricism, if you'll pardon the cliché. The point in name-dropping them here isn't that they're better films than Inception--actually, they're not--but rather that in some respects they're more interesting and certainly more dreamlike if you want to talk about films that are anything like a dream a real human being might have while sleeping.

City Of Lost Children, of course, is made of pure, beautiful awesome and is better than most films ever made by anyone.

2I sometimes suspect I have a reputation amongst my friends for hating The Matrix going back to when I walked out of the theatre after seeing it with friends--several of whom were seeing it at least a second time at that point--and basically said, "That was okay."

Matrix is a decent but terribly-overrated film. There, I said it. It looks nice, there are some cool setpieces, it was pretty cutting-edge with the SFX at the time and the soundtrack is kind of jamming. But you know what? It also isn't nearly as clever and interesting as the Wachowskis obviously thought it was. Aside from its knowing debt to various animes--which the Wachowskis apparently were going for, trying to make a "live action anime"--the entire premise is lifted more or less uncredited from Philip K. Dick's Valis except that Dick didn't come up with anything as stupid as humans being used as batteries, which is so dumb on so many levels it doesn't really even work as fantasy. (PKD apparently spent a good chunk of the end of his life flirting with the paranoid idea that history had ended in Roman times and everything since then was some kind of simulation--the exact idea the Wachowskis borrowed, except they wound the clock for the end of history up to the near future.)

But I don't mean to just knock The Matrix. It's a pretty good film, and fun and kind of interesting and has some great setpieces like subway fight between Neo and Smith or Trinity versus all those cops at the beginning of the movie. And I liked the first sequel, actually, though the third movie in the set was just godawful. But The Matrix was never as good as so many people said it was, was the thing. It was a good movie--it wasn't a great one.

While we're talking about The Matrix, here's something Inception does better: both movies occur in simulated realities where the heroes plow through bad guys by the gajillions. In Matrix, the cannon fodder consists, apparently, of all the people plugged into the simulation along with the Matrix's antivirus software (the agents), whereas in Inception the redshirts are all "projections" of a dreamer's subconscious. In The Matrix, dying in the dreamworld means dying for real, while in Inception dying means either waking up or submerging into a deeper and worse dream, depending on the kind of dream. Which means that in The Matrix the good guys are killing real actual schlubs by the score--all those people still plugged in and doing the "coppertop" thing--while in Inception, meh, those targets are all imaginary.

Point, of course, being that The Matrix is one of those movies where one of the conceptual problems is that the heroes are actually worse than the bad guys, because it's the heroes who are brutal, indifferent, thuggish murderers and even the innocents killed by the bad guys are only dying because the "good guys" are such assholes and are trying to wreck everything. Whereas, alternatively, Christopher Nolan nicely sidesteps the whole issue by making it clear, repeatedly, that all the people getting blown away in Inception are basically cartoon characters to start with. Kudos.

3Or, as with David Lynch, pretty much anything from Terry Gilliam's catalog, dream-reality-versus-waking-reality being a common theme throughout much of his work, particularly the early informal "trilogy" of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, or even in movies Gilliam directed but didn't write, like the oft-underrated The Fisher King, which has that famous Grand Central Station sequence that's frankly more dreamlike than anything in Inception.

4Sorry for all the endnotes in this one, but there are things that I'd like to say that don't necessarily fit into the body all that well, such as another problem with The Matrix (which this isn't really a review of) wherein that movie compares very unfavorably with Inception (the movie we're talking about), which is sort of relevant to what Inception does well but not wholly relevant in that this isn't meant to be a bunch of Matrix-bashing.

Anyway, the point is this: that one of the big problems with The Matrix is that while the stunts and SFX are cool and all, it's not exactly clear why I should care about any of it in the first place. I mean, look: the people plugged into the Matrix all think they have nice, ordinary lives, for better or for worse, with wives and kids and pets and stuff, while the heroes, who are trying to destroy the Matrix, all live in a shitty little flying submarine eating sludge and wearing itchy-looking rags and hiding out from scary squidbots, occasionally plugging themselves back in so that the Matrix's security protocols can try to extremely murderize them, which would kill them in the crappy real world although that seems like it might be a mercy. In short, the heroes are trying to destroy a world that, however gritty and grey-green it might be, is kind of liveable so they can liberate everybody into a post-apocalyptic hellhole, and we're supposed to be rooting for them to do it because they're the "good guys" and have "free will" (maybe--this notion is undercut in the sequels) and aren't creepy machine people, not because there's actually anything desirable about the lifestyle they live, if you want to call it living, scrabbling about in dried-out sewer pipes and keeping lint out of the computer ports in their necks. Okay, so it would be kind of cool to know kung-fu without having to practice or anything, except, you know, none of them really know kung-fu they just think they do after they install the plug-in.

In Inception, on the other hand, I can dig that Leonardo DiCaprio has family issues, etc., and that this is what's pushing him to do things. I don't have kids and I've never been married myself, of course, but if I did and/or had been, I can imagine being so in love with someone--wife, kids--that being in a situation where I could never see them again would drive me a little crazy and push me to do things even if they seemed like a bad idea to everybody else around me. I get that. More than I get why being in the Matrix would suck, especially if I didn't even know I was there in the first place.


timb111 Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 9:31:00 AM EDT  

Thanks for the review of Inception, it sounds like a good movie to see at Imax.

Since it is inevitable that someone will bring up your views on The Matrix, allow me to lead the way.

I think the point is that it is better to live in a dirty, crappy, messed world than to dream your way through life thinking everything is great. That's the point of a lot of the skeptical movement. John Edwards will tell you that your dead loved one wants you to know that s/he is happy and the letter "J". That may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but the fact is that JE doesn't have a clue and is simply conning you.

Same deal with The Matrix, someone is conning you and it is better to suffer than to live a lie. Same deal with real life, listen to politicians, someone is conning you (or trying to).

destors: shining light on your false beliefs destors them.

Eric Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 11:14:00 AM EDT  

As a skeptic myself, I agree it's better to live in a messy world than to dream your way through life, and there are movies that make that point quite well. (Actually, now that you mention it, it's a cornerstone of Inception's plot.) But if that's what The Matrix was going for, it doesn't work.

The problem is that a big deal is made (and it's funny, I'll give it that much) over the fact the Matrix designers had to make it just like our real world circa the late '90s because versions in which everybody was happy were prone to crashing.

In a way, actually, The Matrix manages to invert the point you're talking about (which, to be clear, is something I agree with): when Neo is "dreaming," he's an ordinary schlub who has a shitty job and stays up all night sitting alone in his crappy hole-in-the-wall apartment IMing invisible people about how the world sucks too hard to be all there is, but then he "wakes up" and pretty soon he's Superman in fetish gear. Except when he's not plugged into the Matrix: his alternate reality, as mentioned, is actually shittier than what he was sleeping through.

You may be right about the point the Ws were trying to make. But one of the irritating things about The Matrix, to me at least, is that it's a pretty good fantasy action movie saddled with pretty lousy metaphysics, half-baked philosophies and borrowed ideas that are used with better effect elsewhere (another great treatment of similar themes, also from Philip K. Dick: UBIK--pick up a copy if you haven't read it, it's a blast).

But hey, sorry to go on about that! I liked The Matrix, really, and still do--I just don't love it and never did. But so what? The main thing is what you say in the first paragraph there: it's a great movie to see in IMAX, and I really do recommend ponying up the extra seven bucks or whatever they charge wherever you are--your eyes will thank you.

Eric Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 11:16:00 AM EDT's a great movie to see in IMAX, and I really do recommend ponying up the extra seven bucks or whatever they charge wherever you are--your eyes will thank you.

"It" being Inception, I mean. Sorry if that wasn't clear, my fingers got away from my brain for a second there.

rbird Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 10:18:00 PM EDT  

I went to see this today to get out of the heat (I don't have A/C) and was blown away! It is a beautiful movie. Although I agree that there are some qualities of dream-life that aren't captured in the film, I felt like one thing the film captured was the "what the fuck?" quality of a dream. I don't know if that makes sense, but there was something about the way the film made me feel like I didn't really know what was happening or I couldn't even tell what was dreamlike or reality, that I did feel like mirrored a state of dreaming. So maybe the dream sequences weren't necessarily exactly dreamy, but the movie as a whole was very dreamy? You know how you are in a dream and you are walking in a house that is familiar and all of the sudden it's not a house but you are swimming in the ocean? I thought the movie captured that feeling very well...

Eric Monday, July 19, 2010 at 11:28:00 AM EDT  

I do see the "WTF"-iness of Inception to be dreamy or dreamlike, to be sure.

One thing I'm not sure I put across in the review but want to be clear about: I think the common critique that Inception isn't all that dreamlike is valid and irrelevant. This seems to be a common issue with Nolan movies: I'm reminded specifically of the common complaint against Batman Begins that fight scenes were confusing or murky, which was true but was also the point, since the idea was to convey the subjective experience of gangsters having to fight blindly against a bat-shaped blur that keeps appearing from and disappearing into nowhere; Batman's first appearance as Batman, he's practically invisible until the end--which is exactly how the character is presented in his best comic book and animated appearances.

Nolan courts trouble in Inception by calling the characters' shared virtual realities "dreams," which for a lot of people is going to conjure up something other than the things Nolan's film is really about.

Salon actually has a great spoiler-laden breakdown of the whole movie up today. Do not even look at the page if you haven't seen the movie, and actually if you have seen it, you can skip the first half of the piece, which attempts to sum up the convoluted plot. Sam Adams', the author of the Salon piece, suggests Inception is really about movies, which I think is one of the sound interpretations you can give the movie. (One key to this interpretation is pointing out that the character Eames' name is a pretty obvious reference to the Charles and Ray Eames, who (when they weren't designing furniture) were the creators of the famous short "Powers Of Ten," a film about layers within layers (sound familiar?).

Anyway, I'm not saying that's the "right" or "only" way to look at Inception, just one interesting way to look at it. And the real point in bringing it up is, going back to my earlier point, that a lot of the criticisms of Inception are valid but pointless, or at least beside the point: the argument is true and correct, but it doesn't really go to what the film is about or whether it's actually any good or effective at what it's trying to accomplish.

Anonymous,  Monday, July 26, 2010 at 1:49:00 AM EDT  

You're terribly, terribly wrong about Eyes Wide Shut and Dune. But yeah, Inception is pretty cool. As my buddy said when we were walking out, "It's been a long time since I've seen a movie where my understanding of the ending relied on a single sound edit."

Eric Monday, July 26, 2010 at 9:16:00 AM EDT  

Eyes Wide Shut is underrated, but it's far from being Kubrick's best work. Part of the problem is that Kubrick was a much better technical director than human director, and while Shut looks beautiful and flows (mostly) pretty well, Kubrick's really too distant and removed for a movie about jealousy and sexual tension; indeed, it's a surprisingly sexless movie despite, for instance, the fact that a climactic scene occurs at a kinky, Hellfire-Club-ish orgy.

Cruise and Kidman are unfairly knocked for the problems in EWS, but the real problem is that Kubrick probably shouldn't have been tackling the material.

As for Lynch's Dune: no. It really is a train wreck. Sorry. Gorgeous costumes and set design, a few interesting bits here and there. But the acting is horribly uneven, the plot nonsensical, the FX a mixed bag (shields kinda neat, sandworms terrible), and even some of the basic effects stuff doesn't work (there are some surprisingly awful day-for-night shots, for instance). And epic SF really isn't the kind of visceral, get-in-your-head stuff Lynch really excels at.

But Inception, like you said: pretty cool.

Carol Elaine Monday, July 26, 2010 at 12:31:00 PM EDT  

Saw Inception over the weekend.


Yes, it's visually stunning, and there were things I really liked about it, but ultimately I have to feel invested in the emotions of the characters. DiCaprio just leaves me cold in that department. He always has. I had the same reaction when I saw Shutter Island: excellent director and intriguing concept brought down by an actor who has no emotional depth, even if, technically, he is somewhat decent.

I'm about to write something I never thought I'd write: I'd rather watch Keanu Reeves onscreen.

Mind you, I'm on record as wishing Reeves would stop attempting to act. The man is just no good at it. But. I actually feel that there is heart and emotion behind his wooden facade. I don't get that feeling with DiCaprio.

I neither hate nor love DiCaprio. He's just boring to watch. And that seriously detracts from the movie.

(Maybe the entire movie should've just been Gordon-Levitt and Hardy sniping at each other. They were freaking adorable together. And it's so nice seeing Gordon-Levitt do well - I think he deserves it.)

Anonymous,  Monday, July 26, 2010 at 3:20:00 PM EDT  

See, I think the distance in EWS is what makes it work for me. The most intense sexual moment in the film is the moment in which Nicole Kidman relays her fantasy about leaving Tom Cruise for another man. And the whole restof the film is about Cruise flirting with the idea of cheating -- but it's a fake. It's all a fake. Deep down, he doesn't want to cheat, and so no matter how lurid the situation, he always has this emotional distance from what's going on. He's walking through this fantasy of sexual opportunity in order to be able to return to his wife with some pride and dignity intact, but he's never really tempted.

As far as Dune and The Shining.... I think both those works were made in the only way that a well-known work can be successfully turned into a film -- by turning them into something else. Lynch and Kubrick took Herbert and King's visions and completely distorted them, but ended up creating absolutely unforgettable imagery in the process. By contrast, both books later got much more "faithful" television adaptations (I believe King actually wrote the script for the miniseries of The Shining). But the supposedly faithful versions were wretchedly flat and uninteresting. Whereas, whatever their flaws, the Lynch and Kubrick versions have indelibly inked their grotesque imagery on the minds of a generation.

(Or so sez I.)

hanum Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 3:40:00 AM EDT  

cool action movie ^^. Like this!

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