Monday, August 02, 2010


The reviews for Inception have almost universally been glowing. It's described as cerebral, challenging, entirely original, brilliantly made, exciting, and a sign that maybe movies that aren't retreads of familiar formulae, sequels, remakes, and mindless thrill-rides, still have a chance to become blockbusters.

Well, they're right.

The only thing about this movie that I'm puzzled by is why the fact that it doesn't hold back anything, doesn't dumb itself down for the audience at all, doesn't resist making you think for the entire movie's run, why isn't that making it bomb at the theaters? There's a conventional wisdom that says that thinking movies can't succeed the way big explosion movies can. Then there's an equally pernicious (or more) conventional wisdom that says that the previous one is just Hollywood being cynical and stupid. But there's truth to both: Hollywood does dumb things down more than it needs to, but by the same token, challenging movies rarely succeed, and usually, nothing kills a movie faster than "when it ends you won't be sure what happened." Yet this movie is doing great business. I hope it's not a fluke. I hope Hollywood takes it as a sign. And I certainly hope they keep writing Christopher Nolan more blank checks to do anything he likes.

There's almost nothing bad I can say about this movie even when we get down to the smallest details. I can get philosophical and ask why things work like they do in the movie's world, but that's not a quibble: with perhaps only one tiny exception (which I'll mention after the spoiler-break) there's not one thing I noticed that doesn't work precisely as they say it will, with perfect consistency. The acting is solid, the production values are spectacular, and the storyline is breathtaking.

There's also a good amount of really interesting action sequences, including some that turn the usual martial arts fight scenes in totally new directions (and you didn't think there were any new directions, but they sure found one!). There's a lot of CGI, as you've seen in the trailers, but this is absolutely not a movie where anyone's going to smugly proclaim how they should have used less since it was distracting from what really matters, or that it doesn't feel as real as stunts. Also, there wasn't as single use of the too-close shaky-cam. Take that, League of Evil Cinematographers!

I will concede that there's one segment, set in a place with snow (I won't say anything more about it so as not to risk spoilage), where it was sometimes hard to tell who was doing what, due to the costumes used. That's about the only thing I'd suggest to Nolan might have been done better.

Apart from that, it's a downright amazing movie. The most striking thing is that there's just no other movie you can really compare it to. While Salt isn't quite a Bourne movie, you can certainly say it's in the same vein. But while I could think of two movies to compare Inception to, the comparison is so slight that it's likely to be more deceptive than illustrative. (If you're wondering anyway, they're Dark City and Strange Days, but remember, they're not that similar, really.) In the end, it really is a truly original movie. Not only is the premise pretty much new, the execution is new, too. (To be sure, there've been books and even movies to tickle at some similar ideas. There is nothing truly new under the sun. But this is as original, as inventive, and as unprecedented as a movie can be. No one has told this story before.)

I'm sure that half the people in the packed theater came out of it not entirely sure what happened, and thinking they might need to watch the DVD a few times to finally get all their "ah hah!" moments lined up. I came out feeling like I did understand what happened and how it all fit together, apart from a few relatively minor details, but that I had to be firing on all cylinders the whole movie to keep up with it. If the movies that reviewers say are too complex feel just about complex enough for you, watch this movie. Even if not, watch this movie.

Spoilers after the break. Do not read them before you see the movie.

There is one, and only one, thing where I think they broke their own rules, though I can understand why they did. Each character has a "totem" which is how they can be sure if they're in the real world or a dream: it's something that only they would know in all its detail, so if they were in someone else's dream, it wouldn't be quite right. And yet the one totem we see the most of is Cobb's spinning top, and the way he can tell is that in a dream, it never falls down. Well, that makes no sense. If he were in someone else's dream and they didn't know the specifics about it, they would of course make it fall down, because that's what tops normally do. It's nothing like the loaded die whose specific feel couldn't be replicated; anyone can make a top fall over, and would, by default. I think they "cheated" on that one totem because we needed something more visual so we could watch the test being performed.

I can understand why, if your body in the real world gets shaken, your dream persona feels the world shake, because I've felt the same thing. If it gets cold, my dreams tend to venture to cold places. But in the movie it's shown that if, in your dream, you enter into another dream -- a second layer nested dream -- the things happening to your body in the first dream have the same kind of effect on you in the second dream. That's certainly simpler to understand, but it seems a little arbitrary on the face of it. The only reason I can see why that would be so is because that's what the mind might expect to be so. But the real reason for it is because it would overburden the audience to make the rules change any more.

There's actually a fair amount about what you can and can't do in a dream that, if you stop to think about it, you have to ask, "why can't you just do this?" and the movie answers some of them but not all of them. For instance, why can't you just reshape the world around you constantly to be whatever you need it to be? Because this draws the projections towards you. Ariadne learns this with a knife to the gut, and later, we never know if the few times they dabble in it ("You must dare to dream bigger, darling.") bring more attention -- they were already pretty solidly beset, so how could you tell? (Then again, when everything's going to hell already, why not imagine whatever you need?)

So can anyone tell me why in the first "kick" they dropped Cobb into a tub full of water? All he really needed was to be knocked over, as we saw later. Someone went to a lot of effort to make it also involve a tub, but it doesn't seem to have changed anything (other than providing another striking visual within the dream world). Might it have something to do with the fact that that was a nested dream?

I'm also a little confused about how they got Saito into the second level dream in the first sequence without him knowing, considering how, in the second set of dreams, they had to have a situation within one level of dream that could lead to the characters in that dream going to sleep and being brought into a dream to do it. I suppose maybe he just didn't remember.

For as much as the movie kept me on my toes, I guessed long, long before the reveal that Moll was Cobb's first inception. But I totally missed how trains tied into it. Even so... when Cobb explained to Moll how they did grow old together, that brought tears to my eyes.

(IMDb lists her as "Mal", but it really sounded more like "Moll" as if it were short for Molly. "Mal" has a different pronunciation, and its linguistic implication seems comparatively heavy-handed for this film, and besides, how many females are named "Mal"? I wonder if IMDb is accurate on this point?)

Some review or other I saw made a point of the fact that Michael Caine was in the movie, but he had all of two scenes totaling about a minute and a half of screen time. It's not like he was really stretching during those, either. Seems odd to make a big point of it.

Cobb's point to Ariadne about how you never remember the beginnings of dreams is a very keen insight that has never really occurred to me. Gave me an "ooh, yeah, that's true" moment.

I wondered if the clever moment where Ariadne's circular maze let her do what she couldn't do on graph paper would end up being significant later, but the worlds she created didn't seem unusually circular or anything, and nothing particular came of it.

While Moll's comment about the real world feeling like a dream since Cobb was being constantly chased by faceless corporations, resembling the projections in a dream, seemed very spot-on (and is backed by various other similarities between action in the dream worlds and the real world), I really don't think that the real world isn't the real world. First of all, that's an overused cop-out, and secondly, too much of the story focused on Cobb's coming to terms with being in the real world. That said... the top not getting around to falling at the end was a nicely ambiguous question, not about whether the whole movie was inside another dream, but only whether the last few scenes were.

How the hell did they film those fight scenes with Arthur in the hotel halls with gravity shifting and then going away? Those were just amazingly seamless and unrelentingly convincing. I imagine there's some combination of green-screen, wire-work, and rotating sets, but even so, it feels like there has to be more to it. I know the actor did most of his own stuntwork in those scenes, but that's all I know.

Despite them making such a point of putting the Penrose Stairs trick onto the mantle in the first act, it still caught me a bit by surprise when Arthur used it later in the movie. That was a great moment.

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