Reviewed Apr 21, 2012
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
The age-old question still begs for an answer: what does it mean for a movie to be "intelligent"? At first, I searched The Dark Knight, but there was nary a clue to be found. But I did not falter, I did not fear, for an even more promising hope lie ahead - Inception - a film championed for its smart approach to the sci-fi genre. My journey continues here.
Inception hooked me before I even saw the film. I'm a HUGE sucker for big sci-fi, so it's almost not even fair. I was predisposed to join the ranks of the easily-impressed, non-thinking masses and proclaim this the next Matrix. So...what went wrong?
The movie starts out well enough, but Nolan quickly upends his bag of tricks and spills out so much shit so early on, it becomes almost a challenge to keep up with who's dreaming, why they are dreaming, what is real, what is a dream, who any of these characters are, what they want, who they work for, what their goal is, etc. This is the mark of a writer *desperately* trying to convince the audience that he's brilliant. Bud...if you wanted to do that, just simply write a good story that flows logically and- fuck, I lost him already. Dropped the L-word. I should have known better.
The story then begins to unfold at such a languid, glacial pace, I had to keep checking my watch to make sure it wasn't ticking backward. It's a 2.5 hour-long film that feels more like 5.2 hours, and the reason for this is that a preponderance of the first act is amateurish, conflict-free exposition. Listen...if you want people to think your movie is "intelligent", don't decide on the most basic, straight-forward, beginner-level delivery method of getting information to the audience. Here, Nolan approaches dialogue as a first-time amateur would - someone asks a question simply because the audience has to know the answer, and someone gives us the answer. That's it. That's literally how we find out everything that is going on in the story. Nolan chooses the *least-intelligent* way! This friggen guy totally forgot the #1 rule of screenwriting - SHOW, DON'T TELL!
I clearly understand that sci-fi demands a lot more "explaining" than any other genre, so naturally, there's a lot for the audience to learn. However, that is not an acceptable excuse for approaching the material in the most dumbed-down way possible. If you're focus is making an intelligent film, that is the last thing you want to do. James Cameron made a brilliant move in The Terminator by giving us a big exposition dump during a car chase. So not only do we get to learn about the world and the character motivations and what's at stake and damn near everything we need to know in the story, but we're entertained by the action. It's not just two talking heads. Talking heads are boring. Stuff happening is fun. We like stuff happening. It's in our nature. We don't want to be lectured, we want to have fun. The key is hiding the lecture within the fun stuff - and THAT is a true hallmark of intelligent sci-fi screenwriting. What Nolan does is a shining example of what *not* to do.
The biggest offender is the character of Ariadne (a name with the subtlety of a jackhammer). Sure, we need at least one character to be the outsider - to be *us* - to know as little as we do so there's a reason for stuff to be explained. That's Sarah Conner. That's Luke Skywalker. That's Neo. We are them by proxy. They are also the heroes of their respective stories - Ariadne is not. She's just a pawn, a voice-box, thrown in for the sheer purpose of asking questions. This is a problem, because asking questions is literally all she does! Dom Cobb is the hero, but he already knows all this crap. He doesn't learn squat. He just kinda hangs around and explains shit in the most passive, conflict-free way possible. YAWN. Way to struggle, hero of the story. Move past all this so this dude has something to actually *do*.
Sarah and Luke and Neo have to learn because they are the ones who must change, become the hero, and defeat the villain. Their learning has a purpose that goes far beyond getting the audience to know shit. Ariadne's doesn't. All she does in this movie is ask questions. Seriously, read the script. There is a solid 30-40 page chunk where every single line of dialogue she has is a god damn question. I had to stop reading because it just got hilarious, like it was spoofing itself. How do you even spoof something that's already ridiculous? Sure, she designed the dream worlds, but A) they were boring, lifeless, and sucked, and B) designing the dreams is such a non-event, it's hardly worth bringing up. She could have done that totally off-screen and it would have worked just as well. Give her a reason to be there - a *physical* reason. Give her something to *do* other than follow Leo around and tell him he's crazy.
Just don't play the Inception Drinking Game and take a shot every time Ariadne asks a question, because even if you're drinking water, you'll still vomit in 10 minutes time.
This is not only a problem because it's boring, but it's a problem because it will be even more boring on repeat viewings - when you already know what the voice-box still doesn't. The market scene where the street is folded over is visually very cool, but offers nothing else to enjoy if you've already seen the scene. It's just two people standing around and talking. Bor-ing! Compare this to the scene where Neo learns about The Matrix...Neo learns the true fate of Earth (drama), learns that he needs to help or they are doomed to be forever ruled by machines (high-stakes), learns how the matrix works by "learning kung-fu" and fighting Morpheus (action), learns there are no limits by watching Morpheus make the huge jump (set-up for later action scenes that explore the absence of limits), learns that he must make the jump that nobody has ever made on their first attempt (suspense), etc. I can keep going. That's how strong and *intelligent* the writing is for The Matrix.
Inception takes the easy road and just has two people talk about how they can manipulate the dream world. Where is the drama? Where are the high stakes? Where is the action? Where is the set-up for later pay-offs, and where is the suspense? A truly intelligent film like The Matrix can stuff all of those things into one small sequence, but Inception fails to get even *one*. That's pathetic. All the Inception scene has is eye-candy (which can also be found in the Matrix sequence).
You can make an argument that when Ariadne starts changing things around and the projections start looking at her and bumping into her, that qualifies as suspense and set-up for the later scene where Cobb pretends to be Mr. Charlie - and I would agree with you. No, that is not a contradiction. The suspense is there (what's going to happen if she keeps changing stuff?) and the set-up is there, but what does it mean? What is the function of telling us that? The scene tells us that we need to know bad things will happen if you keep changing the dream world. Awesome. No, seriously. That's not a sarcastic 'awesome', but a real one. I could not wait for the heroes to be backed into a proverbial corner later in the story and *forced* to change the dream world in order to continue with the mission - doing the thing you don't want to do because it will mean more difficulty, but having no other option than to do that very thing, which means a lot of big, juicy conflict - the stuff every good story is made of. Promise, at last!
But...where the fuck are the scenes in the mission when they change anything?!!?!?! Cobb becoming Mr. Charlie is the only one - and the most that happens then is a bunch of extras turn and look at him. That's all. That's literally all. Christ, that scene was at least twice as short as the scene that explained why changing the dream world was bad! Holy fuck, are you kidding me?! You have to go pretty far out of your way to miss an opportunity like that.
There's also a bit of time devoted to explaining everything about the totems...how they work, why they work, why you need one...they even show Ariadne making hers. This is a bit of a trivial complaint, but it's a failure nonetheless...why tell us all this? At least half of that information, we didn't need to know because it doesn't come into play later on. They could have got by with only explaining the purpose of the totem instead of wasting valuable minutes during the most boring section of the film going into details that we literally have no reason to know. As minor as that complain may seem, it has far-reaching impact on the pacing of what was an already-slow film. If you're telling us all this about totems, do something more with them. There is never an instance in the film where a totem matters for any character except for Cobb.
The mission itself is fucking stupid. The whole idea has absolutely no personal ramifications for anyone. What do I care about one corporation one-upping another? Hell...what does Cobb care? Or Ariadne? Or Arthur? Or Eames? Or anyone other than Saito? Nobody gives two fucks, and if the heroes that I'm supposed to empathize with and live through vicariously don't care, why should I? It's just a paycheck for them, and a means to an end for Cobb - do mission, accomplish otherwise totally unrelated goal of getting home to see kids. The whole thing feels pasted-in and not an organic element of the story. An energy contract? That's the best you can do, Mr. I Spent 10 Years Writing This Story? Were those years ages 5 through 15, perhaps?
If this film was as smart as it wants you to believe it is, it would have amped up the internal conflict by making the mission itself actually mean something by having the accomplishment of the mission have some kind of consequence, whether it be with any one of the numerous cardboard, one-dimensional side characters in desperate need of some fleshing-out, or with Cobb himself. Imagine the meaty conflict that would arise if doing this mission would in some way harm Cobb's partner, his best friend, or even himself. Turn it into a Sophie's Choice type of thing and make it interesting. Make him have to sacrifice something in order to get what he wants so badly. Make it that much more difficult. That's what an intelligent story would have done. Inception is not that type of story, so it missed that opportunity, as well.
Not only are people wrong in saying that this is an intelligent film, but they are also wrong when they call it a 'heist film', as so many wanna-be intellectuals do. If it's a heist film, where's the threat of being caught? Just because you go somewhere to do something doesn't mean it's a heist. It's more of a siege film than anything because the threat of being caught while pulling the caper was replaced with faceless nobodies shooting guns - what we can only assume is the most intelligent and creative thing Nolan can come up with.
And while we're on the topic of faceless nobodies, how intelligent is it to provide *zero* character development for 99% of the cast? Pretty much everyone is stock. Cobb is interesting because he wants something and wants it badly. That's good. But what do we know about Arthur? Eames? Ariadne? Yusuf? Fischer? Browning? Miles? Nothing. We know nothing. These aren't characters, they are placeholders. They are the nametag at the table, but nobody is sitting down.
Flesh these assholes out, asshole! Look at how well-drawn everyone - EVERYONE - is in Star Wars. Look at all the adjectives you can use to descrive Han Solo: rogue, charming, dashing, arrogant, confident, scoundrel, sexy, anti-hero, etc. I can list about 15 more, but if you don't get the point by now, why bother. Even Chewbacca has more character than any team member in Inception.
Mal was somewhat interesting (subtlety needs to be written in all caps for that one!), but she is also a horrendously flawed aspect of this story. She's supposed to be the villain, I suppose? The fact that I even have to ask that question is ridiculous. She simply cannot function as a proper antagonist because she is never a threat to anyone except for Cobb. All the generic nobodies on the good team just shoot the faceless nobodies on the bad team. I've seen more depth in Call of Duty online deathmatches.
The idea of Mal threatening Cobb in the dreams is cool, but under-utilized and completely separated from the rest of the movie. It really has nothing to do, emotionally, with Cobb's goal of getting home to see his kids. It's not integrated at all. They are two separate conflicts that feel like they are from two separate stories. Tie that shit together, man! An intelligent screenwriter would have no problem doing just that, and not have to be told to do it.
That is a huge problem, because the more time Cobb spends with Mal, the less time he spends doing the actual mission, which is what he wants to do, and what he needs to do in order to see his kids again. Defeating Mal does nothing but get her out of the picture. It accomplishes nothing else. She's purely a surface nuisance. All the time Cobb spends putzing around with her is time that could have been spent on doing important mission stuff, but that is all handled by everyone else. Cobb almost didn't even have to be there in the dream. He didn't plant the idea - his team did. Again, none of this is integrated. In Jaws, Hooper and Quint don't hunt the shark while Brody stays behind to deal with his fear of water...it's tied together in one cohesive unit. Inception completely fails to do this in any way with any part of any aspect of this entire story. It's like Nolan threw a bunch or unrelated crap in a blender and forgot to hit Start. Inexcusably dumbed-down screenwriting.
This film also suffers from one of the same problems that plagued The Dark Knight: weak set-pieces. That seems strange, considering it's a concept about dream worlds, but...where's the cool shit? The zero-G hotel fight was cool and unique, but apart from that, the best we get is a few incredibly generic gunfights with incredibly generic characters just shooting each other, a van falling off a bridge for about 40 minutes real-time, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service?
THESE ARE DREAMS, MOTHERFUCKER! DO YOU KNOW WHAT A DREAM IS?!
These dream worlds are too ordinary, too mechanical, too cold. It should have been more personal and emotional the deeper you go, but there is no heart or emotion in this movie *at all*, and that kills a tremendous amount of the fun factor. You can have a movie with a radical concept dealing with dreams and make it fun without sacrificing the intellectualism that you're striving for. Total Recall did just that. And if you've seen that film, you know where Nolan stole the ending of this one from.
Both films - Total Recall and Inception, play all kinds of mind games - but Total Recall often really gets into questions of reality and whether we can ever know what reality is...something given a line or two of dialogue in Inception - dealing with the wife's inability to tell the difference - a *tell* exposition scene rather than the great *show* scenes like the sweating Rekall guy, who makes *us* wonder what is real. Inception is a movie that makes us think about these questions, but Recall puts us in the situation so that we feel the confusion ourselves, and have to think for ourselves. In this film, it's Mal who experiences it and Cobb tells another character about it, so we are being told instead of having the story allow us the experience. Again - exposition...the easy way out. Nothing more than "second-hand storytelling". Nothing an amateur couldn't have done.
Just because Total Recall is a fun ride and you *could* switch off your brain and watch it, doesn't mean that keeping your brain on is a waste of time. But for all the sci-fi cheese, Total Recall was a much more "real" film than Inception. It made me feel things instead of just letting me watch stuff happen. And feelings are critical to reality, as the Inception carpet scene tells us. If I had felt the carpet in this film the way I felt that the sweating Rekall guy was just trying to bullshit me, I might have been a little easier on this film.
The cast is strong, but if you're they are not given any character (which they are not) or anything interesting to do (which they are not), what's the point? It's nothing more than a novelty of seeing all these fine, sexy actors in the same film. Jesus...The Matrix worked with Keaneu Reeves and a host of un-sexy supporting actors! Would people appreciate this film as much if the biggest, sexiest name in it was Lawrence Fishburne? Not a chance. And not a knock on Fishburne, either. He just doesn't have the same level of appeal as the sexiest of the sexy.
Great sci-fi films make nobodies into stars. This film had stars playing nobodies.
In closing...it took this guy 10 years to write *this* movie? Only took me 148 minutes to figure out exactly what was wrong with it. Please tell me this is the first draft, because I can't imagine it ever being worse than it is.
Pretty much everything this film does wrong, The Matrix does right. They are very similar films in concept and design, and I believe it's worth comparing and contrasting the achievements of The Matrix to the failures of Inception. The Matrix is one of the best examples of intelligent sci-fi. Inception is perhaps the best example of the opposite.
The phrase 'turn-your-brain-off' is frequently used to describe movies that don't require much critical thinking, such as Commando. They are films that don't do many smart things, and just have a lot of explosions and gunfights without a great deal of substance.
This is one of those films. The Dark Knight is another. Lots of explosions and gunfights in place of clever ideas. Keep your brain on, use it, and you come away pissed off at the incompetence and end up writing 3242-word reviews on movies you don't even like.
At least the music was cool.
PS: The 'taking a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning' gag reached peak effectiveness in 2002 and has absolutely no place in today's films. It's getting as bad as that tired old 'it's all a dream' scenario.