DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
With big films like this I tend to weigh different aspects of filmmaking and rate them separately. The final rating is then an average of all scores. I don't know why, but I feel I need to structure this review that way and try to give an accurate analysis. Whenever one of Nolan's films is criticized it tends to veer towards a right wrong discussion. Nolan has a huge fanbase and they are welcome to defend his films, but as a self proclaimed 'Nolan indifferent' I honestly have to say that I haven't enjoyed his latest efforts and often for the same reasons. I will try to write up how the final rating is compiled. My apologies in advance for the lengthy babbling.
Technical Achievement 4 stars
There is no denying how beautiful this film looks. The use of practical effects and CGI is fantastic. There are a couple of standout scenes (the folding city being my favourite) but the absolute showstopper are the zero gravity scenes in the hotel. I have problems with what they represent (will get into that later) but I have nothing but admiration for the way they are filmed. It has that movie magic quality that makes you grin like an idiot, mainly because it's just very cool.
Direction 1 1/2 stars
I know that many things I mentioned in the previous category also should reflect here, but because the technical qualities of the film were so good and the overall directing rather poor I decided to separate them. Nolan has serious pacing issues here. The second act is fine but the first act and the final act are very poor. They are stretched to such a length that it almost feels as if Nolan didn't know what to leave out so he just chucks in the whole lot. While this perhaps isn't that annoying in the beginning, the final act just felt like a poorly cut, fragmented sequence with more static than actual purpose. Nolan doesn't challenge his actors here, they are almost treated like an afterthought as the focus lies mainly on telling the complex plot and the action. Nolan has shown previously that he can get fantastic performances out of his actors, but here it feels lacklustre. Which is a shame, because he just isn't very good here at directing action scenes that are suspenseful and tense. Most sequences, but especially the final one in the snow, are poorly choreographed and miss the timing and pacing to create the kinetics I need as a viewer. Here it just left me unengaged and waiting for them to go through the motions.
The aesthetics he chose here mostly don't work. Is this really what dreams look like? How unbelievably mundane! This could have been a playground, but they play it straight which really is a missed opportunity, especially considering the technical skill displayed in some of the scenes.
After seeing this and The Dark Knight Rises I really feel Nolan should make a character driven film, preferably one he hasn't written himself.
Acting 2 stars
Like I said before, I don't feel the actors are challenged. And even if they were, this film isn't really about them or their characters. As such, I am rather disappointed to be a bit underwhelmed by such a fantastic cast. Not bad, not good, just painfully average.
Music/Score 2 stars
The central theme is fantastic. Period. And that's about it. I wanted more of it and kept searching for it, but it doesn't appear often enough. The rest of the score is very bland and felt more like background static than an actual accompaniment to the scenes. A good score can add to the experience, making it more epic and entertaining. For me, it just didn't really happen.
Script 1/2 star
Conceit - Plot - Narrative. These three things have to be in balance for a film in this genre to work. While the conceit, the idea, is absolutely fantastic, it is accompanied by an uninspired plot and a poor narrative structure.
First of all, I really think there is a clever idea here. I like the notion of extraction and inception. It could have made for a fantastic science fiction/corporate espionage film. That is not the road the script decided to take. The conceit is completely bogged down by a ludicrous amount of rules that seem only to exist to facilitate the plot. And as numerous as they are not all of them are explained. An example: it is never explained why Saito's injuries are lessened the deeper they go. Most things are explained rather elaborately, but this little fact is mentioned in passing. Convenient.
This may come across as nitpicking, but this is what annoys me in the narrative. It's lazy. Like the shapeshifting. Why is Hardy's character the only one who can do it? How does he do it? Simply by studying mannerisms? The zero G thing? Nonsense, great scene, but utter bollocks(i know, I know, it's SF and all that) and shouldn't it work like that on all levels? There are important things that are glossed over, yet lead to important consequences in the film.
The somewhat disjointed narrative and the story within the story are not cleverly handled. It's deliberately messy. See, much like the notion of inception, this film tries to plant the idea in your head that it is rather smart. This is, however, not the case. It is confusing. I don't mind being confused, but I only want to be confused by things that are in the actual film, not by things that aren't in it. Nolan throws up so many smoke screens around what's actually going on, it is simply impossible to truly determine what is what. Clever? Hardly. Clever is giving us every piece of the puzzle and allowing us to have a hard time putting it together.
The plot is completely unengaging. A group of one dimensional characters go on a quest to, I don't care really, something with a corporation or something. For me, Nolan makes a capital mistake here. He places his own idea above characterization and audience involvement. There are no characters here. They are cardboard cutouts. There is no backstory whatsoever, which automatically leads to me not giving a damn. The main character is supposed to be our focal point and while we get some of his backstory, we are never made to really care about it, mainly because he is a complete and utter selfish bastard. He does everything for himself and to redeem his situation. While he in fact deserves nothing. He drove his wife to commit suicide, drags a group of associates with him, does not inform them of the unbelievable danger they're in and this is supposed to be our hero. Nope. Doesn't work. Oh, and giving someone who designs mazes the name Ariadne is about as clever as giving a self centred roguish crook the last name Solo.
A good story needs to be either character or plot driven and this is neither. It is conceit driven and that is a long, long stretch at two and a half hours. And in the end we get no resolution. Oh sure, we can speculate the hell out of it. Why does Cobb use his wife's token? The fact that we see her token spinning must mean we have been and/or are watching her dream, right? The opening scene with old Seito has the same decor as the scene that follows. We are told that this is Arthur's dream. So are we in his head then? What's up with the whole Leap of Faith thing?
See, it doesn't matter. This film doesn't want you to find the answers. It hides it by not showing it at all and I find that a cheap thing to do.
I guess we'll have to extract it from Nolan's mind to be certain....