The biggest deception of Inception is the perception that it’s an exception to the infection of abomination that is the summer movie-going season. If this glib conjugation is a cause for celebration, then you might find elation in the pretension
If, however, you find that paragraph a pointless simulation of masturbation, then congratulations, because your perceptions are most astute. Trying to find substance in Inception is as difficult as explaining one of your dreams to a complete stranger. It would take an exceptionally long time explain why your high school gym teacher running laps with your boss in your childhood living room is so emotionally perplexing. You can talk until you’re blue in the face, and you’ll only succeed in boring your companion to tears.
Leonardo DiCaprio recycles his pinched-face squint from Shutter Island as Cobb, the leader of a high-tech gang of thieves who can invade your dreams to steal your innermost thoughts. The jobs have been growing progressively more dangerous, as a nasty secret deep in Cobb’s unconscious threatens to overwhelm the dream worlds his crews must work in. His team are a bunch of blank-faced automatons of the model that populate dreams – the ethnic guy, the old guy, and the slicked back hair of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The flat, low-contrast cinematography is just as featureless, doing nothing to differentiate between dreams and reality while robbing both worlds of any sense of wonder.
After a job goes horribly wrong, Cobb gets the ultimatum that no cinematic thief can refuse – one last job that will wipe the slate clean and let him leave the criminal life behind. His enigmatically wealthy sponsor wants Cobb to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival, however the dream-world rules mean that such a task is impossible.
To accomplish the impossible first requires a half-hour of exposition. Then Cobb recruits Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architectural student who needs to wander around aimlessly, asking questions to clarify the first round of exposition. Once she seems to understand the rules of dream construction, the film tasks her with standing around wide-eyed to ask more questions because once the actual action begins, nothing that she learned is ever used again. Then most of the exposition is rendered moot because there’s an entirely different set of rules and dangers that they must navigate once the bullets start flying. All this so Cobb can return home to some children he can’t remember and a multi-billionaire can get a global monopoly in some industry that doesn’t seem to matter.
Dreams are heady stuff for cinema, but they remain largely the province of esoteric artists like Lynch and Kubrick. True dreams are too personal and inexplicable for a medium as crass as the summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan isn’t an artist, he’s a mechanic. For a movie set inside layers of dreams, there’s barely a recognizable human emotion on display, and never a pause to consider the connection between dreams and reality. When Cobb and Ariadne take one of their expository wanders through the Parisian streets of Cobb’s subconscious, Nolan has a scene that is comprised of these loaded philosophical concepts:
* Ariadne, the Greek goddess of myth who helped Theseus escape the labyrinth of the Minotaur.
* The process of dreaming.
* Physical manifestations of Cobb’s subconscious
* The infinite self-reflection of a hall of mirrors.
A director with the capacity for wonder could have taken half of those elements and created a moment of contemplation. A skilled director would have posed a question that makes the audience wonder about their own existence. Nolan turns the moment into a pointless bit of exposition, and a plot device to walk Cobb and Ariadne from point A to point B. Then after demonstrating her grasp of world-bending abilities, she’s called on to do nothing more complex then designing the lobby bar of a W hotel.
It’s a navel-gazing hall of mirrors, only they’re looking at nothing. Nolan doesn’t have anything to say, and he wraps his hollow, clockwork trickery around a core of emptiness. There’s more philosophy to be found in dismantling a cheap watch, because even at a dead stop, the cheap watch can be bothered to tell you the time twice a day.
A much more appropriate reference of Greek myth is Narcissus – the hunter who grew so enamored of his own image that he ignored the rest of the world until he wasted away. Right from the get-go, Inception confuses complexity with emotionally engaging mystery. In the first five minutes, Cobb washes up on a beach, sees some mysterious kids, then is escorted into a mysterious room where he eats mysterious gruel while an old man mumbles something mysterious about a mysterious man he remembers from a mysterious adventure many years ago while a mysterious top spins. Then the film arbitrarily leaps to the same mysterious fortress, only at a different time where more mysterious stuff happens. Then more mysterious stuff happens.
Compare the tedium of Inception to the equally complicated exposition of The Matrix. In between the complicated bits of setup, The Matrix manages to deploy shock and awe to engage the audience. The bullet time acrobatics of Trinity’s first astonishing leap pulls the audience in closer, creating a sense of wonder at seeing the impossible come to life. The best Inception can muster are cryptic mumbles about the inexplicable, and a shadowy silhouette of Cobb as water floods a room.
Inception isn’t a movie about dreams, it’s a movie about paradoxes. It’s overlong but rushed. It’s too loud, but constantly mumbling. It’s constructed with architectural precision, but narratively shapeless. It’s about worlds nested within worlds, but spatially incoherent. Perhaps the biggest paradox is that it’s a $200 million dollar movie that is built like a heavyweight but evaporates from memory exactly like a dream.