19 July 2010

First Impressions: Inception

I don't think it takes too much shame to admit being a Chris Nolan fan. More and more however, I do believe that his fanboy-appointed "visionary" status is overrated and overapplied. To date his career best film is still Memento (2000) and it's easy to mistake well-made films for great films in this Age. Certainly his oeuvre contains more merit than some other contemporary directors although it's slowly becoming more trendy to criticise Nolan tropes rather than revere them.

What's somewhat laughable is the notion that Inception (2010) was the cinematic equivalent to the Coming of Christ. For some unknown reason Nolan's films are revered for layers and layers of thematic depth, intense character psychoanalysis and innovative narrative structure. While this is largely true in his best moments his brilliance tends to be overblown. By any standard of contemporary blockbuster his films are fantastic but not the greatest seen on earth. I ranked Memento and The Prestige (2006) as some of the Decade's Greatest Films and I still believe this. The Dark Knight (2008) I also ranked here but that was out of obligation to a massive critical and commercial success over anything else.

So what have we got from Inception? To be fair, it's the best film of 2010 so far besides Toy Story 3. It's very well acted, well thought-out, with a deftly navigated complex plot that certainly leaves an audience with something to think about. However, while it is intellectual and complex, it is not necessarily a deep film. In essence it is almost too ambiguous, distracted with too many ongoing threads to be able to sink into one certain theory or idea.

As I've been treading the internet however, various writers are crafting many different possible explanations and theories of deeper meaning. The beauty and bog of this film is that it's possible to extract almost anything from its narrative. By this point I'm assuming you have watched the film (if you haven't yet, do go see it...tonight) so SPOILERS ABOUND.

Now I'll admit that I went to a pretty late showing of this flick and beforehand I sucked down about four Margaritas at this bar across the street. I had to pee during Michael Caine's scene (still not exactly sure who he was playing) but it's safe to say I got the just of it. So let's go for the most obvious and hackneyed explanation of the movie:

St. Elsewhere Theory - It's all a Dream:

With any movie like this that deals with aspects of mental realms, the most obvious explanation is the "It's-all-in-the-protagonist's-head" twist. While Inception doesn't explicitly take this route, it's still a viable possibility. There's two articles that foster this explanation without so much cliché.

The first is from Cinema Blend, which has many relevant posts concerning this film. Here, Rich Knight argues that each character in Inception represents a Jungian Archetype. Thus the film is actually composed of many facets of the lead character, Dom Cobb (wow what a terrible name, by the way). This is a way for Nolan to get away with weak characterisation for much of the cast as they are all purposely parts of Cobb's subconscious mind.

Along the same lines, Devin Faraci of CHUD.com argues that the film is more about films than it is about dreams. While both of these arguments contend that the top keeps spinning, I tend to ally with others who believe the wobbles would eventually lead to a fall. Of course, the "everything-is-dream" theory supercedes the mistaken properties of the Totem, which is an entire different animal.

The Middle Ground - We Calls Thems As We Sees Thems

This article by Cole Abaius of FilmSchoolRejects acknowledges but argues against these first couple of theories, taking instead a more literal approach to the film. Upon my first viewing this was also my interpretation. I did not believe the film (save the ending) was very cerebral and followed a very straightforward story for a Nolan film (The only more straightforward one being The Dark Knight). While the story and levels are not difficult to follow, this chart can be pretty handy, as is this dandy list of questions and answers, most of which are admittedly conjecture from the same site.

See, the tricky thing about Inception is that nothing is really explained, not even the methods for entering another mind. This works both as a narrative streamline as well as providing hints to the true nature of the film (is the method of investigating dreams in itself part of a Cobb dream that takes up the entire story? Is that how its explanation and technology are taken for granted [by characters and audience] so easily?). As I've begun pealing back more questions like this it's slowly dawning on me how good of a film Inception really is. While it's not politically deep such as The Dark Knight or character-deep like The Prestige and Insomnia (2002), there seems to be a lot more to this film than first meets the eye.

By the Way, Actors and Story:

There are many possibilities as to what this film means and I haven't quite decided what I think yet. For the most part right now I'm taking a literal interpretation because that's all that Nolan really leaves obvious at the moment. This thing is more ambiguous than Blade Runner (1982).

The pacing, action, thrill and acting, though is adept. I can't wait to see more of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in some roles that suit him (anyone for Riddler?). Tom Hardy is also refreshing as is Ellen Page in a very non-Juno role. Nolan does seem to have this great ability to pull some incredible performances out of actors, some even seem legitimate afterwards, others change their image and legacy completely. Leo needed no such boost to his acting credentials but certainly adds a bit to his resume here. Marion Cotillard (who went to the Gerard Butler school of accent-masking) is always a delight and she really shines as the evil bitch wife Mal.

Actually, it's hard to pin down who the villain in this film was. Is it Saito (Ken Watanabe)? Fischer (Cillian Murphy)? Or even Cobb himself and the dangers of his own guilty subconscious? What is cool is how the film strips down its need for danger to GoldenEye 007 (1997) elements. "Projections" of the subconscious continually seek to execute the main posse. What also works is how limited the cast really is (another boost for the "all-a-dream" argument?) while the scope remains humongous.

Before we go, with a flick like this I think there has to be some comparison to other mental-journey movies, the most obvious of which is The Matrix (1999). While there are some similarities (shared pain in a dream world, plug-ins with mysterious machines, debate over what is and isn't real) there is a lot of difference between the films (humans vs. technology? meandering philosophy? sunglasses? pfft). Inception almost works as a streamlined, realist version of The Matrix, best served in 2010 instead of the Turn of the Century.

Of course not everyone thinks this is great. Loaded with pretension, this dude fucking hated it. There are not enough Transformers in his life to say the least. So what's the final conclusion? This is very good film. It's not the best I've ever seen. It could be. There's a lot here that hasn't really sunk in yet (the nature of Inception itself - can we trust what is in our own heads, how are ideas planted and grown through sinister mind-infiltration or maybe just commercials for a consumer-based economy and lifestyle?). Essentially I do not believe Chris Nolan is a visionary or a God among current directors.

But he is pretty damn good. It'll at least do until Step Up 3-D (2010).

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