The Inception of “Inception”
I was not going to write about “Inception.”
I told myself, days before I sat in that seat in the theater. Days after the onslaught of critical discourse and mass reactions to Christopher Nolan‘s newest creation. Days and days of trying to avoid reading spoilers and reviews and twitter conversations. I was convinced that by the time I get to watch the film, there would have been plenty of opinions to absorb and play with, and nothing remarkably new left to say.
But, the idea is but a seed, and as those of us who have seen the film by now well know, once planted it is almost impossible to eradicate. Ironically, that is what I’m going to say happened – I somehow self-incepted into my mind the idea of thinking, writing, obsessing about “Inception,” accidentally or otherwise, long before I was invited into its world.
And here I am.
Or should I say, here we are. Welcome.
This is not a review. There will be SPOILERS. I won’t tell you what Nolan should have made or what you should have enjoyed. That is none of my business. What I want to talk about, foremost, is what I personally take away from this film.
There is no doubt that this is an awesome feat of cinematic workmanship, and a viscerally pleasurable experience that makes me think it possible to truly enjoy a summer blockbuster once again. It is a MOVIE to be seen in cinema, on grand screens, with your mates, in every sense of the word. After everything is said and done, I have no regrets for my $14 spent.
However, just as it absolutely awed me, almost compelled me, “Inception” never truly moved me.
And within that lies my biggest frustration – the extent that I journeyed with the film only to be held back at the brink of greatness. The film had so much potential – the idea of a lucid dream that can be mapped, sketched, and built like architecture, the idea of corporate espionage of the highest caliber, the idea of a man’s dark past and deep secrets that haunt his every move and prevent him from living the life he desperately longs for, all threaded through with a new technology that allows the creation of art at a level that we’ve only ever dreamed of before, literally – and the end result is a failure to make me stray, in any measurable distance in any emotional direction, from a hyper-vigorous state of mental alertness for two and a half hours.
Ok. This alone is puzzling, but not a complete deal-breaker. There are few things that I enjoy more than over-thinking, and here is an opportunity to do it with state-of-the-art special effects and dazzling cinematography in a story that talks about what’s going on in one’s head. It was a premise that I whole-heartedly embraced. A puzzle I was more than willing to delve into. Minutes into the film, I realized that this is an intellectual exercise as much as it is a visual one, a logic game colored with an alternate reality where physic-defying rules allowed amazing things to happen, and I accepted it enthusiastically and looked out for the pieces, waiting to be pushed and challenged.
But as I ventured further and further into the dream world with Mal, Cobbs, Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, and Fischer, I became more and more frustrated trying to navigate the game and play within its static boundaries. There were spots of bright genius, to be sure, such as the idea that time expands exponentially with the increase in depth of dream levels, and the concept that our minds are suspicious of foreign concepts and create projections that function like white blood cells in an immune system. These allow certain luxuries, like having multiple narrative climaxes simultaneously, and set certain restraints, like the fact that we can’t shift the dream world too drastically so as to alert its inhabitants of its non-reality state. These are interesting lines, and create a boundary within that the characters must make the most of what they have without crashing it all down.
In a heist movie set in reality, these solid lines bound by rules of physics would have worked just fine. However, in this hyper-reality of science fiction that Nolan invites us into, he seems to have no desire to push the boundaries of this imaginary world beyond what was established in the first hour of the film. By the time the actual heist begins, Nolan seems perfectly happy to play by the book, very excitingly, albeit, but not expanding or bending rules that has already been neatly explained. For example, the architect Ariadne builds the dreamscape, and then politely lets it be and tags along with the team to observe and ask questions. She was able to bend laws of physics and transform mirror images into solid reality on her first lesson, but when it’s show time she doesn’t utilize any of these learned skills, even when they are seconds away from eternal doom, in a remote snowy mountaintop where the only subconscious projections around are already trying to kill them and the mark already knows that he’s in a dream – perfect opportunity for some mountain-bending and avalanche defying, but that never happens. Instead we get Hollywood-style gunfights and snowmobile chases.
Aside from Page’s under-utilization, another character who doesn’t quite get to stretch his legs is the chemist Yusuf – why was he in the first dream layer at all? As the mastermind behind the sedative that is responsible for stability of the entire team’s dream state for the duration of the entire job, shouldn’t he stay awake to calibrate the levels carefully, possibly shifting them in and out of different levels of consciousness chemically, which Cobbs gave as the reason they needed him “in the field” upon their first meeting? If the job involves a simple push of a button which a stewardess can do, why doesn’t Yusuf just sell the team the concoction and stay home in his comfy bed (and save the team a cut of the profits)? Yusuf served no useful purpose in the mission except to hold up a bottle of liquid in the real world and drive a car in the first dream layer, and even then there was no reason given as to why the team needed to be in a moving vehicle while submerged into deeper dream levels. There were threats from Fischer’s own subconscious defenses, yes, but that was a surprise which the team wouldn’t have been prepared for, which by the way, is another detail that nonchalantly popped up as “unresearched,” which in an epic narrative like this seems like a lazy excuse for introducing an additional plot point.
More than the less-than-fleshed-out characters, I found myself keep on wondering about certain aspects of the narrative that were, to my shock, unexplored completely. Perhaps no more is there than Michael Caine’s character Miles – when you have Michael Caine in a film, forgive me, you don’t just use him for a 10 second introduction and an airport pickup, no matter how effective he is at either. We learned that Miles is the one that taught Cobbs the skills of dream manipulation, implying that he is a master of this craft perhaps even greater than Cobbs, and we couldn’t spare a few of 150 minutes to explore this origin of the premise that the entire film is based upon?
Another is Cobbs and Mal’s life in limbo. The film shows bits and pieces of it, but mostly of them wandering around doing unremarkable things. How do they “build” their world in limbo? How do they fare with the passing of 50 years in a world that they know is not real? Do they make friends with people from memories of their past? Can they create “new” people to populate their world-in-limbo as they can buildings? How do those relationships, with imagined people, evolve? How do the knowledge and experience of those imagined relationships affect Cobbs and Mal’s relationship? When they come back to reality, how does having psychologically lived and aged for 50 years affect a sudden restoration to a youthful body unmarked by those decades of life “lived?” Furthermore, what is limbo? And if Cobbs and Mal can consciously “kill” themselves to get out of it, why can’t Saito by himself?
How does the exponential expansion of time work? Is it precise or an approximation? And if precise, what exactly is the calculation? Because I couldn’t find any simple arithmetic that connect 10 hours, a week, 6 months, and 10 years at the respective levels. And the concept of gravity – why is it that if all other physically perceived reality can be duplicated in the dream state, gravity is an exception to that rule? The only reason I can see is that it makes a very nice zero gravity action sequence in a hotel hallway, which is a good enough reason, but shouldn’t be the only reason.
Am I analyzing this to death? Maybe. But then again that is what “Inception” asks of its audience, isn’t it? It is a film about the boundaries of reality and consciousness, and the rules that guide these boundaries, however fantastical they are, should be as complex and consistent as the world they govern. Here, Nolan gave us dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams on a silver platter, but it is a one-shot presentation, with each piece precisely slotted in place without satisfactory explanation as to why and how. The meal is enjoyable and the tastes are new, but they don’t seem to come together in a way that make complete sense. They don’t transcend.
Having skimmed through the thoughtful comments on Roger Ebert and Jim Emerson‘s blogs, I found myself identifying with both what people loved about “Inception” and disliked about it. Yes, the sets are mind-blowing. Yes, the architecture designs are fascinating from an aesthetics points of view. Yes, Marion Cotillard embodies the ideal lost love of a woman. Yes, the cast is uniformly excellent. Yes, the labryinth of layered lucid dreams is an original idea. Yes, the film is rather flat in its emotional tone. Yes, the film doesn’t accurately depict the strange nature of human consciousness. Yes, yes, yes. But, none of these reasons individually could account for why I felt the way I did about this film, and why even though I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the spectacle unfolding before me, a frustration festered and grew within me with each passing minute.
I think, to put it in one word, “Inception” lacks for me at its very subconscious level, Mystery.
Unlike The Matrix trilogy where its hero continuously evolved and broke the rules of its reality, “Inception” gave Cobbs neat clock-ticking rules that within he was allowed to race. Instead of a simple premise that holds true for the separation between reality and another dimension of consciousness, like death (“What Dreams May Come”) or time/space (“Contact”) or virtual reality (“The Matrix”), here are elaborate multi-levels, chemically-induced “dream” states whose transport between each other are never satisfactorily conceptualized (gravity, really?) or explained (how is limbo separate from another dream layer?). Nolan did not set out to create a heart-wrenching drama, but he didn’t produce a precise, consistent piece of science fiction either. I found that the very subject of his choice – dreams, lucid or not – allowed him to somehow shift between meticulous and random, and the result is a confusing, rigorous intellectual exercise that engaged me, but never compelled me, and certainly did not move me.
That is not to say that Nolan is not a gifted filmmaker, because he is. Certain scenes of the film will be stuck with me for quite a while (Gordon-Levitt without a doubt had the coolest part of the film). It is also not to say that I didn’t enjoy this film, which I did, couldn’t keep my eyes away for two and a half hours. I would recommend this to most of my friends because it will likely be the most intellectually engaging and visually provocative blockbuster they see all summer. There’s no dispute that any film that inspires this much debates and critical discourse has already earned its worth. What I am saying is that “Inception” had so much potential to be a flawless corporate heist/action blockbuster/science fiction braintease masterpiece. Here, it succeeds on the first two, but stumbles with limited imagination on the third. Nolan starts with an idea, builds upon it, expanding like a relentless virus, meticulously ventures to the brink of oblivion and, stops, just a step short of free-falling, moving greatness.
Like Eames said to Arthur in the dream world: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”