10 things that stop Inception being as good as it thinks it is

Thursday July 29th 2010


Despite my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Inception the first time around, I went to see it again last week because: a) there wasn’t much else on, b) I’m a hopeless purist when it comes to aspect ratios and the IMAX version I’d seen was cropped to 1.85:1, c) I wanted to make sure it definitely wasn’t a masterpiece.

And it’s not. Sure, it’s the most breathtaking visual spectacle I’ve seen this year, and the last hour is pretty amazing, but there are several things stopping Inception being the magnum opus that some people (including Christopher Nolan) want it to be. In fact, there are 10 things.

WARNING: Sort of spoiler-y. Not really though.

1

ITS ENTIRE FIRST HALF IS DULL AS FUCK
When the credits roll and the lights come up, it’s tempting to be incredibly generous towards Inception. After all, a final hour full of non-stop spectacular action makes it all too easy to forget what came before it: 90 minutes of the most mundane bollocks imaginable.

From the awful awful dialogue, most of which is given to Ken Watanabe for some reason (‘rumour has it, their relationship is… complicated’), to the seemingly endless parade of nutty CGI architecture, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re sitting around waiting for the film to start.

2

SOMEONE SET NOLAN TO ‘EXPLAINY MODE’
Christopher Nolan is not a filmmaker fond of ambiguities. More often than not, this works to his advantage: a movie like The Prestige could easily have felt irritatingly inconclusive had he not kept such a tight rein on the logic. The same can not be said for Inception however, 50% of which could be replaced with a shot of Nolan facing the camera and explaining the plot.

Several critics have compared the film to Mulholland Drive, but where that film effortlessly intrigued by holding back any sense of clarity or explanation, Nolan doesn’t have anywhere near that much faith in his audience.

Hence you get Ariadne, a character so blatantly designed to ‘speak for the audience’ that a better casting choice than Ellen Page might have been an actual mirror. It’s quite shocking to find such cack-handed, transparent exposition in a film that’s being so widely hailed as a masterpiece, and it makes you wonder how much we’d actually understand without Ariadne sat quietly in the corner of every scene, occasionally interjecting to ask ‘what exactly is happening right now?’

3

IT HAS NO CHARACTERS
I am very happy to agree that Inception has one of 2010′s best ensemble casts. Leo, Joseph, Ellen, Cillian and Marion collectively define pretty much everything that’s good about Hollywood at the moment, and I was expecting knockout performances all round. Instead, every character in Nolan’s ruthlessly plot-driven film is reduced to a hollow archetype. Several of them seem to be the same archetype.

Even DiCaprio’s Cobb, the sole character who’s given any measure of emotional depth, only really has one character flaw, and even that is exposed, defined and resolved within five minutes of meeting Ariadne The Great Explainer.

4

THE DEAD WIFE SUBPLOT DOESN’T WORK
Inception marks the second time in as many films that we’ve seen DiCaprio’s portrayal of a widowed man seeking escape into a world of self-deception and hallucination. Unfortunately for Inception, the inevitable comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island are only ever going to be unflattering.

Nolan seems to be aware that emotions aren’t really his strong suit and desperately throws all the overblown music, unnecessary voiceovers and weighty symbolism he can find into the mix, which is a shame because DiCaprio and Cotillard are at their best in these scenes – but you’d be hard pushed to notice.

As several critics have already pointed out, the sudden tonal shift in these scenes can feel as though the film’s sense of momentum has come grinding to a halt – forced to trudge through the lovey bit until it can jump back into its preferred territory of bendy buildings and expensive suits.

5

IT LOVES ITSELF TOO MUCH
Inception is certainly a beautiful film. Its visual effects, many of which are done in-camera, are often striking and highly original. But after a while, it starts to feel a bit like one of those VFX demo reels that gets passed around on Twitter occasionally.

The scene where Arthur shows Ariadne the never-ending staircase is a particularly blatant example of Nolan showing off how clever he is, even if it is ‘justified’ two hours later by a pointless re-appearance in the Hotel world.

6

EVERYTHING’S A FUCKING MONTAGE
One of the best things about The Dark Knight, and in fact all of Nolan’s films, is the use of cross cutting. Whatever you think of the film, the scene with the Joker co-ordinating all the assassination attempts is totes boss.

Unfortunately, Nolan seems to have taken such compliments to heart, and packs so much cross cutting into Inception that it starts to feel like one endless montage. Almost every scene is somehow blended into the next and it doesn’t help that Hans Zimmer’s score is a never-ending wall of unbroken tension. Exhausting.

7

IT’S COMPLETELY HUMOURLESS
Chrissy Nolan isn’t exactly known for his ability to create LOLs, but it’s not so much the absence of comic relief that does damage to Inception as the clunkiness of the moments when he does decide to inject the funny.

Remember that bit in The Dark Knight when the action suddenly cuts to two kids sitting in a car pretending to shoot stuff during the underpass chase? It sticks out because the cutesy Summer Blockbuster humour sits ill at ease with Nolan’s deadly serious sensibilities.

Inception is that moment stretched out to feature length (and then some), with every ‘joke’ totally undercut by the director’s complete incompatibility with comedy. See the ‘I bought the airline’ bit for an example of a simple joke done very very badly.

8

IT IGNORES WHAT MIGHT MAKE IT WORK
At its core, Inception is about a mission to plant an idea in the head of Robert Fischer, the heir to a large business empire. The idea, we hope, will encourage him to break up his father’s empire when he inherits it.

Even if you set aside a good hour to deal with all the mental CGI wizardry you’ve got planned, surely it’s a no-brainer to also address the moral implications of such a mission?

I wouldn’t normally insist that a movie HAS to deal with morality, but the difference here is that Inception doesn’t make a conscious decision not to address these issues; it cynically sidesteps them with a few dismissive lines of dialogue. Remember that bit in the van when one of the characters says ‘we’re repairing [Fischer's] relationship with his father, he should be paying us’ or something to that effect?

That’s Inception‘s complex treatment of morality, right there.

9

IT’S NOTHING LIKE THE ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF DREAMING
As amazing as bendy buildings and Penrose stairs might be, they’re fuck all like a real dream. In dreams, it’s the people and situations that are confusing, unfamiliar and bizarre, not just the fucking architecture.
Instead, Cobb & Co are exactly the same within their dreams. They dress sharply, act efficiently and always have time for a few witty one-liners.

And before you rush to defend Nolan on the grounds that he had to make it this way to make the plot work or whatever, just imagine how amazing a film that actually evoked the feeling of dreaming would be.

10

THE ENDING DOESN’T FIT THE REST OF THE MOVIE
Inception has a good ending that few will be disappointed by, but it belongs on a totally different movie. As a conclusion, it’s literally the antithesis of everything that came before it: a sudden injection of ambiguity into a film that’s just spent over two hours making sure every single tiny fucking detail is clarified to death.

It’s like putting the ending of The White Ribbon on to Ocean’s Eleven.