I take no intrinsic pleasure in going against the grain of critical consensus. I am not an iconoclast. I am not a shock jock. It can get lonely out here on a limb. I go to see films in the hope of liking them. But I can sense I’m already in a minority about Christopher Nolan’s BIG new sci-fi blockbuster Inception, which opens tomorrow.
I found it a crashing bore. Meanwhile, Empire have published a review which takes a contrary position – a review which couldn’t be included on the page as part of their whizz-bang, all-cylinders, this-is-why-we-love-films cover feature because nobody had seen it when they put the magazine to bed. The reviewer Nev Pierce awards Inception five stars, and, over the course of an analysis that feels like it runs to the same length as the cover story, explains why – in short – THERE IS NOTHING WHATSOEVER WRONG WITH IT. The review, if you have an afternoon to spare, is here.
It seems Nev Pierce is not alone in liking Inception, although I would say that his watertight, no-quarter, point-by-point deification, potentially coloured by a collective, priapic pre-release excitement at his place of work, may come back to haunt him as punters stagger, deaf, from the cinemas this weekend. When their hearing returns, and they find that, in fact, they are not still thinking about Nolan’s woolly, old-fashioned, dream-versus-reality universe on Monday, or being kept awake at night by key philosophical questions this time next week, they might settle down and post-rationalise Empire‘s five star review to a four or a three. For me, it’s a two, and I was reeeeeeeeally looking forward to it! Maybe not as much as Empire, but a lot.
True, I felt locked out of the love-in for The Dark Knight, Nolan’s previous epic – mainly because I preferred Batman Begins – but I appreciated his work. It was ambitious and occasionally dazzling, and I liked the Joker and the bit where they were arbitrarily in Hong Kong, but Christian Bale’s croaky voice drifted into parody and there were too many villains and too many stories. All that said, The Dark Knight was a good film on points, and it sort of made sense. Inception, based not upon a book or a graphic novel, but on an idea that came straight from Nolan’s fertile imagination, lives or dies on whether it makes sense. And as grand and noisy as it is, its internal logic is pretty shaky, and again arbitrary. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio, reviving – so soon! – his haunted husband-and-father schtick from Shutter Island (anyone else unconvinced that he’s old enough to have kids?) leads a crack, sexy team of operatives who get inside someone’s dreams and extract information buried in the subconscious – a subconscious made manifest by the dream state’s eternal possibility. This is an attractive prospect: a cross between The Matrix and Ocean’s Eleven.
I liked the cast Nolan assembled for the job: Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy as the corporate heir whose head they need to get inside for “one last job” – there’s even a little cameo for Michael Caine – but when it comes down to it, they’re mostly called upon to shoot guns from moving vehicles and run – or float – about. Nothing wrong with a wham-bam action movie, but who needs one with ideas way above its station? Marion Cotillard is saddled with the worst part – DiCaprio’s wife. I won’t go into too much detail, for fear of SPOILING it for anyone, but she and he get the majority of the talking time, and by the end of it, I found myself making my hand into the shape of a duck’s head and making it quack silently, in the auditorium, while I longed for them to shut up. This was a very childish response, but it helped me through it.
This central thesis that anything can happen in dreams, except it probably won’t, is, for me, the film’s big downfall. DiCaprio gets to explain his line of work, in detail, and demonstrate it, when he recruits Page. This is the most exciting passage in the film, at first explosive and then awesome. She “designs” a dream world, and actually does infinite and mind-blowing things with it (you’ll have seen this in the trailer). I don’t know how she does it, but there are architectural models in her workshop which somehow become “real” when Murphy is hooked intravenously up to the flight case in a plane and knocked out with sedative. From here, again carefully explained by just about everybody, there are three levels of dream, and each is deeper than the last. Again, no plot giveaways, but one of these – again seen in the trailer and in Empire‘s extensive cover feature – is set in the snowy mountains of Canada. Why? This was never fully explained to me, although I’m willing to be it’s because Nolan fancied having some skiing assailants in his film, Spy Who Loved Me style.
Despite the apparently existential, mind-fucking core of Inception, it’s mostly about shooting and being shot, in the street, in a hotel, and up a mountain. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Again, I like a bit of gunplay, but if it’s constant, it loses its impact. (The pump-action shootout was loud and relentless in Heat, but it was contained.) Likewise the soundtrack. The film begins with a shot of waves crashing on a beach, and a throbbing, resonating orchestral chord. From here, there’s no let-up. Pretty much every conversation and exchange of gunfire has a musical cue. Zulu had about 20 minutes of John Barry music in it (this random comparison arises from the fact that I happen to know this); most of Inception‘s two and a half hours is scored. And at volume. Music is supposed to point up and accentuate the drama, not smother it.
If it’s about dreams, then we’ve all had dreams, and we know that in them, anything could happen. In this film, anything does not. Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland had a nutty, nightmarish quality, with stuff fading psychotropically in and out of view. Inception is not like that. Come in halfway through and you could be watching a cop thriller set in LA. The only real ambiguity comes in passages of expositional dialogue. Although Nolan cuts deftly between three levels during the bulk of the action, it seems justified less by the narrative, which is actually fractured as a result, and more by the fun (for him) of playing at being a visual Rick Wakeman. Needless to say, the music gets louder and most insistent as the tension builds. And it takes a long time to peak.
I cannot do anything about my visceral reaction to the film. It was not for me, that’s all. It felt empty. Although there is an emotional subplot, I didn’t much care about the protagonists. Inception is less than the sum of its parts. You should go and see it if you’re as pumped up about it as I was before Tuesday. I may have painted my reputation into a corner. But by comparison, I was dreading seeing The Karate Kid remake on Wednesday, but it was an honest family blockbuster, and I found myself enjoying it. Preconception does not colour my views. I love to have my mind changed.
Someone on Twitter rudely suggested that I didn’t like Inception because I didn’t understand it. Feel free to patronise me along those lines. I would actually counter that there wasn’t much to understand. I would also point you to Minority Report and Blade Runner, which also run on an inner logic based upon science fiction, but both made sense, perhaps because they were based on novels, whose ideas had already survived scrutiny, and would be scrutinised and maybe sharpened up in translation for the screen.
Over to you, I guess. Nobody’s an oracle.