Minority report

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.

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35 thoughts on “Minority report

  1. It is interesting to read a negative review of this film following the glowing ones that I have read.

    I am still hopeful that I will enjoy this but at least my expectations have been tempered a little.

  2. I will still go and see it for myself and make my own decision…but you have confirmed my suspicions!
    I much prefer a film critic who is honest rather than one who follows the crowd afraid to put their hand up and say…Ummm actually I didn’t like that movie, and here’s why.

  3. I stopped reading when you cited Empire magazine as an authoritative voice on film. I’m surprised they could even fit a review in with all those banal top 50 countdowns they run every issue.

  4. Not having seen the film, I can’t really comment. But I’m going to.

    Ever since I saw this film mentioned in Empire, and other magazines, I’ve had a creeping, mouldering suspicion that it was going to be absolute bollocks. I probably won’t see it in the cinema, but I almost certainly will rent it. I wonder if my expectations will be confounded also!

  5. I’m still looking forward to seeing this at the weekend, even if it has a sprout faced boy in it’s leading role.

  6. Empire have form in giving all “event movies” 5 stars, no matter how good or bad they are.

    The day I decided to stop reading Empire was the day that they published a 5-star review of Titanic which basically said, hey this film isn’t actually that good, but we give 5 stars to “unmissable” films, and if you miss Titanic, then you’re going to be a social outcast for the next 6 months, so Titanic gets 5 stars. Even though it’s rubbish.

  7. I agree with DiCaprio being too young to have kids. Working backwards, I can only picture him as a ten year old in Titanic which makes his encounter with Kate Winslet even more disturbing.
    I did enjoy the movie despite the negative parts you accurately point out, but my ticket was free, and I like free stuff.

  8. Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman thinks it’s a bit empty too.

    “But if it’s the dreamer whose subconscious fills in the details, as the film claims, why the absence of silliness, sex, horror and general abandon? We get spectacular explosions in which debris hangs in the air and refuses to fall, but no one finds themselves conducting the London Philharmonic wearing nothing but a kiss-me-quick hat. There are car chases and shoot-outs, but no one is pursued by a blancmange with rabies.”

    Anyway, I think Nolan’s best film is The Prestige. And – surprise, surprise – that’s based on a novel. It fits his intricate-plotting style very well but has much firmer foundations and therefore seemed able to play a little more with expectations.

    Oh and yeah, The Matrix was a bit shallow too. Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor (both released in the same year) did many of the ideas much better and more interestingly, albeit without quite the SFX polish.

    That won’t stop me going to see Inception, of course. But Toy Story 3 has a higher claim on my limited cinema time next week…

  9. Having worked, briefly, at Empire in the mid-90s, I know how that “event movie” enthusiasm builds from within the office. I gave Die Hard With A Vengeance five stars during that stint. I was the editor, nobody was going to change my mind, and I was convinced it was the must-see movie of that month for our readers, and deserved those five red stars. Maybe it did. I would give it four stars today, and my five-star review is still spoken of in-house with merry laughter by those old enough to remember it.

    Incidentally, I have problems with The Prestige. It’s well crafted and looks lovely, but once you know the “twist” you can’t really watch it again, and who didn’t see it coming? That’s always a danger with a puzzle movie.

  10. Interesting that there’s so much music in it – one thing that I found striking about The Dark Knight (for a Hollywood blockbuster) was how little music there was throughout.

    Do you think Nolan is better at taking somebody else’s idea than implementing his own? I thought Memento and Following were both great, (but perhaps that was partly a factor of their more constrained budgets) but Insomnia also appeared good work on a first viewing, and that must have had more cash behind it. (Second time round, with the director’s commentary telling you how clever he was, after you’re watching it back-to-back with the original, may give you a different feeling.)

  11. It is poor Leonardo DiCaprio’s curse to remain forever young, I fear he may have an aging portrait hidden in an attic somewhere. It’s a shame really becasue he is in fact quite a fine actor, but his curse just holds him back.

    On a completely different note but still touching on DiCaprio, I thought Shutter Island was overblown with plot twists that you could see a mile off – rather like the Prestige (sorry Scorcese not up to your usual standards).
    Will try and see Inception in an IMAX screening, I here it is a better experience. Dr Kermode gave it an excellent review this afternoon. He praised the fact that finally we have an intelligent blockbuster.

  12. The trailer looks great but you’ve confirmed my underlying reservation. I worked on a TV show in the mid-90s where we’d often be pitched dream-world and virtual reality scenarios, and our attempts to make them work invariably foundered. When the screen ‘world’ isn’t real then nothing in it has any dramatic weight or sense of actual consequence. Doesn’t actually matter if you hurt someone, doesn’t matter if they hurt you. It’s all imaginary. Unless dramatic weight and sense of consequence aren’t factors for you, in which case you’re not all that bright. I struggled through three episodes of Chris Carter’s HARSH REALM trying to pretend that the perils and rescues mattered on some level, before realising why I’d got the boxed set so cheap. I was hoping Nolan might have solved the problem because the cast and the visuals look like a good night out.

  13. I was with you until you said you gave Die Hard With a Vengeance 5 stars whilst you worked at Empire.

    It somewhat dents your credibilty a a reviewer.

    Shame.

      • Your credibility with me. I cannot speak for anyone else. I am off to see Inception today. If it is cack I will return and humbly apologise.

      • I have returned. The film is fantastic. Yes, it is highly complex to the point of having a few of the patrons shaking their heads in bemusement as the plot got thicker and thicker. But the general concesus in the cinema I attended was Wow!

        And yes you do have to give it a bit of artistic licence but then again has any one actually invaded other peoples dreams to extract information. No. It is Nolan’s vision. It might be different from yours or mine.

        All I would say Andrew is go see it again (if you can be bothered) as maybe you weren’t in the mood. This is certainly a film that demands your full attention. Going for a pee half way through may see you end up in a paralell reality of your own.

      • I must admit I’ve felt a similar bewilderment with the glowingly fabulous reviews this film got. I didn’t dislike it (because I am a fan of most of the actors and could prob watch them recite the phonebook and be somewhat interested) but it was far less interesting, clever and involving than it thought it was. It was a simple, shallow idea dressed up in much unnecessary complication to generate
        confusion and screentime, there was no natural complexity. I dunno, I didn’t
        dislike it but I don’t think it had much to say.

  14. Saw it today and loved it. My brother told me that Andrew Collins didn’t like it and I was ready to come on here and shoot you down but you’ve been annoyingly level-headed about it. I think you summed it up: “It was not for me, that’s all.” It’s not for everyone.

  15. Can you tell me exactly which “twist” in The Prestige you are talking about? There are several, and part of the joy of the film is that it catches you out by making you feel quite pleased you’d worked a major one out, but if you’re telling me that you figured out the machine then yes, I imagine you would be slightly disappointed. Whereas I think that the truth about the machine is a cracker (even if the book does it much better. And yes, I had read the book before I saw the film. And I still loved the film.)

    But have you watched it again? As with the wonderful “Total Recall”, the second viewing is far more rewarding precisely because you know what to look out for, and you can see clues everywhere. Unlike, say, M Night Shayamalamadingdong, where it rarely feels worthwhile, all of Nolan’s puzzle films warrant that second viewing – and it seems that “Inception” is no different in this respect. So why would “The Prestige” not deserve that?

    (Toy Story 3 was astonishing though. And that definitely deserves a bazillion viewings…)

    • I don’t have time to watch The Prestige again. There are too many films I haven’t seen to watch something I didn’t much like the first time for a second time!

      Maybe I don’t like puzzle movies. It’s a possibility.

  16. I saw the film today and I have to say I agree the film was disappointing. I enjoyed it for a while, but then I started to get bored. Every scene seemed to be tedious and without tension, mainly because of th overuse of dramatic music and slow motion. If they’d used a bit less slow motion the film would probably only be about 100 minutes instead of the wearying 148.

    It felt like a good film had been ruined by a lack of editing and a desire to show off some special effects.

  17. Well that’s certainly a perfectly reasonable position. And, indeed, as a film critic – even a part-time one – you are obliged to watch a lot of films which is likely to make your feelings slightly different.

    All I was querying was your comment “you can’t really watch it again” which implied to me that there was no need to watch it again, rather than a decision not to do so (even if that decision isn’t out of some sort of loathing but merely time or similar.) I was posting on the basis of there being “no need” to watch it again, which I didn’t agree with. And I still don’t.

    Out of interest (and if you’ve got time!) are there any movies that didn’t grab you first time around but for some reason you *did* get to watch again and changed your mind? (I know it happened to me with “Citizen Kane” for instance.)

  18. So I saw the topic of this blog and decided to read it after I had seen the film, to avoid any sense of contamination of my own critical faculties. This grand plan was sadly stymied by me ‘accidentally’ listening to your podcast version of the review while I was out for a run and I didn’t want to stop to change podcasts. (It was like a sitcom – don’t tell me the score – plot).
    The Film: I was not bored. I did care. I understood it – and I don’t think it is a particularly complicated idea. I can believe DiCaprio as a 35 year old might just be mature enough to have children. But actually, 24hours later what am I thinking about it? – Great cast – Like the corridor bit (the first time – the Apollo13 meets MacGyver bit was not so good) and the ending had the typical Nolan uncertainty principle. But that is it – the philosophical questions are no deeper than the ones asked in The Matrix – and no less satisfying. Give Nolan a little less money and a lot more time perhaps we can be treated to something to properly rival Memento as a thought provoking investigation into the reliability of human perception. In the meantime…. roll on Toy Story 3

  19. I saw Inception yesterday and while it was flawed, I did enjoy it. My main problem with it was something you haven’t mentioned – DiCaprio’s character’s instant trust of Ariadne. He won’t let his closest friends know about his wife’s appearances, but this girl turns up and he’s suddenly revealing everything to her within 10 minutes. Because… because she can build good cities in her mind? What?

    I also agree that there should have been much more mind-bending stuff. It was all too mundane (if constant gun battles can be called mundane) for a dream. They were clearly able to think up better weapons for themselves (Eames pulls out that big gun while they’re on Hoth or wherever it is), so why are they not running around with massive helium-light bazookas? Why have they not got flying trousers? If the “projections” don’t notice that they’re in a place that doesn’t exist, they’re not going to notice pre-existing super-weapons.

    But that said, it did hold my attention. I wasn’t bored. I wouldn’t buy the DVD, but it was a fun enough way to spend a few hours.

  20. I think the reason why the dreams weren’t more like ‘real’ dreams is that they WEREN’T real dreams – they are artificial constructs, designed to be relatively mundane so that the victom doesn’t notice weird stuff and start getting suspicious that they’re in a dream. This also explains why the ‘good guys’ don’t carry powerful super-weapons, because that would be something else that the victim would notice. (The victim wouldn’t actually have to see these things with their own eyes, so to speak – their body in the dream is a projection of their conscious mind, but presumbaly they perceive everything that happens in the dream on some level.)

    The film doesn’t spell these things out – that would require far too much exposition, but it does make clear that the artificial dreaming upon which the plot hangs is distinct from ‘ordinary’ dreaming. All those people in the Mombasa cellar, and Di Caprio himself, are revealed to be incapable of dreaming ordinarily any more, so a distinction is made between the two kinds.

  21. I couldn’t even get into Batman begins because of Bale’s voice. Why did he do that growling thing?

    I rate Bale’s chops highly but recently he’s losing his Bateman mojo.

  22. Inclined to side with Andrew’s scepticism. Why do Nolan’s films always seem so long? Stretched out as far as possible – loads of complicated narrative/conceptual stuff in the first half, but as much time for explosions, gunfights, cities collapsing, etc in the second half. I’d rather watch an arty/conceptual flick OR a straightforward rollicking action blockbuster for two hours than a bit of both for 3!
    The first 20 minutes or so of Inception are impossible to follow – but after that quite a lot of time is spent explaining stuff, through Ellen Page’s character. I found parts of Inception enjoyable but for my money it’s not as far removed as Nolan and its supporters would like to think from your average conventional blockbuster.

  23. I saw this last night and I thought it was amazing. Intriguing ideas about dreams within dreams, your subconscious turning against anyone in your dream, planting ideas in people’s heads, time slowing down the deeper you go… and brilliant action to boot! Fighting in a spinning hotel room and a van falling off a bridge for half an hour. Building impossible worlds, exciting chases, confronting the memories and emotions that haunt you… this film had it all. It was breathtaking. And now my stream of consciousness ceases.

    Took a bit of an effort to keep track of what exactly was going on some of the time… bloody films making you think… DAMN THEM! (sarcasm)

  24. I liked it. Good looking film, good cast, original idea carried off quite nicely. I liked the idea of the layered timelines. Best film I have seen in a while. I thought it had a bit of wow factor about it.

    After watching this I am tempted to watch Prestige and other things he has done. I loved Memento as well.

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