Let me qualify the following statements by saying that there are things I really liked about Inception, and if it had been made by virtually any other person, I would be more forgiving.
But this is something written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and therefore its flaws are all the more glaring. As a story, Inception is all setup and no payoff, all concept and no heart – all science, no humanity.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard all you need to about the film. Inception is about entering dreams in order to steal information from a person’s subconscious. Leonardo DiCaprio and his squad of dream-raiders do this for a living. They’re very good, but it’s highly illegal.
The dreams have a ton of rules (much more than the similar but comparably less complicated[!] world of The Matrix). Get killed in a dream and you wake up. Dream time is faster than real time. You’ll never remember the beginning of a dream, and you need an object to carry around with you so that you can hold it and feel if it is different than the object is in reality, and thusly know if you’re in the dream world or the real world. You can’t change too much in a dream or the dreamer’s subconscious will rise up and attack you. Pain in a dream is as real as anywhere else.
Imagine all this mess as the first half an hour of a film.
Okay, now that we have most(!) of the rules in-hand, we can begin the actual going into dreams thing. DiCaprio’s team, which eventually consists of a hilarious Tom Hardy, the extremely stalwart Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the somewhat-naggy Ellen Page (with others who are similarly boring), wants to invade a guy’s dream, go into a dream within a dream within a dream to confuse his mind, and plant an idea so the guy thinks it’s his idea.
This has only ever been done once, supposedly, and it’s so difficult that puts everyone in danger of dying in the dream and being sent to “limbo,” a dream state so deep that it will feel like an entire lifetime passes before the people trapped there eventually wake up.
But for all that, we’re not even to the story yet, which is the major, fatal flaw of Inception. For all that time wasted establishing the rules of dreamland (which, I must protest, seems counterintuitive to the whole nature of dreaming – how can there be so many rules? I have dreams in which I alternately perform in stage plays, run from zombies and battle aliens.), the actual characters are sorely shallow.
It might be that there’s not very much to work with, but the performances turned in by the various players (all of whom have proven to be extremely talented throughout their youngish careers) are similarly puddle-sized. DiCaprio’s character Cobb is tortured by his wife’s death and a subconscious echo of her that harasses him and others in the shared dreams. DiCaprio interprets this as having a single, hard-set furrowed brow pretty much at all times. He spends the entire movie insisting on the reality he sees, shirking Echo-Wife’s pleading that he stay with her in dreamland, and rarely expands beyond this one emotional state. His motivation (“I just want my kids back!”) is what pushes him to do “this one last job.” It would help if “this one last job” was more dangerous and therefore difficult or trying, or Cobb’s pain at missing his kids anywhere near palpable.
For someone so supposedly desperate to return to his home and family, in fact, Cobb seems to have made exactly zero progress to that end up to the start of the movie. Then, suddenly, it is all-consuming. Sorry, but that doesn’t play.
Gordon-Levitt has almost nothing to do. One wonders at points why he’s even in the movie (until the fight sequence in the hotel – and the other fight sequence in the hotel – which are absolutely phenomenal), as his character is so one-beat and straight-laced that he never even raises his voice during the span of the film. I’ve seen Al Gore show more emotion.
But that’s just it – there’s nothing to get emotional about. It’s a job; they’re doing it, it needs to be done, no one needs to be all that invested in it. Cobb is supposed to be upset, but stoic – but with very little up and down, the whole thing grows tiresome. In too many ways, Inception becomes a much smarter and cooler Ocean’s 11. But even George Clooney’s Danny Ocean had a more believable and characteristic drive than Cobb ever achieves (and meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt has no motivation as a character whatsoever).
Then there’s Ellen Page. Her character fills the role of “dream maze constructor” on the team, but really, she’s DiCaprio’s conscience and guide in the labyrinth of the dreams (her name’s Ariadne – also the woman of Greek myth who helps Theseus get out of King Minos’ labyrinth, for anyone who hasn’t already been informed of that little tidbit by every other writer in the universe). Really, there’s little if any reason for her to be in the film other than this one glaring plot device: she needs to pull DiCaprio back from the brink later in the film.
As such, Ariadne never becomes more than a nagging almost-extortionist for Cobb. She “discovers his (not very well-kept) secret” about his evil Echo-Wife, and she insists on being in the dream world because supposedly evil Echo-Wife could threaten all the other dream-raiders, and so of everyone available, Ellen Page is best suited to help out. The whole Echo-Wife threat never materializes, Ariadne never really does anything in the whole “dream-heist” plot line, and her character never evolves into anything even resembling a rounded person.
All these complaints are a result of story sacrificed on the altar of special effect. Inception does some dynamite things with dream-sets: blowing them apart, flooding them, spinning them around, collapsing them and folding them in on themselves. There are a few really great moments because of this.
But it’s much more like watching a tech demo at times, or visiting a theme park attraction, than a real true-to-itself story. For all that dream-building, the movie never feels like a dream. For all the people who populate it (and really are very ho-hum about the entire concept), they never feel like living, breathing people doing something extraordinary and making it through by the skin of their teeth. At no point is there ever that deep breath of almost-failure or character-in-peril, and Inception is all the worse for losing the subsequent sigh of relief following success.
Christopher Nolan is the kind of storyteller who can infuse a complex and twisting story with a real and deep emotional draw – the kind of guy who can take the concept of Batman and create The Dark Knight, easily the most engaging and human conception of any superhero ever on film.
Many of Nolan’s works rank among my favorites similar reasons. The Prestige, for example, is a story about magic and science and tricks, but really it is about two men obsessively trying to destroy each other and in the process define themselves. Memento explores a man’s means of creating his identity through his actions when he can’t remember them, and the lies he (and we) tell in order to maintain that self-image – especially to himself (ourselves).
What’s Inception’s theme? What’s its message? What does it accomplish for being made, and what do we take away from it?
The answer is nothing, unfortunately. Which is the lament of Inception – because relatively, it is so bad and it could have been so good. It should have been on par with Nolan’s other works, and could easily have gone from blockbuster to transcendent.
Inception is more on par with the works of Michael Bay or M. Night Shyamalan than the rest of the Nolan canon (though it definitely rises above those ranks rather than fall amid them). It is often stunning and an envelope-pusher in terms of special effects – and in that respect, in terms of spectacle and advancements in filmmaking, worth seeing. But this isn’t good storytelling, because it isn’t good story. The “telling” part may be sprinting ahead, but the rest is scrambling – and failing – to catch up.