Thursday, October 25, 2012

Question for the Week of Oct. 22-28: Inception Gripes

Why do some people really not like Inception?
A co-worker, Josh, wanted to talk about Inception for a few minutes. He told me that he watched it and it made him feel dumb. This guy's an attorney, so understanding complicated rules and such is not something he sucks at.

Add on top of that, he said it felt kind of pretentious - that Nolan was riding on the success of Memento to get away with a story that made no sense.

After he gave me his opinion, he asked me for my own, and I admitted that I really enjoyed it. Then I told him my secret trick for enjoying the picture: I turned my brain off part-way through. What a new and genius approach, right?

But I wasn't going to stop being critical. It wouldn't be fair to me, and Nolan films are worth wearing your thinking cap. I just chose to give a very wide berth to the rules in this picture. It's like when you decide to argue against someone's points instead of making a different, but better, argument. I was going to let the writer/director have his points.

Inception was made so well and entertainingly that I didn't want to waste time worrying about it. All I could do was stop caring about holding the filmmakers to logic. And Josh came right back to say that it's even harder to do that when a film is done in realistic style. I agreed!

If I took it easy on a movie's plots and overall story, I still held Nolan's pic up to good story-telling rules. So why did I give it a break?

For one thing, I trust the pedigree of the cast and crew. It's a slippery slope, but Nolan, Wally Pfister, and Zimmer (along with J G-L and Murphy and the rest of the cast) have earned my trust and patience. If I see the work of these people, it would have to make a lot of mistakes for me to start to judge it harshly.

For another thing, I realized that Inception was telling a very entertaining tale - but I also realized that several plots in that tale did not make much sense. About half-way through the film, something in my brain said "you're either gonna pick this apart, or you're gonna enjoy the ride, and you should just enjoy the ride."

And I guess that last part is the real secret. I could tell that Inception was a quality film, but I also figured out that certain parts of the narrative were like bug-bites - the less you scratch at them, the easier your life will be.

So what were the parts that were like bug-bites? Well, the premise of Inception is that there's some sort of machine that allows people to enter a dream state. In this dream state, you can convince people that they're living in the real world, you can examine parts of their psyche, and you can pull secrets out of (or put ideas into) their mind.

That's pretty heavy. This sort of technology would change our whole world really, in a lot of big and subtle ways. But despite this tech being a game-changer, it's strongly implied by the movie that not a lot of people know about it.

So when we come to a scene and there's now an opium den of dream addicts, I wanted to call bull----. I just can't accept that this great big-time secret has not been revealed to the world when we have a secret dream crackhouse - at least it would make more sense if we're told that the addicts inside are the scientists who invented the dream-entering technology.

We also get other senseless material, the stuff that gives each member of this heist movie something to do. One guy can look and sound like anybody he wants; why can he and only he do that? Why can't everyone else do that? Another guy can make guns and stuff appear at whim. Again, why can that other guy do that if no one else can?

And, finally, we come to the biggest confusing point. Leonardo Dicaprio's Cobb is a member of this Dream Team. He can't be "the architect" of the dream space because his mind is compromised by... the dark side of his own mind. But this problem persists even when isn't "the architect." It is true that these psychological problems help to raise tension and build the narrative arc for the lead character.

Sir, you ordered a suicide? You have to sign for it downstairs.

Unfortunately, they create bigger problems for the actual story itself. There's no reason for all these Dream Hackers to work with a guy who's a walking mental death-trap. There's also no reason for any of them to allow Cobb to actually enter the dream space; they'd just find another role for him in this heist, or not let Cobb take part at all.

And don't forget - we're led to believe that the dark side of Cobb's mind is something that won't be a problem if he's not the designer of the dream world that they'll all work within. So why, oh why, does the murderous beast in his head keep cropping up anyway?!?!

Seriously, the more you think about these things, the more that Inception starts to unravel and look like it has the credibility of a B or C movie. When things don't make sense, and movie roles talk and events happen, then you're usually looking at a picture that cuts a lot of corners on narrative quality. You get a Michael Bay movie, often enough...

Again, we come to the problem of "why does Inception still work when it has so many issues?" And again, I can only say that the quality of the work seemed worth my trust. This picture was so fresh that it deserved all the credit I could give it - it's not even based on an earlier "property" like kids' toy, or a board game!

It's so sad that I have to be happy about stuff like that...

Throughout the film's running time, I was impressed by the score and acting and cinematography. There were so many good things going on - and so many cool scenes to come - that some part of me knew that I would have an easier time if I didn't try to understand the Dream Rules, nor try to pick apart all the problems with what the audience is told.

I've written this before, but in more complicated sentences: something instinctively told me that I should just enjoy the ride, and that I would get a lot of pleasure from the experience, and I did.

The real dividing line - the one that makes all those complaints valid - is that Inception is set in "the real world." When a movie is absurdist or gonzo or off-the-wall, then anything can happen, and we're just supposed to go along for the ride. But when a film is set with characters and situations that try to play out like they would in real life, then they have to sort of track reality, at least a little bit.

As such, I can't really blame anyone who felt that Inception went over-the-top in creating a movie that shows a bunch of things that happen for reason that everyone explains but still makes no sense. In a lot of ways, it does. The part that really rubs it in is that this picture is full of exposition, of people explaining how the dream works and what goes on inside it - for an action film, there's a hell of a lot of talking.

Worse still, despite all that talking, the movie doesn't track very well. That's the sort of thing that I can imagine coming off as pretentious...

Regardless, I just chose to accept what was on-screen, and to not think it through too heavily. I don't often do movies a favor like that. Something in me knew how to enjoy Nolan's surprise megahit, and that instinct was dead right.

If I had to explain why it felt appropriate to simply give in: when you've got a story about dreams, it feels right to just sit back and let something wash over you. Dreams are an amazing experience, and they make no sense. You find yourself somewhere strange, and you just go along with it. Since I could tell that I wanted to have a good time with Inception, I just did what I'd do in a dream - I went with it.

And, oh, what the hell? the picture was billed and directed and marketed like a blockbuster; it wasn't promoted as a quiet indie darling about personal growth. Sometimes, it's fitting to just get into the popcorn mindset, and it's fair to judge a film by those standards. As the pic progressed, I had no choice but to be impressed by Nolan's ambition - just watching the movie become more and more bold was... it was like being tickled.

That feeling alone was great, and worth being a bit more of a passive viewer.


  1. You can think of it sort of like a time travel movie. The more you pick at the rules of time travel movies, the more the conundrums are revealed, and the less likely everything (or anything) is to make sense. That doesn't disqualify the movie from having some really interesting ideas, doing certain things incredibly well and being extremely satisfying overall. If you want a movie that makes 100% sense, you probably shouldn't be seeing a time travel movie in the first place.

    In fact, Looper (if you haven't seen it) addressed that problem in what I considered to be a very forthright way. (If you haven't seen it, this is not a spoiler.) Whenever characters would start to talk about time travel and how it could be that x, y and z were possible, one character would always step in and say "Let's not talk about time travel shit." In other words, it's only going to fry our noodles (on the surface level, to those characters) and reveal problems with the script (to us in the audience). I love that Rian Johnson basically just said "Don't pick it apart; just enjoy it for what it is."

    1. Oh, my friend, I DID see Looper, and I'm pleased to say that my months and months of hoping were well-rewarded. I could only post a brief reaction post early this month, and I still haven't gotten myself together for a full review. I'm intimidated to cover it.

      It is both good and smart that those characters said what they said about the complexities of time travel, honestly. On the one hand, it shows that people don't understand why this stuff "works" the way they intend. For another, it reminds the audience to just let go - and that's really important, because *that* horrifying sequence from the movie makes no sense, considering what happened and what we're supposed to believe *still happened...* I'm sure you know what I mean.


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