Over the next few days, you’re going to see an awful lot of critics refer to Inception as a challenging film. Viewers will walk away from their theaters calling the film complex and nuanced and spouting praise for writer/director Christopher Nolan. That’s if they like it of course. If they don’t then they’re going to call it confusing and boring and maybe even stupid. And walking away from this film, the question on my mind isn’t so much “Which party is right?” as it is “Is any party right?” And my answer?
Maybe a little of both.
Let me explain: Inception is a film that is only as challenging as you allow it to be. If you don’t accept what it is telling you and try to over-think things then you’re going to find yourself muddling through the plot, grappling onto statement after idea after statement in the interest of finding a way to ground yourself as an observer. Alternately, if you choose to let the film and the world wash over you and pay attention as you go, then you’ll very quickly find yourself deposited at the credits and find that you understood all of what went on.
The reason for this is that Inception falls into a category of science fiction that I like to refer to as Immersive Science Fiction. It’s a little sub-genre I have identified that is peopled with writers like William Gibson. Immersive authors write stories where almost all of the world and technical exposition is done in the background. As a style, it does not pander to the audience, it does not attempt to make everything crystal clear at all times, it does not care about telling you how the jetpack on page eighty-three works, or how the bad guys tracked the hero through space at the fifty minute mark.
Early on, Inception gives you the little bits that you absolutely need—-terminology, that the tech exists, how it effects the world—-and then it just lights out for the Territories, supplementing your reality for its own and trusting that you will be interested enough in the characters and the story to ride along. And as it moves it gives you more and more little flashes of how the world works; showing you how it is different and how it is the same and illustrating the rules that dictate this reality without taking much time to implicitly state them. As the film chugs along, the viewer is with the characters all of the way. We latch onto them because, as human beings, they are the most familiar facet of this world, and as they move through the plot we move with them and build up our own understanding of how things work.
I’m making this sound more complex than it is. Basically what you need to know is this: The movie shows you the world without really telling you about it, and then it tricks you into filling in whatever blanks you find the most pressing, and when it’s all over you feel more satisfied as a viewer because you played a role in the endeavor that was not completely passive. It isn’t something that works flawlessly on film, but it works well enough that you can still let yourself slip into the texture of the film and come away with an excellent feel for it. Which is something that can’t even be said about most books, so more power to Nolan for doing it.
So what about the rest of it? The acting and the action and the other stuff that people who aren’t writers actually care about? Well, there’s a reason why I included “spouting praise for writer/director Christopher Nolan” in my bit earlier on. Chris Nolan is, to my mind, one of the strongest and most consistent directors of the 21st century. The man is an unstoppable juggernaut of directing chops. He crushes faces and collects skulls and swims in talent like Scrooge McDuck swims in gold coins. And Inception really doesn’t do much to change that.
The film is beautifully shot. The visuals are crisp and clear and the digital effects-—while not always of the highest caliber—-are always integrated well into the film; serving as intentional representative imagery rather than flash for the sake of flash. There is also some really great stunt work going on, and some gigantic “zero-gravity” sequences that showcase some of the best fight sequences of their type. The film is just staggering to look at.
Things don’t hold up as well on the less technical levels, unfortunately. The plot is strong; presenting itself well and moving at a pace that is at once brisk enough to satisfy the story-driven viewer, but also lets in enough character work to let the actors really do their thing on a more personal level. But once you strip away all of the fancy lucid dreaming stuff, Inception is really just a heist movie. It’s Ocean’s Eleven, minus the jokes and a bunch of characters and inside Cillian Murphy’s head. And while I would go so far as to say that it is a very well made heist movie, it doesn’t ever take that notion anywhere you haven’t seen. The same basic sorts of things that you expect to go wrong in heist movies all go wrong, and they are all resolved in the ways that you would expect. It is all hidden under a very slick veneer, but when it comes down to it, the veneer is a lot thicker in other places.
There’s also some pretty clunky writing spaced throughout the script. Nothing that you’re likely to specifically remember by the time that the credits are over, but there are little conversations or lines that are just ham-handed enough to give you pause. They’re unfortunate little moments strewn across a script that is otherwise nice and tight. The film also just gets things over with early and has the characters constantly be willing to call each other on their bullshit. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb starts to show that he’s having a psychological meltdown, Ariadne (Ellen Page) actually does something and confronts him about it. Characters show concern for each other and act upon that, and it is a lovely change of pace from summer films where you often feel like the characters even know that they’re in a movie, where they’re just holding all of their emotional bits in check until the plot train coasts into the station where they’re supposed to unload. It is so remarkably refreshing to see people acting like real people that I can barely even express it.
And the cast is lovely, by the way. There are plenty of people on the cast list who you know are going to be there and be solid, like DiCaprio and Page, and then there are people who just kind of sow up as a matter of course and please you with their mere presence. Performers like Cillian Murphy and Tom Berenger and Michael Caine and Dileep Rao who didn’t get a single frame of attention in the trailers but bring a great deal of talent and presence to the table. Going into the film as a person who remembers performers and their work, the cast is like going out for dinner and a movie and then spending the entire time running into people who you are genuinely happy to see. Pretty much everyone is great pretty much all of the time, and it is hardly surprising at all.
So, in the end, Inception doesn’t really take you anywhere you haven’t been to before, but it gets you there in a car you’ve never been in. And it’s a really nice car. Flaws aside, the film comes highly recommended. Enjoy.