Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s latest film might just be a modern-day Trojan horse wheeled into walled cities everywhere, poised for unsuspecting audiences to try to figure out what to do with it. But the closer we get to finding the hidden seam, to prying open the slick and glossy veneer of yet another sci-fi thriller with a bloated, nonsensical script, the further we get from a meaningful two-hour and twenty-eight minute cinematic experience. There, I said it. I might be an army of one but nonetheless there are issues with Mr. Nolan’s opus that are glaringly absent from discussion. Maybe it is the whole dream within a dream within a dream theory or all the slow motion sequences that repeat ad infinitum that have people spinning themselves in tiny circles. Sure, Inception is original if it is anything, and as of this writing has far exceeded its $160 million dollar budget, but it feels more like a story tucked so far inside itself as to be nearly incomprehensible as such. But as far as many critics are concerned, multiple viewings are not only advisable but necessary, and in Hollywood land that equates to the Elysian Fields of Box Offices. Is Inception simply a $100 million dollar, marketing campaign-fueled summer blockbuster or the tangled vision of an auteur that is too smart for its own good? Sadly, both I say.

It is apparent from the first ten minutes into Inception that plot supplants character and just about everything that isn’t delivered with eye-popping, high-dollar special effects was left on the cutting room floor. Inception plays like a film that started out on a cocktail napkin, a big budget concept propped up by a purposely convoluted story with matchstick characters to keep it from falling over. Story has it that Nolan spent ten years writing and rewriting the script, changing, rearranging, and finally getting the green light from Warner Bros. and it shows. Part patchwork quilt, part indefinable odyssey, the only thing for sure about Inception is that it has people guessing, trying to unravel the knots of a rope that might better be left dangling from the ceiling of some long forgotten gymnasium. When did ambition become reason enough measure for the success or failure of a film? If it weren’t for cardboard caricatures choking their way through emotionless dialog and a story saturated with so much exposition that it’s impossible to forget you’re watching a movie, there might be something to the idea of dream thieves. But thinking doesn’t make it so and just when you have an idea of what is going on – curiouser and curiouser, cried the hapless audience – any hope of being left to your own devices is dashed by dead-pan, listless explanation. The dead are funnier, more emotionally rounded, and a far cry more interesting; at least the dead know enough to lay down when their heads explode.

Despite popular opinion, Christopher Nolan didn’t invent the summer blockbuster any more than he was the first person to try peanut butter and chocolate in the same bite. All the pieces are there, big named stars and gun fire, ridiculous and unbelievable plot points, seemingly random locations that don’t just bump into one another but get lost like children in a field too enamored with the cornstalks to answer when mommy calls. Yet in all the ridiculousness and plot heavy speeches that really do go on far too long to be interesting, people have paid their money and sat down for what amounts to three hours with all the ads for television shows nobody watches. In this day and age of cinema, one thing is certain; once you’ve collected the keys to the kingdom of Hollywood you are essentially granted a pass to write whatever muddled script you want and like a giant horse on wheels with a sinister agenda, people are going to take it in and regret the price of admission.

I also wrote a review of Inception Blu-ray for Warner Bros. here.


About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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23 Responses to Inception (2010)

  1. Tom Pyron says:

    Well, I need to watch it again to really get a grasp, but…

    The bad:
    1. It was reasonably hard to follow for me. SO MUCH came out in dialogue, which is always more difficult to process. Because of this…

    2. It lacked an emotional substance that I usually enjoy. There was the relationship with his wife, and the crush thing with Ellen Page (on her side really). This missing element was nailed by the trades, and chalked it up to the reason it WON’T win the really big Oscar’s… and I agree.

    3. Something seemed to be missing from the transition from reality to the dream state. Additionally, I found it fairly hard to tell which was which sometimes. Unlike “The Matrix,” where it was extremely easy to tell the two worlds apart, largely due to the subtle lighting/color changes… and what the characters could do. In this case, the subtleties may have been TOO subtle, save for the dream levels further down.

    4. Marketing – I won’t waste time here, but they gave away all the fun parts!

    The good:
    1. The book end. Stellar.
    2. Special effects. They will win.
    3. Writing – lots can be encompassed here, but I liked the following:
    a. Structure was there save for the complexities mentioned above
    b. Adherence to the rules of the special world was interesting to me
    c. Since I was confused about which world I was in, they introduced the concept that maybe the characters were too, hence the suicide leap from the high rise window. I didn’t “get” this until after discussing with a friend, but that was a cool after-taste. A positive benefit of a negative aspect (ever hear of that before?).

    4. Casting – nothing was distracting, but I think Cillian Murphy should be seriously recognized for this emotional work here. I’m a thespian, what can I say. I probably would have cast someone else to be his father though. The likeness wasn’t there for me.

    Overall: An extremely difficult concept to pull off in 2D. This film should have been 3D, although Nolan would disagree in this article:

    I need to get back to work, unfortunately. I could add tons more, but please discuss.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Tom..Thanks for your thoughts..

      Well, let me retort then.

      Under the heading of ‘The Bad’

      1. I think there are really two paths, though admittedly this is probably too simplistic to completely follow Nolan’s tangled plot. After the first book-end, the story begins as a typical heist-film, something like Heat or perhaps more demonstrative, Reservoir Dogs given the purposeful non-linear plot of the latter. The story then becomes a fantasy meets sci-fi meets action thriller which never truly pays off as one sequence seemingly blurs into the next in what I’d describe one long, run-on cinematic sentence. I followed along for about 10 minutes and then just figured I’d keep my seat warm and see what ridiculous turn the road was going to take – and in that matter, I wasn’t disappointed.

      2. Simply put, the emotions were painted on like shadows on the wall. DiCaprio has constructed a career around flat, unbelievable performances since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball diaries. I’d even give that his performance in Titanic was maybe the last inkling of talent before his head exploded. The Departed contained moments but only so far as Jack Nicholson was there to hold his hand and deliver as only Jack can deliver. Matt Damon on the other hand has risen to a venerable every-man, bringing with him a kind of guy-next-door charm beneath which he is equally adept as an action hero from the Bourne franchise to Green Zone. If you want to see an exact copy of DiCaprio’s performance in Inception, see Revolutionary Road. And Marion Cotillard (the wife) never even so much as scratched an emotional nerve, her bouts of teary-eyed exposition and brooding sentimentality just did not pay off. Ellen page was by far the biggest disappointment given her previous diverse roles – If you haven’t seen the 2005 movie Hard Candy – you should. If you don’t like Page you’ll be surprised. If you do like her, you might actually catch what I would call her best exploration of genuine, believable range of emotions. Here she walked around like a star-struck pubescent with a dull mask-like gaze that hardly registered the difference between city-curling up and rapid bullets zipping around her head. Ken Watanabe stumbled half-convincingly through his lines and Joseph Gordon-Levitt never found his place in the shadow of DiCaprio. I’m reminded of the big action movies of the 60’s, Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen – films where even the third guy from the starring role made you feel something when he got killed. Michael Caine was pitifully lost in a role that demanded no more from him than a crooked smile as a befuddled grandfather with wisdom that came directly from the back of a matchbook.

      3. The trouble I had with the altered world was why should I care? What is at stake aside from the stern look of passerbys or the occasional, zombie mob pawing at your dream self before you wake up? When the city-rises up and over like the lid on a can of tuna, a sequence that took nearly five minutes and no matter how hard I tried to be impressed, I wasn’t, left me feeling like so what? When the wrapper is more flavorful than the candy bar someone, somewhere did something wrong.

      4. They put a $100 million dollars in marketing into Inception and it screened in 3,792 theaters. If the spaghetti didn’t stick to the wall a lot of heads were going to roll. They took a big chance on a big budget movie and it’s, sadly, paying off. Trailers these days are TOO LONG, period. They cater to short attention spans and a lack of audiences to be engaged by subtle and carefully orchestrated previews – you know, what they were originally intended to do.

      The Good:

      1. Too little too late. By the time we got the ending all I could think about was getting out of the theater as fast as I could – and I ALWAYS stay for the credits.

      2. I didn’t see that much that surprised me and if I was going to be stranded on a desert island with only one special-effects laden movie to watch, it would be The Matrix.

      3. I think a great number of people get tangled up with the writing. What people are really talking about is the concept: Dream thieves. I like the idea of people poking around in our subconscious, manipulating us to do our biding or give up the secret to Cocoa Puffs but only in passing. Inception is muddy, nearly imperceptible as a plot that is readily available to its audience. It is the same argument, either for or against, that people make about novels and film adaptations. Some people find adaptations to be abominations while others are no more affected by creative license than paying six dollars for flat Coke at the concession stand. To suggest that an original, ambitious concept replaces well written dialog with rich, inviting characters who portray believable emotions is akin to accepting PG-13 violence sequences where men with machine guns expel round after round of bullets at a car no more than thirty feet away and no one gets hit, let alone dies. There is no blood in films where blood should be. There is no sex where sex should be. Instead violence-without-blood is the new sex in cinema. Stay tuned for my next article – The New Sex in Cinema.

      I cannot like Inception, not even for Nolan after his first two films; Following and Memento are on my favorite movies list. I can’t do it for him or any other filmmaker I can think of – even ones I really like. And I have heard of a the principle of a positive benefit of a negative aspect – it is actually a founding principle that I look for in stories because it involves making a decision and sometimes our decisions are good on the one hand and bad on the other. Take my thesis film, Once Beautiful Past. In the story, the main character has to deal with a previous auto accident where he had to make a splint second decision that is good and bad for entirely the same reason. The story is about him coming to terms with that decision and no matter how positive it was the negative is equally if not more negative but one thing makes the other. It’s called drama and it’s the world I live in and the world I want my movies to live in. Without it we’re left with, well, movies like Inception.

      4. See my previous tirade on casting. Cillian Murphy didn’t really have a lot to work with, though he was probably the most interesting alongside Tom Hardy – who reminded me of Stephen Baldwin as McManus in The Usual Suspects. Pete Postlethwaite, sadly was hardly more than a plot-prop with a message to deliver. I cannot embrace 3D films, though the first 14 minutes of the last Harry Potter film which was presented in 3D followed by the rest of the film in 2D was nice. I have a funny eye thing that prevents me from enjoying the effects without a migraine.

      Some will suggest that such a lengthy discourse is proof enough of the success of Inception. Such passionate feelings, one way or the other means that Nolan succeeded in spurring people to seeing his film and that with positive box office receipts he’ll make another. The truth is I enjoy discussing films, the bad ones even more because it gives me the opportunity to dig in with both hands in what I believe is a steady bastardization of cinema. Case in point, the vastly more rewarding Anthony Fuqua film “Brooklyn’s Finest” where emotions are the special effects and actors actually live truthfully in imaginary circumstances. The problem with putting the majority of your story in a dream is that nothing is real, not even when the characters stop to counter their previous explanation of rules, “but when we enter the third level of dreams, we really do die”.

  2. Dan says:

    Very interesting take on the film. I only saw it last night so it’s all sinking it – you’re right about the exposition. But, I would fall in line behind those that rate it highly. I would say it isn’t Nolan’s finest character piece but he is so good at plot and the way he constructs the narrative of his films that I think here it doesn’t matter so much. The originality isn’t as much in the idea of entering and impacting dreams but in how the multi-layered levels of the dream impact on reality – the time differential, the way in which the internal world is impinged upon by the layer above. I think you have to tell that through action rather than character development, or it could get even more complicated.

    • rorydean says:

      Hi Dan

      I have found a handful of reviews that are much more critical than mine, but nevertheless aren’t as easily swayed that concept, ambition, and originality are superior to traditional character, dialog, and story development. I’m actually thankful for a film that I can dig my teeth into and discuss with people. I’ll admit that my criticism is primarily the focus of the tireless exposition, lack of character development and passionless emotions. I find it peculiar that somehow these traits are so easily overlooked. I believe this in and of itself is worthy of analysis and discussion.

      Hmmm. “Finest character piece and plot”, in my opinion are not the same thing. I’ll concede this is a plot-centric film, I’ll even go so far as to agree that it is Nolan’s’ most ambitious and dare I say original film to date, though others have pointed out that the 1984 Joseph Ruben film Dreamscape has a similar premise. But all films are the product of all films, and rightfully so.

      As I pointed out in my previous response, once we enter a world where nothing is real, be it dream or otherwise, our ability to maintain a connection to the reality of the characters is compromised and therefore limits our ability to care at a deeper level. I don’t think you can have it both ways. Inception might just be a big budget summer blockbuster where you check reason, accountability, and thought at the door and enter with your gut-level emotions like baggy pants around your legs – and if that is the case, I missed that disclaimer at the door.

      I’m all for a hey ride just not at the cost of taking a pitch fork in the bumm. Cheers->

      • Dan says:

        I think more could have been done with Leo’s character in terms of the destructiveness, from a mental perspective, of his profession but I think this would have been detrimental to the spectacle. The film was already long enough. But, having said that, I could allow myself to be taken in by the obsession he and his wife endured that ultimately drove him to do the very thing he now regrets and her to her ultimate doom. From a character perspective I felt this was a good way of detailing the possible dangers of such ‘power’.

        I don’t, however, feel the originality comes from the concept – we’ve seen dream-based films as recently as Dreamscape and even more recently in the similarly-premised The Matrix. However, even more directly, we have seen dream interaction in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, especially Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. But as much as I like these films, Inception is better. What I love about it is Nolan’s inventiveness in regards to the narrative chronology. I never knew it was possible to achieve so much (exciting and at times breathtaking) adventure during the time it takes for a van to fall from a bridge and hit the water below. This 5 second edge-of-the-seat, heart in mouth moment, was strung out for half an hour!

        I think above all else Nolan has concocted the perfect summer blockbuster. There’s intelligence there but it’s also popcorn entertainment.

  3. A. J. says:

    Hey Rory, great site, good article, but I have to totally disagree with you 🙂 Regarding the special effects, they are surprisingly low scale and old school. The scene in the hotel was shot using pretty low-tech (but still expensive) techniques. But more importantly, I think the filmmaking interpretation of the movie is the most accurate. Of course the notion of dreams within dreams, sharing dreams, etc. are all pretty far fetched. But these plot devices are the crux of the whole industry, the suspension of disbelief, otherwise we wouldn’t have Star Wars, or Face/Off. This is hinted at constantly throughout the whole film with lines like “take a leap of faith.” I agree the characters were a little thin but I think time was a major constraint, the only character with any depth was DiCaprio’s. The film too is admittedly a bit over the top and the main action scene is a multi-layered car chase, gun fight and alpine assault that loses a bit of it’s punch due to the complexity. But, I really don’t think that it was made soley to rake in dollars, though that was certainly an important factor, but rather a labour of love for Nolan, and what came out was a sleek, action-packed, heady thriller. But above all it’s a tribute to filmmaking, the magic of the cinematic experience. But something tells me I won’t be able to convince you of that 😉 I look forward to the discussion.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey A.J., thanks for dropping by! I’m happy that you disagree, sometimes opposing opinions make for the best discourse! Looking back at the film, and my lengthy diatribe, I stick by the single most frustrating, and dare I say the fundamental problem I had with the film — which was the exposition. I can forgive or even enjoy, to some regard, the special affects and as you put it “surprisingly low scale and old school”. I actually think special effects, fight choreography, logistical cinematography (planes, trains, and helicopters) is often overlooked and shouldn’t be. The talent that goes into making these actors believable, effective, and engaging is an art unto itself. I actually liked some of these scenes quite a bit but to be honest by the time we arrived, and then arrived again and again in painfully slow motion, it was simply too much. Inception is nothing if not a concept film, pure and simple, and as such suffers from the same thing nearly every concept film is the victim of — the concept wears thin or altogether falls apart, tissue thin and weightless, and no matter what is going on in the foreground of the film in the background, usually subconscious which accounts for why so many people left the theater perplexed — did I like it? did I know what was going on? WTF was that?

      That being said, I again didn’t mind the whole dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept and if you watch the trailer it’s very engaging and precisely the reason I wanted to see the film. The trailer is nothing short of near-perfect. Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to the expectation. I see your point about ‘suspension of disbelief’ as an integral part of just about every film but that’s not really what I’m saying. I don’t think audiences were ever given the credit to know what was going on because Nolan thought the film was too complex – partly but not cinematic terms. The language of cinema is much more widely understood and accepted and as you point, a framework that relies on the audience accepting what they are watching. Do you remember the film the Last Action Hero? With Schwartzenegger? Where the kid talked to the audience through out the film? Same problem here. I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Shut the f&ck up already, I KNOW!”. That and all the slow motion crap at the end, not to mention some awful performances and flat, uninteresting characters and perhaps the worst ending I could have imagined. I have to disagree with you on DiCaprio. Watch any of his last three films; same actor, same character, same performance. He’s a one trick pony and once his good looks go he’ll be relegated to b-movie hell or most likely another CSI spin-off or series no one really cares about.

      I do think this was a passion project for Nolan who was forced by the studio to make Dark Knight first to test the waters so to speak. He made a killing and then some. He exceeded the studio’s expectations so much they pretty much gave him a blank check to do whatever he wanted. It’s my opinion that true auteurs are a rare breed, very, very rare and while Nolan exhibits trace elements if left without enough guidance he’ll get lost inside his own head. He’s a brilliant man, no doubt there. He’s also a very capable filmmaker but even the best (Scorsese, Kubrick, Godard, Truffaut, Kirosawa, Woody Allen) they all stumble, some more than others, some bigger than others. Polanski has no doubt made some brilliant films but right next door is the noisy neighbor of films like Frantic (with a cardboard cutout named Harrison Ford) and Ninth Gate (Not horrible but flat for Polanski). Even the Coen’s have made a handful of utter failures. The difference here is that Inception fell in the right time, had no competition, and struck people because they didn’t know what it was really about or thought they did and told other people to go see it to find out if they were right.

  4. Klaus says:

    Based on the previews for Inception, I was prepared to really enjoy this film. It didn’t take long, however, before I was fighting an urge to sleep. What a bloated over-financed snoozefest!

    What I found most amusing was the fanboy bandwagon which developed around this film. I lost count of the number of blog postings I read which praised this film as the best of the year, the decade, etc., etc.

    Refreshing to finally read a review of Inception for what it really was: “…a big budget concept propped up by a purposely convoluted story with matchstick characters to keep it from falling over.”

    To say the least, I enjoyed your excellent review, and am looking forward to looking around your site.

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Klaus — cheers my friend and thanks for dropping by. It’s refreshing to discuss the film with someone who wasn’t blinded by the brilliance of what amounts to a complex, high-end concept flick that never really takes us anywhere interesting. The myriad of dream levels, each explained in painful detail, is enough to tune out altogether if not for the cost of admission. I too was interested (as I wrote previously) especially with the trailer but these days trailers are almost NEVER reason to see a film. They are too long, tell/show too much, reveal stuff that should be kept to the film screening and generally play out like over-extended music videos by filmmakers who aren’t trusted or capable of directing a feature length film. Maybe that’s a little harsh as I’d jump at the chance to cut trailers for a living.

      Anyhoo, I’m glad you liked my review and please do tromp about at free will.

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  6. moviegeek says:

    Sorry to disagree with you guys, but I find it very reshreshing to finally see a big summer blockbuster that doesn’t treat the audience like a bunch of lobotomised zombies. Of bourse it’s all very silly and there’s a lot of exposition, but that’s some of the gun of it. To try to keep up and work out its labyrinthine structure.
    Give me an inception any day over any trashy Michael Bay, or McGee or Pirate film… I don’t even remember the last summer blockbuster popcorn film I’ve enjoyed as much as this. And don’t take me wrong, I love blockbusters.
    Of corse this is no masterpiece, but at least it’s original, tries to do something different and doesn’t insult our intelligence every 5 minutes.
    Oh and by the way, awesome sfx too!!

    • rorydean says:

      I’m only happy to discuss the film further and never look at disagreement as a negative but rather an opportunity. I can completely understand the need and excitement of watching a summer blockbuster, the sense of escape, the larger than life scenarios and extraordinary characters – especially characters drawn from our favorite comic books, video games, and the not so distant history of cinema. I was actually very excited at the prospect of Inception – the trailer was very well done – but where the film fell apart in all aspects of storytelling is its reliance upon exposition literally every five minutes to ensure the audiences hasn’t gotten confused or gone to sleep. Sure, the film is complex and I give Nolan credit for creating an interesting film but there is no denying the films failure on many, many levels.

      I’m not sure how you believe Inception DOESN’T treat the audience like, as you put it, “lobotomized zombies” given the fact of the aforementioned exposition. Exposition ruins the cinematic experience, replacing the audiences own innate ability to acclimate itself to new worlds and interesting scenarios by telling us what to think, what is going on, why it is going on, and what we should make of it. If that isn’t treating the audience like they’re incapable of figuring out the movie for themselves, and thus considering them mindless automatons who are just filling seats and eating popcorn, I don’t know what is.

      As far as the ‘labyrinthine structure’ it actually isn’t all that difficult to figure out – especially since every character constantly reminds us throughout the film what is going on and why and what to expect next. Hmmm. I have to seriously question your dismissal of Michael Bay (he’s a far more talented producer than director, but according to Box Office Mojo his films have grossed close to $1.5 billion dollars) and as far as Robert McGee is concerned, his work “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting” is considered by most essential study for understanding how to tell cinematic stories.

      As I wrote in my review, sure, the film is original and while it attempts to be ‘different’ this doesn’t mean we have to accept the film without criticism and analysis. Blockbuster or not, the film DOES insult the audience’s intelligence by the very exposition you’ve already pointed out. Good films don’t rely on exposition and rarely are heralded on the merit of their originality and inventiveness alone. There’s a reason why the Best Picture Oscar isn’t based on such surface elements of a major motion picture.

      Again, thanks for coming by and offering your thoughts on the film.

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