Saturday, July 24, 2010
Limbo! How Low Can You Go?!: Inception
If Christopher Nolan set out to stretch the limits of cinema with Inception, his mind-bending film set in a world of dreams (and dreams-within-dreams and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams … and limbo), he did all too well. Inception is too big, too complicated and too ambitious for its own good. The film is overloaded with plot, plot explanation, action and, not to be outdone, urgency. If the first three excesses might be the most annoying, it’s the last one that’s truly damaging, because urgency overkill makes Inception the one thing Nolan desperately wanted it never to be: flat. In his previous film, The Dark Knight, Nolan successfully juggled the interweaving storylines of his four principal characters with a frenzy that could have made George Lucas slack-jawed, but he also respected the plot’s dramatic peaks and valleys. Inception, by comparison, isn’t necessarily more adrenaline-filled or powerful, it’s just lacking those crucial undulations in intensity. Through its pacing, cinematography, music, plot and even the rhythm of its dialogue, Inception gives the impression that nearly every second of the film is infused with severity. Hans Zimmer’s score doesn’t just contribute to the urgency, it symbolizes the unfortunate effect of the film’s unrelenting approach: those haunting, booming, groaning strains, so significant to the energy of the film’s tantalizing trailers, might as well be the sound of a film attempting to consistently operate at the high point of a crescendo.
Zimmer’s score could also double for the sound of a film buckling under its own weight. And what an incredible amount of weight it is – each pound earned with yet another law, term or twist in the film’s exhaustingly complicated narrative. Nolan has written intricate screenplays before – Memento and The Prestige, for instance – but never anything like this. For a film concerned with mazes, Inception is appropriately labyrinthine, yet the best comparison might be to a Jenga tower: a tightly coupled structure that could tip over if just one piece is out of place. To Nolan’s credit, Inception wobbles regularly but it never quite collapses. At least not while you’re watching. With a great deal of thought, I’m sure that numerous plot holes could be identified (at this point, they probably have been), but it passes the initial sniff test, and in this case that’s no small feat. Also, for a movie that exists on several supernatural planes simultaneously, Inception is surprisingly easy to follow, at least broadly speaking. The film’s coherency can in part be attributed to Nolan’s clever decision to slip heist-film elements into his fantasy world, giving us something familiar to latch on to, and to the film’s lack of character complexity, which though disappointing overall does give us one less thing to think about. But the biggest reason Inception is less vague than a David Lynch mindfuck is that nearly every five minutes, if not sooner, one of Nolan’s characters pauses to explain what’s happening, like a math student showing his work. Inception is a lot of things, but unforthcoming isn’t one of them.
The oral nature of Inception was unavoidable. (Spoilers ahead in the rest of the review.) Nolan is using a visual medium to tell a story that’s impossible to convey with images alone. Inception’s great irony is that while it’s painfully verbal – most things are told, not shown – it’s also stunning to look at. Its visual qualities are the film’s greatest weakness and its greatest strength. The sight of city streets folding backward on one another, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur engaging in an acrobatic brawl in zero-gravity-type conditions, are hard to forget, even in our CGI-dominated era when digitally inspired awe is hard to come by. Meanwhile, even more effective are several of the film’s simpler shots: the eerie beauty of that spinning top; the anguish on the face of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb as he watches his wife, Marion Cotillard’s Mal, take a fatal plunge; the heartbreak and anger on the face of Mal in her dream-world prison, particularly when she slams the gate of the elevator as her husband makes his escape. (Does anyone cry bigger, lovelier, more gut-wrenching tears than Cotillard? I don’t think so.) These images make Inception’s detailed chatter and intricate plot exposition feel like noise, rather than like the DNA of the high-five-worthy headtrip that Nolan is attempting to deliver. And yet each of those images would be considerably more potent if only Nolan were willing to let his film’s rolling boil reduce to a simmer every now and then.
Nolan’s biggest mistake is that he makes the extraordinary ordinary. Inception races to its summit in its initial minutes and refuses to come down after that, thus eliminating the opportunity to climb higher once we’ve acclimated to the altitude. To present every scene as crucial is, by rule, to render each scene equally inconsequential. Perhaps that explains why all of the film’s gunplay is dull bordering on tedious bordering on unintentionally funny. Or maybe the problem with the gunplay is just that the drones constantly attacking the film’s heroes are more incompetent than the Washington Generals; not only do they never hit the guys they’re shooting at (with one exception), they never even leave bullet holes near where their stationary targets are standing. The drones do expertly destroy windows, but once the glass is gone it’s as if their bullets disintegrate in flight. So empty and ludicrous are Inception’s too frequent shootouts that by the end of the film, when Ken Watanabe’s Saito hears the opposition coming up a hallway and leans around a corner to fire a few shots in their direction with all the care of a horse lackadaisically flipping its tail at some flies, I laughed out loud. If even he doesn’t give a shit that guys with guns are coming, why should I? In moments like that one, Nolan seems more concerned with distracting us than moving us.
Or maybe Nolan is distracted. It could be argued, I suppose, that Inception’s primary aim is to examine the tortured soul of DiCaprio’s Cobb. But Nolan never commits to it. He spends so much time pointing a spotlight at his well-dressed set that he leaves his characters in the dark. Cobb is simply overlooked, while Ellen Page’s Ariadne never had a chance. Her character exists solely to follow at Cobb’s heels, asking questions like a preschooler so that someone can explain the rules of the game or Cobb can provide testimony about his troubled past. Ariadne is less a character than a walking asterisk pointing us to Nolan’s footnotes and technical diagrams, and the rest of the film’s Ocean’s Eleven-type crew is even less substantial. Everything takes a backseat to the structure of the plot, so that we might marvel at its architectural complexity. It works, to a point – there’s almost always something to try to unravel, if you care – but the emptiness of this approach is revealed in the film’s noteable emotional triumph, when a close-up of Cillian Murphy (as Robert Fischer, Jr.) transcends more than two hours of narrative plate-spinning. To be fair, that close-up doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It owes much of its power to the psychobabble that precedes it. But what that moment makes clear is that while Cobb’s dream-spelunking crew is making a deep dive into the emotions and psyche of a man, Inception is stuck in the limbo of Nolan’s nifty yet ultimately unrewarding idea.