On Inception

‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to dream.’

Why Christopher Nolan’s latest is far from being his greatest

Thinking about a Christopher Nolan film feels like opening up an exquisitely crafted wristwatch. All manner of elaborate coils are wound around precisely placed sprockets, and so immaculate is the structural design that removing one cog — or even nudging it an inch — would ground the whole perfect, beautiful machine to a halt. Everything stays magnificently in place in his latest film, Inception, which is, in a way, the problem. Sure, it’s a remarkably accurate watch — you know the kind, with a slew of dials and meters which exude an impressive, if irrelevant, air — but like even the finest of timepieces, all it does is tick.

While dreams happen to be anything but clockwork.

Nolan’s almost always experimented with peculiar stories, and this time he aims to startle by taking textbook Hollywood formula — a fugitive thief, putting together an eclectic band of specialists to do that ‘one last job’ before he goes straight — and running the clichés through surreal territory. Yet he never quite goes surreal enough, and this remains a visually overwhelming, frequently hollow action film. It offers nothing new, exploring territory encountered before in movies like The Matrix and Minority Report, while giving us nothing of the seismic shock they caused while breaking conceptual ground. Perhaps it is worth noting that those films were born out of writing by Grant Morrison and Philip K Dick, respectively, and Nolan’s own finest feature, The Prestige, out of a novel by Christopher Priest. Inception marks the first time the director has written solo, instead of tag-teaming with brother Jonathan, and the result is both spectacular and sloppy.

Nolan’s biggest strength as a storyteller is his ability to play with and yet stick solidly to structure, and while all the elegance is on show this time — in fact, perhaps more now than ever — he has been far too generous to himself as a writer. Frequently the narrative is padded with clunky exposition as characters wax eloquent about the physics of Nolan’s latest world, going on justifying a flimsy *what* when all we need is the *how*, and far too often do things seem merely, regrettably, convenient. Things fall into place for Danny Ocean too, but the universe doesn’t bend itself to suit his scheme. Here, the underlying logic of the film is built out of sheer pragmatism: otherwise, well, lets just say it would have a lot more folk floating in the air.

In an absolute nutshell, Inception is about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, a man who specializes in entering dreams and stealing ideas, now tempted to do the reverse and plant an idea inside a brain. It’s a heist film, make no mistake, cleverly packaged inside enough pretty malarkey to seem like a puzzle. It isn’t. That final twist is disappointingly easy to see coming, and that last scene gimmick almost sinks the film whole. There is no underlying significance — though I’m certain Lost-fans are debating feverishly about self-constructed subtext on the Internet right now — and nothing challenging what we already believe. It doesn’t blow your mind, but it sure as hell blows your eyes.

And yet it doesn’t do this dreamily enough. Parisian bookshops explore in a flurry of wasted words, a city folds in on itself, and Penrose stairs appear rather dramatically — all as Hans Zimmer goes trombone-crazy. The film’s finest sequence features Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting in a hotel corridor that rotates round and round, miraculously taking the combatants from wall to floor to ceiling, and this isn’t computer generated, Nolan making the room and camera rotate at the same time. Jawdropping as the sequence is, look up Fred Astaire doing the same in Royal Wedding, using essentially the same technique, 59 years ago. Dreamier.

And those are the good bits; the rest is video-game. A massive chunk of the film is set around a snowy fortress, with people interminably and indistinguishably shooting at each other, cutting away to other characters being verbose about this dream logic. Previously, after much conversation about personal totems to keep track of reality, we see the appropriately curious looking Ellen Page carve herself a striking Bishop — which never comes into play. Perhaps minefields just don’t make good chessboards.

It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Nolan could have explored more and exploded less. Or just shown us more of Marion Cotillard’s gorgeous face. At one point in the film, a charming Tom Hardy grabs a massive gun and shoots an extra, telling Gordon-Levitt that he ‘mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.’ Nolan has the diametrically opposite problem, and maybe its time he started dreaming a little more intimately. Darling.

For Christopher Nolan, dreams are just another exotic location, a lush, lesser-used backdrop, chosen like picking Greenland over Saint-Tropez, and he certainly uses said venue — and the flights of fancy mentioned in its tourist brochure — to visually devastating effect. Yet as followers of Terry Gilliam are well aware, Brazil has absolutely nothing to do with the name of a country.


Originally published Mumbai Mirror, July 28


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  1. Dr . Kenshuk Marwah

    Hey Raja ,

    An article well written you have been very wise in your comparison to MATRIX ,, it doesn’t rise to that standards . Inception ,, I believe title should have been confusion .

    1. Jack

      Clearly, CLEARLY you haven’t understood the film. The fact that you’re comparing it to THE MATRIX justifies that.

  2. Suprateek

    This is a great piece. After the whole initial excitement of the film wore off, I thought hard about it. On many counts, you’re right. Yes, the film is anything but dreamy. The logic is cold and hard, and the resemblance to video-games is kinda simplistic (the fortress in the snow looks like a level from Counter-Strike).

    However, having said that, I still feel that ‘Inception’ is brilliantly constructed as a commercial Hollywood motion picture. I feel that this is more the Nolan of ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Batman Begins’ than the one of ‘Memento’ and ‘The Prestige’, and I have a feeling — given the fact that it was being promoted as a mind-bender about ‘dreams’ — a lot of people went to see it expecting the latter.

    The film, according to me, was pretty tight and balanced in all its elements. Sure, one could bring out logical flaws, or complain that the characters weren’t well-fleshed out, and, well, dialogue hasn’t ever been Nolan’s strongest point (only one character in each of his films gets killer lines).

    You’re a screenwriter, so I guess you’d know this better. But I can’t for the life of me imagine how the movie would’ve played out if Nolan started indulging in Lynchian weirdness in all the dreams. This, as you rightly said, is a heist movie, and heist movies need serial story-lines without too much jumping back and forth on timelines. Flying characters and ‘dream logic’ would have put additional and unnecessary mental stress on a viewer, and would’ve been totally contrary to the objective of the film.

    Consider for example, letting all the other characters also get their demons-from-the-past into each dream, just as Cobb does. That would’ve put Nolan in a hole he’d never be able to write himself out of.

    This was an out-and-out commercial movie and a damned good one at that. To weave so many elements together and make an emotionally compelling, intellectually stimulating blockbuster is also an art, don’t you think?

  3. Roger Alexander

    A brilliant film, yes, but one that won’t go down in cinema history as a classic…

  4. Ankush

    Raja you seem to be making unfair comparisons. in the sense making comparisons with matrix first of all Matrix(only first part of trilogy) would be way different because it was first of its kind of karma-science treatment, which really was catch of the story. Minority report dnt even fall in this league.

    Inception cant be counted as Nolan’s best work but u can certainly say that best science-fic with heart ever. he layered science nd ficton so well a proper nolan trait that only he can do with such control.

    maybe sometimes we get our thoughts out of place when we start looking at it only by virtue of judging it.

    still same flaws nolan likes to keep its characters and viewers confused/engrossed like real/imaginary, right/wrong, friend/foe, and classic (who am i every 15 mins) but would really like to see nolan doing something like telling a romantic comedy.

    But in one line visually brilliant INCEPTION!

  5. Nishit

    Finally a fair criticism of “Inception”. I loved the movie no doubt, but as I mentioned it the other day, for me, “The Prestige” still remains Nolan’s best work followed by “Memento” and “Inception” is not close to it.

  6. MoviemagiK

    Surprise that this critical analysis of a well-constructed screenplay comes from the same man who went WHOA WHOA on seeing the mediocre offering called AVATAR.

    Unless you wanted Cameron to immerse you into the dreams in total 3d ?

    yes…a little more exploring, and a little less exploding could have been done. But then that would not be Warner’s summer release would it?
    Give credit where it is due….it was a tough thing to pull it off convincingly and Nolan did what many of the other big directors would have struggled with from the word ‘go’ !

  7. Zoeb

    Well, I agree with the comment that Inception was more of a big budget blockbuster than a really Christopher Nolan thriller.
    But, whoa! What a blockbuster it was! Nolan’s stamp is evident in how he makes the concepts and action sequences utterly believable. Here is a really smart director making a movie that is way smarter than most of the stuff we are given on Fridays. The script and characters are strong and interesting. Instead of praising the over-rated Avatar or Slumdog Millionaire, you should praise Nolan’s work a little more. He is an ingenious director, writer and conjurer of images and moments that really stun you to silence. Inception is a fantastic entertainer, without any flab and with some pathbreaking bravura.

  8. popcornconversations

    I think all of us need to keep in mind that Nolan made “Inception” after the phenomenal success of “The Dark Knight”.. He had an amazing concept and did his best to fuse commercial elements into a mind-bending idea. True he could have gone the surreal way, but then he would not have got the budget to make the movie. Any person with a good understanding of movie-making and its nuances will agree that “Memento” or “The Prestige” were better films (Indians now know “Memento” better than anyone else I guess, having watched umpteen remakes), but neither of them is an “Inception”. It definitely is better than “Avatar”!!

  9. Palash Shrotriya

    I admire you a lot Raja, but clearly you have missed the point here, as have the Academy and scores of critics around. The randomness, dreaminess, abstractness and strangeness of dreams have been done to death in films, and done brilliantly by makers like Fellini, Lynch, Kubrick, Polanski, Scorsese…..films like 8 1/2, Suspiria, Eraserhead, the end sequence of Taxi Driver….(the list goes on and on). Don’t you think it’d have been a bit too cliched exploring the same areas?

    Nolan’s treatment has always been extremely neat and smart. And Inception follows the same, in fact it was a completely novel experience to treat dreams in so taut a manner (remember, it’s a heist film which challenges the audience to catch up with the plot and intricate storyline, unlike the regular American cinema). Critics have underrated it and have labeled it as just another summer flick.

    And finally, the last scene is far from being a “gimmick”. You missed the point again. Its a perfect finish. -Dom doesn’t care about the toppling of the totem anymore (he is back to his kids), it doesn’t matter to him anymore, as it shouldn’t to the audience….

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