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Film Review: Inception

Inception (2010; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Let me just say: I am pretty damned sure that top was starting to wobble.

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of philosophical premises...

Let me follow up by saying that Christopher Nolan’s Inception is no absolute masterpiece. It is immaculately crafted from stealthily-snatched fragments of other (mostly better) movies, fragments that are then melted down and reforged to fit so snugly together that they may well appear like original creations to the fascinated eye.

Nolan is visionary enough to provide plenty to fascinate the eye, is clever enough to tease the audience with nested layers of narrative trickery, and is serious enough to inject moral and philosophical potions into the veins of his cinematic creations. But his imagery is more impressive than wondrous, he consistently builds in ponderous rules and expositional fail-safes to keep viewers from getting too confused (or from having to do any interpreting for themselves, heaven forbid), and still has little or no time for proper pacing. Even his vaunted intellectual heft boils down to undergraduate philosophy problems spewed woodenly by his actors in between fist fights, shootouts, and car chases.

What this all adds up to, in Inception as it was in the universally-overpraised The Dark Knight, is a masterful technical achievement which hints at deeper imaginative and ideological possibilities without ever coming near to diving into them, all while unleashing prodigious male power fantasies with its expert application of action-movie tropes. This may be damning the man with faint praise, but Nolan is unquestionably the preeminent lad-flick filmmaker working today. Inception, for all its flaws as a film that wants to be viewed as serious art, is often enough a superior, exciting, and reasonably intelligent action blockbuster. This is something that, in the oleaginous glut of the Hollywood summer season, is never to be taken for granted, even if it falls short of what its creator desires it to be.

This is not a film that was made to be summarized, and I won’t try to do so. I knew little beyond the basic premise (Leo DiCaprio and that dude from 3rd Rock enter your dreams to steal your shit!) and a few of the advertised images going in, and probably enjoyed the film more than I otherwise would have as a result. If you’re one of the few in the world who haven’t seen it yet, I won’t deny you the right to the same experience.

I will say, however, that it’s fairly likely you’ve seen most of this film already if you’ve ever seen a caper flick (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films and Spielberg’s hyper-serious Munich came quickly to mind), any sort of corporate espionage thriller (the multiple exotic locales fly by one after the other, as do the bullets), any James Bond movie with a snowy alpine action sequence (this movie has one of those, and it’s quite silly), or The Matrix (the Wachowskis really ought to be claiming royalties on the grosses).

Next time, I'm staying at a Holiday Inn.

Nolan does give us some striking inversions of physics (a geometrically-rearranged Paris and a zero-grav fight in a hotel are the highlights), a potent buried symbol or ten, and a gruff tough-guy chuckle line here and there (though, as usual in Nolanarnia, nobody ever laughs). But he also gives his only two female characters pretentiously referential names and zero personality: Marion Cottilard’s sex appeal finds no outlet as the vaguely menacing Mal (French for “evil”, natch), and Ellen Page seems a little embarrassed whenever anyone calls her Ariadne, the mythic Greek damsel who solves the Minotaur’s labyrinth and is her clumsy namesake. Furthermore, he gets a little carelessly Orientalist with Ken Watanabe’s zillionaire Saito. And as finely-staged as so many of the action sequences are, one can only swallow so many guys in suits firing guns at our heroes before that gets a little stale.

For me, the film’s aforementioned tantalizing final image sums up its decidedly telegraphed effects. While it may have lead to some friendly debate over beers in the bar across from the theatre afterward, that closing shot reduces the concepts in the movie’s head to a sort of glass half-full/glass half-empty personal perspective question. It’s moral philosophy as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, as entertainment rather than as enlightenment. Nolan no doubt believes that he’s playing the trickster by leaving the conclusion to the audience’s own interpretation (for once!), and there’s really no other way that this man could have chosen to close this film. But even if I’m the only one who thinks so, I would much have preferred Nolan to take a pick and stick with it.

But that would be a different movie altogether. Would it be a better movie? Nolan’s besotted legions would likely disagree. They see him as a technical wizard with a prodigious artistic and intellectual vision and deep stores of appealing masculine potency, and Inception will further confirm that view in their minds. I understand where they’re coming from, but I see an infinitely more limited but still quite capable and talented filmmaker going to the oft-used well one more time. Harsher critics may argue that Nolan’s well is getting close to dry, but I’ll take his creations at what I feel to be their face value and hope that he locates a new, deeper well before it’s too late.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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