Sunday, July 25, 2010


OK, before I start, let me say I'm fighting every emotional impulse to gush about this movie. I love Nolan as a director. I think he did some brave, interesting things in this flick. Some of the images are haunting. The issues he dealt with stuck with me. It's intelligent. Despite the fact it's on well-trodden ground, it managed to be original. When I actually watched the movie -- and that's always the most important thing -- it was gripping.

Yeah. But truth be told, Inception has elements of greatness, but it's not great. It's not an A+ science fiction movie. It's not 2001, not A Clockwork Orange, not Alien or Aliens, not Blade Runner not The Matrix. I hate to say it. But it fell short.

Here are the main problems:

He's a man on a mission. Who cares?

It's a men-on-a-mission movie. but we don't care about the mission. (The first rule of a man-on-a-mission movie? The mission matters. You care.)

Real world parallels: The Guns of Navarrone, Ocean's 11, The Italian Job, The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds. In each case, the mission matters.

This mission exists in a dream. Fine. But it can still matter. The obvious example is The Cell -- a movie in which a woman enters a serial killer's dreams to rescue a woman trapped in a drowning chamber in the real world. The mission takes place in a dream world. But we care whether the hero succeeds or not. There's something at stake.

In "Inception" one multinational corporation wants the heir to another multinational corporation to break up the company. Gee, I'm on the edge of my seat here. It turns out, this is actually good for the soul of the son who inherited the company. That's an accident, not a goal. It feels like a cheat. I'm not rooting for the dude to break up the company, the way I was rooting for the characters at risk in The Cell. In those movies, the dream quest actually MATTERED.

Here, Nolan is totally focused on the phantom of DeCaprio's dead wife haunting his dreams. She screws up the mission. Nolan focuses on that threat. And forgets to make us care about the mission.

Bad Science
From a Science Fiction perspective, I resented the throwaway explanation of the shared dream device. (Uh, it's some military training stuff.) No, I need a little more necessary bullshit than that. Beyond that, such technology would change EVERYTHING. There's a hint of this in the brief clip of dream addicts in Africa. But it's not enough. I want some solid explanation of the tech behind this stuff. I want some plausible extrapolation of what this tech would do to the culture.

And why on earth would you need a shared dream device within the dream itself?

The dreams aren't dreamy
Dreams are strictly "Alice in Wonderland." They're weird, illogical. We do things we wouldn't in waking life. We go to dangerous places. We passively stay in frustrating situations. Or, just for the hell of it, we fight monsters. We're not ourselves. We're not in our right senses.

OK. Because this is a caper movie, Nolan imposed waking logic on the dream world. So, the target's subconscious defends him with dudes with Uzis. Why not bears? Why not dragons?

The dreams are too damn realistic.

Too complicated.

Complexity is cool. But it's overworked.

This tends to happen when you sit on your material. The flash of inspiration turns into a pet project -- your baby that you fiercely defend. Plot threads multiply like kudzu. You lose objectivity.

Director Christopher Nolan (one of my favorite directors) has been sitting on this egg for nine years.

What hatched is brilliant, full of startling imagery and astonishing ideas. It's brilliant. But flawed.

Dreams within dreams within dreams is an interesting idea, intellectually. Storywise, Nolan could've killed one dream level and made it all flow much better. (Personally, I hated the snow fortress scene. Would've axed that one.)

"Dream Stealers" was Nolan's core idea. Essentially, hackers in the near future can hack your dreams. Usually, they just read them -- and steal secrets. The really good hackers write to your dreams. They put ideas in your head. They create inception.

Dom Cobb, the central character, is part of a team in somebody else's head. (He'd rather not be -- but joins the mission to get back to his family.) It's a man on a mission movie, dig? His dead ex-wife (who's still haunting his subconscious) keeps trying to screw up the mission.

Great idea. Not so great movie.

Here's an idea for a movie. See, history is a wheel. There's this Irish bar owner. He feels guilty because of incestuous feelings for his daughter. He goes to sleep and dreams all of human history in one night. His different family members play the different parts.

The idea isn't that complicated. But, if you overwork it, you wind up with Finnegans Wake.

Something like that seems to have happened to Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's simple, clever idea turned into a shaggy dream story.

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