Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Inception

I interrupt the regular scheduled programming to give you a few brief thoughts about Inception, because it seems like this week, the world isn't allowed to talk about anything else.

First of all, I liked it, as I have most of Christopher Nolan's films. But I liked it with huge reservation. For better or for worse, I enter a film through the acting and the writing (in that order). The fact that more than half of the cast can boast the title "Academy Award nominee" and more than half of those people are actually deserving of the honor, there's no reason to expect phoned-in thesp-ing. And for the most part, the acting here is quite serviceable, with a few notable exceptions. Any accusations of thin performances are not solely the fault of the actors here, who do what they can to compensate for the fact that they are not playing characters, but rather ideas "projections of Christopher Nolan's subconscious," if you will. For a film that is all about the subconscious and levels thereof, it certainly states its ideas rather obtusely, and repeatedly.

This is especially true of the two women, one of whom (Marion Cotillard's "Mal") actually is a projection of the subconscious. Christopher Nolan has demonstrated that he cannot write female characters, from Natalie, Rachel Dawes, Olivia Wenscombe, to now Mal and Ariadne (Ellen Page). I know that Nolan's fanbase skews male, so I'll tread lightly here because they seem to think he's a great writer, director, producer, singer, dancer, impressionist painter, et. al. Actually, I won't tread lightly. A great writer is a keen observer of the world in which they live. Women are kind of everywhere. Why then the thin, flimsy characterizations? I love the choices that some of his actresses make, certainly. Carrie-Ann Moss, especially. The fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal improved tenfold upon Katie Holmes's Rachel Dawes while still sleepwalking (sorry, Maggie. I love you, but let's not rewrite history) through The Dark Knight is a testament to his ability to at least cast capable actresses. I'm sure you have it in you, Nolan. Ellen Page's Ariadne could have been replaced by some kind of talking computer and it wouldn't have made a difference. Her character is given no backstory, no motivation, no frame of reference, which would be fine if she weren't risking her mental dexterity through dream espionage (call me old fashioned, but I'd kind of like to know why).

Visually, I've heard a lot of arguments that the dreams in this film are not "dreamlike" enough. Joe Reid over at Low Resolution beat me to the punch by pointing out that the dreams in Inception are specifically designed by architects. Of the problems in this film (and there are several), wanting for a believable dreamscape was not one of them. A lot of the dream sequences were pretty damn breathtaking, actually. For the record, I found the falling van to be an incredible plot device. The film is not perfect, but let's give credit where its due, shall we? I (for the record) hate The Matrix with ever fiber of my being, but you can never say that movie lacks

Here's the bottom line (and feel free to disagree), but the people who are calling Inception a masterpiece AND the people calling it an utter disaster are two sides of the same coin. They're both wrong. They both need to get a grip. And they both (for the most part) are guilty of steeling themselves prior to viewing the film for how incredible or shitty they thought it was going to be. We can't pretend that we're immune to hype and advertising when it comes to new releases. Inception was already in the IMDb top 250 of all time before it even officially came out (sidebar: at any given time, the IMDb top 250 list looks like it was mostly devised by an afternoon tribunal featuring a five-year-old boy, a thirteen-year-old boy, an Octogenarian of any gender, Mel Gibson and one graduate film student with crowd anxiety). We can't pretend that hearing those kind of effusive reviews weren't tipping people in one direction or the other, whether they're susceptible to group think or contrarianism for its own sake (another form of group think). The Dark Knight was too fresh in people's memory as either an overblown fanboy annoyance, or the second coming for the reaction to Nolan's latest flick to be pure (if there is ever a pure reaction to any film). That's why I found so heartening about the reaction to a movie like Avatar. Love it or hate it (I liked it a whole lot), but you had people from all levels of tiers of film criticism (from the lowbrow to middle to high) having varied reactions to the film. You never got a sense from the Avatar fans that it wasn't okay to disagree, whereas the Inception fans are ready to make virginal sacrifices to Christopher Nolan.

Despite all of my misgivings, I did enjoy Inception. Hey, if you were in LA or New York that week, I would have recommended seeing The Kids Are All Right instead (another imperfect film, but a more satisfying one), but there are worse ways to wile away the summer hours. And before all the talk of "overrated, doesn't deserve it, blah blah blah" begins, I'm going to say now that I'm for Inception's best picture nomination, which everyone seems to think is inevitable (I have my doubts). I'm for it for several reasons. Firstly, it's a solid B-, which means it will almost assuredly not appear on my personal year-end top ten list. But that same grade also means that it will likely be preferable to at least 20% of the viable contenders gunning for a spot on the ten-wide list. Also, it can't hurt the Academy to expand its mind a little. The more years we have in a row where the best picture list embraces films like Avatar, District 9 and Inception (none of which are films I passionately love), the more likely it is that they'll continue to be adventurous when the rules revert the best picture list back to five nominees. Lastly, I want Inception to get nominated for best picture because I can remember the grousing and griping that went on when The Dark Knight got overlooked and...I just don't want to have to listen to it again.

Grade: B-


Simon said...

Interesting...both praise and criticism always ruin movies like this.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

Pretty much, though there are the rare few critics and pundits who genuinely think think the film is terrible AND express their opinion in a salient, believable and convincing way. I loved the parallel that Nick Davis drew between food in I Am Love and guns in Inception, for instance. It's good to see people drawing comparisons to films outside of the genre. I couldn't stop thinking about Synechdoche New York while watching Inception.

The one argument against the movie I can't stand is "it just rips off The Matrix." As if the The Matrix doesn't rip off Dark City and Blade Runner and about a dozen more films. Secondly, is it a bad thing? Films imitate other films all the time. And since Inception is a better film than The Matrix (if only for being less self-important and deluded), I don't see the problem (even if I didn't love Nolan's film).