Monday, August 2, 2010


I wasn't going to write anything about Inception - partly because of its sheer ubiquity - but then I read this review by David Denby in the New Yorker and it irked me into action. It's easy to knock Inception for being overblown and somewhat silly but Denby's problems with it are wholly predictable. Not only that but they're indicative of a particular kind of critical literalness that is anti-visual and, ultimately, anti-cinematic.

Having admitted that the film is " astonishment, an engineering feat and, finally, a folly" - all of which sounds pretty good to me - Denby goes on to castigate it for a lack of human involvement and for an emphasis on "strenuous process". He's too urbane a critic to actually say it, but he comes close to the old Barry Norman standby of film criticism of concluding that, ultimately, he didn't really care about the characters.

Another criticism of the film - along with its lack of an emotional heart - is that the dream sequences are not nearly dream-like enough. Ryan Gilbey, writing in the New Statesman, suggested that there was a lack of anxiety, absurdity and inappropriate nudity to truly constitute a film about dreams. But, as even David Denby concedes, Inception is not about dreaming at all, but about movies. The dreams within it are really a series of miniature films all folded into each other, like egg whites.

The characters fall into each dream/film from the one before, like linked platforms in a computer game, except here you can't escape the final level until you've escaped the first. According to the films' internal logic, the characters are going deeper and deeper into someone's sub-conscious but, really, they're piling one absurd caper up onto another. Each level is more ludicrous than the next so that the ultimate one, the 'heart' of the film, turns out to be a cross between On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Where Eagles Dare. Almost everyone has bemoaned this scene in particular complaining that the most extraordinary thing that Nolan can imagine turns out to be a hoary old Bond film. But it depends how much you've swallowed of what came before. Like the rest of Inception, this (anti) climatic scene skirts a thin line between abject silliness and labyrinthine complexity. Like a very, very good episode of Doctor Who, but with an unlimited budget*.

One moment, albeit a long, lingering and pivotal one, justifies the rest of the film for me. Somewhere towards the end a van containing all the central characters careers off a bridge. The film slows almost to a standstill as the van begins its plunge into the river below. This is a standard issue scene from almost any thriller movie. Conventionally, the hero would be trapped inside, locked in combat with an opponent or already tied up and struggling to get free. As the camera switches back and forth between the sight of the van plunging towards its fate and the action of the protagonist inside we ignore the real time of the falling vehicle and will the hero to escape.

But Nolan not only suspends the van in mid-air - letting it drop so slowly that it starts to resemble a Tex Avery cartoon character that has run off a cliff and has yet to realise there is only air beneath him - but collapses a whole series of other last minute escapes inside its decent. The Russian doll-like nature of the plot(s) means that the protagonists need to free themselves from three different interlocked situations before the van hits the water. All of which takes up about a third of the movie. It's a brilliant genre bending moment, simultaneously thrilling and confusing, so that you will the characters to escape their individual fates whilst actively suspending disbelief. At the same time the construction behind this kind of cinematic manipulation is laid bare.

Inception starts (almost) at the end, with DiCaprio dragged out of the sea after a final escape. This temporal mix-up is not the result of some Tarantino-esque desire to mess with narrative so much as the fact that the film is made up of one long climax. Inception evacuates the plot of almost any forward motion - that is, any of the things that Denby laments - and replaces it with a string of climatic final reels strung out over at least an hour. It is a totally baroque confection, a dizzying conflation of finales, each one warping the other.

The relentless emphasis on traditional literary values - on fully-rounded characters who act out a naturalistic story arc - strangles cinema and turns it back into theatre. Inception's meaning lies elsewhere, in the structure of the film and in its visual and cinematic complexities. It is the element of human drama in Inception - Leonardo DiCaprio's need to return to America and see his children - that is by far its weakest element, a drippy concession to some form of catharsis. It would be far better if the film had no ending at all and instead just carried on and on indefinitely until people finally grew bored and left the cinema. It's not so much that the film suffers from too little human engagement, but too much. Ditch the dubious Di Caprio love story and it would be utterly brilliant.

* Like Doctor Who, Inception shares a love of paradoxes, labyrinths and Escher drawings. Like some Prog Rock LP cover it has a rather literal, almost cheesy, surrealism about it. None of which ruins it for me.


Anonymous said...


Kosmograd said...

A superbly well written piece, and you argue your point well. But I think there's an increasing trend in TV and films to be reduced to a series of flashy set-pieces, largely character free and plot shy. What's wrong with a bit of cartharsis? In too many films it seems to have been rejected in favour of special effects and carefully shot vignettes.

I can enjoy something like the Transformers movies ( Megan Fox, and giant robots fighting each other - what's not to like?) but it doesn't move me in the way that say Synecdoche New York does.

I fear that the Doctor Whoification of British TV drama is becoming dominant. The current Sherlock miniseries is a prime example - a fun romp to be sure, beautifully shot, but with moronic plotting, and practically zero character development - something that couldn't be said of Conan Doyle's original stories. Sherlock should have been less like Dr. Who and more like House.

I think the old Barry Norman chestnut about not caring about the characters is still a valid criticism in most cases.

Charles Holland said...

I think you're dead right about Sherlock which I was disappointed by, being a bit of a sucker for old Holmes. Conan Doyle's plots are somewhat ludicrous too and the series is obviously based on parts of them - or at least obvious references to them- but it can't be that hard surely to make a plot that stands up? And I aqree that the characterisation is poor. The notion of what someone like Holmes might be like today is an interesting question but I don't think its answered particularly well in the new series. Anyway, your point was a bigger one. I was trying to say that there is meaning in the visual/cinematic structure of the film which is missed by a purely narrative assessment. It's not a position that applies to every film but the need for a settled, cathartic narrative strangles other potentials.