Inception, as of 2014 still one of the most advertised and anticipated before release movies of the 2010s thus far, wants to be a lot of things: a dramatic thriller, a cautionary tale, something that pokes and prods around without knowing what it’s looking for, an action movie, a head-trip, and, of course, a dark science fiction film. If that all seems like more of a daring work of danger than the film actually is, you’re excused. Inception is somewhat self-consciously confusing, but more to the point, it’s actually not nearly as complicated as it wants to be. Maybe that’s for the best. What we’re left with is a relatively straightforward (good)action movie with science fiction trappings that mostly uses its hook as a way to mess around with the audience and to convey that puzzle-box intellect-before-emotion mood today’s audiences lap up, especially when the box comes with a little warranty sticker on the back that tells you to ship it back to Christopher Nolan Inc. if you think it’s broken.
Inception is a nice time at the movies, but one gets the sense Nolan bit off more than he could chew. It is simultaneously less and more than it needed to be, trying too many things and not doing any of them truly well enough to catapault it into that special rung of science fiction filmmaking that causes us to look back onto ourselves and question why. Rather than going for a fun, intense dynamite pure adrenaline-fix, or an intellectual dissection of its preferred topic of choice, dreams, or an emotionally-driven character-based drama in a science fiction setting, it tries to do all three. In doing so it ends up being only decent at any one of them. One gets the sense that the post-movie discussion is more interesting (and more honest) than the film itself.
The plot deals in complication after complication. I won’t explain it all here, mostly because a lot of it boils down to window-dressing over what is functionally a heist film. The difference is that, rather than money, the film’s band of bandits deals in dreams … to make money. There is a near-future world where devices allow individuals to invade the dreams of others, and if they are skilled enough, to extract secrets. Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) is very good at doing exactly this, for a price. But here a corporate bigwig named Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb to enter Saito’s own dreams and to, not extract an idea, but to implant it, to stage an inception, something he doesn’t initially believe possible. Things get more complicated from there, with characters going through multiple dream levels (yes, dream levels), but this is more thriller than anything else and should be left as such.
Inception does a lot right. It looks great, has great acting, has big ideas it isn’t afraid to explore with depth, and it knows when to have a sense of fun with itself. Throughout, though, I was left with the nagging suspicion that it was missing something. Or maybe I was missing something. Late in the film I realized what it was: there wasn’t a single character in the film for me to care about. All the mind-bending tricks and puzzles, all the fun, frenetic, trippy action, all the shots of Leonardo DiCaprio looking damn convincing as he tries to explain something he probably has no idea what he’s talking about, can’t go toe-to-toe with a plain, old-fashioned well written emphatic character. Inception goes straight for the head, admirably so, but in its earned self-pretension and just-one-more-layer attitude, it forgets that movies work best when they remember the heart as well. Everything it does well takes it a long way, but that extra mile that makes a movie go from good to great was left somewhere in dream sequence number 13, or was that 14?
Of course, there’s an age old trick to getting over underdeveloped characters. Sci-fi films have understood it for decades. Kubrick usually understood it, Ridley Scott understood it (for a couple films at least), and Tarkovsky mastered it. But I’m not yet sure if Nolan does. The key is easily stated but difficult to pull off: capture feeling in the very filmmaking itself. 2001 and Blade Runner work because they capture feeling in the very atmosphere of their environments, the gaze of their subjective cameras, the very feeling they exude in their filmmaking. Curiously, while Inception is the most explicitly about dreams, it’s the least dreamlike – there’s nothing unnerving or dangerous or scary or moody or anything really about the filmmaking here, except its relentless modern sobriety. The best science fiction often alternates between nightmare and dream, capturing the experience of the unknown and the uncanny in their very fabric. All Nolan can manage is another speech about it and the occasional spinning room. It plays more like a philosophy class or a lecture on psychoanalysis than a film. It may help you intellectualize feelings, but it won’t help you feel them.
Or, in another idiom, Nolan is both self-aggrandizing an self-defeating. He obviously understands – and really demands that we understand – different layers of consciousness, so you know, he gets a cookie and a gold star on the wall. But he subjects this wonderfully amorphous and fluid idea – one that intrinsically dismantles categories, overturns headings, and countermands classifications – to the positivist, rationalist science of his all-consuming mind. Put more simply, he dabbles in the wonderfully, transcendentally nebulous, indeterminate, shapeless combustion of modernistic thought and then, as if afraid of the restless, shapeshifting, anti-rationalist hell-beast he has unleashed, he timidly retracts himself from his intellectual courage. He wants it both ways, to have his cake and eat it too: the malleability of the mind moving beyond the violent subjection of rationalism and empiricism and the classically-mounted, all-doors-locked, inspector-approved methodology of almost mathematical filmmaking. Rather than this tension enlivening and inspiring Nolan to throw contradictory principles against one another, he doesn’t actually seem to realize his film is a contradiction in terms, or that his appreciable acumen as a filmmaker and his obviously roving and searching mind is dragging the ball and chain of logic above all. He wants to experience something transcendent, as far as I can tell, but do not dare speak to him or consider terms of transcendence that are not to his liking. He wants a life beyond empiricism, but he is, alas, too empirical.