People who think Inception was “a royal piece of smoldering crap” haven’t seen enough genuinely bad movies, and really should never leave the safety of The Criterion Collection.
I’m inclined to agree: if someone judges it to be worse than anything Michael Bay’s ever directed, they deserve their time in latte-sipping purgatory. As someone who strongly disliked the film, I can safely say that I didn’t think it an inferior film to Transformers. But to even head in that direction completely misses the point. I wasn’t judging the film as a film, a summer film, or a summer blockbuster film, but as a piece of Christopher Nolan’s body of work. The scale doesn’t slide from Bay to early Coppola; it’s internal to Nolan’s oeuvre, and as I’m not a critic who needs to concern himself with guiding the wallets of moviegoers, I’m free to discuss or be disgusted by Inception at will. Put differently: had I been unfamiliar with Nolan’s previous ventures, in all likelihood I would have enjoyed this film.
But the obverse of that statement is that because I’m intimately familiar with his earlier work, I’m incapable of enjoying the film. I can appreciate its technical virtuosity and plot machinations, but this is old hat for Nolan. He’s already filmed a movie in reverse, so the fact that he can film one up didn’t rivet me. I found it predictable and disappointing, not kin to the Transformers franchise. I walked out for the same reason I stop fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube once I’ve solved it: the joy of a puzzle comes from the puzzling through it. Without any strong connection to any of its characters, Inception felt like a puzzle.
Now, my friend Adam Roberts contends that my inability to sympathize with any of the characters is the result of my living a barren, childless existence. Adam beefs:
Almost up to the last scene I was ready to come out of the cinema snarky, geared to join the the Nolan-ripe-for-a-backlash mob. Then with only a minute to go, the two kids turned and looked at the camera. I felt as if somebody had sheathed a sword in my chest. I felt genuinely, suddenly, unexpectedly, very moved. In part I think this is because Nolan prepped the scene with just enough, but not too many, earlier shots of the kids playing with their backs to us, and exiting camera right without turning to look at us. And in part it has to do with the peculiarly cinematic emotional entanglement of the scene: because I wanted the kids to look at me, but at the same time I kind-of dreaded the kids turning to look at me … The one thing which cinema can’t traduce, because it is the horizon of all cinematic possibility. The look. And the selective withholding that look in order to make the look, when it finally happens, worth something at the end.
Perhaps if I had children, that moment would be filled with dread instead of indicative of lazy scripting; but because I don’t have children, those shots felt manipulative, as if Nolan realized he’d failed to develop Cobb organically and needed to find some cheap way to create immediate sympathy. I confess that I wish I’d seen the film Adam had instead of the one I did—if only because I’m a Jew in Southern California and had to pay $32 to see the damn thing—but it seemed to me I spent three hours waiting for a conclusion I knew was inevitable after the first, and that I’d been mistreated in this way by a director I prize for his willingness to embrace nonsense in the midst of tightly structured films.
The Joker’s orchestration of the murder of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight is emblematic. There’s no way a plan that relies so heavily on incident and accident can be planned, but that’s precisely the point: the Joker succeeds so long as his plan remains an unfathomable flux of a mess, and the second the Batman can make sense of it, the film resorts to dogs and fisticuffs. But the nonsensical core of his plotting in that film only throws into relief the problem with scripting a straight film about dreams: he could have played to his strengths, but instead spent three hours courting his weaknesses.
Passing over the fact that the film delves into and through the dreams of five contemporary males and is rated PG-13; that it failed to conform the very rules established via tedious exposition; that Nolan chose to name the woman who designed the labyrinths with all the subtlety of a doctrinaire Freudian; passing over all of that, the absence of an uncanny, doctrinally Freudian or otherwise, in a film about nested dreams is a substantial flaw generally, but even more so with Nolan at its helm. Nolan is a director willing to embrace the absurd in an otherwise realistic film like The Prestige, but when confronted with an opportunity to do so more fully in Inception, decided that the recesses of the human mind function in a manner orderly enough to con. Even someone as hostile to psychoanalytic theory as I am doubts that communal dreams can be scaled like mountains.
In short, all the problems with the film Adam documents still exist even if the children finally establish an eyeline match with their father. I’m not claiming that moment can’t be moving, only that for me, it felt inevitable and unearned.