07.19.10

The War Over Inception

Is Christopher Nolan's Inception a masterpiece, drivel, too confusing? Does the ending make sense? Critics are divided, and audiences are fighting. Many spoilers within!

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a daring $160 million, 2½-hour project that’s not a sequel or based on a graphic novel or videogame, ends on a joke: A little spinning top that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, a master dream thief, has chosen for his “totem”—i.e., a personal object that connects him to reality—is left spinning on a table. Earlier in the film we’re told that if the top keeps spinning, it means the subject is still in a dream; if it stops, it’s real life. As Cobb goes to embrace his children, something he’s yearned for the entire movie, the top begins to falter. Then the screen goes black. The last piece of the puzzle is left for the viewer to fill in for himself.

Why criticize Inception because it doesn’t explain how the mind “really” works? Does anyone truly believe that a movie can explain the unconscious?

The audience at both showings I attended burst into appreciative applause, alive to the fact that they were being teased. In fact, I talked to several second-time viewers who said they spotted numerous jokes they missed the first time, such as the repeated playing of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”—“Nolan’s signature song,” one suggested. Other moviegoers have reported shocked gasps at the ending that weren’t uniformly favorable.

If Inception is a puzzle, it’s one that New York-area critics haven’t solved. After a pre-opening wave rave, mostly from the West Coast and the trade papers (particularly Variety’s Justin Chang, who was delighted with the film’s “playful” homages to artists such as Magritte and M.C. Escher), the film hit a critical stonewall. And not just with old farts like Rex Reed, who wrote in The New York Observer that “Nolan is an elegant Hollywood hack from London whose movies are a colossal waste of time, money, and IQ points,” thus maintaining a perfect record of failing to grasp every innovative filmmaker since Robert Altman, but also with The New York Times’ A.O Scott, who felt that Inception “trades in crafty puzzles rather than profound mysteries”—unlike, he thought, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. (Scott may be the last critic to think that 2001, famously nailed long ago by John Simon as “a shaggy God story,” is profound.)

The core of the New York critical backlash revolved around three points: the mass cult status that Christopher Nolan has attained with his last film, The Dark Knight (the terminally crabby Armond White of the New York Press dismisses all Nolan fans as “Nolanoids”); the complexity of the script (“No one short of a NASA systems analyst will be able to articulate the plot,” griped John Anderson in The Wall Street Journal; and, as voiced by Scott, the film’s dearth of profundities.

Nolan’s dark, phantasmagorical sensibility often rubs people the wrong way ( The Dark Knight rubbed me the wrong way two years ago). As for Inception’s complexity, though, I can’t see why more critics aren’t cutting it some slack; judging form early reactions, the audience doesn’t seem to be having much problem understanding it. (And, as Todd McCarthy suggested on indieWire.com, Inception is only marginally more confounding than The Big Sleep, which has been regarded as a classic for more than 60 years.)

In any event, there’s never been an easier movie to watch, even when you can’t grasp all the details. Certainly not The Matrix or Avatar, both of which seem clunky and dated in comparison to Inception.

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Finally, I don’t think Nolan intended for Inception to be profound or even appear profound. Nolan is smarter than that, and I think he gives his audience credit for being smarter than that, too. (Why criticize Inception because it doesn’t explain how the mind “really” works? Does anyone truly believe that a movie can explain the unconscious?)

Nolan uses techniques usually associated with innovative fiction writers—simultaneous narratives, for instance, and varying rhythms to distinguish different levels of dreams. It seems to have ruffled some that he’s put these techniques to the service of what is admittedly pulp material, like car chases and gunfights. (And not always successfully—an Alpine assault sequence involving skiers with machine guns and snowmobiles goes on entirely too long and is too conventional. I kept waiting for Bruce Willis, or any number of James Bonds, to pop up.) But it doesn’t make the technique any less innovative, especially in a work designed for a mass audience. Others are objecting that all this ingenuity doesn’t advance some epic or important idea. But why would anyone want it to? (Who complains about the lack of “profound ideas” in, say, Nabokov’s labyrinthine novels?)

There is a hard gem at the center of Inception’s dazzling juxtaposition of noir and light show. In a marvelously written little scene toward the end, DiCaprio’s Cobb tells his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), that he can’t come back to her because it isn’t her, merely his projection of her from memory. He is incapable of recreating her “in all your complexities, in all your perfections and imperfections.” It’s some of the best acting DiCaprio has ever done and a surprising statement from Nolan himself. He’s telling us that works of the imagination, no matter how skillfully woven, are not a substitute for reality. (I find this simple idea more profound than anything in a Stanley Kubrick film.)

Whether or not Inception is a financial success depends, of course, on word-of-mouth (which, judging from early reports, it seems to be getting, particularly with viewers 25 and under) and repeat business. Some are cynically suggesting that Nolan deliberately made the film obscure to ensure that it be seen again. This is silly; you can’t make films that induce audiences to go back and see something they didn’t like the first time. Viewers have to want to see it again; they have to hunger to further probe its mysteries. I think Nolan has successfully implanted that idea in their minds.

If nothing else, it should be acknowledged that Nolan has accomplished a truly astonishing feat: For the first time, a major director who started out making small budget, personal films has taken huge budgets and continued to make films just as personal. Make that two astonishing feats—unlike Spielberg, Cameron, and the Wachowskis, he hasn’t pandered to his audience, he’s talked up to them. As G.K. Chesterton said of Dickens, he’s popular not because he gives his audience what they want, but because he wants the same things they do. The smart audience, for once ahead of many of Nolan’s critics, seems to appreciate that.

Inception, A.O. Scott wrote, “may suggest the limits not only of this very talented director but also of his chosen art form at this moment in history.” Since Nolan continues to top himself each time out, I think it’s more likely that Inception suggests that he has outstripped the critical establishment. Here’s hoping they catch up to him by the next time out.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.