Inception Perception

By Randal Stevens · July 19, 2010

Christopher Nolan’s Inception owned the weekend as expected, taking in a shade over $60 million. Though those are not exactly The Dark Knight numbers, I’m sure executives Warner Bros. are unbuttoning that choker on their dress shirts and loosening their ties after those tallies came in. Even with taking in only about 30% of its $200 million budget, I imagine that Mr. Warner and Mr. Bros. are looking ahead to a poor cinematic release schedule next weekend (I don’t even think Angelina Jolie wants to see Salt) and an escalating expansive worldwide release schedule and are unconcerned with recouping their initial investment. Still, while there was probably never any risk to Nolan’s job security even if Inception had flopped, there seemed to be a lot riding on its success aside from just monetary consideration.

I’m not the first to say that this has been a piss poor year for movie releases and I won’t be the last. Many moviegoers – and I’m sure critics too – were looking to Inception to bring some respectability to a movie year that has so far only seen the release of only one unanimously (except for Armond White) lauded and financially successful film: Toy Story 3. This year seems to be the first year where the effects of studios playing it safe due to the recession are being reflected in the quality of the product on screen and many of us, I’m sure, were hoping for Inception to succeed so that we wouldn’t forever be cursed with summer movie seasons filled with mindless and/or tired franchises and brands such asTransformers 3 or Ramona and Beezus.

And yet, Inception has not been unanimously lauded. Troll White aside, there have actually been plenty of complaints levied against the film from other critics – Rotten Tomatoes top critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times and John Anderson of the Wall Street Journal (even Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News is cryptically ambivalent in saying “I found myself admiring the movie’s stubborn adherence to its own universe and logic”). Those detractors say thatInception and Nolan promise a lot of philosophical exploration on which they can’t deliver, that they don’t answer all the questions they raise and that the time it takes to navigate the complexities of the narrative take away from character development and emotional investment. On the flip side of the coin, the proponents say that the film can be enjoyed on both superficial and deep levels, that the psychologically intensity we feel as an audience perfectly mimics what the protagonist experiences in his journey and that the film is the most daring and original blockbuster seen in years. And you know what? The detractors and proponents are both right.

I loved Inception. I didn’t know what to expect from a film I was told was inexplicably complex so I cannot say if my expectations were met, not met, or shattered, but I can say with a clear mind (unlike if were I to try and explain the narrative) that I absolutely loved what I saw. But Inception is a flawed film. There were plenty of missteps in both the surface level (some uneven pacing and overly expository dialogue) and deeper levels of execution (the whole concept of Limbo, why people go there and how/why they get out is still a mystery to me). That’s not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing. In a way, there almost has to be plot holes or flaws in the philosophy because Nolan has attempted to take the nebulous concepts of dreams, their connection with the subconscious and their ramifications on consciousness and has placed them with the logical structured form of a feature film narrative in which a main character, the supporting characters and even the palpable tension have to adhere to a tried and true formula. He has not re-invented the wheel; he has created something never before seen by millions of people who this year have seen nothing but wheels. It just so happens that he used the same tools to invent the wheel in order to do it.

But this is the guy who created Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight; all the flaws one can find in Inception do not stem from any weakness or inabilities Nolan has as a filmmaker, but from the fact that he’s tried something incredibly ambitious with his latest film. That’s not to say that those who negatively critique the film are without merit – as much as I loved the film, I admit that it left something to be desired when it came to emotional engagement with some of the characters, especially Ariadne. But if anyone were to write off this film or recommend that people not see it because it’s complex, it doesn’t deliver on what it promises, or because it’s long, they would be advising you poorly. Inception is a film that has to be seen specifically because it reaches for heights that Hollywood blockbusters don’t even attempt to reach these days. Some may say it’s too inaccessible because it makes the audience think too much, but I say it’s a film that rewards multiple viewings. I’ve seen Memento plenty of times, but the more I watch it, the more ideas I pick up on and the more I appreciate the rich writing and meticulous directing. I look forward to experiencing the same thing when I see Inception again – in IMAX this time.