Review: Inception (2010)

A good filmmaker doesn’t need to be invitational, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. But if an auteur can’t inveigle an audience, if he doesn’t have a basic understanding of showmanship, then the least he can offer is a distinctive voice. Alas, Christopher Nolan offers neither quality with Inception — a hopelessly unimaginative film that has been overly esteemed by many. Inception is reliant on perfunctory globetrotting, lights dangling atop ceilings, and repetitive amber hues for its “look.” It does contain an admittedly intricate plot structure, which cannot be immediately discounted. But when a film feels as dead as a greedy investment banker’s onyx soul, one isn’t exactly enlivened to clap. In fact, nearly all of the characters resemble Goldman Sachs employees hungrily hording your tax dollars: slicked back hair, lifeless eyes, and needlessly expensive suits. It can’t be an accident that the dollar amount of an expensive wallet is mentioned several times, or that the reason this group is invading a man’s head concerns some cartoonish explanation of the global energy market. In other words, this is a film with a childish understanding of our world; a Tinkertoy assemblage you’d gladly celebrate if it were handed to you by a five-year-old, but not from the 39-year-old man who has made Insomnia, Memento, Following, The Prestige, and two passable Batman movies.

It is truly a sad sign of American cultural decline that the rich now exist to be worshiped rather than depicted with anything approaching dimension. Inception‘s emphasis hardly inspires an everyman identification point, much less audience sympathy. Here is a cinematic opportunity to explore the dream state — to plunge into the depths explored by David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Terry Gilliam, Ken Russell, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and countless other cinematic fantasists still alive and working today. Nolan has been given a $160 million budget to get a mass audience to confront its deepest visceral fantasies, but, with Inception, the collected reveries resemble a pedestrian heist movie. It would be one thing if Nolan possessed the theatricality of someone like Arch Orboler, the wackiness of Dan O’Bannon, or the outré singularity of Italo Calvino, but his derivative vision of snowbound fortresses invaded by machine-gunning skiers or decaying seaside cities is divested of such punch or possibilities.

Consciousness should resemble something more than a bad pulp novel. In Inception, you won’t find phantasmagorical creatures or perverse sexual encounters. You won’t find a dream that is truly dangerous. For this is a movie that has been rated PG-13 — a rating explicitly designed to prohibit human truth from the multiplexes. But you will find plenty of mindless gunfights and tedious slow-motion images of a van falling off a bridge, along with the fine comic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt underused as a guy floating around zero gravity collecting twined bodies into an elevator. (Why the repeat images? Well, the film’s final few reels take place in three, later four, separate levels of the dreamworld, with each level operating on a different unit of time. What passes during seconds in the top level will be weeks on the second level and months on the third level. This permits dreams within dreams within dreams. It’s a clever hook, but Nolan overplays his hand by treating his audience like a bunch of unthinking baboons who can’t remember the club sandwich atmosphere even after the fifteenth series of cutaway shots.)

It’s never a wise idea to name a protagonist after a salad, but our man Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flinty expert at invading people’s consciousnesses. He carries the mental detritus of his dead wife, storehousing these memories in various levels of his mind and unable to control these stray elements from invading a dreamscape. And while there’s a certain appeal in seeing an old school elevator traveling between internal cerebral levels, there’s simply no emotional impact with a foot-crunched wineglass or a totemic top. Nolan introduces numerous projections of the subconscious — figures who detect when the mind is being invaded and start attacking intruders like white blood cells. But Nolan is crass and careless with his semiotics. The symbols serve merely to demonstrate that Nolan is the guy driving the car, rather than presenting us with any real insight into trauma.

Recruited by a rich man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant a motivation inside a corporate heir’s mind, Cobb assembles a predominantly male group of operatives, with the token female played by Ellen Page — a precocious student who seems capable of grand conceptual innovation, but who spends most of the film staring doelike at DiCaprio or offering banal responses to “surprise” twists.

The film fills every spare moment with so much expository chatter that we never get a chance to marvel at the world Nolan’s setting up. Cobb and his cronies are never permitted a moment to breathe. Nolan doesn’t seem to understand that film is a visual form, not a chatty medium. He’s taken the same minimalist approach that he offered with his two Batman movies — neuter the images with austerity so that they feel “real,” but don’t bother to layer the mise en scène with elements that capture our imagination. And even then, the dialogue is so crummy, so indicative of a man who read a slim Baudelaire volume over the weekend and thought himself a philosophical giant, that it’s hardly worth dredging up. We get bad pulp ultimatums (“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”), laughably specific training lessons (“You have two minutes to design a maze that it takes one minute to solve”), and vapid declarations of life experience (“Do you know what it is to be a lover?”). Even poor DiCaprio, who delivers a fairly lively performance under the circumstances, is directed to talk like a two-packs-a-day Batman near the end, barking “I feel guilt” in one of the film’s many phony emotional revelations.

Taken with the film’s limited worldview, a place where people exist solely to betray each other, there is little excitement here in relation to the human spirit. Indeed, the “cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear, and, finally, absolving confusion” that Jonathan Lethem identified within The Dark Knight is more applicable to Inception. The film feels like some feral holdover from the Bush Administration. It’s a love letter to conservatism, a chapbook steeped in cruelty and duplicity, where the only real evolution comes with how well you can screw over your partner.

One feels needlessly bullied by this movie. Nolan is so keen to show off how clever he is that the film’s internal workings are more adorned than felt. It’s as if Nolan is some obnoxious conversationalist at a cocktail party who can’t take the hint that he’s hardly the smart charmer he thinks he is. Unfortunately, because cinema is a passive experience, you can’t pour the punch bowl over the smug man’s head.

While I suspect the film’s numerous defenders will point to the fact that the dreamworld here is flat because most of Inception takes place inside a privileged man’s head, I must point to Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Kubrick’s needlessly condemned Eyes Wide Shut, and even Cameron Crowe’s flawed Vanilla Sky as examples of dormant and often dangerous desires explored in contemporary cinema. These filmmakers understood that even the most comfortable members of society can be driven to, respectively, homicidal rage, restricted perversion, and self-evisceration in their dreams. No such luck with Inception. We’re promised Limbo, a mental sublevel so intense that the dreamer eventually returns to the real world as a mental vegetable. One imagines Bosch landscapes or truly terrifying images. But what do we get? Some tame universe that looks like it was whipped up in UDK over a few days by some bored kid.

So this film will dazzle any dummy unfamiliar with Bergman or Bunuel. It will entice any viewer who has set the fantasy bar quite low. It will make a good deal of money. And there’s little that anyone can say to dissuade the inevitable march of capitalist progress. But the hyperbolic comparisons of Nolan with Kubrick are foolhardy. There used to be a time in which we didn’t compare a common pickpocket dressed in a flashy suit with a criminal mastermind who had the decency to respect the mark. But in a post-BP, post-bailout age, it comes as no surprise that our affluent cultural thugs would be declared the new Jesii by lifeless critics who are too diffident and too easily seduced by a shiny bauble. Ain’t that a kick?


  1. Oh no, I’ve been really looking forward to this movie and hoping that it won’t suck. I have watched a lot of crap this summer in my one-horse town, the recent worst being “The Last Airbender”. Bunuel and Bergman are dead, and they didn’t have CGI. I’ll check it out. Recently watched “The White Ribbon” via Netflix, which seemed very Bergman-inspired. I believe you covered that awhile back, I’ll have to check the archives. Thought is was fantastic.

    Saw a trailer for a movie called “Howl” about Allen Ginsberg, starring James Franco. Thoughts?

  2. Okay, I’ve seen this and have read your full review now. I have to say that I agree with you on basically everything. The movie didn’t live up to what it could have been. On the other hand, it was Nolan’s movie to make, and probably is personal on some level. Perhaps a more fantastic dreamscape seemed too typical to him, and he was aiming for more of a MC Escher type world. Maybe these corporate/James Bond style people and places are more of a stretch for Nolan, or more of his interest. Who knows. He worked on this project for the last 10 years, so that explains some of the retro Bush-era feel. I thought what he did produce was interesting, and certainly better than a lot of the dreck I have suffered through lately. The script wasn’t too bad (with some questionable spots here and there) and would have been difficult to write, organization-wise. Was there anything you liked about the movie?

  3. Cobb & Saito had several conversations about (“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”) and at the end when Saito is a 100 year old man it appears he did live old with regrets but the movie left you empty without an answer of what Saito’s regrets were. The mission for Fisher was a success, wasnt it? Fisher’s dad did love him and didnt screw him over. I guess we’re supposed to presume that Fisher destiney was altered accordingly and turned out as Saito wanted. Again, why is Saito a regretful 100 year old man in the end of the movie. There are some cool conclusions you could draw about Cobb’s dream come true in the end to be with his kids for the first time since his life as a fudgitive. Cobb’s guilt is right out of the Garden Of Eden story. Cobb ate the apple that Maw sudduced him to by offering an alternitive life of happyness except for one thing- the kids were not incuded. Two company, four is a crowd and Grandpa can raise them. Cobb finally contains her so he can get away and return to his kids. Cobb heals Maw in the end so they can release each other in love. Same goes for Fisher and his dad.

  4. Normally, I would allow further time to gestate these ideas, but this review is more right than not. I suppose the real thrust of the matter is… we are in a time where our relationship with dreams seem under threat somehow and as they are of such a personal nature, we perhaps hold a film like this which approaches the subject matter to a much higher standard than a standard hollywood film.

    There is a zeitgeist in need of a catharsis regarding dreams or the specific lack of vision in reality. This movie may not address this need, but it does offer a starting point, a totem if you will, into a deeper conception towards realizing more satiatiable works of dreams.

    I have felt lately as though people are becoming more violent in their consumption of that which authentically feeds the famine of deep imagination, this could be reflective of the burn, rape, pillage, no-holds barred nature of online culture. Dream-seeking zombies who seek to devour any reserves you may hold in your inner survival-bunker of your private mind. Going further with this thought, it seems reflective of the mode america seems to operate: consumption without production, the ideology that by working at least a minimum wage job, one should be able to buy pre-packaged dreams such as Inception. The reality is every individual needs to completely invest within their creative-selves to feed this hunger.

    There is a global dream deficit crises brewing and the effects are already being felt in nearly every creative field. In any case, if it helps anyone, my advice would be to self-medicate using responsible amounts of opiates and good music as a cure.

  5. This reviewer speaks about how it has no emotional center yet I feel he has missed the entire point of the film.

    He says the dialogue is meaningless there are, “…bad pulp ultimatums (“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”)…” This “pulp ultimatum” is the center of the human story being told.

    Cobb talks to Mal in the limbo world near the end and tells her that she is nothing compared to, “..only a shade…” of what the real Mal was and he “…has to let [her] go…”.

    Cobb is an old man, who has out lived his wife in the real world. In order to still be with her he goes into a dream world, he continues to go deeper and deeper and deeper into levels so that one second in real life time (when he is an old man without his wife) is equivalent to years and years in the dream.

    He creates things from his memory and stops being able to tell the difference between the dream and reality.

    He says that a totem is compromised if someone else touches it, that top can not be the totem of Mal then, it has to be his totem and he himself locked the totem away so that he would forget that being with Mal in this dream world wasnt real but was actually reality.

    The entire movie is Inception for himself.

    The female character of juno is the only female for a reason, her totem is a pawn. She is being “used” by Cobb as a piece to solve the puzzle within his own brain, to win the game.

    The last scene the top does not fall. He is in a dream world, the inception he did to himself was successful, he believes whole heartedly that the dream he is in is real, the kids never changed their clothes, and they never changed their age, even tho he had been gone for years.

    So back to the “pulp ultimatum”: “Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”

    What would you do? Die alone without the one you love, full of regret from looking at the mistakes in your life you have just lived, or would you rather take a leap of faith and try to fix these problems?

    Cobb talks about Catharsis multiple times.

    Just my ideas. Hope you all enjoyed the film as much as I did


  6. ‎”Inception” would have been awesome if it was the plot of the next Batman movie. You know, the Riddler injects himself into Bruce Wayne’s dreams (with the help of the Scarecrow) in order to steal his secrets. He succeeds! And then Batman fights the Riddler for awhile IRL. And THEN, Batman injects himself into the Riddler’s dreams to save a girl or Gotham city or some shit. Batman…all solving the Riddler’s riddles inside the Riddler’s own head.

  7. I would honestly punch the man who wrote this if he just spoke this to my face in the manner his tone resembled.

    The tone is almost comically arrogant, assuming, and just inconsiderate. The expansion of connections from the movie to the world is quite overwhelmingly and angeringly unnecessary, irrelevant and reeks of a self-satisfying, grand-stand ego.

    Critics could do damn well to learn something of relativity and pragmatic application of thought, rather then seemingly careless self-application.

    If that was too long to read– Your review f***ing sucks.

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