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Inception: Has Christopher Nolan forgotten how to dream?

Boy, was I misinformed. I'd gotten the impression that Christopher Nolan's "Inception" was about dream states, but what this movie's facilely conceived CGI environments have to do with dreaming, as human beings experience dreams, I don't know. For what it's worth, Warner Bros. describes it as a "science fiction action film." But the movie's concept of dreams as architectural labyrinths -- stable and persistent science-fiction action-movie sets that can be blown up with explosives or shaken with earthquake-like tremors, but that are firmly resistant to shifting or morphing into anything else -- is mystifying to me.

As is the writer-director's conception of dream-time as something linear, scalable and reliably convertible with a calculator. (There's an app for that: Let's see, 5 minutes of real time equals -- what? -- one hour of dream time, equals a week of deeper dream time, equals ten years in limbo... Have you ever experienced seven consecutive days in the course of a single-setting dream?)

Objects and characters maintain their identities without randomly changing or melding, and nothing is ever more than one thing at a time (with the possible exception of a family home with a repetitive skyscraper view that's constructed like a Hannah-Barbera background loop). The emotional components of dreaming (not to mention the universal archetypes) are nowhere to be found. No shame, lust, embarrassment, exhilaration; no flying, nakedness in public, pop quizzes, "actor's nightmares," quicksand floors, teeth falling out... There are lots of guns, and even those aren't anything but... guns. Dream reality behaves predictably and reliably according to the rules of the experts who've figured out to a certainty exactly how The Human Subconscious works. In an "Inception" dream, when something happens, it stays happened and the dream-narrative continues in a straight temporal line from there. Cause-and-effect is still in effect. Sure, there are video-game-like "levels," but all the same organizing principles still apply from one to another. There's a rainy traffic jam world (and the usual Nolan action sequence in which the audience can't tell where anything is in relation to anything else, although the characters in the scene can), a hotel supposedly inspired by M.C. Escher but actually more by "Royal Wedding" (and Kubrick's "2001"), a James Bond "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" snow fortress... Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) even has an elevator to take you from one level to another in his subconsciousness. It's all so neatly organized! In other words, not dreamlike at all. Just disappointingly flat, sterile, cold, rational. If a filmmaker is going to dream, the challenge is to dream big, to show us things in ways we haven't seen before, not to simply regurgitate indifferently executed cliches from action pictures and heist movies: car chases, kidnappings, gunfights, interrogations, elevators, ski chases ("Help!"), burglaries and vaults that simply open up when you reach them. (OK, I don't remember seing that last one before.)

As the philosopher and rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins famously said, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." Nolan is clever, clever, clever. He is not stupid, but you can see stupid from where he is. (It's right over there, where characters in a dream consciously try to kill themselves so they'll wake up.) This was promising premise, and it's too bad the writer-director did so little out of the ordinary with it. Nolan makes crafty little puzzle boxes (and sometimes big ones), but they never quite get beyond merely clever. Like "Sleuth" or "The Usual Suspects," they're not about characters or emotions or ideas or human experience at all; they're just self-contained gadgets, amusing but mechanical.

For more imaginative dream-states (though not necessarily actual dreams) on film, see Buñuel, Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut"), Cronenberg (particularly "Videodrome"), Bernard Rose's "Paperhouse," Wes Craven's original "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Alex Proyas's "Dark City," Neil Jordan's "In Dreams," Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," Tarsem Singh's "The Cell" and "The Fall"...

ADDENDUM (07/27/10): In response to a comment below, I attempted to concisely summarize my disappointment with the movie in one sentence: "Inception" is based on the idea that people can occupy others' dreams and monkey around with their thoughts and emotions, but it reduces the complexity (and beauty and terror) of the human subconscious to the dimensions of a routine action movie or video game.

* * * *

I don't really have much more to say about "Inception" at this time, and that's a real disappointment to me. I just don't think there's much to it. Obviously, this isn't a review; I don't do reviews here at Scanners. I just jotted down a few first impressions after leaving the theater. So, let me know what you think -- and not about me, but about this movie! If you think I'm wrong, tell me what you think is right. An experiment in good faith: Comments that claim to read my conscious or subconscious mind instead of dealing with the movie will not be published.

ADDENDUM (07/18/10): Please see Roger Ebert's blog entry about "Inception" and its critical reception (particularly David Edelstein's review):

Edelstein is correct in his comparisons with the other films. "Inception" does lack those qualities. I love his phrase "ticktock logistics," and plan to steal it. In my case, I didn't crack a smile while watching the film because Nolan didn't call for one, nor was I looking for the qualities David found in the other films. I found it refreshing that Nolan's villains didn't wear matching uniforms (do the bad guys in "The Matrix" and the Bond movies all share locker rooms?). It's true that Nolan is literal-minded and logistical, but I believe the film depends on the conceit that you can think your way into someone else's dream with your own intelligence. The last thing he wanted was an untethered dream movie. Nolan successfully made the film he had in mind, and shouldn't be faulted for failing to make someone else's film.

... Still, I understand where Edelstein is coming from. I can understand how a critic could react to the film in his way. His review is justified and valuable, more stimulating to a lover of the film than still more praise. It helps you to see it. If you don't agree with his litany of faults, you have to ask yourself, why not?

And don't miss this review by Steven Boone ("'Inception': As eye-catching, and as profound, as an Usher concert"):

Cobb's memories of his lost love and shattered family are the kind of stock images you find in a brand new wallet: pretty wife strolling a sunny beach; adorable kids frolicking in a backyard, hair backlit with a Miller Time glow. Even the "traumatic" stuff is familiar from daytime soap opera cliffhangers. If you want some idea of how timid and businesslike Inception is in its human concerns (while very bold as a feat of engineering), see a film I suspect was on Nolan's list of homages here, Satoshi Kon's "Paprika." [...]

... "Inception" just talks of depth and darkness but, as a screen experience, sticks with glib pyrotechnics fit for a Superbowl commercial or an Usher concert. Like I said, film of the decade.

WARNING: PLEASE ASSUME THERE ARE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THE COMMENTS BELOW.

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