|How to Improve 'Inception': Some Enthusiastic Ideas From CC2K|
CC2K's Lance Carmichael and Tony Lazlo explore Christopher Nolan's latest epic and discuss what went right, what went wrong – and what improvements can be made.
SPOILERS! HUGE, GIGANTIC SPOILERS AHEAD!
Tony Lazlo starts the discussion:
Theoretically, Christopher Nolan’s Inception has a lot going for it. It’s a wildly inventive action movie about high-tech thieves who raid people’s dreams for industrial secrets. It’s a heady science-fiction flick that includes a slew of great ideas and an admirably complex set of rules that lead to a four-tiered climax that holds together.
Let me stress: Those are undeniably good things. I admire Nolan for smuggling so many rich ideas into his movies, including his summer blockbusters. The Prestige came packed with good ideas, as did his earlier movie, Memento (though that wasn’t a summer blockbuster). I like that typical American moviegoers will have to sort through the complexity of Inception this summer.
But for such an inventive movie, Inception disappointed me with its lack of invention, fuzzy rules and bland characters. During an emergency summit at CC2K’s west-coast headquarters, Lance Carmichael and I discussed our problems with (and praise for) Nolan’s latest movie, and we wanted to share our dialogue here.
I’ll begin with our biggest grievance and use it as a springboard for some of my own ideas.
Lance pointed out that for a movie that’s based around dreams, Inception included a distressingly small amount of actual dream imagery. Think about it. How much actual abstract imagery did you see in the movie? I’ll name the images off the top of my head:
• The “rollover” Paris, seen in the training sequence, along with the exploding buildings.
I’m sure I’m missing some images, but there really wasn’t much, especially when I was expecting a tour-de-force. Thinking back, the snow fortress/level 3 dream had virtually zero abstract imagery, instead relying on a series of ski chases and snow-tread Hummer battles straight out of a B-level James Bond movie.
Lance is right about the lack of dream imagery, and that problem is directly plugged into one of Nolan’s central conceits: The dream-raiders use dream “architects” to construct dreamworlds that they can safely navigate, which by definition means that they’re meant to appear as normal as possible. Indeed, during one of the architect’s training sessions, the movie’s protagonist (Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) warns the architect not to play with her construction too much, or else she’ll alert the mark to the raiders’ presence.
That’s a cool idea, but: Boo. Nolan fixed his own rules so he wouldn’t have to show very much dream imagery. So to begin, let me offer some ideas on how to improve the dream world and repair some of Nolan’s fuzzy rules.
1. The architect’s construct is merely a beachhead in hostile territory.
As written, Nolan’s architects have total control over the appearance and construction of the dream world, but I submit that instead, the architect’s construct would be analogous to a sand castle built right before the tide comes in – and the tide is the mark’s subconscious.
Inescapably, the dream-raiders would only have so much time inside the architect’s construct – where the rules of physics (mostly) make sense and they know the layout – before the mark’s subconscious overpowers it, and it starts to deteriorate. And once the construct starts to deteriorate, the dream-raiders have to get out – fast.
Which brings me to my next problem and idea:
2. The totems didn’t make any damn sense. But they could.
The concept of the totems made sense for about a second until I thought about it. Each dream-raider carries a small object with a unique balance and weight. That way, when they enter the architect’s construct, their totem won’t feel the same, and they’ll know they’re in the dreamworld.
But there’s a problem with that idea: Wouldn’t totems thereby be useless to the architects themselves? How would an architect keep a foothold on reality?
I’ll leave that question for another time and instead propose a new use for the totems: They’re coal-mine canaries. Meaning, when the architect’s construct begins to break down, everyone’s totems will stop behaving normally, and they’ll know that they have to get out of the dreamworld.
Opening up the dreamworld to the possibility of deterioration would also expand the possibilities for abstract imagery in the movie.
Lance, I’ve got more ideas, but I wanted to throw it over to you. What were some of your thoughts on Inception, and what do you think of my ideas?
You definitely went straight to my biggest disappointment with Inception—the lack of invention in the presentation/feeling of the dreams. This is distinct from what I thought was Inception’s biggest flaw—its inability to cleanly establish the rules of the dreamworlds, and then get out of the way--something that the Wachowski Bros. managed to pull off in the first Matrix movie, by the way; a feat that seems easy because when it works, it looks effortless, but which is in fact exceedingly difficult. Inception never, ever feels effortless; where The Matrix was as light as the air that its characters soared through, Inception puts its feet forward one heavy boot at a time.
But I digress! And actually, though I think this will mostly be a post-mortem about what Inception did wrong and what could be done to fix it, let me just get it out of the way to say that though I thought Inception was flawed and will never transcend beyond being a good summer movie, I have to give a standing O to Nolan for really going for it here (I know that’ll mean a lot to him). Even if it doesn’t quite work, it’s still filled with invention and ambition to burn, and if nothing else it has been a fascinating conversation starter. Even if in the end I don’t think it’s a successful movie, I’ve already talked about it more than probably any other movie this year, which means it must be doing something right.
I love your idea for having the architect create a dream in which the invaders can operate, but only for a limited time before that world starts to degrade and the subject’s subconscious takes over. Puts a great ticking clock on it, and yes, the canary-in-the-coalmine aspects of your proposed new-and-improved totems would suddenly get real important, and most important…it would give Nolan an opportunity to give us what I really thought he was going to deliver in this movie: $160 million spent building never-before-seen dream logic mindblowers. It would give a ticking clock, and something for the audiences to be deathly afraid of.
Unfortunately, I just don’t think Nolan’s skillset lies in that direction. His movies are typically completely sexless—as in no eroticism, lust, hot messiness—and sex and its repression and coded representation is the gasoline on which our dream engines often run. He’s also not a great visual director, as has often been noted before—no really strong images stand out from ANY of his movies, and I’ve seen them all, most of them on multiple occasions (again, I’m not saying he doesn’t do some things very, very well).
But I want to get into another area that I thought Inception fell short in: characterization.
Besides Leonardo DiCaprio, no other characters suggest any kind of human personality besides how they look and what we’ve been told their jobs are. There’s never any feeling that anybody but Leo has an interior life. And we don’t really get to “know” Leo’s character—the only reason we know what’s going on with him is because he’s constantly telling us (usually through obvious audience-surrogate/ exposition magnet Ellen Page). Try the character litmus test: besides “Dom Cobb,” tell us about one of the characters in Inception without talking about their job or how they look. Actually, try that with Dom Cobb as well. He’s…stern….and…tortured?
I don’t think you can. And the reason for this, I submit, is because of the first-draftiness of the Inception script. Getting a script greenlight upon delivery of first draft isn’t necessarily always the best thing for the movie. The number of characters who go on the heist all feel like they’re there to fill out the number/functions Nolan needs to make the story work. Think about it. They have to leave behind a team member in every level of dream. So Dileep Rao is there to be left driving the van, Joseph Gordon Levitt is left in the admittedly super cool hotel, and Tom Hardy is there to man the snow fortress. Meanwhile, even though she has no reason to actually be in the dreams she’s “built” (I would’ve loved to have seen a little sci-fi moment where they show how that’s done, btw), Ellen Page is there through it all for Leo to explain the rules to all the way to the end.
Ellen Page, JGL (I refuse to type his super-long name out fully every time I mention him), and Leo are the main team members. Why do they all look like they work on the same floor at Patrick Bateman’s company? How about some character differentiation? As you know, Tony, but so far haven’t revealed to the readers, Christopher Nolan has personally contacted us, begging us to tell him how he could fix Inception if he wanted to do it all over again. In fact, he’s sitting next to me right now, breathlessly watching me type. Let’s not let him down.
More Ideas on How to Improve Inception (aka My Secret Plan to Get Drive-By Haters to Flame Me on the Message Boards)
First of all, as you and I discussed, I would change the nature of the people who work in the Dream Invading industry a bit. Make it much more disreputable—like hit men. Make going into dreams something you’d have to have a death wish to do—it’s that dangerous. Only the most preternaturally skilled adepts can do it without going brain dead on the first try. So the people who tend to work in it are daredevils, adrenaline junkies.
Side note: I also thought that the way they got into the dreams was completely dumb. Listen: industrial espionage generally involves your competitor NOT KNOWING that you’re engaging in it—otherwise, they’ll know what you’re up to and adapt. So the fact that you have to KIDNAP AND DRUG the high-ranking businessperson you’re after makes concealing it difficult to do. Not only that, but also brazenly illegal and traceable and on the whole probably a lot more logistically difficult than just sending some dudes in late at night and stealing info the old-fashioned way. You can’t always use the old “I just bought the airline” trick (overnight? Doesn’t acquiring airlines take like years of FCC and union litigation? Did Watanabe use the same super-secret credit card Bruce Wayne used to buy the restaurant from a waiter in Batman Begins?). How else do these kidnappings take place without getting detected?
Chris, what about this: Why not jack into dreams wirelessly? Think about it. You don’t have to actually kidnap the person. And the marks would be super paranoid about their dreams getting invaded. Like Tony, I love the idea of the super-rich being forced to “militarize their subconscious.” This would take it up a notch, as you’d never know WHEN you were in danger. They’d have to have security guys monitoring their heartrates and, I don’t know, skin conductivity while they slept, ready to wake them should they detect the signs of a dream invasion. Maybe you’ve got to inject nanobots into your mark’s coffee to be able to jack in. Maybe the nanobots or whatever die after six hours, so you’ve got a firm deadline. Or maybe you’ve got to send a Honeytrap in to seduce your mark and stay close to him through the night, acting as your “antennae.” However you play it, it would add a level of paranoia and chances to get caught to the proceedings, which never hurt.
Okay. Now we’ve established that you can jack in wirelessly, and that going into someone else’s dreams is super-dangerous but also exciting, and the people who do it are kind of disreputable adrenaline junkies —like, Ken Watanabe should basically treat Leo like he’s a child molester, because even though Watanabe says that changing Cillian Murphy’s relationship with his father is all for the good of the planet, going into this guy’s mind and altering fundamental parts of his personality for no really good reason is in fact VERY CREEPY. And for all Ken knows, Leo’s done it to him, too.
So now let’s talk about the characters:
Leo: I have to admit I still don’t really think Leo is all that great in these types of roles, but apparently I’m in the minority, so I’ll let his casting slide by on this one. Chris, I know how it is: you gotta sell tickets, and Leo was in Titanic. Plus, he’s got all that Scorsese-cred dripping off him now. Okay.
I think Leo’s character should have been totally burned out on the dream thing. He got stuck in the 50 year dream, he’s almost died several times, and he doesn’t want anything to do with it. He’s done. He knows how creepy it is. He gets that. Fuck this shit.
But…this last job is something he HAS to do: no choice. It’s how he can fix his life.
Now we can feel Leo having serious conflict about whether to go through with this. And we know how dangerous and creepy this line of work is. A little flavor has been added. And nothing has been taken off the table from what Nolan’s already put there.
Okay? Simple enough?
JGL: Nothing against JGL, but I think it was the wrong call to cast him in this role. He’s basically Leonardo DiCaprio lite. Think about it. They’re both pretty boys in the same non-threatening, feminine-featured kind of way. They’re both generally unconvincing when they act tough. And they both slick back their hair here. Why not cast someone who gives us a little counter-balance to Leo’s energy? Someone with a little “untamed libido” in them—your basic Young Jack Nicholson type. Even Tom Hardy would’ve been a better call here.
Secondly, what is JGL’s job? I can’t remember. He didn’t really do anything except float around in the hotel and drag their zero-G sleeping bodies to an elevator to do…something. How could this character (IMDB reveals his name is “Arthur”—the fact that I had to look it up should tell you something) bring a different energy to the movie?
If Leo is the guy who doesn’t want to do this shit anymore, Arthur is the reckless dream junkie who LOVES getting caught up in weird, sexy, Lynchian dreams. To the point where he often endangers the mission. He’s hooked on it. Jacking into dreams is like going to an orgy where you might get your mind-fried by the logic-defying awesomeness that can break out at any moment.
Leo would want nothing to do with this guy. He’s a live-wire, a loose cannon. HOWEVER, since they have to put this job together on very short notice, and since Leo’s trusted right-hand man got his brain fried in the opening of the movie (I’m adding this element—it shows us how (NOT TELLS US) how dangerous going into dreams is, and since there’s SO FEW skilled dream invaders in the world, Leo HAS to work with this dude, even though he doesn’t in any way shape or form trust him.
Basically, he’s like Sick Boy in Trainspotting. You could even let him dress in a suit, Chris—just make it an ironic hipster’s suit.
Ellen “Ariadne” Page: Maybe the biggest blunder. Why is she the most boring character in the history of the world? Shit, you’ve already GOT Ellen Page. You saw Juno and Hard Candy, right, Chris? I know you’ve got a Netflix account. Page can clearly do edgy bitch. Rather than Michael Caine’s straight-A architecture student—who we only know is brilliant because Michael Caine tells us so, another example of the telling-vs.-showing problems this movie is infected with—let’s make Ariadne a fringe-artist type. Maybe she makes brilliantly textured experimental video games, only she don’t play by the man’s rules, and has been fired by EA and run out of the business. Leo offers her the chance to stretch her skills on the ultimate canvas. She doesn’t really jive with Leo’s slicked back hair and expensive suits—corporate whore!—and she thinks the whole dream-invasion stuff is icky and creepy, but man—building dreams is perfect for her unusual talents, and she can’t turn the opportunity down. Also…man, that Arthur guy is kind of cute in a heroin chic sort of way…I hope he doesn’t tempt me into joining him in the sex dream when it starts to degrade the normal dream I’ve built for the mission…
OK. Now we’ve got some real characters who are distinct from each other. Who can play off each other’s personalities. Who can bring in some conflict, humor, and sexual spark to the proceedings. All that good stuff that you need to make characters come to life on-screen. Chris, I think we’re halfway there.
Whew. I think I’ve overwritten a bit here, so I’ll hand it off to you, Tony. Any more thoughts on how we can make these characters and their jobs pop out more? What about thoughts on cool stuff? You have any opinions on that?
Lance, I want to talk about two things: Sex and The Great Escape.
First, let’s talk about sex. During our emergency summit yesterday, you specifically mentioned the moment when JGL steals a smooch from Ellen Page. That beat rightfully drew a laugh in the IMAX theater where I saw the movie, and you’re quite right to criticize Nolan’s movies for being sexless. Heck, three of his leads – DiCaprio, JGL and Page – are all smooth, vaguely androgynous figures when presented in their default settings. Only a significant amount of roughing up – and an unwieldy subplot about his dead wife – manages to push DiCaprio more squarely into the male zone, while JGL and Page remain sexless and lifeless. (Tom Hardy, for his part, manages to exude some roughneck charm in his role, though oddly, the one scene that involves an actual seduction in Inception is when Hardy’s character shape-shifts into an eerie-looking bombshell in the hotel/level 2 dreamworld.)
Anyway, I’m trying to imagine an Inception that’s populated with characters who bristle with real sexual danger. Lance, I love your idea for a reimagined architect – someone less Patricia Bateman and more Run, Lola, Run – and I would think that the temptation of consequence-free sexual mania would provide an ongoing source of tension for our reimagined dream-raiders.
Furthermore, I’m all for your reimagined JGL, and the mind boggles at the prospect of the sexual chemistry between JGL’s dream-cowboy and Page’s tats-and-fishnet architect – especially when contrasted with the more wizened DiCaprio, who just wants to do the job and go home.
Side note: Lance, you mentioned The Matrix, and I just flashed on something I’d like to share. Remember Tank from the original Matrix movie? It was a small role, but the actor (Marcus Chong) made an impression. If you don’t remember him, he wakes up Neo on his first day of training with some memorable dialogue:
The Wachowskis sneak a lot of exposition into this scene by way of Tank’s earnest enthusiasm. This small scene, along with the now-classic training scene in the dojo, are both great examples of how The Matrix delivers its exposition with speed, style, economy and – most important – a spoonful of sugar. The Wachowskis wisely pepper their expository passages with jokes:
Mind-bending (yet relevant) dialogue:
And the occasional stand-up-and-cheer moment:
By contrast, Inception fell into the trap of rolling exposition. Lance, you pointed out how Cobb never finished explaining the rules of the dreamworld to Page, not even by movie’s end. That’s a shame, because the best science-fiction (or fantasy) establishes its rules with economy and clarity, and then lets the audience enjoy the ride.
Earlier I said I wanted to talk about The Great Escape, but to be fair, I want to talk about The Great Escape as much as I want to talk about Ocean’s Eleven, Mission: Impossible and any of the other heist movies that Inception borrowed from – and this’ll lead right into my next suggestion for how to improve Inception:
3. More specialists!
One of the moments of pure joy I got while watching Inception came when I realized that Tom Hardy wasn’t there to forge documents but people. It felt like a great piece of world-building, but I was disappointed to see that there weren’t more specialists in this field. (Again, think back to The Great Escape, where everyone had a specific job to carry out.) So allow me to suggest some of my own, while also highlighting some of yours, Lance.
During our summit yesterday, I touched on the idea that in this world, there would be operatives who would specialize in tasks on both sides of the dream/reality divide. I cheekily suggested they be called “above the line” and “below the line” operatives, so let’s start above the line.
ABOVE THE LINE (REAL-WORLD) SPECIALISTS
Lance, I love all of your ideas for how to hack into a target’s brain remotely, and I suggest that one of our new specialists would the Antannae – an operative who gets close to the target and acts as a literal, physical relay for the rest of the team to beam into the target’s dreamworld. Because of the need to get close to the target while they’re asleep, this job would often call upon specialists with the sex appeal to pull off this kind of classic honey-pot role from the world of espionage.
In theater, the dramaturge mostly handles research. In the Inception-verse, the Dramaturge would do the same, while also providing the team with a coherent narrative by which to dupe the target into a false sense of security in the real world, while also making suggestions for how to drive the dreamworld narrative in a direction that will let them accomplish their mission. Tom Hardy’s character handles most of these duties in the current movie – remember, he suggests that they turn Cillian Murphy against his father’s aide (Tom Berenger). In addition, the Dramaturge would look into the target’s background to find out if they’ve militarized their subconscious.
BELOW THE LINE (DREAMWORLD) SPECIALISTS
Lance, you rightfully criticized one moment in Inception – when Tom Hardy says, “Don’t be afraid to dream bigger,” right before he pulls out a very large gun. We both like the idea that the dreamworld would allow for this kind of on-the-fly invention from the dream-raiders, but unfortunately, Nolan’s script relegated that idea to a one-line throwaway.
I submit that the dream-raiders would call upon the Conjuror – an operative with the skills to invent or otherwise conjure items in the dreamworld. I imagine that the Conjuror would come in handy in a gunfight, but they’d be even more useful after the architect’s construct started to break down. Who else could provide the firepower to fight off a leviathan that springs from the target’s slumbering id?
As in “counter-measure.” Also as in “sheep counter.”
Lance, you suggested that in this world, powerful executives would be ultra-paranoid about dream invasion, going so far as to employ physicians to monitor their lifesigns during sleeping hours. Pursuant to that idea, I submit that the dream-raiders would have to deploy a Counter to disable whatever measures the target had put in place to wake themselves up – a time-release stimulant, for example. In addition, the Counter would also work to subvert the efforts of the target's monitors. A successful Counter would be able to – from the dreamworld – successfully trick the target’s mind into emitting the brainwave pattern of peaceful REM sleep. No small feat.
Lance, now I feel like I’m overwriting! And let me pause a moment to back up and heap praise on Nolan’s movie. Once again: I’m delighted that such a dense, heady movie has conquered the box office this weekend. It bodes well for original ideas that want to make it to the big screen, and it bodes well for moviemaking in general.
So I’ll throw it back to you, Lance. Do you have any final thoughts about Inception?
I think that the last major thing we talked about at our emergency summit and haven’t hit on yet—besides Nolan’s inability to shoot a coherent action scene—is how the way the plot shook out left us…unsatisfied. This is a movie about (essentially) professional con men, set in the world of dreams, where the ability to distinguish between what is the real and what is dream--whether it be the world itself or the person you think is your godfather--is up for grabs. They set out to jack into Cillian Murphy’s mind while he was sleeping on an airplane and plant an idea…and that’s exactly what happened. I kept waiting for the rug to get pulled out, to learn that Cillian Murphy had in fact set this all up, that the airplane was actually a dream, Ken Watanabe was working for the Cillian Murphy, and so was JGL, and Leo was the Mark all along. Or something like that.
And it never happened.
This is disappointing not only because it would have made for a more satisfying movie, but because that is the very thing that Christopher Nolan is GOOD AT. Not just good: exceptional. Memento is one of the great “Is this person conning me?” movies of all time. The Prestige ain’t too shabby at misdirection and sudden turns, either. I thought that the whole four-dream-worlds thing was just the SET UP to the real movie once a turn happened at the end of the second act. As the incomprehensible snow fortress dream dragged on and I got the sinking feeling that this was IT, I purposely didn’t look at my watch, hoping against hope that my internal sensors telling me the movie was about to wrap up were wrong.
We had forgers, shady corporate people with double motives, hinted-at governmental agencies and enemy corporations gunning for our hero…and everyone was exactly who they said they were. Boo!
I also noticed none of us have said ONE WORD about the Marion Cotillard character and storyline. I’m gonna hazard a guess that it’s not because we both thought it was a timeless, for-the-books love story that has immediately been vaulted into the ranks of cinema’s all-time-best. I’m going to actually guess neither of us have mentioned it because it was so…so…
Guy Pearce’s raped and murdered wife in Memento. Hugh Jackman’s girlie in The Prestige, accidentally killed by Christian Bale. Bruce Wayne’s parents. Batman AND Harvey Dent reeling from the death of Rachel Dawes. What do they all have in common? Yes, they’re all the dead significant others (or, in the case of Batman Begins, parents) of Tortured Christopher Nolan Protagonists. But they’re also all characters who either died BEFORE the movie started, or almost right after it began. Either way, long before I as an audience member had any time to form any emotional connection that would help me sympathize with the bereaved protagonist and thirst for vengeance to be his (I haven’t seen Insomnia, but its Netflix description suggests that Al Pacino accidentally shoots his partner and has his psyche appropriately tortured to Nolan’s specifications—can anyone chime in here?).
Now this is clearly a theme that deeply connects with Christopher Nolan. Or it’s an easy shortcut to setting up a “complicated” protagonist. Either way, it’s getting stale. I had no investment in Cotillard because we never met her when she was alive. Or maybe it’s because of her porcelain-doll perfect looks, or how she always looks like she just stepped out of hair/makeup in this movie, or how the images Leo remembers her from are straight from the Stock Familial Happiness Flashback Company. As Steven Boone puts it in his Inception review:
Now, I’m getting a little harsh on Nolan here, so I’m going to back off (he’s very sensitive…he’s curled up on my couch right now, his back to the room). I really like Cotillard’s central problem. She could no longer distinguish between reality and dream, and since the only way they know to voluntarily wake yourself out of a dream is to actually kill yourself, she kept urging her husband to kill himself “for the kids,” and eventually demapped herself by jumping out of a building (though I’m still fuzzy on why DiCaprio wasn’t allowed to see his kids anymore…was he accused of killing her, somehow, or did I just miss that tidbit in the other 8 million blunt expository lines in the movie?—oops, sorry, Nolan’s shoulders are now quietly shaking…he may be crying). This is a great, crazy thing for a person to do. If Nolan was dead-set on having his protag be a tortured widower (does Nolan’s wife ever feel like he’s subconsciously trying to tell her something very disturbing?), I think a better way to handle that idea would have been to show us via a dream how Cotillard killed herself in that way—just get it out of the way and move on—and then LATER, when, in my Inception-meets- The Spanish Prisoner version Ken Watanabe is trying to convince Leo that Cillian Murphy is actually behind all this and is killing his sleeping team members in the real world one by one, and Leo’s next, and Leo needs to wake up…then LEO has to decide: is this a dream or real, and am I totally insane if I put this gun to my head and kill myself the way my wife stepped out of a window on the 87th floor?
All this points to our mutual frustration with a movie with a killer premise and the talent and money behind it to deliver…which unfortunately just fell short. And fell short because it feels like it just wasn’t developed enough. If Inception was just another crummy summer movie, who cares? Nobody spent 10,000 words trying to figure out where The A-Team went wrong. It was just because Inception did so many things right, yet fell short in the end, that it’s fascinated and bugged me the way it has. So close, and yet so far.
Any final thoughts?
Lance, you went directly to my biggest annoyance with this movie. We can all agree that the “it was all a dream” ending is one of the biggest cop-outs in all of storytelling, but in a movie like Inception, it’s just the opposite. We go in with the expectation that the initial reality presented to us will be inverted or otherwise inaccurate. We go into a movie like this hoping for our expectations to be subverted, hoping to get hoodwinked, hoping to get out-thought.
But we didn’t, and like you said, it didn’t appear that Nolan had any interest in doing so, and because of that, the movie’s final image – the twirling top – felt tacked-on and obnoxious. Yes, it raises the question that the entire movie was a dream, but who cares? I’m venturing into highly subjective territory here, but a twist – when done well – should enhance and enrich the entire movie that precedes it. We live in an era with a lot of twist-endings, and by looking at a few, we can see how effective they are at satisfying this test. The Usual Suspects ends with a twist that adds some rewatch value to a decent movie, while Fight Club opts for an end-of-second-act twist that lets audiences reflect on what came before while they navigate a hectic third act. The Sixth Sense hits us with a twist that instantly transforms it into a completely different movie on further inspection.
It’s entirely possible that I’m expecting too much of Nolan. To be sure, I find the rules of the dreamworld in Inception to be pretty fascinating, despite their imperfections, and maybe he intended to do nothing more than to explore the world he created according to the rules he made up. But I’m not so sure.
During a key scene near the end of Inception, DiCaprio’s wife suggests that he is in a dream himself. In a rush of dialogue, she points out how weird it is that he’s a pawn in a larger game played by mysterious, shadowy corporations, among other things. The scene was fine, I guess, but I couldn’t help but think of another movie that toys with the idea of a dreamworld, Total Recall. Midway through Paul Verhoeven’s action classic, a corporate representative confronts our hero with the possibility that he may be dreaming, going so far as to cite specific evidence from earlier in the film:
Am I arguing that Total Recall is a better movie than Inception? Nope. But that one scene in Total Recall pings my brain’s mind-bendy pleasure centers with greater skill than anything in Inception.
To be fair, there are plenty of theories about what “really” happened in Inception floating around online. Writer Hal Phillips makes a game effort to add a layer of intrigue to Nolan’s movie, but to what end does it serve us to kludge this layer of interpretation onto such a literal-minded movie? Perhaps on a second viewing, considering the possibility that Cobb dreamed the whole thing will improve the experience.
Here’s why I doubt it:
In the case of all the twists I mentioned above – all of them – the final twist instantly made me think back over the movie I had just seen to look for clues or to otherwise interpret scenes in light of the revelation. I felt no such impulse at the end of Inception. The movie simply was what is was. That doesn’t mean I’m right, and I suspect there will be many who will contest my arguments by saying I’m being too literal-minded, but all the same, that’s what I felt.
As long as I’m on this point, I wanted to quote another, far more skilled, movie critic: Jim Emerson of the Chicago Sun-Times and RogerEbert.com. Emerson gets right to the heart of Inception’s literal-mindedness:
Moving on: Lance, I wanted to revisit our earlier discussion about Inception’s lack of sexuality. I hadn’t given it much thought until I started reading through some of the responses to this movie, and upon further reflection, it occurs to me that the absence of smolder makes the movie feel awfully sad. The biggest sexual thrill is a chaste peck that any grade-schooler could experience. It infuses the whole proceedings with a Peter-Pan-like sense of quaint ignorance.
In closing, I want to echo an earlier sentiment of yours, Lance: All told, we’ve generated several thousand words of discussion about this movie. That’s a good thing. Despite its flaws, Nolan came up with a fascinating premise and constructed a complicated narrative that delivers on many, many levels. That’s a good thing, and moreover, it is actively a good thing that Nolan has the Batman franchise under the heel of his boot. It lets him offer up fascinating thought experiments – a quality that all his movies possess, I submit. Even The Dark Knight qualifies as a thought experiment: What would Batman and the Joker look like in the real world?
Inception is another such thought experiment, fascinating and flawed. And that’s a good thing.