Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

The sleep of reason

It's okay. Easily the best movie of the summer, though from what I've seen so far that's not saying much. Easily the best thing Nolan's ever done to date, though from what I've seen of his Batman movies, that's not saying much either.

Plotline bears remarkable similarity to Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both are overwrought, both strain mightily, both hinge upon Leonardo DiCaprio piercing the elaborate veil of illusion and coming to terms with his private family tragedy. Plotline also borrows heavily (very heavily) from Philip K. Dick's remarkable Ubik--down to an elaborate case of industrial espionage involving of telepaths and anti-telepaths (Nolan calls them 'extractors'), and of unsettling, even menacing shifts in reality. Nolan borrows the device of using a commonplace object--in Ubik a coin, in Nolan's movie a spinning top--to suggest a meta-twist on top of all the other twists.

Nolan's reached a personal best here. Unlike in the Batman movies, his action sequences here are actually coherent--or at least semi-coherent (he still has trouble with car chases); perhaps the best bit involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing both Spiderman and Neo on the walls and ceilings of a hotel hallway--that showed some demented wit. I actually prefer this over The Matrix--the latter was almost all clunky CGI effects, while Nolan's puzzle-box picture features clean slow-motion footage and on-camera stunts that actually look dangerous. 

That's about as far as this goes: it looks dangerous. Nolan's constructed a hundred and fifty minute house of cards built entirely on the premise of dreaming; for all that, there's little in the picture that has the authentic feel and, well, solidity of real dreams. Vans may skitter off bridges and elevators drop down shafts and snowbound strongholds go up in flames, but one's sense of reality is never really threatened, not the way Dick constantly threatens to pull the rug out from under you. 

In Ubik, a gritty reality is convincingly presented, a fast-moving plot introduced to capture your attention and whip things along. Unsettling little details show up--milk spoils quickly, technological devices regress to their equivalent in 1939 (a process of devolution, you might say), and the face of one of their associates suddenly starts appearing in coins and on television. It's a nightmare situation, and the ultimate explanation provided at the end of the book offers little comfort--if anything, only adds to the general sense of paranoia and despair.

Paradoxically, one needs utter realism to sell the fantastic, and Nolan betrays his hand early when he folds an entire city like a taco, then has the veteran extractor (DiCaprio) explain how things work to a neophyte dream architect (a slight and pretty Ellen Page). Dick doesn't work like that; he throws you into the situation, to sink or swim as best you can. 

The movie might have sold its ungainly package if it had style--but that's Scorsese territory. Nolan manages a handful of striking moments (DiCaprio and Page stepping on and walking up a wall a la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding; DiCaprio recovering his luggage from the airport carrel, looking around, and realizing that every other face is familiar) but compared to Scorsese he's strictly a rookie at dream imagery (DiCaprio hugging his wife,who turns into a pillar of crumbling hot coals; a woman mental patient caught pantomiming the drinking of a glass of water; a man carrying children to a lakeside, the man moving backwards, the footage projected forwards), not to mention establishing a sense of menace (DiCaprio's portentous arrival at the island dock). 

All that said, even Scorsese's intriguingly overdone little thriller pales in comparison to a true Dickian film, David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Think Ubik crossed with Behind the Green Door--not easy to find examples of science-fiction pornography. Cronenberg's masterpiece is one transgressive dream image after another (a man kisses a pair of lips on a TV set, his face sinking into the screen; a vagina-like opening appears in the same man's abdomen, into which he inserts a videocassette--funny how, of the two primal subconscious drives (violence, sex), Nolan's dream images contain so much of one, so very little of the other). Compared to Scorsese, Cronenberg, Dick, Nolan's picture, which heavyweight film critic Roger Ebert calls "wholly original, cut from whole cloth" starts to look rather threadbare, not to mention secondhand.

There's been criticism of the criticism that the film's too linear, too literal and bound by logic. "Of course, it's literal, it's meant to be. Those are constructed worlds with rules to them that the heroes are meant to circumvent. Thrillers in general are films where the hero bends or breaks the rules at his peril--that's the very source of the thrill" Good point, though I'd mention films like Michel Gondry and Charles Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a perfectly valid thriller that doesn't rely on linear logic, and that Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.--easily one of the greatest and most beautiful films ever made--is not only a first-rate thriller that doesn't need much linear logic but is wonderfully funny to boot.

Eduardo Dayao of Piling Piling Pelikula labels Nolan's latest a heist film, and I think he does a better job of calling it better than most critics have so far. I'd consider it an excellent heist film, then, that attempts an extra twist. Problem with Nolan I suppose is that he doesn't do twists very well--his mind's too linear (even his breakthrough hit Memento goes backwards in a more or less straightforward fashion). At most, Inception manages a half-twist that lifts it above, say, Steven Soderbergh's Ocean movies.

And even redefining the picture as a heist movie...Jules Dassin's too great an artist, in my opinion, to just do straight genre. His Rififi is the defining heist film, with the actual crime committed in real time, using almost no dialogue. I submit that when things start to go wrong in the story--when destiny (for which the crew's intricate plan makes few provisions) start to unravel the crew members' respective lives, Dassin for no apparent reason (a reaction, maybe, to all the grim realism that came before?) throws in a final drive from the countryside back to Paris that feels very much like a dream, more nightmarish (yet free-floating) than anything in Nolan's movie. Even Dassin's most offhand efforts, it must be said, seem superior to Nolan's big-budget strainings. 



rain contreras said...

your take similarities re Cobb's family with Solaris?

Oggs Cruz said...

Satoshi Kon's done better with the material. That said, I agree, it's very entertaining. I'll write something up when I have the time.

Noel Vera said...

Emotionally, yes, there's some similarity--loss of wife, bitterness and regret, the wife haunting the hero. No kids, though Tarkovsky adds Kelvin's father, and an ending that is similar to this one.

Oh, yeah, lots of connections being made.

And yes, Satoshi Kon especially in Paranoia Agent does better--better than even Scorsese, though that's not saying much.

S M Rana said...

SF pornography, that's a new one, LOL!! You have in your inimitable style done a great job of unselling the film--one more movie avoided!

hanestre said...

you don't know what the fuck you're talking. i would to if you can make a better movie.

dodo dayao said...

I liked this one a bit ,have a soft spot for heist films.

Just wondering where I can watch the intellectually complex,mind-boggling, highly-original movie with the same name everybody's getting their minds blown with. :) I kid.

Seriously. In terms of first-time grab-you, I still go back to the tingle in my spine when Trinity made that mid-air leap in the first Matrix. Function of age,perhaps, and degrees of geekiness but Inception gave me none of that, which is why I'm a little on the side of meh about it, despite having enjoyed it. After all that Batman nonsense, at least Nolan's back to making interesting films again. And he broke my film-writing embargo, too. So thanks, Mr.Nolan.

Noel Vera said...

'SF pornography'

That's actually a recommendation. I like porn that makes me think, i.e. Videodrome (see link to film above).

'you don't know what the fuck'

Persuasive argument! Excellent logic! You, sir, have shown me the error of my ways.

'soft spot for heist films'

Have one for em too, and if this was a straight heist film...but Nolan needs that extra twist, doesn't he? Problem with him he tends to do things by halves, so this is more a half-twist than an entire twist on the genre.

Actually Dassin's too good an artist to leave his film at that. After the heist things start going wrong, and he ends his film with a dreamlike drive back to Paris that's more nightmarish than anything Nolan's ever done. In effect, he outdoes Nolan even on the twist aspect, even if he did so in an offhand, last-minute manner.

dodo dayao said...

Re-Animator was sort of SF porn, wasn't it? Not much in the way of making you "think" though. :)

That last scene from Rififi, yeah. Talk about stepping into another world.

Noel Vera said...

It did so make you think--about parts, about what constitutes an independent living unit, about life after death, and the cost of living forever. It's very much an Organic Theater Production.

DKL said...

I actually found it interesting that you pulled out VIDEODROME as a comparison to both Scorsese and Nolan's films... it's a pretty formidable example, really.

(that being said, I've not seen this one yet, but I'm mostly interested in the examples brought to the table)

Actually, going off of the Kon citing, I was under the impression that there were a lot of similarities between Kon's work and VIDEODROME when I first saw that movie, the main difference being that Cronenberg did it 27 years ago.

Noel Vera said...

Formidable is right. In my book, it's the gold standard in mindfuck films, up there with Bunuel.

And I'll tell you a little secret: not a big fan of Kon. He seems too...commercial for me, a crowd pleaser unlike Oshii or even Takahata (even Miyazaki you sense some kind of reserve). That is, until Paranoia Agent, and then Kon got interesting again.

sineasta said...


hi, noel! is your book Critic After Dark still available here in the Phils? if so, where can I get one?


Noel Vera said...

Go to this webpage, there is a link there to order.

Noel Vera said...

Or email to order.

jayclops said...

It was an interesting and enjoyable but I still had my reservations. What's your take on the now-raging debate prompted by the vague ending?

Noel Vera said...

My take is: why rage? What's the big fat hairy deal? It's Nolan's attempt at an ambiguous Dickian ending a la Total Recall (which I like marginally more, if only for Sharon Stone's kickboxing).

Quentin Tarantado said...

I've seen this and Shutter Island. My first reaction is to say, "Both films have Leo di Caprio" but that's irrelevant. Yet there are similarities, about loss of family, a wife he can't let go, a play on reality. That said, yeah, Scorsese has a way with dreams that Nolan seems to lack. I think Nolan needs to direct more with his testicles and with his instinct, rather than with rational thought.

Noel Vera said...

That's it--Scorsese directs with passion, with something at stake, even in something assigned like this. Nolan's a rationalist even in his most personal works--the work makes too much sense. He's a bumbler trying to look like a master.

Denise Truffaut said...

I agree the film lacks in imagery.Nolan could've played with a lot of dark whimsical elements found in the subconscious.Nonetheless I can see where people are coming from,considering the crap spewed out by production companies lately.Twilight just made the standards even lower.

"the gold standard in mindfuck films" - haha! i recall watching Videodrome eons ago and thinking almost the same thing. Any other similar films you'd recommend?

Noel Vera said...

Good point.

I know it happens and I've done so myself, but I don't like lowering my standards just because the year's so bad. I recognize that this is one of the better movies this summer. Also recognize that's not saying much.

Mindfuck movies? Videodrome, Existenz, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, L'Age d'or, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Simon of the Desert. Off the top of my head.

Denise Truffaut said...

I loved Mullholland Drive, Existenz is pretty good also. I shall heed thy advice and look them up. Thanks!!

Noel Vera said...

Also Mario O'Hara's Mortal--but the link I posted to a VHS copy may be out of copies. Can still see it in The Filipino Channel, I think.

Ben said...

Really? You seem to have approached this film with the pre-concieved notion that it (and Nolan) could never live up to your (somewhat mainstream to many critics) pretentious ideals of what us peasants consider a good film... If only we knew what YOU knew, good lord. The ignomy of being impressed by a mainstream film!

My impressions were of a film crafted in such a way as to move the audience through a very complicated premise at a searing pace. Inception didn't insult the intelligence of the audience with constant exposition, nor did it slow down to let the slower of us catch up. In short, a captivating story, well executed in almost all facets of film making. Ground broken again, by Nolan, where there was, seemingly, no ground left to turn.

Feel free to pontificate on the 'true essence of cinema' with obscure film references that many of us will never have heard of but, in a way, that tells the final story. The magic of this film is delivering an experience that so many film goers would never had the opportunity to enjoy regardless of all the bizarre and off-centre offerings that you can only see on the third full moon of odd numbered years.

Art to the masses, and in a glorious fashion, Mr. Nolan.

Noel Vera said...

And shouldn't we read or know more about film, or other matters? Is this the feeble stick you're using to hit me over the head with? Is anti-intellectualism rearing its ugly head again? Should we know less, question less, just accept what the big studios and big money tell us we should like?

By all means like Mr. Nolan--lord knows he has enough fans, and many of them march in lock-step. But please don't think for a moment you're doing him a favor--he doesn't care. Big money never does.

Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

I'm a Philip K Dick fan and my favorite book is Ubik. Inception is just a heist movie. Nolan does show his cards, he's NOT a scifi fan. Firecrackers will only take you so far. I thought Code 46 was more enjoyable.

Noel Vera said...

You're a fellow Dickhead? I'm a Dickhead too! Welcome, Dickhead!

Sometimes the disadvantage of 'anonymous' is you don't know who the wonderful people are out there who share your sensibilities (as opposed to the morons what don't)...