Has there ever been a film as hotly anticipated, as burdened with expectations, as Christopher Nolan's Inception? It's certainly hard to think of one, nor to credit all the things that we thought, believed, or hoped that this film would accomplish. It would rescue one of the dullest and most underperforming summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory. It would combine the best qualities of all of last year's science fiction films--the stunning visuals of Avatar, the originality of District 9, the enthusiastic fannishness of Star Trek, the detail-oriented fannishness of Watchmen, the attention to character of Moon--into a single perfect storm of SFnal moviemaking. It would prove, once and for all, that a film that both demonstrated intelligence and demanded it from its viewers could triumph at the box office. It would put an end to the plague of sequels and remakes that has blighted Hollywood's blockbuster production for the better part of a decade. It would bring balance to the Force, cure leprosy, and make peace in the Middle East. The conventional wisdom is that when you walk into a movie theater with such high hopes--and to the barrage of uninformed and unrealistic expectations the film raised you could add, this last week, its near-universal critical acclaim--disappointment it almost inevitable, but though I walked out of Inception feeling less than enthusiastic, I don't see my reaction to the film as an inevitable come-down from unsustainable build-up. That would result in a review much like the one I wrote for District 9, which took for granted the film's by-then much touted strengths and concentrated on its weaknesses. My reaction to Inception is actually something much more fundamental, and much more negative--I genuinely can't see what anyone sees in this film.
Many of the reactions I've seen to Inception have kicked off by noting that the film is less a science fiction movie than a heist film in SFnal garb. I assume that these writers are consciously trying to ape to consensus that quickly built around Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight, that its superhero story trappings were merely set dressing on what was actually a crime story. In reality, these reviewers are making the opposite sort of statement. To say that Inception is a heist film is actually analogous to saying that the The Dark Knight is a superhero film. It's trivially true--the film's plot revolves around the main character, Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, assembling a crew, planning a job, and carrying it out--but for the purposes of making a meaningful statement about the film and the things it tries to do, not at all useful, if for no other reason than because Inception is a supremely bad heist film. It lacks anything like the flare and pizazz of Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, or Duplicity--is in fact an almost leaden experience, to the extent that when a thin joke turned up halfway through the film, the audience I was seeing it with broke out in relieved, almost hysterical laughter, glad for even the slightest leavening of tone. It completely fails not only to establish the unique personalities of its characters, but to spell out their individual roles in the heist, to the extent that at least two of them, Ellen Page's Ariadne and Ken Watanabe's Saito, join in the fun merely because they want to, not because they have an integral role to play that extends past the job's planning stages (and I'm also not clear why Yusuf, the chemist played by Dileep Rao who concocts the compounds that allow the characters to enter another person's dreams, needed to come along for the job instead of monitoring the crew from reality, though Cobb insists that he does). Most importantly, it doesn't deliver the heist film's classic reveal, the missing puzzle piece or palmed card that suddenly makes sense of the entire plot, which locks together like the gears of an intricate but perfectly functioning machine.
So no, Inception is not a heist film dressed up as a science fiction film. It's a science fiction film dressed up as a heist film, and I'm using the term science fiction here in its most literary, perhaps even Campbell-ian, sense. Though the McGuffin that allows the characters to manipulate others' dreams and, through that manipulation, to extract or plant ideas in their minds is so thoroughly handwaved away that Ariadne, the token newbie, can't even put up a token objection when the idea is suggested to her, the story that Inception tells is a quintessentially SFnal one--a story about learning the world, learning its rules, and learning how to use them to your advantage. Which may be the reason why there's been so much talk about the cleverness and convolutedness of what is actually one of the most straightforward, linearly-presented films Nolan has ever made. There is in Inception none of the playing around with timelines or plotlines that made Memento and The Prestige such twisty delights. Instead, the plot proceeds quite regularly from past to future (with occasional and very clearly signposted flashbacks). There is, of course, the shifting between different layers of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, but beyond the deliberately wrong-footing in media res opening, these are also very clearly differentiated. But for the question that lingers over the entire film and remains unanswered at its end--did Cobb ever truly make it out of limbo, or is his reality just another layer of dream--we never mistake dream for reality, or the different layers of dream for one another. It's complicated, but it's not clever, and the reason that Inception is so demanding isn't that it's asking us to piece its plot together, but that it's asking us to learn, on the fly and with only the barest consideration for our confusion, the rules of how dream manipulation works. It's info-dumping--a film made up almost entirely of info-dumps, whose characters exist primarily to ask or answer questions in a manner that provides those info-dumps to the viewer. The classic science fiction story, in other words, and one that viewers who don't have grounding in the genre may lack the protocols to properly parse and digest.
It's fashionable these days to look down on the Campbell-ian method of science fiction, and the fact that it prioritized imparting information to the reader over engaging them with plot and characters, and though I'm partial to the occasional Stephen Baxter novel I'm certainly glad that science fiction has discovered more and more complicated tools to tell its stories. But that's not the reason that Inception left me so cold. If I wanted to sum up my disappointment with the film in a few lines, they would be these: a lot of people are praising Inception for being a more cerebral version of The Matrix, another film whose main character has to learn how to manipulate a reality whose underlying laws are different from those of our reality, but I can't help but see it as a less rigorous version of Primer. When it comes to translating Campbell-ian science fiction to the screen, Primer is the still undefeated title-holder. Its characters speak pure and very nearly incomprehensible info-dump, their emotional motivations are either dimly explained or boring or both, and the film's emotional climax comes when one character, having been explained the rules of the method of time travel discovered by his friend, figures out a way to manipulate those rules and expand the technology's capablities.
Inception desperately wants to be Primer but lacks both the courage and the rigor to go all the way. Instead of completely downplaying its characters' humanity it tacks on a trite and poorly realized romantic motivation for Cobb, who is trying to break free of his guilt over the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, the only castmember with anything like a vivid on-screen presence, mainly because she's given a lot of scenery to chew--a corrupted version of Cobb's wife driven by his feelings of responsibility for her death, she shrieks and threatens, and gets to be genuinely scary). Even worse, the film's construction of its alternate reality and its rules lacks the elegance demonstrated by both Primer and The Matrix. Early scenes make much of Ariadne's ability to manipulate the physics of the dream-world, and though these are visually stunning this ability plays no part in the actual heist. There is only one sequence in which a character is seen to have fully imbibed the rules of the unreal reality--when Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), left behind in an intermediate dream level to guard his dreaming friends and wake them up when the time is right, finds himself in free-fall because in a higher dream-level, he is in a van that has just plunged off a bridge, and has to swim around, like an astronaut in a custom-tailored suit, dodging bullets from the protective manifestations of the heist target's subconscious while preparing the others to be woken up.
Worst of all, the rules of dream manipulation are self-contradictory and, eventually, just tacked on. Early on we're told that if a person dies in the dream world they wake up in reality (or the next level up). Then it's revealed that the compound the characters have taken in order to carry out the heist is too powerful, and that if they die they'll be thrust into limbo, an unconstructed dream state from which there is no escape, which will permanently scramble their brains, in part because they'll become incapable of telling reality from dream. But when the characters do end up in limbo it seems like just another layer of dream, no more irrational and no less susceptible to their manipulation, than any other. Most of them recognize that they are in limbo, and then it turns out that getting out of it is as simple as getting out of the other dream layers--you just need to die. (For the record, all of these problems could have been resolved if the heist plot were better written. Limbo only exists because Nolan needs something meaningful to threaten the characters with during the heist, having established that death will simply knock them out of the dream, but if each character had an integral role to play in the heist then their death, and disappearance from the dream world, would be a threat in its own right.) Inception thus occupies a very unsatisfying middle ground--it is nowhere near clever enough to justify the scant attention it pays to the more traditional elements of storytelling such as character and plot.
What most interests me about my reaction to Inception is how little I care that it's been so well-received elsewhere. Compared to my reactions to Avatar or Star Trek, films whose effusive reception came close to enraging me, I'm surprisingly sanguine about the praise that this film, which ultimately is so much less successful than either Avatar or Star Trek, has received. I think the reason is that though I disagree with the praise that's been heaped upon it, there's still something satisfying in hearing that praise voiced. People are praising Inception for being a science fiction film--not a Star Wars-esque fantasy in space, or a character drama that happens to take place in the future--and for doing SFnal things. I think that it does these things badly, but it's still gratifying to see the effort lauded. I don't know whether Inception is a sign of things to come--for Nolan, for summer blockbusters, for science fiction films--though in the latter two cases I suspect that it isn't, and in Nolan's case I hope not (and even if he does end up crawling up his own ass I can comfort myself with the knowledge that before he's free to do so, he has to make another Batman film), but the fact that in some small way, it has normalized some of the tools of science fiction in the minds of a much broader audience than the genre usually reaches is, I think, something to be celebrated. Maybe some day someone will use those tools to make a blockbuster that is actually good.